Tag Archives: Righteous Among the Nations

László Eörsi: The Red Cross Informant

Years ago Robin W. Winks, a professor of history at Yale University, edited a book titled The Historian As Detective: Essays on Evidence. And indeed, historians often comb through information from a variety of sources until they experience their aha moment. Something like that happened to László Eörsi, the historian whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is legendary. I’m convinced that Eörsi knows exactly happened at every street corner during those thirteen days, in Budapest as well as other cities and towns in Hungary. But his research this time led him far afield: to 1944-45 and the Swedish Red Cross’s efforts at saving the lives of Hungarian Jews. It is a fascinating story with a twist at the end.

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I stumbled upon Zoltán Harangi’s name as a researcher of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Harangi had joined one of the rebel groups in Budapest, but during the struggle for freedom, he contacted the organizations of state security and ended up informing on his fellow fighters. Following this, he served as an informant for 15 years during the Kádár regime, causing numerous tragedies.

There are few sources detailing certain parts of Zoltán Harangi’s life journey. One of these mysteries is how he was able to become an employee of the Swedish embassy, especially considering that he was trained as a collier, completed a college degree in landscaping and had a criminal record with 11 counts of theft and two charges of receiving stolen goods.

At age 31, in June 1944, he became a founding member of the Swedish Red Cross and was given several confidential assignments. He directed the Red Cross’ investigations unit, thus it was up to him to oversee the screening of employees and he also addressed complaints relating to the organization. In June 1944, the Swedish Red Cross took under its protection the Körönd Rehabilitation Centre in Budapest, where Jews under the protection of the Sweden were housed. According to several victim testimonies, some doctors – especially Aurél Stürmer Lovassy – consistently blackmailed the persecuted, demanding money from them, in exchange for extending their stay in the building.

Zoltán Harangi's picture from his Swedish I.D.

Zoltán Harangi’s picture from his Swedish I.D.

On November 25, 1944, Harangi reported the rehabilitation centre to the Arrow Cross party secretary in Budapest’s third district, Zoltán Nagyiványi. Nagyiványi in turn assigned János Traum, a master painter, who also served in the party’s district association, with the investigation of the situation. On the same night, the Arrow Cross removed 40 Jews, taking them to district party headquarters (171 Bécsi Road). They deemed the letters indicating that they were protected by Sweden as invalid. A total of 12 or 13 Jews were executed and others were tortured. The next day, Harangi was essentially forced to change his tune, as alongside the leader of the Swedish Red Cross, Langlet Waldermár, he visited the director of the Prime Minister’s Office’s Press Department, Ferenc Fiala, where he advocated on behalf of the deported. Based on Fiala’s decision, they transported back the deported Jews to the rehabilitation centre.

Harangi, however, provided the Arrow Cross with further information. On December 13th, they entered the headquarters of the Swedish Red Cross, right into the areas of the building where those escaping forced labour were hiding. Only three people, including Harangi, knew of this hiding place, thus the Red Cross became suspicious and Harangi was moved to a different department. As of this point, the Arrow Cross did not receive any further information.

During the German occupation Harangi blackmailed, robbed and reported on a woman, who in the end was deported to Auschwitz, where she died. “I met with Zoltán Harangi about three weeks prior,” noted Pál Rákosi, the husband of the woman who fell victim to such a tragic fate, in a June 1945 police report. “I did not dare to confront him, because he was in the company of a Russian officer, and you as well told me that he was serving with the GPU, as a detective,” he added. After the war, Harangi was on the hunt for Arrow Cross members and Volkbundists, in areas of Budapest controlled by the Soviets. While he searched apartments in the city, he also went about robbing them. In fact, he took the 3rd district, Darázs Street apartment of a Hungarian Jew who fled to Palestine. On April 19, 1945, Harangi was taken into custody, but he continued to make use of his skills. “I worked as a notetaker in the correctional facility and I could move freely and I was able to decide who, in addition to myself, could serve as notetakers”—wrote Harangi in a report from 1961. At the time, it was suggested that Harangi may also know of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish ambassador in Budapest, or that he may have been “actively involved in this.” Based on 15 eyewitness testimonies, the Tutsek Council decided to confiscate all of Harangi’s property in June 1949, and also sentenced him to 10 years of forced labour. According to the sentencing document, Harangi “deported the persecuted, several dozen people fell victim to his deeds, and he was driven by malicious intent.” Half a year later, István Aradi reduced his sentence by half, whilst noting that the war crimes conviction still stands.

Harangi was released in February 1952, but before the end of the year, he committed a break and entry, which resulted in a sentence of 12 years. But on October 30th, 1956, he was released from the correctional facility by the revolutionaries. We have data showing that until 1972, he collaborated with the Kádár regime. He lived until 1998.

My Hungarian-language study of Harangi appeared in March 2012, months before Harangi received from Yad Vashem the Righteous Among the Nations award. It is all but impossible that someone else would bear the same name, as the listed profession and date of birth is identical. We find it implausible that Haragi would have saved anyone’s life, as he would have referred to this in his defence, during his trial. But there is no mention of this anywhere during the proceedings. In fact, he never made made mention of saving lives in any of his later reports. Consequently, I ask Yad Vashem to review its decision.

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.