Jews have lived in Hungary for at least 1,000 years. In 1941, there were 825,000 Hungarian Jews plus about 100,000 Christians with Jewish backgrounds, making up 6% of the overall population. Starting in 1938, Hungarian leader Admiral Miklos Horthy had enacted anti-Jewish laws patterned on Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which greatly restricted the ability of Jews to practice professions such as law, medicine, engineering, journalism and acting.  A law passed in 1941 banned intermarriage and penalized intercourse between Jews and non-Jews.

Although subject to these anti-Semitic restrictions, and forced into labor battalions where many perished, Hungary’s Jews were largely able to avoid deportations to the Nazi extermination camps until March 1944, when German troops invaded. SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann was given the task of evacuating Hungary’s Jews. Within four months, 437,000 Jews had been deported in 145 trains, most of them to the extermination camp in Auschwitz. On a typical day during this period, 12,000 Hungarian Jews would arrive at Auschwitz. Ninety percent were murdered upon arrival in the gas chambers. Because the crematoria could not cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were burned in the open air. 

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote of the massacre at the time, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”

Horthy was able to halt the deportations in July 1944 and as a result almost 100,000 Jews in the Hungarian capital of Budapest were spared. Most of them were concentrated under terrible conditions in the Budapest Ghetto. In October, 1944, Horthy was deposed by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, and in the next two months 10 to 15,000 Jews were shot on the banks of the Danube. Soviet troops liberated the Budapest Ghetto on January 18, 1945. Only about 180,000 Hungarian Jews, about one quarter of the population alive in the previous year, had survived.