Children's Homes in Wartime Hungary
Children’s homes sheltered thousands of Jewish children against anti-Semitic persecution in Budapest during the last year of the Second World War. In this blog post, I explore the role of these homes in the international rescue network for Jews in Hungary during the Second World War.
After the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War, Hungary lost two-thirds of its historical territory, three-fifths of its total population, and one-third of the ethnic Hungarian population as a result of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Until 1944, the country was then ruled by the ‘Christian-national’ political leadership of Regent Miklós Horthy (1868-1957). This was characterised by revisionism and the ‘Jewish question’ – Jews were blamed for the humiliation in the war and the subsequent losses, and several anti-Semitic laws were introduced. The initial expansionist successes of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the territorial gains that he granted Hungary tied the Hungarian government to Nazi Germany. In exchange for its support, Hitler expected loyalty and progression in the solution of the ‘Jewish problem’.
In October 1942, the Reformed Church in Hungary established the ‘Good Shepherd Subcommittee’ (GSC) within its advisory board, the Universal Convent. The committee, led by Pastor József Éliás (1914-1995), aimed to provide legal, physical, material and moral assistance for church members of Jewish origin discriminated against by anti-Semitic legislation. In 1944, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hungary cooperated with the Reformed Church by delegating Pastor Gábor Sztehlo (1909-1974), a graduate of the Lutheran Theological College in Sopron, to the GSC.
In the spring of 1944, Sztehlo worked as hospital pastor mostly in charge of counselling Jewish patients who had survived suicide attempts. Here, he heard about the deportation of Jews for the first time. As the representative of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Sztehlo became the chief colleague of Pastor Éliás in the GSC. The mission received significant amounts of financial aid from foreign Protestant churches thanks to the international information network of the Reformed Church in Hungary. The largest of these was of eighty thousand pengő, donated by the Swiss economic diplomat Friedrich Born (1903-1963), the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Budapest. This generous donation was the first stage of what became one of the major international children’s rescue networks in Budapest by the autumn of 1944. Born invited Sztehlo to participate in the Zionist children rescue movement of the Red Cross. Section ’A’ dealt with children still practising Judaism, while section ’B’ was pursuing the protection of persecuted or abandoned baptised Jewish children. The Red Cross was the only organisation that supported the children’s homes with money, food, bedding and other material resources. Occasionally, the homes received other donations, but the churches did not provide any significant material support.
On 19 March 1944, Nazi Germany occupied Hungary. The gathering of Jews to ghettos began in April and their deportation to concentration camps in May. Sztehlo and Éliás led the search for suitable buildings in Budapest to house unprotected children and teenagers. Several wealthy families offered their villas for the mission, partly with humanitarian sympathy and partly due to safety considerations for themselves. The owners hoped that the Swiss protective stamps on their houses would provide them with protection. From September 1944, a new home was opened in Budapest each week. Sztehlo’s report in the GSA’s circular letter informs us of the addresses of thirty-one children’s homes and the various forms of benefactions that supported them. Importantly, the mission received 1500 protective passes from the Swedish Embassy and Ambassador Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1945). These documents granted Jewish people immunity to the anti-Semitic laws and measures. After Regent Horthy had realised Germany’s defeat in the war, he attempted at an armistice with the Soviet Union in October 1944. The Nazis learned about Horthy’s move and forced him to abdicate his position in favour of Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946), head of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. The darkest days for Jews in Budapest started when the Arrow Cross Party took power in Hungary on 16 October 1944, with Szálasi’s government launching open persecutions and executions in the capital city. Nonetheless, the children’s homes remained in relative safety because Szálasi and his government accepted the diplomatic documents issued by neutral countries. Initially, Szálasi wanted these states to acknowledge his legitimacy and power but since he did not achieve this, the deportations were launched again.
A contemporary brochure reported on the GSA’s history and wartime activity. Interestingly, the text starts with introducing the ‘work of evangelisation’ of the Protestant churches ‘who feel a burning sense of responsibility for the mission done among the Jews’. Nonetheless, Mihály Brunner, a Holocaust survivor who had resided in various children’s homes, described in the brochure Sztehlo’s efforts as follows: ‘Gábor Sztehlo and his colleagues rescued people. Without selection. In the war, life did not matter. Not one, not a hundred thousand. For him, every life mattered.’ The most striking pattern in the memoirs and oral history accounts of the ’Sztehlo children’ is the experience of a high degree of tolerance and religious freedom afforded to them by the GSA. David Peleg (born as Tamás Perlusz) stated:
‘I have never been anything but Jewish. The thing that really impressed me and had a great impact on me regarding the Reverend, was the way he approached religious questions. (…) When we finished [the Christian prayer], he said: now everyone will pray inside.’
Sztehlo did not force any of them to turn to Christianity and did not admit children to the homes by prioritising from a religious viewpoint. Between October 1944 and February 1945, two thousand people found refuge in the ‘Good Shepherd’ homes – one thousand five hundred and eighty children and four hundred and twenty adults whose main task was to look after the young people. Friedrich Born’s regular reports about the ICRC’s action to Switzerland significantly increased the international reputation of the GSA.
