John Carroll University, AHEA Conference, 9-11 April 1999


Peter I. Hidas

Canada and the Hungarian Jewish Refugees 1956-1957


In 1956-57 following the Hungarian revolution nearly 200,000 persons, about two percent of the population of Hungary, fled to the West. Jews constituted about one-tenth of these refugees. One out of five Jewish refugees left for Canada. This exodus had historical origins.

During the Second World War three hundred and ten thousand Hungarian Jews fell victim to genocide. After the war the trauma of the Holocaust left the remaining Hungarian Jews in fear, in terror of further destruction that might befall at any time. Their value system collapsed. Political options were limited to joining either the Zionist movement or the left-wing parties in Hungary.

In mid-1945, 141,480 Hungarian citizens declared themselves Jewish, constituting 1.6% of the population. The old business elite left for the West. The remaining Jewish middle classes were impoverished. In 1946 the American JOINT stated that 90 to 95% of the Hungarian Jews needed social assistance. Many of the former craftsmen, merchants and industrial workers went to work in factories. This was also a way of blending into the milieu. The youth rushed to the universities. Others joined the army, the police, the political police or the civil service. Many Jews joined the communist party or the social democrats. There they felt safe from nationalism. At first all Jews felt truly liberated. From 1945 the Provisional Government of Hungary brought many war criminals to justice. As a result of war crime trials, the leaders of the Arrow Cross were hanged. Close to 60,000 others were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Government Certification Committees swung into action, probing the past of the civil servants. Too many people were compromised and some began to blame the Jews for their problems.

The political parties wanted to be popular and some of them, including the communist party, welcomed the "small Nazis" to their ranks. The government refused to admit a national responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust. The properties of the survivors were not always returned. Certain gentile intellectuals began to talk about the so-called "Jewish Question", that is, that there were too many Jews here and there, on one committee or another, or in one profession or another. Péter Veres, in charge of the land reform, did his best to exclude Jews from ownership of agricultural land. The head of the Calvinist Church invited the Jews of Hungary "to clean up their act."

In 1946 there were several pogroms in Hungary. On May 21, 1946 local peasants murdered two Jews and wounded eighteen in the village of Kunmadaras. On August 1, 1946, industrial workers staged a pogrom in the town of Miskolc. Two Jews were lynched. There were other anti-Semitic disturbances in many villages. For some of the Jews the hope for life without fear in Hungary was finally dissipated. In 1945 and 1946 about 4,000 of them left for Israel. In 1948 and 1949, a further 10,307 immigrated to Israel.

For the next forty years during the communist rule and the Soviet occupation the Jews of Hungary were relatively safe. Open anti-Semitism was no longer tolerated. Only the Bolshevik state was allowed to practice anti-Semitism. During the first Hungarian show trial, the Rajk trial, the leaders of the communist party ensured that three of the eight accused were Jewish. The four most prominent Jewish leaders of the state and the party wanted to show their impartiality. More frightened Jews decided to leave. In 1950/51 another 3693 managed to immigrate to Israel. When Stalin initiated a vicious anti-Semitic campaign a few months before his death, his self-declared best pupil in Hungary, Matthias Rákosi, began preparing an anti-Semitic show trial. The case fizzled out with Stalin's death. Nevertheless, most communist Jews in Hungary were gradually removed from responsible positions and the Jewish head of the secret police was imprisoned.

In 1956 a smattering of anti-Semitic incidents in the countryside gave the ultimate incentive for emigration. A number of anti-Jewish atrocities occurred outside Budapest. Three Jews were murdered at Miskolc. At Tarcal another three were attacked with knives. On October 25 at Mezökövesd and Mezönyárad many Jews were beaten while at Hajdunánás some were robbed and tortured. Anti-Semitic incidents had taken place in the villages of Vámospercs-Nyíradony, Hajdúnánás, Balkány, Marikocs and Nyirbátor. The outbursts were spontaneous and not inspired from outside or above. Fearing the recurrence of excesses, many Jews moved to Budapest from the villages and subsequently left the country. Reports of anti-Semitic activities came from a few villages and four towns. No such incidents took place in the remaining 3184 villages and 58 towns. The centre of Jewish life, Budapest, experienced no pogrom or threat to Jewish life or limb. The majority of the Jews, as the majority of the Hungarians, did not participate in the revolution, but their mood can be described, especially in the last days of the uprising, to be fearful of pogroms.

