Holocaust City. The Making of a Jewish Ghetto

TitleHolocaust City. The Making of a Jewish Ghetto
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsRigó, Máté
Author(s) of reviewed materialCole, Tim
PublisherRoutledge, New York
ISSNISBN-10: 0415929695. ISBN-13: 978-0415929691
Review year


Full Text

While the history of the Holocaust in East and Central Europe tends to be in the centre of attention of “Western”, mainly American and Israeli researchers, many of their works – being less accessible to local audiences – are barely known or oftentimes overlooked in the respective national historiographies. This definitely does not hold in the case of Tim Cole’sHolocaust City which – through its Hungarian canonization attempt by Gábor Gyáni – has contributed to stirring a major controversy among Hungarian historians in 2008, with several parties taking sides, among them the deputy Head of the Academy’s Institute of History, Attila Pók as well.[1] This review cannot venture to detail the full extent of this heated debate, yet it is important to mention that the contested claim of Gábor Gyáni focused on the theoretical backwardness of Hungarian-language Holocaust historiography, and pointed to the near complete absence of Hungarian historians from the international Holocaust scholarship despite the unrivaled popularity of their topic.[2] For Gyáni, Tim Cole, an English historian who came to research the ghettoization of Budapest in the early 1990s, served as a counterexample as Cole managed to bring fresh insights into the scholarship on the Holocaust in Hungary.
The main methodological invention of Cole’s book is his geographical approach to ghettoization, as he regards both the intentionalist-functionalist paradigm and the “historical-morphological” approach of Christopher Browning on the Holocaust insufficient and misleading. Cole argues in a recent study published in Historiography of the Holocaust edited by Dan Stone that “[S]tressing the physicality of the ghettoization also acts as a reminder of the central place of territoriality in the implementation of the Holocaust”.[3] Accordingly, in Holocaust City he sets out to investigate how the plans and implementation of ghettoization were imbedded within the actual spatial distribution of Budapest Jewry and how this constituted a major factor in various plans for establishing a ghetto in Budapest.  
As Cole is certainly not the first to write about the Hungarian Holocaust in the Anglo-American and Hungarian scholarship, he articulates his own approach by engaging in polemical discussion with both locally published and English-language “historical orthodoxy”, especially the works of Randolph L. Braham, C. A. Macartney and J. Lévai.[4] In the first chapter of his book Cole brings the discourse of geography and architecture closer to the historical investigation of the Holocaust in an original and thought provoking way, while his subsequent chapter gives an overview of “geography-frei” historical writing on ghettoization and the Holocaust, and proposes Cole’s own take on the process.
According to Cole, the most important aspect of ghettoization is its territoriality, as it was “a means of gathering all the ‘Jews’ in the city together in one particular place (‘Jewish presence’), and/or it can be a means of making the remainder of the city judenfrei (‘Jewish absence’)” (p.37). This duality of “Jewish absences” and “Jewish presences” serves as a backbone of his investigation, which is essentially a close look at how municipal and ministry officials as well as Nazi and Arrow Cross politicians envisioned the spatial restructuring of the Budapest population in 1944.
In Chapter 3 Cole convincingly demonstrates – through a meticulous re-interpretation of the April 7 Hungarian ghettoization decree – that Braham’s claim that it served as a prelude to deportations is in fact based on a mistranslation of the decree in Lévai’s 1961 treatise, by which the decree could be easily interpreted as a step towards mass deportations. As Cole clearly spotted it, the original “gyűjtőtábor” expression was translated correctly as “assembly center” by Lévai in 1948, whereas in the 1961 edition of his book, it appeared misleadingly as “concentration camp” (p.77).
Chapter 4 demonstrates that ghettoization in Budapest was mostly driven by “pragmatism [rather] than utopianism” till the end of May, and various decrees were issued to solve the “Jewish problem” in a city that displayed a strong mixing of Jewish and non-Jewish population. This is why Cole contests Braham’s and István Deák’s view according to which the German occupation in March 1944 already sealed the fate of Budapest Jewry. Cole demonstrates that the various actors – including the extreme right press, the Budapest residents and local authorities – articulated different concerns about the location of Jews within the space of the city space, which eventually delayed the process of ghettoization.
When Jewish homes had to be offered by the Jewish Council for non-Jewish bomb victims in April, the evicted Jews were re-settled in the traditionally Jewish VIth and VIIth districts, which were seen as a problem by the pro-Nazi press as they expressed fears that these parts with substantial “Jewish presence” will be spared by Allied bombings. As a response to this, the – never implemented – May 9 ghettoization decrees envisioned the Jewish population in seven separate ghettoes, close to industrial sites and railway lines. Cole effectively points out that ghettoization was essentially a bureaucratic problem for city and ministry officials, and that the difficulty encountered when trying to come up with a viable solution led to the building-based separation of Jewish and non-Jewish population as late as mid-June.
In Chapters 6 and 7, through his case study of the XIth district in Buda – a less adequate choice due to its proportionately small Jewish population – Cole argues that the envisioned ghetto plans had to be given up in the face of the city’s mixed residential patterns. Officials had to limit initial plans of a ghetto to spatially dispersed – so called yellow-star – houses designated for Jewish residence based on the majority of Jewish inhabitants or Jewish ownership. Using various sources from the Budapest City Archives, Cole persuasively demonstrates that the desire to remain in an apartment could lead to opposition as well as coalition between Jewish and non-Jewish tenants and owners, manifesting in petitions to the city council about the status of their building in mid-June (pp.143-147).
