LAWRENCE – Frank Baron’s most vivid childhood memory of 1944 in Budapest is hiding in the basement during a five-week-long Russian bombardment of his German-occupied hometown. Baron’s father had converted from Judaism to his wife’s Catholic faith, raising the children in the church, so deportation to Auschwitz was only a theoretical threat under Nazi racial laws. Not so, however, for their Jewish neighbors.
As Baron, now a professor emeritus of German languages & literatures at the University of Kansas, writes in his new book, “Stopping the Trains to Auschwitz, Budapest, 1944,” (Kansas Scholarworks, 2020) the fate of the city’s 200,000 Jews was in the hands of Hungary’s longtime leader, Regent Miklos Horthy.
“Would Horthy cooperate with Hitler’s Final Solution, allowing the deportations of Budapest’s Jews to the gas chambers, or would he somehow resist and incur the Fuehrer’s wrath? This issue of collaboration with Hitler was fraught with peril then and remains controversial now in the portrayal of Hungarian history,” Baron said in a recent interview.
The book and the accompanying YouTube video, which Baron produced with Lawrence filmmaker Jim Jewell, are an attempt to paint Horthy in the most accurate light possible, with many shades of gray between absolute vice and virtue.
“The Hungarian government today doesn't want to hear this kind of information that I'm writing about,” Baron said. “Why? Because it doesn't like to hear that Hungarians were collaborators with the Germans. So why did so many help out? They hated the Jews. But even that was not enough. When the Jews left, they also left their wealth, of which the collaborators expected to gain possession.”
The so-called Auschwitz Report of two prisoners who escaped the now-infamous Nazi extermination camp in Poland galvanized anti-Nazi opposition in the spring of 1944, Baron wrote.
“How the facts about Auschwitz finally awakened not only the conscience of political and church leaders inside Hungary but also that of the world outside Hungary are little understood, even today,” Baron wrote. “Could Hungary, without outside help, impede the powerful momentum of the deportations? It had already consumed the Jewish population of Hungary outside of Budapest. The rescue of the Budapest population is an important issue that still deserves close attention.”
During a period of six months in 1985 as a Fulbright scholar in Budapest, Baron became aware that his own cousin, Mária Székely, had played a role in these events. She had taken on the task of translating the Auschwitz Report, which had been smuggled into Hungary. The detailed and provocative information acted as a catalyst in subsequent events. “My cousin’s description of what happened during the summer of 1944 made me realize how important these events were,” Baron said.
“With the tide of battle then going against the Axis powers, many collaborators began to rethink their loyalties,” Baron said. That included Horthy, who had already countenanced the deportation of nearly 400,000 Jews from Hungary’s countryside.
“There was a lot of pressure on him,” Baron said. “And he might have thought that he would be considered guilty if the Allies actually took over. So there were different reasons that forced him to act. And I tried to analyze numerous factors that converged in a very short period of time and forced him to act.”
Baron’s book delves into the day-by-day details about a secret network of determined individuals who brought the Auschwitz Report to Horthy’s attention and also alerted him to an opportunity to challenge the Germans by force. At the same time, the Allies, alerted by the news of the Auschwitz Report, warned Horthy that he had to put an end to the deportations. This Horthy did, as the title of Baron’s book says, stopping the trains to Auschwitz.
Photo: Portrait of Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy, circa 1932. Credit: Bibliotheque nationale de France.