Victor Karady


Desperation and Resistance under the Rise of Fascism and the Nazi Rule : Paradoxes of Jewish Mortality in Budapest (1938-1945)[1]


            Much attention has been already dedicated to the frightful balance sheet of the Shoah in Hungary, mostly inspired by or based upon the scholarly masterpiece of Randolf L. Braham. It is rather exceptional, though, to find any substantial reference to the very patterns of Jewish mortality in the years and months of the anti-Jewish legislation and German occupation. Even those explicitely attempting the estimation of the losses have usually neglected the take into account some of the most commonly available records let alone other, less directly relevant statistical sources of the Nazi devastations. Such quantitative exploration of the ghastly results of the ’politics of genocide’ inside the country is important less for its possible contribution to the definitive solution of the still pending or far too uncertain evaluation of human losses, especially those due to local causes, but for the clarification of hidden dimensions of the Jewish catastrophy on several scores. One can thus estimate not only the impact of self-destruction (suicide) under duress but also forms of resistance to pressure and compensatory efforts for survival objectivated in data on morbidity, as well as follow aspects of the deadly predicament in its chronological ebbs and tides during some critical months of 1944.     

            During the years of the antisemitic legislation basic Jewish mortality rates have not displayed any dramatic change, though one can also find instances of evolution parallel to those observed in the non Jewish population of Budapest


Table 1.

Indicators of mortality and morbidity of Jews and non Jews in Budapest (1935-1943) [2].


                         1935-1937    1938-1940    1941-1943


1. % of Jews among the dead                                19,6              19,8            18,4

(in public records)


2. % Jews among those buried in Budapest            20,7              21,3            20,1

(records of Jewish and municipal cemeteries)


3. % infant mortality                           Jews            5,7                 6,4             8,0     

(- 1 year old)                                         non Jews    11,9                 9,5           10,0  


4. % of still born (of all deliveries)      Jews            2,3                  3,1             2,2

                                                            non Jews     3,3                  3,3             2,2


5. % of spontaneous abortions            Jews            10,8                16,8          18,2                         

(of all deliveries)                                non Jews     10,1                12,3           10,9


6. % of dead by tuberculosis               Jews            6,4                  6,1             7,0

 (of all deaths)                                    non Jews    12,4                12,2           14,3




7. % of deaths by tuberculosis            Jews            17,2               17,5[3]              20,5[4]          

(of those dying – 30 years old)           non Jews      17,5               17,6[5]              21,5[6]


8. % of attempted suicides by Jewish men[7]             15,2 (135)      16,7 (115)[8]    13,1 (79)                                    

(among all attempted suicides by men) and in

(  ) yearly average numbers


9. % of attempted suicides by Jewish women[9]        10,3  (128)       9,9 (109)[10]     9,2 (103)

(among all attempted suicides by women) and

in (  ) yearly average numbers


            The indicators listed here present only slightly differing results allowing a limited range of conclusions. The main indices of mortality converged indeed considerably during the years of rising institutional antisemitism before 1944 but, paradoxically enough, mostly in the sense of decline for Jews, except for some accountable by the deterioration of general living conditions during the war years, affecting sometimes differently, sometimes similarly Jews and non Jews.

            Thus, the proportion of Jewish deaths in the whole population decreased somewhat in the years 1935-1943 by both counts resorted to above (1 and 2), even if data on local Jewish burials should be requalified in a contradictory manner. On the one hand, Jewish cemeteries in Budapest served also for many deceased outside the capital where there was no Jewish cemetery in the vicinity, or else when families opted for reasons of their own (especially when other family members were interred in the same cemetery) for a burial in Budapest. This is why the Chevra records of the Pest (Neologue) Israelite Community alone contain in the 1940s approximately as many (or more) registrations of burials as all Jewish dead from Budapest, whether they died in the capital city or elsewhere.[11] (One should remember that there existed four other Jewish communities in Budapest with seperate Chevra services and cemeteries, the Budapest Autonomous Orthodox Community and those of Buda, Óbuda and Kőbánya.) On the other hand, obviously, many assimilated Jews reached by that time such a degree of secularisation that they preferred a denominationally neutral burial place in a municipal cemetery where interment could be accomplished without religious rituals. If there are no means to quantify the outcome of the two contrary biases of our burial data, one can reasonably suppose that they amounted to a measure of compensation for one another.

