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The Siege of Budapest: the Nadir in Hungarian History.Soviet soldiers in Budapest

The Siege of Budapest: the Nadir in Hungarian History.

Istvan Deak, Seth Low Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University, in a talk sponsored by the Center for European & Eurasian Studies, presented a rich and detailed first-hand account of the siege of Budapest in November 1944-February 1945 and discussed the fate of the Jewish population of Hungary and the only major ghetto to survive World War II.

By Carla Thorson

The end of World War II was also the end of minority life in East Central Europe.

The siege of Budapest and Europe's only major surviving ghetto, November 1944-February 1945, is an extraordinary tale that has yet to be told in great detail in any language other than Hungarian.  Istvan Deak, at that time a boy of 18 in Budapest and today Emeritus Professor of History at Columbia University, is in a unique position to tell it, and he did so on Thursday May 1st for a crowd of a around 50 UCLA faculty, students, and members of the community.

The story is of a metropolis and its nearly one million inhabitants, including at least 120,000 Jewish survivors, and it has all of the elements of a great drama or film: extraordinary heroism, extraordinary cowardice, good people, horrid people, insanely murderous Hungarian Nazis and wildly destructive and rapacious Soviet soldiers, rape, banditry, and indescribable suffering, not only in the Jewish ghetto but also in the caves underneath the Royal Castle in Buda where thousands of wounded German and Hungarian soldiers either rotted alive or were burned to death.  There was fierce fighting between German and Soviet soldiers for control of every block and building in the city, down to a ruined bathroom or a gutted cinema.  The siege of Budapest was perhaps not the most dramatic of sieges, not as devastating as Warsaw in 1939 and again in 1944, Stalingrad in 1942-43, or Leningrad in 1941-43, but it was terrible enough.  Nothing akin to it has ever been experienced in Western Europe.

In 1941, Budapest was a city of about 1,165,000 inhabitants.  During the war, thousands fled to the West, while thousands of men were on military duty or were doing labor service.  The city's population also swelled with refugees from the East, especially from Transylvania.  By the time of the siege in 1944-45, there were less than a million people in the Hungarian capital, literally all living in cellars, aside from the nearly 80,000 German and Hungarian soldiers who fought the Soviet advance.  A third of these soldiers were killed and the rest would end up in Soviet captivity along with numerous civilians.  Of the Jewish population in the country as a whole, some 825,000 had been identified as Jews by law in 1944, and of these 453,000 were deported until the Summer when the policy was halted in the face of international pressure.  The rest awaited a different fate.  At least 120,000 Jews survived the siege: around 80,000 in the only remaining ghetto in Europe; another 20,000 living in houses protected by neutral countries like Sweden; and another 20,000 hidden by Christian families.  This was less than the 200,000 Jews in Budapest before the war, but not an insignificant number.

The Soviet army had Budapest surrounded on Christmas Eve 1944.  Up to that point the city had survived the war largely intact.  There had been some bombing by American forces in the summer of 1944, but it had been directed at industrial areas and the railroads.  During the siege, there was shelling, but no heavy artillery.  There was no food, electricity, gas or water, but because Budapest was still quite old fashioned in many respects, the people managed with wells, wood, coal and private baking for the duration of the siege.  The conditions in the ghetto were much worse, with no food being delivered at all after December 24, 1944. Pest, on one side of the Danube, was liberated by Soviet troops first, on January 14, 1945, while Buda held out for another month against the Soviet advance.  The taking of the Royal Castle and the caves beneath it was a massacre, with only some 700 escaping the fighting.

When it was over, in 1945 the population of Budapest had dwindled to 833,000 some 28% less than in 1941.  Of this number almost 50% more women than men had survived the war.  Only 25% of the buildings were intact, but at the same time less than 4% had been completely destroyed. 

The Soviets picked up where the Germans left off.  The expulsion of minority populations began with the Jews and then the Germans. The end of World War II was also the end of minority life in East Central Europe.


Center for European and Eurasian Studies