The Rescue Efforts of Bnei Akiva in Hungary During the Holocaust
The Hungarian Jewish community at the outbreak of World War II numbered 500,000, many of whom were assimilated. Despite growing antisemitism in the interwar period, the Zionist movement was small — some 5,000 members — mostly Bnei Akiva and Mizrachi. The anti-Zionist Orthodox movement strongly condemned emigration to Palestine as well as rescue operations. Hungary’s annexation of southern Slovakia in 1938, Carpathian Russia in 1939, and northern Transylvania in 1940 resulted in a large influx of religious Zionists. Following the outbreak of the war, many Jews fled to Hungary, where the attitude of the Hungarian Jews towards such illegal refugees was rather negative. In contrast, the pioneer Zionist youth movements, mainly Bnei Akiva, generously assisted those from counterpart movements and supplied them with forged papers enabling them to cross the borders and reside and work in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, many of the refugees who had experienced underground activity rose to prominence in the movements and impressed on the local activists, but not on community leaders, the urgency of preparation to prevent total annihilation. HeHalutz movements rapidly transposed from educational and hachshara activities to rescue and assistance. Bnei Akiva followed this trend, but religious Zionist movements, as a whole, did not. The Yishuv mission in Istanbul became the most important link between the Zionist movements in Europe and those in Eretz Israel and the main channel for funding, little as it was. Bnei Akiva activists adopted the rules of clandestine work, based on small cells throughout, false documents, and looking and living like Christians. Bunker shelters were sited almost exclusively in Budapest and also served as weapons caches. The aim was to rescue and save Jews, not armed resistance. The rate of annihilation of Hungarian Jewry was so furious that few were saved. Some 4,000 persons found refuge in the Swiss Embassy. In June 1944 the Kasztner train rescued 1,600 persons. “Trips” to Romania, Slovakia, and Poland initially included mainly refugees from those countries. About 7,500 were rescued by crossing into Rumania.