            Data on mortality before or after birth (3-4-5) show much more significant variations. If the proportion of still born (4) remained as low as usually, and tended even to diminish during the war years both for Jews and non Jews, such changes, minor as they were (since they concerned very small numbers only[12]), are hardly liable to other interpretation than  as occurrences of biological accidents. This is certainly not the case for infant mortality (3), which depends closely on the sanitary, medical and social conditions of families concerned, or the inter-related indicator of ’spontaneous abortions’ (5) – the latter being often the consequence of voluntary interventions against childbirth regarded as a risk by the would-be mother. Both of these socially sensitive indicators show indeed a rather sharp growth, specifically for Jews, while they decline for non Jews progressively with the passage of years in spite of the persisting war. Such rise of the medical casualties of birth is certainly an expression of worsening living conditions of urban Jewry under the antisemitic legislation which, among other things, deprived many of them from earlier bread earning activities and obliged Jewish men to spend regular stints in military forced labour units. But the number of children born was so dramatically diminishing in the same period – from over 1700 in the years 1936-37 to less than 1000 in 1939-1943 in the capital city[13] - that the incidence of all these risks proved to be on the whole rather limited.

            A different picture emerges with data on specific causes of death affecting more or less each age group and both sexes.

            Tuberculosis, the most devastating popular decease of the period, took actually more and more victims during the years of rampant fascism, whether the indicator referred to is the global one (7) or the age specific one (8). There was a ten to twenty odd percents of increase of the ravages of tuberculosis from the mid 1930s to the war years among Jews, attesting, obviously, once again to the aggravation of Jewish living conditions. It is important to note though, that the extension of the terrible, as yet incurable illness was just as significant – indeed somewhat even more - in the non Jewish population. Life in the war was detrimental to economic and social measures concerning the rank and file population, like better housing or nourishment, capable to restrict the development of these at that time still often lethal infections. It is worth to be observed though that while Jews were concerned by tuberculosis as much as non Jews in the younger age groups (8), this was not true later in the average life cycle (7). On the whole tuberculosis was a minor cause for death among Jews, occurring half as often as among the rest, most probably for essentially demographic reasons. Once the risk of tuberculosis infection, considerable in the younger age brackets (one fifths of all deaths before 30) had passed, those who escaped it were exposed to a number of other age specific deceases. Since Jews displayed a generally lower death rate in all age groups (as it was witnessed by their very low infant mortality rate, as discussed above) and, to boot, their age structure was much older than that of non Jews because of their specifically low and ever decreasing birth rates since the early 20th century, among the ills causing death of Jews tuberculosis appeared much behind other sicknesses typical for elderly age groups. It is interesting that their relative general advantages as to the liability of dying of tuberculosis was maintained in spite of worsening living conditition during the antisemitic predicament.

            The incidence of suicide must be differently interpreted. One could expect that suicide would become a response of many to the harshening of the anti-Jewish legislation, the prohibition of mixed marriages, the ever impending danger of being drafted in forced labour battallions, the difficulties of schooling for the young due to numerus clausus or numerus nullus or the generalisation of rampant ’ordinary fascism’ in everyday life. Now the evidence listed here show that both in absolute numbers and proportions Jewish suicide rates continued to decrease notably during all the period under scrutiny. The cases of men and women were different though, as suggested by the numbers cited. While the dimunition of attempts at self destruction for men must be in part attributed to the war situation itself, since many of them were drafted in the army or at least regularly obliged to spend time in local forced labor units far from Budapest, women stayed on in the capital and their suicide attempts were registered in local police records. Incidentally, this can be the reason why traditionally low suicide rates of Jewish women – rarely reaching the level of Jewish men up to 1938 – became preponderant as compared to men after 1940. In 1943 one third more Jewish women than men (92 as against 61) tried to kill themselves in Budapest. There was no such reversal of the trend among Gentiles, since Gentile women had always been much more frequently exposed to the risk of suicide in Budapest and other cities (but not in the countryside), notably due to the high suicidal rate of housemaids and working class women (among whom Jewesses were strongly under-represented).[14]

For us it is important to conclude that Jews more than others replied to mounting outside pressure in the years of war and anti-Jewish hysteria by bracing themselves against calamity – in a mood of self-defence of sorts –, instead of forfeiting their life chances by tentative self-destruction. Such attitude was to be true by no means quite exceptional. Suicide rates tend to fall generally in periods of war, revolutions or other historical junctures marked by conflicts, agressions, collective rage, as if externally directed public aggressiveness could temper outbursts of violence aiming at oneself. But in the case of urban Jewry under duress in the 1940s such limitation of attempts at self-destruction may be understood also together with other conscious or unconscious mechanisms and strategies of self-defence or self-exemption, like the control of crime[15], the rarification of births, marriages as well as divorces[16], the development of inter-community mutual aid services, emigration[17], conversion[18], etc. All these conducts, actions and behaviours were indeed commonly based on the mobilization of energies, resolute efforts to resist pressure, readiness to limit the load of everyday existence and a desire to discharge the group from collective accusations and dangers, or else to escape individually by institutional break with Judaism from the weight of legal antisemitism. Suicide in this context would have been a way of compliance with antisemitic anticipations and expectations and, obviously, an act of resignation in front of undeserved humiliation and unprovoked hostility. Implicitely, control of suicidal proclivities was thus a form of resistance to or compensation for collective misfortune, an attitude which many of those inclined to despair conserved up to the very end of the period, till pressure could be regarded as sustainable and organised counter-actions as feasible and productive.

