László Ravasz and his role in rescuing jews

Erzsébet Horváth


Paper presented at the Raoul Wallenberg Conference, 2012. Budapest. Deák téri Evangélikus Gimnázium. A revised version of the paper appeared as Zsidómentő szolgálat a Magyarországi Református Egyházban (The Reformed Church in Hungary’s mission for rescuing jews) , Confessio, 2012(4): 73-81. Ravasz László és a református egyház a zsidómentésben (The Role of László Ravasz and the Reformed Church in Rescuing Jews), Vigília, Vol. 79. 2014(3): 188-196.

When considering László Ravasz’s (born in 1882, died in 1975) oevre, researchers have always paid special attention to his relation and attitude to Jews. It is a fact that in 1945, after the war ended, László Ravasz was rehabilitated, thus he is no longer considered a war criminal.
In the following, I am going to present László Ravasz’s role in saving Jews in the light of historical events as well as from my perspective as a minister, archivist and religious historiographer.
Between 1921 and 1948 László Ravasz was a bishop of the Hungarian Reformed Church (MRE) in the Danube Region, during the period under discussion and between 1937 and 1948 he was the ministerial president of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s Convent and Synod, in addition, he was the president of the National Pastoral Association of the Reformed Church (ORLE) between 1936 and 1948. In his capacity as president of the MRE’s Synod he was a member of the Upper House up until 1944. He did, indeed endorse by his vote the first Anti-Jewish law in 1938 and the second Anti-Jewish law in 1939. All clergymen who were members of the Upper House cast their ballot for the first Anti-Jewish law: the circumstances as well as causes of their decision have been investigated by many historians and the findings are not altogether unfavourable. Two circumstances are usually named as the immediate causes of the making of the first Anti-Jewish law: the first was the Anschluss, i.e. Germany’s invasion of Austria in 1938, the second was the prominent role jews played in the country’s economic, cultural and artistic life which was out of proportion with their number. In a paper published in 1945, Albert Bereczky, himself member of the Reformed Church, defined the purpose of the law as the desire to “prevent the exacerbation of the jewish question as well as the spread of anti-semitism”. When the second Anti-Jewish law was being discussed in Parliament, László Ravasz raised several objections to its acceptance, but eventually, after a series of long discussions he voted in its favour, since the general elections were impending, the national socialist provocations were in progress and it was expected that far-right extremists would be elected to Parliament in large numbers. The stakes were high. If the Upper House had not endorsed the law, it would have meant the overthrow of Pál Teleki’s administration, what is more, the Lower House would have made sure that the law was passed under any circumstance.
Pál Teleki himself spoke with László Ravasz and other church dignitaries about the impending danger. In 1960 Ravasz wrote a study on the jewish question where he admitted that he and the Upper House had made a mistake in endorsing the two laws even though they gained time by these acts – more specifically, they gained five years. Here is a quote from László Ravasz’s “Selected Writings”: “it was a tragic mistake that we did not want to take responsibility for thwarting the bill and overturning the government .... if we had, right before the general elections, brought about the fall of Pál Teleki, a man of noble mentality and of humane and temperate demeanour, the far-right extremists would have come in in such great numbers that they could have seized the power from the governor. This would have put us in a situation which only occurred on March 19th, 1944.”
In the following let us consider Bishop Ravasz’s, the Hungarian Reformed Church’s dignitary’s protests against the atrocities that befell the Jewish community as well as his active role in helping Jews.
The 1939 assemply of the National Pastoral Association of the Reformed Church - held in Cegléd and chaired by László Ravasz – rejected the racial theory put forward by Rosenberg on grounds that it was pagan and in contradiction with the teachings of the Bible.
Ravasz gravely opposed the bill of the third Anti-Jewish Law, which is amply proven by the speech he gave on the 18th of July, 1941. In his ’Selected Writings’ Ravasz looked on this opposition in the following way: [by opposing the bill] “ the Hungarian Reformed Church took a long overdue but clear and public stand against Hitler’s demonism”.
