This month was the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary. The invasion occurred in 1944, with the allies advancing and Germany nearing defeat. The Nazis, nevertheless, prioritized the killing of Jews, which they would proceed to carry out very rapidly. As a result, many were killed in the city as opposed to concentration camps; the killing of Jews on the Danube River was one infamous method. By the end of the war, 560,000 out of the 800,000 Jews in the country were killed. Coinciding with the anniversary is a new film, Walking with the Enemy, based on the untold heroic story of Pinchas Rosenbaum.
German occupied Hungary, 1944. SS men flood the city and are rounding up Jews. You pray and hope for no interaction with them and try to avoid eye contact. You know the allies are making progress against them. You hope they will not get to you before the war ends.
And then that day comes. They come to your home and you are forced to march. At various points, you are hit with the most dreaded sound in the world: orders shouted in German.
That was an experience shared by millions of Jews. Only a lucky few hundred experienced what happens next.
One SS man leads you to a basement. You discover an enormous spaced filled with Jewish families. The SS man reveals in Yiddish that he is in fact your rescuer, himself a Jew, and that you are to hide in this basement until the end of the war.
That was the story of the hundreds of Hungarian Jews saved by Pinchas Rosenbaum, the man who disguised himself as a Nazi in order to save Jews.
At the beginning of the Nazi invasion, Pinchas was active in the efforts of the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz. Lutz’s unauthorized distribution of Swiss “letters of protection” saved the lives of 62,000 Hungarian Jews. Pinchas was one of a number of young Jewish men who helped deliver the Swiss permits.
While doing this underground work and living in the Budapest ghetto, Pinchas acquired a weapon that would save the lives of hundreds of Jews: a Hungarian Arrow Cross uniform.
It was at this moment that Pinchas began to launch operations to save even more Jews. He eventually acquired a second uniform: this time it was the attire of the German SS. His uniform and his fluency in both Hungarian and German allowed him to fool and intimidate Hungarian Arrow Cross and to confidently ask questions. He would receive lifesaving answers.
His modus operandi was simple: He would speak to Nazi and Arrow Cross soldiers while disguising himself as one of their own. He would obtain information about upcoming arrests. Then he would pretend to arrest the Jewish families himself, and lead them to the Lutz’s glass house.
His Most Dangerous Mission
In an interview with Aish.com, Pinchas’ son Moshe described his father’s most dangerous mission. Pinchas heard from Nazi soldiers that they had orders to arrest Frankle, a prominent Jewish leader, that very day. Fankle and Pinchas knew each other from their B’nei Akiva days as children. That would pose a risk of the acquaintance inadvertently revealing Pinchas’ true identity. It would be especially hard to avoid with such a short time window.
Pinchas was forced to make a decision. To save this one Jew, he would need to risk his life, and with it, the ability to save thousands of others.
He decided to go ahead with the mission to save this old friend. He arrived at the building in his Nazi uniform and asked the doormen for Frankle’s apartment number. “Where is the dirty Jew Frankle?” To Pinchas’ misfortune, another doorman was present when he knocked on Frankle’s door.
When Frankle opened the door, Pinchas was forced to play the part of a Nazi to the fullest. As he was being arrested, Frankle said, “Pinchas! What are you doing?”
With the non-Jewish, Hungarian doorman looking on, Pinchas thought his identity was blown. He yelled at his old friend, verbally abusing him until he understood to play along.
In another incident, Pinchas arrested a Hassidic family. The mother, father, and children cried hysterically with fear. The child of the family, a survivor still living in Brooklyn, says that Pinchas could not bear the sight of their misery. He broke character and whispered in Yiddish: “Ich bein a Yid--I am a Jew.”
Saving lives on this scale came with gut-wrenching decisions. One of those harrowing dilemmas is portrayed in the film. Alec, the character based on Pinchas, intercepted a convoy of trucks carrying Jews to the camps. He commanded the Iron Cross soldiers to allow all Swiss document holders off of the convoy. Alec was checking their paper work personally, which allowed him to turn a blind eye to those without the necessary documents.
Halfway through the mission, a high ranking SS officer arrived. Alec was forced to watch the Nazis kill his fellow Jews. There was nothing he could do.
It is not clear whether that specific scene happened to Pinchas in real life, but Moshe told Aish.com that his father did have to live with the stories of those he could not save. His biggest regret was that he could not save his family, even though he acquired false papers for them in March of 1944. During the Passover Seder of that year, he attempted to convince his father to take the papers and move the entire family out of Hungary. His father, the rabbi of his community, refused to leave.
That Seder night was the last time Pinchas saw his family. Moshe recalls that throughout his entire childhood his father would cry at the Seder table.
Pinchas carried his positive spirit and his desire for good deeds throughout his life. Moshe says that he learned from his father to “do anything to help another Jew. That’s the way he behaved. It’s not only what he did during the war, which was literal mesiras nefesh (risking his life to save another). But that was his entire life – to give and to give and to give. He was always helping others. This is a message we were raised with.”
Throughout his life, Pinchas was proud of his role in helping hundreds of Jews make Aliya to Israel. He would live the rest of his life in Geneva, Switzerland, and was buried in Jerusalem according to his wishes. He passed away in 1980 at the age of 57. Today, all three of his children live in Israel.