“I could hardly wait to get out of this camp, even though I knew it would only get worse until liberation came”
On Hungarian Jewish Accounts of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp from 1945–46
Contrary to influential assertions on the early postwar silence surrounding the extermination of European Jewry, in Hungary, as in a number of other countries, extensive documentation of the Holocaust had already begun in the 1940s. In addition to postwar trials, published memoirs and early historical works, thousands of Hungarian Jewish survivors articulated their experiences in the offices of the National Relief Committee for Deportees (DEGOB) in 1945–46. However, these sources have not yet been systematically analyzed and early witness accounts in particular remain heavily underrepresented in historiography. This study is an effort to begin to redress this imbalance by examining 349 DEGOB accounts that discuss Buchenwald, a major Nazi concentration camp and a contested lieu de mémoire. It reveals that returnees defined, represented and assessed Buchenwald in varying ways, their perspectives depending not only on factors such as when and where they stayed in the camp and what they had to endure while there, but also on which other camp they arrived from and the conditions under which they traveled. My analysis of early Hungarian Jewish accounts of Buchenwald also reveals that while a number of interviewees understood their escape from the group of Jewish prisoners within the camp as the key to their eventual survival, others tended to use ethnic labels to identify the perpetrators of violence against them. Moreover, two major narratives were circulating regarding the liberation of the camp: the accidental Nazi failure to complete their program of extermination and another involving a successful uprising of the inmates against their tormentors. Last but not least, the paper argues that some of those who survived Buchenwald and subsequently entered the DEGOB offices showed clear awareness of the Nazi extermination program, but they preferred to discuss it in indirect ways.