This situation has undergone radical change after the German occupation of the country followed almost immediately by the enforcement of Nazi type anti-Jewish measures which culminated in the deportation of provincial Jewry - starting at mid-May and practically achieved by the end of June. Randolph L. Braham has delivered a masterly detailed study of all these developments. For Budapest Jewry too, the first critical period can be identified during the three Spring months April-June, while the next three months till mid-October represent a time of relative relaxation of pressures, generating hope for a forthcoming release. The military defeat of the Third Reich was in sight, the armies of liberation having broken into the country and the government negotiating a cease fire. Another peak of tension was reached after the Arrow Cross take-over at mid-October and the forthcoming bloody terror to which surviving Jewry was submitted in the capital city. Some of the monthly indicators of mortality and morbidity reflect closely those tragic fluctuations of the living conditions of Jews in Budapest ere Liberation was finally accomplished, not before late January 1945. Reliable statistical evidence from public records is available in this field till August 1944 only, while data are scarce and of much more limited scope (if any) for later months.    


Table 2.

Some Monthly Mortality rates of Budapest Jews and non Jews in 1943 and 1944


         1943               1944      Excess of deaths

1. Monthly averages of burials in                                                      (1943 = 100)

    Jewish cemetries[19]

            January-March                             263                 319                121

            April-July                                      273                 431                157

            August                                           245                 282                115


2. Monthly averages of Jewish deaths[20]

            January-March                            338                  290                 85                        

            April-July                                     274                  354                129

            August                                          245                  274                118


   Monthly averages of all deaths[21]

            January-March                            1767               1425                 85

            April-July                                     1304               1323               101   

            August                                          1474               1046                 74


3. Monthly averages of all attempted suicides[22]

            January-March                            131                  145                 107                                                      

            April-July                                     174                  268                 154

            August                                          126                  120                   95


4. Monthly averages of deaths by suicide[23]

            January-March                            20                    23                   115                                                  

            April-July                                     21                    69                   321                                

            August                                          15                    14                    93


5. Average number of those attempting     January-         April-     June-    August     

suicide by professional status in 1944[24]       March            May     July

            craftsman, industrialist                     14                 14           20          5

            trader, commercial agent                6                 21           16          5                                                         

            manual worker                                19                  27           19         20

            professional and civil servant         3                  32           40         21

            private executive                             9                   8            30         10

            old age pensioner                              4                  10           15          1

            with private means, propertied     33                 46          143        28

            day labourer                                    29                 11           17         11

            maid, servant                                   29                 25           14          5                        

            other                                                 9                 14            18        15   

6. % of suicides among Jews buried by the Chevra Khadishah of the Pest (Neolog) Israelite Community[25]


            January-24 June 1943            1,1

            January-18 March 1944         0,8

            19-31 March 1944                 2,9       

            April 1944                            10,6

            May 1944                              8,7

            June 1944                            14,4

            July 1944                              7,0

            August 1944                         3,4

            September 1944                     0


            This data bank on the growing ravages of ’normal’ ways of dying in a city and a period still largely – if not completely - preserved from military destructions (except for casualties in air raids) or undisguised terror[26], does not need any sophisticated comment. The excess of deaths in the Spring months of 1944 well beyond June is clearly demonstrated, but only for Jews essentially – as shown by denomination specific evidence (such as in indices 2 and 5 in the table). It is particularly revealing to observe that by all indicators the death toll subsided significantly by August, the first month after the removal of immediate danger of deportations for surviving Budapest Jewry, a month also marked by the Romanian tournaround and the coming into office of the new Hungarian government, reputed to be anti-Nazi and in charge of peace negociations. In August there were indeed less suicides than in the beginning of the year in professional categories with a large Jewish constituency (5) and in September the Pest Community registered no burials at all due to suicide (6). The wave of self-destruction was thus limited to the very historical juncture when the monstrous mechanics of Nazism prevailed over the hope of survival and did away with most barriers against suicide out of despair. When hope returned for many from the last weeks of July onwards, temptations of self-elimination also tended to disappear. In such occurrences the selection effect must of course also be taken into account. Many of the weaker, the more sensitive or those experiencing immediate menace did not withstand pressure and went earlier into action to kill themselves. Those who escaped the first self-destructive inclinations were among the stronger, the more resistant or the more resolute ones, capable to maintain themselves further on against adversity and upcoming oppression.

