Panni Koltai was born in 1915 in the small town of Eger in Northern Hungary. Panni's father, Ferenc was a Neolog Jew, who did not observe traditions, her mother, Aranka came from an Orthodox family and she and her daughters kept a kosher household, celebrated all the holidays and did not work on Sabbath.
All four daughters married, and two of them, Piri and Bozsi, moved to Budapest. Anna's husband came from an Orthodox family from Slovakia. He had attended yeshivah, but he turned his back on religion as an adult.
Anna's parents and two of her sisters, Rozsi and Bozsi (with her little daughter), all if whom lived in Eger, were deported to Auschwitz - only Rozsi returned. Anna and her sister, Piri, were in Budapest, first in a yellow-star house, then in the ghetto. Anna's husband, Istvan survived forced labor.
After the war Panni and Istvan moved to Budapest with their son, Karoly. Istvan, who had joined the Communist party right after the war worked as departmental head in one of the ministries until his retirement. Anna worked as a trade union secretary.
Panni’s and her family lived in a Hungarian town called Eger. Read about Eger’s history here.
Before 1918, Hungary had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire was formed in 1867 under Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, combining the power of Hapsburg-led Austria with that of Hungary. The Empire also included Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Slovakia, as well as part of what are now Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Read more about Franz-Joseph and the formation of the dual monarchy here.
The Empire was dissolved at the end of the First World War in 1918. This marked Hungary's independence after centuries of Hapsburg rule. This marked Hungary's independence after centuries of Hapsburg rule. After a revolution in 1919, a communist state was created known as the Hungarian Socialist Republic, first under Mihály Károlyi, and later Belá Kun. This, however, lasted only a very short time. The monarchy was restored following a counterrevolution, and from 1920-1946 the Kingdom of Hungary operated under regent Miklos Horthy.
For an overview of Hungary's involvement in the First World War, the subsequent peace negotiations, and political turbulence, read this article.
Following the massive economic downturn of the 1929 Great Depression, Hungary's enconomy gradually improved, largely through trade with Germany. Hungarian authorities fostered a positive relationship with Germany, feeling that the policies of its National Socialist government was in line with Hungary's own aims and values.
A result of this relationship was that in the 1938 Munich Agreement, negotiated between England, France, Italy, and Germany, Hungary received back some of the territories it had lost in the Treaty of Trianon after World War One.
Hungary’s Jewish population has a long history: read about it here. The largest Jewish community in Hungary was in Budapest, its 1930 population being 204,371. It also housed over 125 synagogues, the biggest being located on Dohany Street, currently the largest operating synagogue in Europe.
Following the 1867 formation of the dual monarchy, life for Jewish communities in Austria-Hungary improved significantly. Jewish people gained full civil rights and began to enter professions that had been previously closed to them. This Centropa video, Jewish Soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army, has more information on the condition of Jewish life under emperor Franz Joseph, as well as facts about the First World War.
For an overview of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, explore this page.
Read about Jewish life in Hungary after the Second World War here.
In the years following World War Two, discussion of any aspect of the Holocaust and Jewish life were taboo- including expressions of anti-Semitism. These topics were among those covered by dissident intellectuals in the last decades of the Soviet Union. The Yivo Institute for Jewish Research provides a thorough summary of Jewish life in the postwar years and the present day.
The Second World War began in September 1939, when the German army invaded and occupied Poland. France and Britain, Poland's allies, responded by declaring war on Germany.
Allied to the Axis powers, anti-Semitic legislation began to appear in Hungary in 1938. Despite having been the one to initiate these restrictions, president Miklos Horthy later resisted German pressure to deport the Jewish population of Hungary to concentration camps in Poland. While a large portion of Jewish communities from rural Hungary were deported (either to concentration camps or to the capital city), many Jews were able to survive the war in Budapest. This essay discusses the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary before the war, while this page for an overview of the restrictions placed against Hungarian Jews, and life in Hungary before the German occupation of 1944.