Exercising his ecclesiastical function, he decided to start the Good Shepherd Missionary Committee whose purpose was to save Jews. The committee was launched on the 20th of October, 1942 in order to give spiritual council to converted Jews as well as to provide social charity to those in need. The committe was launched by the General Convent of the Hungarian Reformed Church. Gyula Muraközy, the Convent’s missionary speaker was appointed president of the Good Shepherd Missionary Committee, József Éliás was appointed head of the missionary service. In his work entitled “Unfinished past” Sándor Szenes - in the course of an interview with József Éliás - speaks highly of the mission’s work and of Ravasz’s role. Not only did Ravasz start such a mission of saving Jews, he also provided financial support. A great number of ministers, deacons and other members of the Hungarian Reformed Church took part in this activity. As a result of the mediation of the committee’s presidium, all deacons of jewish origin were exempt from the anti-jewish measures up to the Szálasi government.These were the members of the Good Shepherd Committee: Albert Bereczky, Imre Kádár, Károly Dobos, Gyula Nagy, Sándor Borsos, Dr. Ferenc Benkó, retired under-secretary of state, dr. Géza Kárpáthy, magistrate. After the German invasion evangelical minister Gábor Sztehló joined the Good Shepherd Committee and formed the Gaudiopolis. After the invasion the Good Shepherd’s workload increased drastically: the ministers and deacons obtained safe conducts, baptism certificates and food in order to rescue jews and frequently visited the inmates of concentration camps and labour camps.
József Éliás, minister of the Reformed Church, states the following in connection with the activity of the Good Shepherd’s Committee: “Between October the 1st, 1944 and February 1st, 1945, altogether 2000 people found shelter and protection in their children’s homes: 1580 children and 420 adults”. During the period under discussion Jewish children and pregnant women were sheltered in one orphanage and 31 homes. In addition, the Good Shepherd provided apartments, clothing, money and safe conducts (1500 passes, Bereczky:41) to Hungarian Jews. A similar activity was performed by the Scottish Mission as well, whose missionary, Miss Jane Hainingen was, because of her rescue efforts, deported by the Gestapo to Auswitz in 1944, where she died on the 17th July, 1944.
Prominent jewish rescue activities were also performed by Albert Bereczky – the minister of the Pozsonyi Road parish in Budapest – who was commisioned by Ravasz himself for this task and who worked in conjunction with Ottó Komoly and rabbi dr. Tibor Scher, who taught religion to Jewish pupils at Lónyay Reformed Church Grammar School.
Through the resistance, and by way of Géza Soós’s mediation József Éliás got hold of a copy of the ’Auschwitz Minutes’, which was presumably brought to Hungary in May, 1944. The ’Minutes’ was translated into Hungarian by Mária Székely, secretary of the Good Shepherd and was copied by hand. These copies were given to church dignitaries (Serédi, Ravasz, Raffay) as well as to István Horthy’s wife and to Ottó Komoly, president of the Jewish Association. Thus, both Ottó Komoly and the Jewish Association had access to the detailed record of the atrocities that befell the Jews, and, as a result, they could have acted accordingly by simply stating the facts, which would have caused Hungarian Jews to take caution or to take action. In retrospect, Jewish leaders stated that the reason they had postponed making the contents of the ’Minutes’ public was that they did not want to create a panic in the Jewish community.
    Now let us look at a chronological list of the measures László Ravasz and the Hungarian Reformed Church took in order to save Jews after 1942.
In the spring of 1944 László Ravasz was the first church dignitary to protest against the treatment of Jews.
On the 4th of April, 1944 he addressed Home Secretary Andor Jaross and protested against anti-Jewish regulations, pushing for an exemption from wearing the yellow star, especially for people employed by the church. He also moved that a Christian Jewish Council should be formed.
On the 6th of April, 1944 the Hungarian Reformed Church’s Convent and the Hungarian Evangelical Church filed another motion protesting to Prime Minister Sztójay and moving for an extension of the scope of exemptions. As a result of the protest, a governmental exemption was issued, which affected approximately 20000 people. The exemption related to wearing the yellow star and the consequences of not wearing it.
At first, only ministers (such as Sándor Sík, József Éliás), deacons and diaconesses were exempted, later, as a result of the church dignitaries’ protest, church elders were also included. On the 12th of April, 1944 Ravasz visited the governor and urged him not to do anything about the Jewish question that would later shift the responsibility on the governor.
On the 28th of April, Ravasz visited the governor again and warned him about the impending danger, as he had received news about the capture of Jews in the North-Eastern Hungarian region, and about their shipment to German labour camps. He asked the governor to take measures in order to prevent any atrocities against the Jewish population. Ravasz wrote about this conversation that “The governor must have been listening to my motion with some aversion and might have been under the impression that I was stepping beyond the bounds of my authority. However, the situation demanded that I take such a risk. Noone knows about this conversation but Zsigmond Perényi (chairman of the Upper House from 1943 until 3rd November 1944) and Jenő Balogh (born 1864 died 1953).