            This cound be carried out to a point which was left behind during the reign of Arrow Cross terror starting after October 15. For the forthcoming months there is only one source of general data on suicide in Budapest, without any specifications for Jews, but the curve of the quantified evidence demonstrates clearly that the majority of the cases must have implicated Jews under duress.[27] Both for 1943 and 1945 the monthly numbers of successful suicides (followed by death) oscillated around 30 (with approximately 350 in 1943 and 360 in 1945 for the whole year). In 1944 though the author fixes the total number of self-destructions at around 980 with two peaks, the first in June and the second in November, the last month for which data could be estimated. The author of the study clearly observes : „At first glance the curve of the data serves as a mirror to the events in the years 1943, 1944 and 1945. The curve of suicides in 1943 closely follows that of the preceding yearly averages as against the year 1944, marked by the occupation of Budapest by the Germans, which generated a range of tremendous amplitude of the barometer of suicides, hitherto unprecedented in Hungary. June, the month of deportations, represented the peak of this set of events. It was followed by the second big wave in the months of October and November, the period of the ’take-over of power’ by Szálasi”.[28]

            Results of this study cannot modify significantly our informations abouth the death toll of the Shoah in Budapest, let alone Hungary, but they help to specify the nature of Jewish responses to Nazism. First it demonstrates the relative strength of some hidden forms of resistance or compensation implemented by most of those caught up in the antisemitic turmoil. Second it shows that the frequency of attempts at self-destruction correlated negatively but strictly with the availability of hope for liberation. During the years and months when hope was permitted, the liability of suicides remained low. If self-destructive temptations tended to prevail in times of utter distress, even then they concerned only a marginal minority of those exposed to the Nazi calamity.  


[1] Research for this study has been accomplished thanks to funding granted in the framework of the Research Support Programme of the Central European University, Budapest.

[2] Sources of data in yearly issues of Budapest Székesfőváros statisztikai évkönyvei. All other serial data cited in this paper, if not otherwise indicated, derive from the same source. 

[3] Data only for 1938 and 1939.

[4] Data only for 1941 and 1943.

[5] Data only for 1938 and 1939.

[6] Data only for 1941 and 1943.

[7] Followed by death or not.

[8] Data for 1939 and 1940 only.

[9] Followed by death or not.

[10] Data for 1939 and 1940 only.

[11] In 1940 there were 3148 burials according to both Pest Community and public records. In 1941 there were 3.043 in the first and 3111 in the second source, in 1942 3215 again in both sources and in 1943 3138 in the first and 3235 in the second respectively.  Public record data in Budapest Székesfőváros statisztikai évkönyve, 1944-1946, 32. Community data from the Ritual Section of the Pest Community Office.

[12] In 1939-1943 the average number of Jewish births in Budapest was 1043, thus the number of still born did not exceed 23-24 yearly.

[13] Except for the peak of 1942 with 1328 Jewish birth in Budapest which brought the average of these years over 1000.

[14] On all these problems of the differential incidence of urban feminine misery on Jews and Gentiles see my study : “ Domestiques et prostituées en Hongrie sous l'ancien régime", Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, n°104, septembre, 3-17. Also in Hungarian in my book Zsidóság és társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek (1867-1945), Budapest, Replika könyvek, 2000, 141-166.

[15] For quantified evidence on the decrease of Jewish criminality evidence has been gathered in my study „Les juifs de Hongrie sous les lois antisémites”, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales,  mars 1985, n 56, 3-30, especially 26 sq. 

[16] Ibid. 12-14.

[17] Ibid. 21.

[18] Ibid, 13, 16, 18-19.

[19] As registered by Chevra services of the Jewish communities in Budapest.

[20] As in public records published in Budapest Székesfőváros statisztikai havi  füzetei.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. Rounded numbers.

[23] Ibid. Rounded numbers.

[24] Ibid. Rounded numbers. Categories with strong Jewish participation in bold type.

[25] Deaths by ’normal causes’ only, casualties of air raids or executions excluded. Death records of the Pest (Neolog) Israelite Community in the Ritual Service of the Community.

[26] The death records of the Pest Neolog Community cited above demonstrate the limited number of Jewish deceased due to raids (as compared to suicides) after March 1944 : 18 in April, 1 only in May, none in June, 14 in July, 1 in August, and 30 in September. This amounts to  93 during the first 9 months of 1944 as against some 125 ritual burials of dead by suicide. There were also 5 deaths by execution taken care of by the Chevra service of the Community.  

[27] See Dr Bakács Tibor, „Néhány adat Budapest jelenlegi közegészségügyi helyzetéről”, /Some data on the present sanitary situation of Budapest/, Városi szemle, XXXII, 1946/1, 51-58.

[28] Ibid. 57.