The first Jewish refugees arrived in Austria from towns near the Hungarian border -- Csorna, Kapuvár, and later from Sopron and Györ. Usually, the entire Jewish community fled from the smaller villages. Most of the Jews had left in the first phase of the fight, mainly in fear that the revolution might turn against them. Once people started to leave Budapest, the proportion of Jewish escapees increased.

The Vienna Kultusgemeinde set up an office for the registration of Jewish refugees. Immigration to countries other than Israel was arranged by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). The operation was financed by the AJDC (American Joint Distribution Committee) and, to a smaller extent, by the Kultusgemeinde itself, except for the clothing that was 80% paid for by USEP (United States Escapee Program). Caritas donated 100,000 schillings to the Kultusgemeinde for the special needs of Jewish refugees. Those who wished to go to Israel were referred to the Jewish Agency.

By December 10 about 7,000 Jewish refugees had registered in Austria, of whom 5,000 were in Vienna. JIAS (Jewish Immigrant and Aid Society) workers estimated the number of Hungarian Jews who would not register at 50%. Joseph Kage, then the director of JIAS and a prolific author on Jewish immigration, judged the number of Jews who left Hungary in 1956/57 to be 20,000, that is 20% of the Hungarian Jewish community. The Statistics Section of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in a tri-monthly report on January 31, 1957, identified 8,832 Hungarians and 683 "Hebrews" out of a total of 9,572. At this phase of the migration Jews constituted 7.1% of the total (9,572). The ratio changed to 6.6% by May 31, and increased to and remained 6.8% on August 31 and December 31, 1957, and April 30, 1958. These figures should be modified upwards because a large number of Jews did not reveal their religious background.

Fear of anti-Semitism, fear of persecution, the traditional identification with Hungarians, the custom in Hungary of separation of nationality from religion, and anti-religious propaganda and education in communist Hungary for ten years made many Hungarian Jews reluctant to reveal their religion or cultural background. A Canadian journalist reported in January 1957: "Here in Vancouver we can confirm the fact that some of the Hungarian refugees have been afraid to reveal their identity as Jews. There have been several refugees who had listed themselves as Catholics but disclosed that they were Jews after being absolutely sure that there was no danger of any repercussions. Kage identifies 4,500 Jews among the Hungarian refugees, while Professor N. Dreisziger employs the figure of 7,000. R. Whitaker quoting G. E. Dirks writes that "it seems that about 20 per cent of Hungarians who reached Canada in the end listed their religion as Jewish," that is 7,000 persons.

Anti-Semitic incidents in Austria, on the way to Canada and occasionally on arrival put many Hungarian Jews on guard. There had been a number of minor anti-Semitic incidents in Austria. In mid-January 1957 more than 1,000 Hungarian refugees at the processing centre in Vienna staged an anti-Jewish riot because of rumours that Jews were getting preference in obtaining entry into the United States. There were unpleasant incidents at Camp Roeder (Salzburg, Siezenheim). There was at least one occasion when the Austrian gendarmerie was called to be ready to protect the Jewish barrack. The Austrian police, however, managed to provide adequate protection to Hungarian Jewish refugees. There were isolated anti-Semitic displays during the boat passages to Canada and incidents occurred at the Immigration arrival depot in Saint John. In Toronto some feared for the safety of Jews in the hostels for refugees but HIAS opposed their removal claiming that violence was not imminent. However, most Canadian diplomats and civil servants who came in contact with the Hungarian refugees showed no prejudice towards their charges.

