The Elimination of Jewish Attorneys in Hungary During the Holocaust

To be a Jewish lawyer in the Hungary of an earlier day
Joseph (Tommy) Lapid

Hungarian anti-Semitism sprang from two roots: from the Jew's differences and from his similarities. Anti-Semitism based on differences turned against the orthodox Jew, who spoke Yiddish, wore a kaftan, grew a beard and side-curls and had a life-style utterly different from his environment. The common Hungarian did not like that.

The other expression of anti-Semitism turned against the assimilated Jew, who became an integral part of Hungarian society: Jewish university professors, actors, merchants, journalists, writers, doctors, engineers and lawyers. The Hungarian middle class could not forgive them for being too diligent, too talented, and too successful.

In order to understand the proportion of the problem one has to know that in 1939, when World War Two broke out, of the 3,386 advocates in Budapest, 2,040 were Jewish; 60% of all the advocates in the Hungarian capital!

My father, Dr. Bela Lampel, was a lawyer in Yugoslavia, and then in Hungary, until the government revoked the work permits of all Jewish advocates.

In my childhood, I ate a lot of goose liver, because Hungarian peasants, clients of my father, brought goose liver as presents to the “Doctor.” Lawyers in Hungary were always called “doctors.” My father, mother and I lived in a large mansion. A maid, a cook and a governess also lived with us. None of this was unusual for a well-to-do Jewish lawyer in the inter-war years. But such prosperity was often the cause of jealousy among gentile lawyers. If they were not successful enough, they accused Jewish colleagues of pushing out “the real Hungarians.”

The Jewish intelligentsia, and the advocates among them, wanted to prove their loyalty by being more Hungarian then the gentile Hungarians themselves. But they were also more cosmopolitan than the average Hungarian: they spoke foreign languages, traveled more often, knew more about America through their relatives and introduced the latest fashions and trends from abroad. Even in this respect a double standard could be detected: some Hungarians accused Jews of being too Hungarian; others complained that the cosmopolitan Jew planted foreign seeds on Hungarian soil.

It has been frequently said that the reason for terrible things happening in our world is not only because wicked people commit wicked acts, but also because good people keep silent. When the Gestapo arrested my father, none of his gentile lawyer colleagues stuck out their necks for his protection. While good friends were sorry for him, others were happy that a competitor was eliminated. The famous Hungarian author Sandor Marai (a gentile to the core) wrote about two Christian dentists in his town, who quarreled over the possession of the clinic left behind by a Jewish colleague who was deported to Auschwitz. “Finally the fight was solved by duel," Marai wrote sarcastically, "which proves that we are a noble people.” Perhaps two “real Hungarians” fought a duel over possession of my father's office, while he perished in the death camp of Mauthausen.

A few years ago, I had a chance to visit Budapest, the same city where during the Holocaust I celebrated my Bar-Mitzvah in a cellar of the ghetto. In my capacity as the Minister of Justice of the State of Israel, I was asked to give a lecture before an audience of lawyers, scientists and diplomats at the prestigious Academy of Science. I do not remember how I finished my lecture, only how I started it: “It is a strange feeling," I said, "to appear before you, as a representative of the Jewish State, in the very building which during my childhood had on its gate a sign reading 'Jews and dogs are not permitted.'”

Joseph (Tommy) Lapid is Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council
November 2006

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