The ’Good Shepherd’ children’s homes did not only save the lives of these two thousand children. After the war, when children needed care and protection to an even greater extent, hundreds remained orphans. In response, Sztehlo established Gaudiopolis (’City of Joy’), a self-administrated children’s republic in Budapest that operated between 1945 and 1950. Sztehlo intended to build a ‘Biblical community’ where children of various backgrounds could live together. He believed that these positive patterns would largely improve their future relationships and also their status within the society. The residents were mainly young Jews and partly children who were discriminated or persecuted by the new communist political system. Under a democratically elected leadership, they learned to live in religious tolerance and acceptance. Additionally, Sztehlo’s mission was to teach them the value of work, so the residents had to fulfil small labours along with their studies. Gaudiopolis was nationalised in 1950 – the humanitarian movement could operate no longer.
The ’Good Shepherd Action’ became a predominantly internationally funded organisation in the autumn of 1944. In their cooperation with the Red Cross, they managed to rescue, safely accommodate and cater to two thousand Jewish children whose parents were either deported or forced into hiding. The mission of the children's homes was a highly efficient example of the Protestant churches’ contribution to the wartime rescue network of Budapest. Nonetheless, it was not organised and supported institutionally by the church leadership, but individually by a persistent and righteous Evangelical-Lutheran pastor, Gábor Sztehlo.
Elvira Tamus is a PhD student in History at Sidney Sussex College / Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research focuses on Franco-Hungarian diplomatic relations in the 1520s and 1530s in the context of the Valois-Habsburg-Ottoman imperial rivalry. She obtained her BA in History and French language at the University of Leicester, and her MA in History (specialisation: Europe 1000-1800) at Leiden University. This blog post is a revised version of a chapter in her BA dissertation written on the role of Protestant organisations in the international rescue activity for Jews in Hungary between 1942 and 1945.
Hungary, Second World War, Holocaust, Jewish rescue, children's homes, humanitarians
References:  Jörg K. Hoensch, A history of modern Hungary 1867-1986 (London: Longman, 1988), pp. 146-160.  Mónika Miklya Luzsányi, Frontvonal: Sztehlo Gábor élete [Front line: the life of Gábor Sztehlo] (Budapest: Harmat, 2003), pp. 114-115.  The joint work of the Reformed Church and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church is referred to as ’Good Shepherd Action’ or ’GSA’ in this blog.  The pengő was the currency of Hungary between 1927 and 1946.  Sándor Szenes (1986), interview with József Éliás ‘Az embermentés volt a fő feladat…’ [’Rescuing people was the main task…’] in Sándor Szenes, Befejezetlen múlt: Keresztények és zsidók, sorsok [Unfinished Past: Christians and Jews, fates], 2nd ed. (Budapest: Szikra Nyomda, 1994), pp. 29-105, 95-105.  Asher Cohen, ’The Dilemma of Rescue or Revolt’ in Randolph L. Braham and Scott Miller (eds.), The Nazis’ Last Victims: The Holocaust in Hungary, pp. 117-136, 130.  Szabolcs Szita (ed.), Magyarország 1944. Üldöztetés és embermentés [Hungary 1944. Persecution and rescue] (Budapest: Nemzeti Tankönyvkiadó – Pro Homine – 1944 Emlékbizottság, 1994), pp. 164-165.  Gábor Sztehlo, ’Let them come to me!’ in A Magyar Evangéliumi Egyházak “Jó Pásztor” Missziói Alapítványának június-július havi körlevele [The June-July circular letter of the “Good Shepherd” Missionary Foundation of the Evangelical churches in Hungary] (Budapest: Egyetemi Nyomda, 1945) in A Magyarországi Református Egyház Zsinati Levéltára [The Synodical Archives of the Reformed Church of Hungary], ’Jó Pásztor, MREZSL 15. fond, 1. d., 4. cs.’, pp. 8-15.  Albert Bereczky, A magyar protestantizmus a zsidóüldözés ellen [The Hungarian Protestantism against the Persecution of Jews] (Budapest: Református Traktátus Vállalat Kiadása, 1945), pp. 40-43.  Rudolf Paksa, Szálasi Ferenc és a hungarizmus [Ferenc Szálasi and hungarianism] (Budapest: Jaffa Kiadó, 2013), pp. 145-147.  The “Good Shepherd” Foundation for Jewish Mission of the Protestant churches of Hungary (Budapest: Bethánia-nyomda, n.d.) in A Magyarországi Református Egyház Zsinati Levéltára [The Synodical Archives of the Reformed Church of Hungary], ’Jó Pásztor, MREZSL 15. fond, 1. d., 5. cs.’.  Andor Andrási and Dóra Laborczi (eds.), Sztehlo-gyerekek voltunk [We were Sztehlo children] (Budapest: Luther Kiadó, 2018), p. 48.  Ibidem, p. 37.  Szita, Hungary 1944. Persecution and rescue, pp. 185-189.  Mónika Miklya Luzsányi, ’… hogy véget érjen a sötétség. Sztehlo Gábor evangélikus lelkészről’ [’… so that the darkness would end. On Evangelical pastor Gábor Sztehlo’], Vigilia, vol. 79, no. 3 (2014), pp. 197-201.  Éva Bartosné Stiasny, Háborúban békességben: A Bogár utcai gyermekotthon lakóinak csodás megmenekülése [In war, in peace: the wonderful escape of the residents of the children’s home in the Bogár Street] (Budapest: Luther Kiadó, 2010), pp. 63-65.