Ambassador Macdonald, however, was not pleased with the high proportion of Jews among the Hungarian refugees. In his January 9, 1957, report he claimed that Jews avoided the refugee camps and that there were too many Jews in the lineup in front of his embassy." He asked Ottawa to introduce restrictions on Jewish emigration to Canada. He repeatedly returned to the Jewish theme.

The Department of Immigration identified Hungarian Jews as "Hebrews". Later they changed the category to "Jewish" which they considered separate from the category "Hungarian". Hungarian Jews generally thought themselves to be of Hungarian ethnic origin from the Jewish faith. When Mrs. L. L. arriving to Halifax was asked to identify her nationality, she declared herself Hungarian. The interviewing immigration officer insisted on putting her name down as Hebrew despite her protestation. There was also a report about the anti-Semitic behaviour of a Canadian immigration officer at the Donop Barracks in Nancy, France. To their credit both foreign minister L.B.Pearson and J.W.Pickersgill ignored Macdonald's suggestion. The public must have learnt of Macdonald's and other officials' attitudes towards the Jews because B.R. Leboe, a member of the Canadian parliament, made inquires about discrimination to which Pickersgill replied, denying the existence of a quota system based on religion. Pearson's Middle Eastern Division at External Affairs informed the Vienna Embassy and a complaining anti-Semitic immigration officer in Canada that the high rate of Jewish emigration was simply a reflection of the relative insecurity of the Jewish community in Hungary. The complaints against them should be dismissed out of hand since they were coming from ignorant people. In any case, Canada was in constant need of immigrants. The year 1956 brought new prosperity for the country.

Workers were needed and the Hungarian refugee movement became a partial solution to Canada's economic needs. Officially there was no selection from the escapees, albeit security and the health of the applicants remained the concern of the RCMP as well as the Department of Immigration. Post-secondary students, agricultural workers, miners and maids, were given preference. There was no policy on religion. The government was eager to involve the charitable and the religious organizations, amongst them the CJC, in the reception of the Hungarian refugees.

Following an initiative of Ottawa, on November 19, 1956, Saul Hayes, executive director of CJC, informed C.E.S.Smith, Director of Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa, that his organization was vitally interested in assisting the program to bring Hungarian escapees for a new life in Canada. Saul Hayes instructed all regional offices and councils of the CJC to cooperate with immigration officers in finding accommodation for the Hungarians as well as in the finding of employment and providing other aids except cash because, in his opinion, this movement was really a government-sponsored one. The Torontonian Jews also formed a Committee for the Rescue of Jews from Hungary. They wanted not only to help the refugees already in Austria but also planned to smuggle Jews across the Hungarian border. The CJC refused to work with the Canadian Jewish-Hungarians because they considered them to be well-meaning Marx-brother types, naive dupes and upstart declassé merchants who were trying to regain their old-country respectability. Neither was the CJC in favour of working with the gentile Hungarian community in Toronto contrary to the wish of the Hungarian-Jewish Toronto group. Despite the lack of support from CJC the Hungarian Jews of Toronto collected money that they sent to the Red Cross. They appealed directly, not through the CJC, to the Jewish population of Canada for public support and sent a dozen of their members to Vienna to aid the new exodus of Hungarian Jews. In fact, JIAS did very little for the Hungarian Jewish refugees who came to Canada. Their representatives did not meet refugees arriving by train. In Halifax, St. John and Quebec City those who arrived by boat were only occasionally welcomed. No rabbi or other Jewish representative visited the refugees in the Montreal centres at St. Antoine Street or St. Paul d'Hermit. AT JIAS offices the reception was cold and little was done for the few arriving orthodox Jews. Less than $9,000 was spent on the Hungarians between November 1956 and March 1957. During the same period CJC increased its contribution to half a million dollars to UJRA (United Jewish Relief Agency) but only a fraction of that went to the Hungarians. The role of the Jewish community in Toronto pertaining to Jewish Hungarian refugees is incidental. ." Instead of helping, some Jewish manufacturers took advantage of the refugees. JIAS complained to Hayes that in Montreal, for example, a skilled Hungarian Jewish tailor was paid a mere $14 per week.

