Labour service (Hungarian: munkaszolgálat) was required of Jewish men in Hungary during World War II after they were prohibited from serving in the regular armed forces by passage of the Hungarian anti-Jewish laws.
In Hungary, Jews comprised over eight percent of the population, and the government imposed an alternative to military service. Labour service was forced labour, performed by labour battalions conscripted by the German-allied Hungarian regime primarily from Hungarian Jewish men during World War II. These units were an outgrowth of World War I units, when Jews served in the Hungarian armed forces along with Christians, as in Germany and other European countries.
The Fascist, Nazi-allied Regime commanders treated the Jewish units with extreme cruelty, abuse, and brutality. Men who worked in mine quarries were frequently pushed to their deaths off the man-made cliffs and embankments. These units were stationed all over Hungary, including the Eastern Front in Ukraine, where most of the men died. The gendarmes and Army men who guarded these "slaves" were mostly members of the Nyilas fascist anti-Semitic political party.
Subject to atrocities
The badly fed and poorly clothed units were initially assigned to perform heavy construction work within Hungary. With Germany's attack on Russia, Hungary officials sent most of these units into Ukraine for additional forced labour work. They were subjected to atrocities, such as marching into mine fields to clear the area so that the regular troops could advance, and death by torture of prominent servicemen. Some Munkaszolgálat units were entirely wiped out; others had as few as 5% of their members survive the war.
The famous poet Miklós Radnóti and writer Antal Szerb died during labour service. Ordinary people, such as Miklos Farkas born in Turcz in 1909, in the Northern Transylvanian county of Szatmár, were among the few survivors of their units. His unit was last based in Siegendorf, Austria, having previously been detailed to a stone quarry for most of the war. At Siegendorf, as the war came to an end, the guns of the advancing Russian forces could be heard by the Nyilas (Hungarian Arrow Cross troops who guarded the Jewish slaves.) They decided to march most of the men out of the camp.
Suspecting an attempt to murder them before the Russians could liberate the prisoners, Farkas and a few other men scattered underneath the barracks while they heard their friends being marched away. A short time later, they heard volleys of gunshots not too far away. Several hours later, in the night, they emerged from hiding and moved eastward towards the Hungarian-Austrian border where they met Russian forces.
Most of the young Jewish men had typhus and had to be hospitalized for several weeks until they recovered, then took one-way train trips home. Miklos went home most of the way as a stowaway on top of a train car to the small city of Halmin, now called Halmeu in Northern Romania. Most of these men were never compensated by Hungary—and none was compensated by the Austrians.
Minimal conviction for murder
The Hungarians said there were no records to document the forced labour service. Almost none of the Nyilas responsible for murdering many Jewish men were convicted or sentenced to serious prison terms. The few who were caught and tried were given light symbolic sentences.
Munkaszolgálat - Hungarian Labor Service Battalion - After the adoption of anti-Jewish laws in Hungary in 1938 and '39, Jews of military age were deemed "unreliable." Considered unfit to bear arms, tens of thousands of Jews were drafted into the Munkaszolgálat (Hungarian Labor Service System).
Instead of carrying guns, these Jews were given shovels and pickaxes. They worked construction and toiled in mines, and, during combat, performed such dangerous tasks as clearing mine fields.
Many Hungarian officers, viciously antisemitic, abused members of the Munkaszolgálat. They deprived Jews of their boots and rations and sometimes sadistically tortured them. They forced some Jews to participate in humiliating games of leapfrog and acrobatics. Other Jews, in the dead of winter, were doused with water and ordered not to move until the water iced up on their skin.
After Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941, tens of thousands of Munkaszolgálat Jews lost their lives as casualties of war. Ironically, after the Nazis occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, many Jews found refuge in Munkaszolgálat, where they performed the hard labor but avoided deportations. source