On May 9th, 1944, Bishop Ravasz and Miklós Mester, under-secretary of the Ministry of Public Education and Religious Affairs, visited Prime Minister Sztójay and expressed their concern, however, their attempts were futile.
On May 10th, 1944, the Prime Minister gave a lukewarm response to one of Ravasz’s letters, as a result, on May 17th, 1944, Ravasz wrote a letter in the name of the Convent in which he protested against sending Jews to ghettos. Here is a quote from the letter: “As far as the segregation of people qualified as Jews is concerned, we must give voice to the fact that we strongly condemn the very act of segregation.”
It was along the lines of this letter that he raised his voice against deportation in another letter that was written on May 19th, 1944 in the name of the General Convent and which was addressed to the Prime Minister. By this time, Ravasz was aware of the death camps in Auschwitz, and he warned the Prime Minister of its impending danger: “there are signs that indicate that in addition to segregation, deportations beyond the borders of the country might also be under way.”
On March 9th, 1944, Ravasz came down with hepatitis, later jaundice, however, despite his illness, on June 15th, 1944 he wrote a letter the the Archbishop, asking for his immediate cooperation on behalf of the Jews. Here is a quote from the letter: “... when will the Christian Churches think that the time is right for them to publicly declare their disapproval of the inhuman manner in which the Jewish question is, at present, being handled? In the view of the Reformed Church, the time will be right very soon. Before ... the schism between the government and our church occurs, it is important that we send a grave warning to the government along with our protest and rebuke... I have already drafted such a letter of protest”. Ravasz sent a copy of the draft to Serédi, but he gave no answer.
According to Bishop Ravasz, rescuing Jews could be more effectively managed through the cooperation and coordinated efforts of the Christian Churches. He managed to come to an agreement with the members of the Evangelical Church, however, Jusztinián Serédi did not join in with the joint protests, thus the Roman Catholic Church engaged in its own efforts towards rescuing Jews.
On 23rd June, 1944, a delegation of presbyterian and evangelical dignitaries (Jenő Balogh, Albert Radvánszky, Béla Kapy, Albert Bereczky, Gyula Muraközy) conveyed to the Prime Minister a Memorandum that was signed by 8 bishops and which was composed by Ravasz along the lines of what was stated above. The memorandum stated that church leaders condemned all forms of persecution of Jews, all acts of injustice, as these negatively affect the Hungarian people as well. The Memorandum also stated that “The manner in which the Jewish question is being handled, inasmuch as it defies God’s eternal laws, forces us to voice words of protest, words of rebuke and at the same time of supplication to the Responsible Government. Since we are authorised by the word and calling of God ... we have no choice but to condemn all forms of practices that violate human dignity, justice and mercifulness and which bring the horrible guilt of and sentence for shedding innocent blood on our nation’s head. We implore you once again to bring an end to all acts of cruelty.” The Prime Minister gave a dismal response, he denied the facts and stated that in his view there were no deportations, the Jews were transferred to Germany due to labour shortage.
On June 25th, 1944, bishop Ravasz composed a circular letter addressed to presbyterian congregations: after realizing that the Memorandum did not serve its purpose, he composed a letter of public protest in favour of the Jews and wanted to send it to all Reformed Church ministers so they could read it from their pulpits. People in the government got word of this protest and wanted to solve what was for them a delicate situation. They even went to the length of travelling to Leányfalu and holding a meeting by László Ravasz’s sick-bed at 7 p.m. on 11th July, 1944. The meeting was attended by the Minister of Education, István Antal and his under-secretary, Miklós Mester as well as by the bishops of the evangelical and presbyterian churches: Béla Kapy, Imre Révész and Albert Bereczky. As a result of the meeting the church leaders promised not to read out the letter of protest on condition that the goverment provided a written guarantee that the Jewish population would be spared and allowed the church to perform its activity among christened Jews. The Prime Minister made a promise which he never kept and thus thwarted the delivery of the letters of protest.