In Toronto the Jewish-Hungarian refugees received some help from the JIAS and the JVS (Jewish Vocational Services) and the Jewish Family and Child Services to find permanent shelter and jobs. The Toronto Council of Jewish Women established a welcome centre. They also opened a clothing depot. The Vancouver Jewish Community found it difficult to absorb 50 refugees, but they did help them find jobs. They defied Saul Hayes who ordered them not to aid the Hungarians. They wrote the CJC: "We are taking full responsibility for these people, maintaining those who are not yet employed and supplementing the income of those employed at inadequate wages." The Jewish Child and Family Services in Winnipeg did likewise by providing $125 worth of furniture to families with two children, $50 for clothing, $86.67 for food, $55 for rent, $5 for bus fare and $4 for school fees. The feeling in the community, nevertheless, was that JIAS was doing little to help the Hungarian escapees.

Hayes knew that the Hungarian Jewish community was up in arms and that they charged him with heartlessness. On 19 February 1957 the CJC revoked its policy of support and refused all community support to the Hungarian Jewish refugees. Hayes claimed that funds were needed for the needy Jews in Europe, Egypt and Israel. It is more likely that Hayes succumbed to other pressures. Rabbi S.L. Eckerstein informed Hayes a week earlier that he did not consider the Hungarians Jewish at all since they intermarry, use no religious chupah, no bris and often register themselves as Roman Catholic. According to the Hungarian Jews Association of Toronto, JIAS unfairly accused the Hungarian Jews of being assimilated, baptized and people who discontinued to live up to the Jewish tradition. The Jewish community of Canada disappointed the Hungarian Jews but Canada at large did not. Canada provided free passage across the ocean, transportation to destinations in Canada, initial medical care and established cooperation with the provinces and private institutions for their rapid integration into Canadian society.

The Jews of Hungary failed to fully integrate into Hungarian society despite their endeavors for about one hundred years. Regardless of their own efforts as well as the attempts of the liberals and the political elite of Hungary, Jews in Hungary never became Jewish Hungarians. For a long time they pursued their illusions, some of them even after Auschwitz, but post-world war Hungarian history convinced a large part of the members of their community that they had no future in communist Hungary and that a good part of the Hungarian people would not accept them as "us" but rather as "them". During the attempted process of assimilation and integration and as a result of Auschwitz and the security offered by the communists, most Hungarian Jews shed the religious aspects of their Jewishness, abandoned the community and the synagogue and showed little interest in Israel. Consequently, when the opportunity presented itself to leave Hungary, they did not choose Israel as their destination but rather countries that promised more economic opportunities and absence of war and conflict.. Thus Canada became the prime terminus for the new exodus of Jewish '56-ers. One out of three immigrated to Canada.

Three factors facilitated their easy entry to Canada. Firstly, Canada was experiencing an economic boom during the summer of 1956. Labour shortages could only be resolved on the short term through immigration. Secondly, anti-Semitism was on the decline in the country and the governing elite wanted to pursue the politically correct line of the times. All Hungarian refugees were welcomed and any effort by the odd civil servant or diplomat to block Jewish migration was ignored by Ottawa. Thirdly, federal and provincial authorities and Hungarian-Canadians and their organizations did much to bring the refugees to Canada and a moderate effort was made to provide aid following their arrival. Canadian Jewish organizations did the same for their Hungarian brethren. They refused to make a major effort because they considered the Canadian government financially responsible for the delivery and integration of the refugees and because of their resentment of the non-religious ideological stance of the majority of the Hungarians. Nevertheless, one should note that individual Jews and many local branches of the Canadian Jewish Congress went out of their way to lend a helping hand to the refugees who because of their educational and cultural background managed to integrate with ease into Canadian society.