Hungary officially joined the Axis Alliance in 1941, declaring war on the Soviet Union. Hungarian forces took part in the invasion of Russia, however after heavy losses and a terrible defeat at Stalingrad, Horthy attempted to leave the alliance, arranging armistices first with the Western powers, then the Soviet Union. These armistices were made void when the German army invaded and occupied Hungary, toppling Horthy's government. Read more about Hungary's involvement in the war here. In October 1944, seven months after the invasion, German powers installed Ferenc Szalasi as president. Szalasi was the head of the Arrow Cross Party, Hungary's fascist and brutally anti-Semitic political faction. The Arrow Cross operated a reign of terror between Szalasi's October appointment and the Soviet liberation in April 1945.
Panni's parents, her sister Bözsi, and Bözsi's children were killed in Auschwitz, where much of the Jewish population of Eger was taken.
The situation in wartime Budapest had not been good for its Jewish population. However following the German invasion, conditions worstened significantly. June 1944 saw the creation of yellow-star houses in Budapest. These were crowded and poorly supplied living quarters for Jews, marked with a yellow star over the doorway. Prior to the formation of the Budapest Ghetto, it was believed that scattering Jewish residency throughout the city would deter Allied bombing attacks, whereas condensing the Jewish population to one area would leave the rest of the city open to destruction. When this strategy proved ineffective, the Budapest Ghetto was established in the city centre in November 1944.
Panni's brothers in law, Gyula and Sándor, died in forced labour. This scheme, from 1944, required healthy Jewish men to undertake physically demanding tasks, often construction or strategic fortification near front lines. Conditions were harsh and supervisors could be brutal, with many labourers dying. However those who performed forced labour were not taken to concentration camps, and many people survived the war this way. Learn more about the Hungarian forced labour scheme here.
More information on life in Hungary after the 1944 invasion can be found here.
Following the end of the war, Hungary lost the territory it had gained during the interwar period and war years. This article from the Library of Congress discusses the immediate aftermath of WWII in Hungary. After four years of political uncertainty, the Hungarian Constitution of 1949 established Hungary as a Soviet-style communist state. Mátyás Rákosi was the first leader of post-war communist Hungary, and had been a founding member of the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918. Though he himself was Jewish, he had a complex relationship with popular anti-Semitism. Find out more about Rákosi here.
Panni and her husband István both joined and worked for the Hungarian Communist Party when they moved to Budapest after the war.
Revolution erupted in Budapest in 1956. Referred to as the Hungarian Uprising or the Hungarian Revolution, this almost spontaneous seizure of power and statements of intended reform was seen briefly as hope for the Soviet Union, many of its dominions feeling the restrictions and oppression of Stalinist rule. On the 23rd October, a protest of 200,000 people gathered outside the Hungarian Parliament, but when they were dismissed by state secretary Erno Gero, the crowd tore down a statue of Stalin and marching to the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands. Here they were fired on by the Hungarian Secret Police. This violence sparked mass rioting, street fighting ensuing when Soviet forces came to restore order. Popular former state secretay Imre Nagy was restored to power, intending to turn Hungary into an autonomous, multi-party state. However Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev ordered the Revolution to be put down, sending approximately 1,000 tanks into Budapest. Over the course of the Revolution, 2,500 Hungarians died and 200,000 emigrated to the West. Under János Kádár's leadership, restrictions in post-Revolution Hungary were extremely harsh, yet from the 1960s Hungary became one of the most liberal of the European communist states. An overview of the Revolution's aftermath can be found here. Find out about the Revolution from a Hungarian perspective in this article, and find a collection of powerful images of the Revolution here.
For an overview of Hungary's twentieth century history, explore this page.
In 1989, protest movements swept across the Soviet Union. Communist governments were dismantled and replaced, mostly without violence (except for the revolution in Romania, footage of which can be found here- please note that it contains images some may find distressing). On the 18th October, Hungary's constitution was amended to create a multi-party state, and on the 23rd October the People's Republic of Hungary became the Republic of Hungary. Read more about 1989 in Hungary in this article.