Bishop Ravasz did not give up his rescue efforts even after the Szálasi coup (15th October, 1944). In his memoires he wrote the following: “At first I tried to negotiate with the Prime Minister of the Szálasi government and asked him to make Budapest an open city, to refrain from total evacuation, to exercise humaneness in the treatment of the Jews, to stop the deportations and to ensure the Jews’ personal, physical safety as well as the safety of their property.”
On 1st December, 1944, bishop Ravasz wrote a letter to Nyilas (Arrow Cross) party leader and Prime Minister Ferenc Szálasi, in which he, yet again, categorically objected to the treatment of the Jews, because: “this treatment ridicules God’s eternal law which compels us to treat even our enemy in a humane manner, brings the wrath of our righteous God on our nation and stains the Hungarian nation’s reputation... In the name of the Hungarian Reformed Church, on the basis of God’s written and unwritten laws, for the sake of justice and in our nation’s real interests I shall protest against this inhumane treatment till the very end”. On 16th December Szálasi responded and asked Ravasz to name actual persons and events.
Bishop Ravasz was not able to respond to this letter as he had to flee to escape the arrest warrant issued by the Arrow Cross party.
At Christmas, 1944 the life of bishop László Ravasz – because of his unswerving, brave and upright conduct – was put in danger. The Arrow Cross looked for him in Ráday Street and at Vera’s, his daughter’s apartment but could not find him. After delivering his Christmas sermon, the bishop received a message from archdean Imre Szabó that he had to hide from the Arrow Cross. Bishop Ravasz walked to Lórántffy hospital where he lived through the siege.
After 1945 László Ravasz as well as the Hungarian Reformed Church were frequently charged with anti-semitism, mainly because they had, in a way, endorsed by their vote the Anti-Jewish laws. However, the charges never went beyond such accusations, never took notice of the great efforts the bishop and the Hungarian Reformed Church made in order to save the (Hungarian and Polish) Jewish population.
The 1945 June edition of the Hungarian Bulletin stated that “it is a historical fact that between the 12th of July and the 15th of October, 1944 it was the Hungarian Christians who prevented the Sztójay administration from continuing and escalating the deportations.”
This fact is confirmed by an article by Cz. G. that appeared in “Népszabadság” on 17th April, 2004 under the title “Collaboration, overzeal and indifference”. I quote: “as a result of the protests made by the Western superpowers, a few temperate Hungarian politicians as well as church leaders (including István Bethlen and László Ravasz) Horthy put all deportations on hold. In October, 1944, however, after Ferenc Szálasi and the Arrow Cross party seized power, the senseless bloodshed continued.”  

The repentance of the Church

On February 11th, 1945, right before the end of the war László Ravasz delivered a sermon at the Kálvin Square Church entitled “As you sow, so shall you reap”. In this sermon he struck a repentant tone, a tone without which there can be no national revival. “According to the flesh has this generation sown: the generation that started the horrors of a world war, the generation that named hatred as the most important force influencing history and which attempted a Herod-like monstrosity of eradicating whole nations and races… In Budapest a whole segment of the population was being slaughtered like beasts, people were rounded up and confined to a ghetto like some infectious crowd: in Budapest it took no longer than a few months for all human lives to become insecure … we shall sow according to the soul … And the first step we have to take is that of repentance. There shall be no national revival, just as there is no individual conversion and reconciliation to God until, along with the prodigal son, we confess as individuals as well as a community: “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against You. Against God and against humanity”.
Ravasz’s 23rd and 24th Bishop’s Messages were also full of repentance and self-criticism (Budapest, 21st November, 1945): “The Churches have to admit that their service could have been more effective, braver and more radical. Therefore, the Church owes repentance and an oath to the living God that it will be more devoted in its role of being a prophet.”
Repentance in words was followed by repentance in deeds.
In his capacity as bishop of the Hungarian Reformed Church in the Danube Region, László Ravasz ruled that all congregations in the region should have a penitential Week of Evangelism between 4th and 10th June, 1945.
Ravasz went to even more lengths and in August, 1945 the bishops of the four Reformed Church dioceses together issued an episcopal letter in which they took the position that “The word ’Christian(ity)’ has been terribly abused”.
The Synod Council confessed the Church’s sins on May 9th, 1946.
The following is a quote from the 310th ruling of the Synod Council of the Hungarian Reformed Church issued on May 9th, 1946. “[The MRE] hereby confesses its sin…, [and that it] failed to admonish the people and the dignitaries when both chose a path contrary to God’s law, and also failed to take a brave stand for those who were innocently persecuted.”
