Berzsenyi Dániel Gimnázium

János M. Bak

A "Jewish Class" in a Budapest High School

On 8 September 1939, just a week after the first shots of the Second World War were fired, thirty-eight ten-year-old boys (myself included) entered Class I/B of the Dániel Berzsenyi Hungarian Royal Grammar School in Budapest's 5th district (Magyar Királyi Berzsenyi Dániel Gimnázium, henceforth: BDG), a humanist secondary school named after a nineteenth-century Hungarian poet. It was a historical moment, not only in the life of the youngsters, but also because this was the first gimnázium class in Hungary for which pupils were selected on a religious basis: a segregated Jewish class. In the wake of the Second Anti-Jewish Law (Law IV of 1939), a numerus clausus (limitation of enrollment) was introduced in high schools: most schools would admit at most two or three Jews to every class, "Israelites" by religion (Nürnberg racial criteria were not applied at this stage), and three Budapest boys' grammar schools started fully segregated "Jewish classes." The I/B of BDG was such a class.


Our memories of the eight years (or less) at BDG are, of course, a mix of typical high-school experiences and some specific ones, being young Jews in the evermore repressive atmosphere of Horthy's (and then the Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi's) Hungary. In general, it seems that the school did not discriminate actively against the "Jewish classes" (there were four more following ours). Because of wartime shortages, the heating of the building became a problem and some classes were taught in the afternoon (secondary-school instruction usually ended at 1 or 2 p.m.), and two of the Jewish classes were moved to the less comfortable afternoon hours. This may not have been motivated by anti-Semitism, but perhaps it was. Actually, in the annuals of BDG between 1939 and 1943 the words zsidó osztály (Jewish class) features, if I am not mistaken, only once, when it is stated that in the second semester of 1943, National Defence was not taught to them. (By that time a good part of the pupils' fathers were serving as unarmed conscripts in forced-labour units at the Russian front, often exposed to murderous treatment by their superiors.) At some point, we were also separated from the mandatory paramilitary training as "Levente," and assigned —in a way parallel to our parents' fate—to some auxiliary tasks. Surveying the faculty assigned to these classes, there is no indication whatsoever that they would not have been taught by the best teachers. Moreover, there were such gestures as the initiative of our class and Latin teacher Sándor Égner in 1941 or 1942 to hold a Hanukkah feast in the class instead of (or besides) the general Christmas celebrations of the school. (Dr Égner, a polyglot maverick of German background, grew up in Máramaros (Marumureş), a multi-ethnic region with a sizeable

Class IV/C in 1943, with Dr Égner in the middle

  orthodox Jewish population, and so he was well acquainted with Jewish holidays.) One of my classmates went as far as to record that "BDG was an island of peace and tolerance in the midst of the storm of blood." Surely, there were anti- Semitic teachers (even card-carrying Nazis) and the nationalist-chauvinist rituals, mandatory in the Horthy era—public recital of revanchist poetry, prayer for our soldiers fighting a 'defensive war' (!) in Russia—were also imposed on us, but grosso modo the statement made by my classmate holds true. Someone told me that one or another of our teachers had helped pupils during the year of worst persecution. Classmates remember fights with pupils of the non-Jewish classes, but I also remember fights with pupils of the high school across the street, which counted as a BDG tradition. How much of that was different from typical boys' roughing it up is difficult to decide ex post. In the darkest months of persecution in 1944 we did not attend school. We could not after 8 April, when Jews, compelled to wear a yellow star, were subjected to a partial curfew and allowed to be on the streets only for a few hours. And, of course, in the autumn of 1944, when most Budapest Jews were confined to a walled-in ghetto or were in hiding, we could not attend classes.
As mentioned above, after the war the sixth form (for the short spring term, as the school was damaged during the siege and reopened only in March 1945) was restructured and remained thus for the last years. We sadly registered our—in comparison with the project of Endlösung, relatively few—losses caused by the German and Hungarian Nazi mass murder of Jews. That only (!?) three boys (maybe four) were killed during the Shoah is not surprising: the survival chances of sons of the professional upper-middle class of Budapest with ample financial resources and good connections to non-Jews were generally good. Many of us were able to procure false papers, find Gentile friends who hid Jews, and most of us simply had good luck. (Such as an Arrow Cross thug taking a fancy at the pretty sister of a classmate. Since time ran out on him, he could not "collect his reward"). I have no precise data on the fate of my classmates in those months, but as far as I know almost all were in hiding, perhaps one or two survived in the Budapest Ghetto or in the houses under the protection of neutral states. By age, we were just at the margin of those who survived as "children" and those who were more endangered (taken to forced-labour units or the like) as "young men." To be sure, the adults, such as our fathers' parents and older siblings' brothers, fared much worse. I have no precise figures, but many of them were killed either in forced-labour units or extermination camps or shot on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.
One boy was killed by a shrapnel during the allied bombardment of Budapest and one died in an accident soon after the liberation. A few classmates emigrated before the end of the eight years, so only twenty of the original thirty-six graduated together in 1947. During the two postwar years, many of us were engaged in politics and also spent quite some time attending war crimes trials (and public executions) in the court buildings near BDG.



János M. Bak
is a medieval historian and Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia
and the Central European University in Budapest. His main interests are the legal,
institutional and social history of the late Middle Ages.

The Hungarian Quarterly: VOLUME 50 * No. 195 * Autumn 2009