Tom Kramer
Dr Tom Kramer is the second person to receive a doctorate in Holocaust Studies from an Australian University, being awarded that degree by The University of Sydney for his research on the “Jewish Question” and the Holocaust in Hungary.

His book, From Emancipation to Catastrophe. The Rise and Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry (published in the USA, by University Press of America, Inc., 2000), was short-listed for the Biennial Book Award of the American Association for the Study of Hungarian History.

Currently, he is writing the entries on “Hungary 1848-1945” for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Antisemitism and Persecution, and a chapter entitled “Was the Nazi Regime Uniquely Criminal?” for the forthcoming book History in Dispute: The Holocaust.

Dr Kramer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Australian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, and was, for eleven years, the Convenor of the Association.

During that period, he was responsible for devising, organising, and generally chairing, about 100 educational and cultural functions at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

He is an Honorary Research Associate at The University of Sydney, lecturing to undergraduates, and conducting post-graduate seminars, in Antisemitism and the Holocaust.

Amongst other divertissements, he has a Master’s degree from the Faculty of Architecture at The University of Sydney, has had his photography reviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, and has competed in the Australian Marathon Championships as well as in 22 of the last 24 City to Surfs.

Published by (March, 2002)

T. D. Kramer. From Emancipation to Catastrophe: The Rise and Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry. Lanham: University Press of America, 2000. xii + 404 pp. Tables, maps, figures, photographs, notes, glossary, bibliography, and index. $US69.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7618-1759-X.

Reviewed for H-Holocaust by
Professor Konrad Kwiet,
Semitic Studies, The University of Sydney.
Resident Historian, Sydney Jewish Museum.

Editor's note: Dr Kramer's book was shortlisted for the Biennial Book Award of the American Association for the Study of Hungarian History.

The “Jewish Question” in Hungary, 1848-1945

"The hand of fate shall also seize Hungarian Jewry. And the later this occurs, and the stronger this Jewry becomes, the more cruel and hard shall be the blow, which shall be delivered with greater savagery. There is no escape."

Theodor Herzl, the Budapest-born founder of modern Zionism, prophesied this calamity in 1903, a time when the Jews of Hungary were experiencing their "Golden Era" in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Generally assimilated and acculturated, the vast majority of Hungarian Jews rejected the Zionist idea of a Jewish state as the appropriate response to anti-Semitism.

Quite simply, the majority felt at home in Magyarorszag (the land of the Magyars--ethnic Hungarians), regarding themselves as Magyars of the Mosaic Faith whilst holding steadfastly to their perception of a Jewish-Magyar symbiosis.

In the same manner, their co-religionists in Germany, who considered themselves to be German citizens of the Jewish Faith, also spoke of the indestructibility of the German-Jewish Lebensgemeinschaft (coexistence, or fraternity).

Unfortunately for both communities, the Nazis and their collaborators begged to disagree and, at the first available opportunity, began to propagate the Endlosung--the Final Solution to the "Jewish Question" in Europe.

Implementation of this policy began in Germany in 1933, with Hitler's callous plan to destroy the socio-economic foundation of Germany Jewry.

In March 1944--on the eve of Allied victory--the Germans occupied Hungary.

Thus began the Hungarian Shoah, a tragedy constituting not only one of the final chapters of the Holocaust but also, as the author succinctly emphasizes, "a particularly bitter and controversial chapter in the most tragic epoch of Jewish history" (p. 1).

The author, Dr. Tom Kramer, the son of Hungarian survivors and, amongst other things, Convenor and board member of the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, has gained the deserved reputation of being in the forefront of teaching and researching the "Jewish Question" and the Holocaust in Hungary.

His lectures, conference papers, articles and book reviews bear witness to this achievement. Regarding original research, his Ph.D. dissertation stands out.

Supervised by Professor Alan Crown, and awarded in 1995 by the University of Sydney (Professor Yehuda Bauer was one of its overseas examiners), the thesis formed the basis of his book, “From Emancipation to Catastrophe: The Rise and Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry”, recently released by University Press of America, Inc.

A fine example of historical research, this monumental study of an often sadly neglected topic presents new insights and interpretations within the context of comprehensive narrative and cogent analysis.

Written in an admirably clear and readable style, the book displays rare consideration for the non-specialist reader, as background knowledge is not assumed and unfamiliar terms are invariably explained.

The work is dedicated to the author's late parents, and to the large majority of his considerable extended family who perished during the Hungarian Shoah.

Herzl's prophecy, quoted at the beginning of this review, serves as a point of departure in constructing the road leading from Emancipation to Catastrophe.

Although starting far in antiquity, with the first Jewish settlers in Hungary, the author's main focus commences with Hungarian Jewry's "Golden Age," the prosperous, relatively liberal period from 1867-1918; continues through the inter-war epoch, a period characterized by politically imposed exclusion and expropriation; and then concentrates on the final, horrific stage of the destruction process in 1944.

Throughout the volume, particular emphasis is placed on the socio-economic topography of Hungarian Jewry, a large, vibrant community that, in 1910, numbered over 900,000 souls.

Light is shed on the community's emancipation, social integration, assimilation and acculturation processes which transformed the structure of Hungarian Jewry and enabled it to play a highly important role in the modernization of its adopted, beloved country.

The author's comprehensive descriptions and analyses encompass the relevant features required of such a study: demographic patterns, including urban and provincial distribution; socio-economic status; communal structures; religious denominations, which delineated the cautiously progressive Neolog from their traditional Orthodox antagonists; political and ideological affiliations; and, not least, the seemingly eternal internal conflicts, especially between the Neolog, Orthodox and Zionist ideologies.