As early as 1945, but in its 1946 ruling the Hungarian Reformed Church also formulated its mission for the future:
 “Our church … remembers with reverence the people who were killed as a result of the persecutions; expresses its faith that the only way to propitiate the sins of the past, the only way to lay the foundations for a better future is through the love of humankind and in the spirit of the Gospel, moreover, it calls on all evangelizers, teachers, pastors and ushers and urges them to preach and teach this basic truth of our reformed Christian faith with special emphasis in our days.”
In his memoirs József Éliás comments aptly on the above statement that “The convent’s presidium, in effect, went further than making a simple apology. It ruled that each year on one of the Advent Sundays the service delivered from all 1200 pulpits of the church should be about Israel (not the state of Israel) and that it should be “primarily about the tasks and responsibilities towards the Jewish nation”. The money collected by the congregations on these occasions was transferred to the bank account of the Good Shepherd Committee. General Assemblies were being held in the capital as well as in almost all of the country’s cities as well as a number of villages. The lectures were on “Christianity for Jews – About Judaism for Christians”. In Sándor Szenes’ book entitled “Unfinished past” József Éliás recollects that: “Our fellow servants, to whom great gratitude is due, came of their own will from among prominent church leaders as well as secular men of excellence… There were series of lectures including some of mine, where there was not enough room for the audience inside the church. On Vas Street loudspeakers had to be used so people on the street could hear the lecture, in Makó, some members of the audience were pressed against my pulpit”.
It is apparent from the above that László Ravasz, the Reformed Church, József Éliás, Albert Bereczky, and all the ministers delivered God’s word and preached about reconciliation with enthusiasm, with a Christian spirit, they worked humbly but bravely, what is more, on many occasions they spoke before large crowds. László Ravasz, ministerial president of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s Synod, through his exemplary conduct and attitude towards the condition of the Jewish population, contributed greatly to the events whereby ministers, congregations, Christian believers as well as youth association rescued Jews as well as Polish fugitives and put them to safety. Members of the “Soli Deo Gloria Student Association” harboured Jews and Polish fugitives at 8 Kálvin Square, Budapest as well as in Szilice and Szárszó. Ilona Tukka, member of the Christian Girls’ Association, received for her rescue efforts the “Righteous among the Nations” i.e. the Yad Vashem prize in 1997, in 1998 she received the Hungarian Republic’s Medal of Valour.
József Éliás, László Ravasz’s eye- and earwitness as well as a fellow servant, describes Ravasz’s role in rescuing Jews the following way: “the inactivity he displayed in the beginning should by no means be interpreted as an agreement with the anti-Jewish regulations. On the contrary, by remaining silent and inactive, he thought he expressed his disagreement with the church leaders’ position. As the events unfolded, however, the church’s silence and inactivity could no longer be tolerated. In my view, László Ravasz realized this when he received a copy of the Auschwitz Minutes and when, in the second half of May, the news of actual deportations reached him through the reports of ministers and bishops serving in the countryside… Bishop Ravasz noted in his “Pro memoria”, which, as far as I know, was written at the end of 1944 – at the beginning of 1945, that he was aware of the enormity of the situation caused by the lack of joint action on the part of the Christian Churches and he wanted to put an end to it.”
In connection with Éliás’s statement we have to mention the fact that after the third anti-Jewish law, which was strongly opposed by Ravasz, the bishop launched the Good Shephard Missionary Committee for the purpose of helping Jews, and this occurred in 1942, long before the time the Auschwitz Minutes were available in Hungary. Ravasz’s efforts of saving Jews were brought about by the unfolding events, as I described them in detail above.
László Ravasz had a strong Calvinist sense of mission. As long as his church – in the name of God – considered him its minister, its leader, László Ravasz made every effort to perform his duty completely in all aspects of the service. It is also apparent from the above discussion that he remained active in rescuing Jews even during his illness that lasted several months, what is more, he was even visited by members of the government in Leányfalu.
Ravasz lived through his whole life with the Christian believer’s sense of responsibility to God as well as to humankind. This sense of responsibility is the reason why Ravasz as well as the Reformed Church felt a strong and marked sense of remorse, which also characterized the years following 1945, when the Hungarian Reformed Church never ceased to care for the Jewish population, consequently, there were lectures during the weeks of Advent whose central theme was “Christianity for Jews – Judaism for Christians” right up to 1948.