The following two chapters deal with the separation of Jewish and non-Jewish communal spaces like bathhouses and cinemas in the city, and here the belated implementation of the International and the Pest Ghettos are discussed as well. This is where Cole’s story of the 1944 Budapest ghettoization somewhat abruptly ends, as he shifts his attention from ghetto spaces to the spaces of memory in the last chapter, where he analyzes the subsequent memorialization of the ghettoes up to the present. Being a wideranging topic that would deserve a separate volume, Cole can only trace the most important and interesting phenomena in this regard.
Even though Cole’s volume clearly opened a new chapter in Holocaust historiography by introducing the spatial dimension as an analytical category, he does not draw on many of the key texts on the “spatial turn” in historiography (his references are only to Soja’s 1971 and 1985 articles in this regard[5], which only pre-echo the interest in space as a leading component in social scientific investigation). This might be explained by the fact that several years must have elapsed between the time of primary research, the writing and the publication of the book.
While Cole argues that Budapest residents as actors clearly influenced the outcome of ghettoization policies, his book seems to continue the tradition of writing the Holocaust from the perspective of the perpetrators, though in Holocaust City this does not mean the Nazi officials but rather the Budapest city bureaucrats. It occasionally leads to taking words for facts on the part of the otherwise critically minded Cole who – when discussing the success of city officials – concludes that Buda was effectively made “judenfrei”. At another instance he argues that “ghettoization quite literally meant the reshaping of the city along segregated lines” (p.173, p.220). Aside from the fact that many sources testify that a large number of Jews remained successfully out of official ghettoization in Budapest – as well as all over Hitler’s Europe – either with false documents, mixed marriages or in hiding, if the agency of local population was taken more seriously by Cole, he would have had to concentrate more on the possibility of transgressing these policies.
Stemming from this approach of focusing on the bureaucratic history of ghettoization, the suffering and the massacres in contemporary Budapest are only briefly mentioned and not analyzed in his story, despite the fact that the spatiality of the various forms of anti-Jewish measures highly influenced the outcome of human experience as well, of which Cole displays awareness throughout his book.
Cole successfully imbeds the Budapest story in the central narratives of the Holocaust, yet he occasionally tends to be less sensitive to local processes and developments. At times he seems to hold on too tightly to his pre-established concepts and somewhat informal style. The most striking example of this is the title of the book, Holocaust City, which is not an adequate term to grasp the Budapest experience of 1944. Cole does admit that “Budapest was not a typical Holocaust city” (though only towards the end of his book, see p.220), and indeed, the Hungarian capital was the only major city in Central and Eastern Europe which never experienced mass deportations and where a large Jewish population managed to survive the Nazi period, with the actual ghettoes being established only in the very last phase of German occupation, as opposed to many neighboring countries. This is why it is misleading when Cole labels the yellow-star houses – to be found dispersed amidst “non-Jewish” apartment buildings – as ghetto houses, since their emergence actually testifies to the difficulty of erecting a ghetto in Budapest, not to its presence.
While Cole originally distinguishes those Budapest residents subject to Nazi racial policy as “Jews” in quotation marks, emphasizing the artificiality of these policies, he somewhat repetitively uses the static “Jewish” – non-Jewish dividing line as an explanatory tool to grasp the essence of the 1944 Budapest ghettoization policies. By doing so he assumes that this division was the motivation behind the action of various levels of policy makers, whereby he also deprives himself of the in-depth analysis of language use and identity formation inherent in the primary documents he otherwise assiduously investigated.
Despite some of its undue generalizations, Cole’s treatise can be regarded as a major re-interpretation of the Hungarian Holocaust and the Budapest ghettoization, as the author manages to demonstrate the tensions between various levels of officialdom and the multilevel contestation of policies which prevented a rapid, top-down ghettoization in the Hungarian capital. Cole clearly justifies his argument that the physical space of the city and its residential patterns actively shaped the outcome of anti-Jewish measures. Moreover, Holocaust Cityprompts further research for a “spatial” investigation of ghettoization, with a primary emphasis on the human experience and the influence of city space on the transgression of ghettoization policies.

[1] Pók Attila, “Én, mi és ti. A magyarországi Holokauszt kutatásáról,” (You, we and you. On the research of the Hungarian Holocaust)  Kommentár, no. 5 (2008): 84-88.

[2] Gábor Gyáni, “Helyünk a Holokauszt történetírásában,” (Our Place in the Historiography of the Holocaust) Kommentár, no. 3 (2008): 13-23. Gábor Gyáni, “Modernizmus és Gettó. Budapest két arca,” (Modernism and Ghetto. The Two faces of Budapest) BUKSZ, no. 4 (2005): 316-320.

[3] Tim Cole, "Ghettoization" in Dan Stone (ed.), The Historiography of the Holocaust (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 81.

[4] Randolph R. Braham, Eichmann and the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry (New York: World Federation of Hungarian Jews, 1961). C. A. Macartney, October Fifteenth. A History of Modern Hungary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univesrity Press, 1957). J. Lévai, Eichmann in Hungary. Documents (Budapest: Pannónia Press, 1961).

[5] Edward W. Soja, The Political Organization of Space (Washington, Association of American Geographers, 1971).