Equally illuminating is the chronicle and analysis of the government's increasingly harsh policies of social exclusion and financial expropriation that began to traumatize Hungarian Jewry immediately after the debacle of World War I.

Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, and the failed Soviet-style revolution staged by Bela Kun (a Bolshevik of Jewish origin), the forces of anti-Semitism and xenophobia intensified their campaign to revoke the Magyar-Jewish symbiosis.

During the inter-war period, anti-Jewish laws were introduced and systematic measures taken to progressively exclude Jews from the nation's political, social, cultural and economic life.

After the outbreak of World War II, many male Jews were conscripted into the Jewish Labor Service, brutal work battalions under Hungarian military command that, with considerable irony, eventually protected many conscripts from deportation to Auschwitz.

Despite the defamations, discriminations and expropriations imposed upon Jews during the German-allied Horthy regime, and despite news of the persecution and murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries reaching Hungary, until Spring 1944 the vast bulk of Hungarian Jews felt that they were, as Dr. Kramer puts it, "residing in an island sanctuary, insulated from the destiny of their European co-religionists" (p. 1).

The unopposed German military invasion of the country in March 1944, however, exposed Hungarian Jewry to the Final Solution process perfected elsewhere within the Nazi domain.

The author's examination of the motives behind the occupation not only re-invigorates a debate neglected by historians for many years but also convincingly integrates several formerly disparate views in his conclusions.

At center of this aspect of his research stands the complex question of whether the takeover was motivated primarily by military-strategic considerations or by the "Jewish Question," that is, on the German desire to enforce the Final Solution in Hungary.

Within days of the occupation, Adolf Eichmann's SS Sonderkommandos commenced their task of making Hungary Juden frei (free of Jews) as quickly as possible.

Much to Eichmann's joy, an effusive public enthusiasm to dispossess Jews was quickly supplemented by the close collaboration of Hungary's government, police, Gendarmerie and civil service.

Consequently, it took less than two months to identify, physically distinguish (via the compulsory Yellow Star badge), financially expropriate, terrorize, and incarcerate in ghettos the vast majority of Hungary's provincial Jews.

Within the next two months, over 450,000 were deported to Auschwitz and industrially murdered in the Death Camps' up-graded gassing facilities.

At this juncture, the author pays much appropriate attention to the manifold, desperate rescue efforts undertaken by the German imposed Budapest Jewish Council (Judenrat) and, above all, by the Zionists, especially the Hechalutz (Zionist youth movement).

Of particular significance is his detailed portrayal of Dr. Gyorgy Gergely, a Jewish activist and leader who made his post-War home in Sydney, Australia.

Based on his extensive evaluation of the hitherto unresearched Gergely archives, and judiciously supplemented by protracted discussions with that gentleman, Kramer reveals for the first time the pivotal, often heroic role Dr. Gergely played in Hungary during the Holocaust period.

Especially important is the first detailed revelation of an event unique in the Holocaust, and one in which Gergely was the sole authorized negotiator on behalf of the Hungarian Jewish community--an attempt by a German vassal regime to arm over 10,000 Jewish conscripts in order to protect the regime's proposed armistice with the Allies.

Another undoubted highlight of this comprehensive (180,000 word) book is the concluding section in which the international "rescue matrix" for Hungarian Jewry is explored, a topic that has moved to the center of Holocaust controversy.

Drawing on his own archival research, and his critical evaluation of prior historiographic debate, Dr. Kramer formulates, and then integrates, controversial explanations for both the Nazis' "sale of Jews" strategies and the Allied attitudes towards Jewish rescue, particularly in 1944/45.

From the beginning, the Allies left no doubt that the fight against the extermination of European Jews was of marginal importance relative to the absolute imperative of winning the war without diverting military resources to the rescue of civilians.

In Allied political, military and intelligence command centers, as well as in civilian public opinion, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that in carrying out the Alliesí war aims, the massive loss of Jewish life would have to be accepted.

The bureaucratic petty mindedness prevailing in many Allied quarters, plus the indifference or hostility of their public opinion, generated the prevailing view that diversion of resources to Jewish rescue would jeopardize the war effort.

Furthermore, so the argument went, Allied soldiers were mobilized to repel the Axis armies, and not as a sacrifice to rescue alien Jews.

Reinforcing these attitudes was the West's paranoia, rightly emphasized in the text, that if the Allies accepted some Hungarian Jewish refugees, the Nazis might have used their remaining Jews as hostages in order to negotiate a favorable armistice.

Moreover, Allied politicians feared that if surviving European Jews were permitted to seek refuge in their countries, the host nations would be flooded by undesirable, impoverished and physically brutalized aliens.

Dr. Kramer's conclusions are convincing, and will set the tone for public debate and future research: "Jews in Axis countries were caught in a classic lose-lose situation. We are left with the tragic paradox that, for the West, the prospect of successful negotiations probably negated the very possibility of negotiations.

Quite simply, Europe's Jewish remnant remained, until the end, bound between the relentless German hammer and the impassive Allied anvil" (p.357).

This is a rare compendium, one that chronicles within historical context, and in a single, well-integrated volume both the rise and fall of a national Jewry.

Admirably written in a manner suiting the needs of both interested readers and specialist scholars, it deserves the close attention of those concerned with anti-Semitism, modern Jewish history, the Holocaust and genocide studies - including professional historians, sociologists and political scientists.

In short, this distinguished work, one that makes a substantial contribution to our knowledge and understanding of a matter at the catastrophic centrality of contemporary civilization, is deserving of both a widespread and appreciative audience.