HOW IT HAP­PENED

Doc­u­ment­ing the Tragedy of Hun­gar­ian Jewry

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight | History -

Ernö Munkácsi, Mcgill-queen’s Univer­sity Press (NOVEM­BER) Hard­cover $29.95 (360pp) 978-0-7735-5512-9

Bu­dapest lawyer Ernö Munkácsi was the sec­re­tary of Hun­gary’s Cen­tral Jewish Coun­cil, which ad­min­is­tered re­stric­tions on Jews by the gov­ern­ment and its Ger­man oc­cu­piers dur­ing 1944. He doc­u­ments the dec­i­ma­tion of the largest in­tact Euro­pean Jewish pop­u­la­tion in How It Hap­pened. Writ­ten in 1950, “when the wounds were still raw,” the book has just been trans­lated into English.

The nar­ra­tive is pre­ceded by il­lu­mi­nat­ing essays ex­plain­ing key de­tails about Hun­gar­ian his­tory, re­la­tions be­tween Jewish and Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties, and the back­ground of the many play­ers in­volved in the crescendo year of de­por­ta­tions to Auschwitz, where 427,000 Hun­gar­ian Jews were killed.

Munkácsi writes dis­pas­sion­ately at first, de­scrib­ing life as a proud “Mag­yar of the Is­raelite faith” be­fore the af­ter­math of World War I ush­ered in a cas­cade of re­pres­sive anti-jewish laws. His tone shifts when de­scrib­ing his un­ten­able coun­cil as­sign­ments. It is at times apolo­getic, re­gret­ful, and in­tro­spec­tive. This is an in­creas­ingly an­guished me­moir by some­one whose faith in law and hu­man­ity was bro­ken as the de­tails from the Auschwitz Pro­to­cols (tes­ti­mony from camp es­capees) be­came known. Snip­pets from des­per­ate let­ters to gov­ern­ment and Chris­tian con­tacts are in­ter­spersed, but the au­thor is un­able to do more than delay the in­evitable geno­cide.

Ed­i­tor Nina Munk, a rel­a­tive of Munkácsi, pro­vides fam­ily back­ground, and his­to­rian Ferenc Laczó adds a nu­anced, of­ten crit­i­cal, over­view of Holo­caust schol­ar­ship.

The book is pro­foundly sad but im­por­tant reading. We all know how the war ends and how many lives were lost, but this eye­wit­ness ac­count is a good pri­mary source doc­u­ment for un­der­stand­ing how eth­nic ha­tred over­took one of Europe’s most seem­ingly cul­tured so­ci­eties.

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