The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thirty-two frightening snapshots of a hanging. And no one knew who the victims were – until now.

An unknown photographer captured the hanging of Ferenc Szalasi, known as the “Hungarian Hitler.” He and three others were executed on March 12, 1946.

The 32 black-and-white snapshots were like frames from a disturbing home movie —  four men marched to the gallows and hanged one by one.

There’s a large crowd of onlookers present. Many are in military uniforms. Two priests accompany the condemned and raise crucifixes for them to kiss moments before execution.

The scene is the stone courtyard of a big brick building where people are looking out glass-less windows and thronging the rooftop. Many bystanders have cameras. In one picture, a doctor with a stethoscope checks a victim for a heartbeat after he’s been hanged.

When my colleague, copy editor Panfilo Garcia, brought the pictures to me and the Retropolis desk, he wondered whether anyone would like them as a donation. He had gotten them from his sister, but knew little about them. They were curled and a little yellowed from age. There were no captions.

The pictures reminded me of the grim photos of the 1865 hanging of the four Lincoln assassination conspirators in Washington.

But these seemed to depict an event around the time of World War II. Lots of men were wearing fedoras and overcoats. But I wondered when exactly this was. Where? And who were the doomed individuals?

The military uniforms didn’t look familiar. They didn’t seem to be German, American, British or French. Two, however, looked Russian. But where would Russian soldiers be present?

Central or Eastern Europe, I guessed. And probably after the war, when tribunals convicted many Nazis and Nazi sympathizers and collaborators of war crimes. But who were the other military men? Polish, maybe?

An Internet search for postwar hangings in Poland turned up nothing pertinent. I broadened the search to include all postwar hangings.

This produced a gross cavalcade of photos —  people hanged, shot, even pictures of the dead Nazi leader Hermann Goering after he had committed suicide.

But in one, I spotted part of the same brick building, with its distinctive window arches, that was the backdrop for Garcia’s pictures.

The Internet photo looked like it had been on the cover of a Hungarian magazine. Narrowing the Internet search to Hungary produced pictures of other men being hanged in that same courtyard.

Then, on the website, I spotted shots of the execution of one of the people in the 32 photos.

The website identified him as Ferenc Szalasi, and experts with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington concurred.

So who was he? And why was he executed?

Szalasi, known as the “Hungarian Hitler,” was the fascist, pro-Nazi leader of Hungary’s notorious Arrow Cross party, and puppet dictator of Hungary in the closing months of the war.

A virulent anti-Semite, he and his party were responsible for the murders and deportations of tens of thousands of Hungary’s Jews.

The Arrow Cross led pogroms in Budapest and, aided by Nazi deportation boss Adolf Eichmann, forced 100,000 Jews to go on a “death march” to the Austrian border in the fall of 1944.

Hundreds of others, from the Budapest ghetto, were taken by the Arrow Cross to the freezing Danube River, where they were forced to remove their shoes and leave them on the riverbank. They were then shot and dumped into the water. (A memorial sculpture of empty shoes marks the spot today.)

The Holocaust, the slaughter of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and the likes of the Arrow Cross, had come late to Hungary, which was allied with Germany during the war.

Some Jews had even fled to Hungary for safety, Rebecca Erbelding, a scholar at the Holocaust museum, has said.

“It’s the largest and last Jewish community left in Europe,” she said in a 2014 interview. “There’s 800,000 Jews still in Hungary in 1944.”

But that March, the Nazis, suspicious of Hungary’s wavering allegiance, occupied the country, and eventually installed Szalasi as leader.

By war’s end, he had added to the toll of the more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered in the war, historians have said.

As the Red Army swept across Hungary near the end, Szalasi fled, but was captured by American soldiers in Austria. He was flown back to Budapest to face trial on charges of committing war crimes and treason. Erbelding sent me Holocaust museum film footage of him getting off the airplane and immediately being handcuffed.

He and three of his henchmen were convicted and, on March 12, 1946, they were hanged.

The method was unusual, judging by the details in the pictures.

A large timber was sunk vertically into the ground. A rope was attached to a hook at the top. A set of steps was placed at the bottom. The condemned man mounted the steps and put his back to the post. His arms and legs were tied. An executioner climbed a ladder behind the post, put the noose around the man’s neck and tightened the rope.

Then the steps were removed. Several photos show bystanders craning to get a good look.

Afterward, cloths were placed to cover the heads of Szalasi and the others. Their shirts were opened and the doctor checked for a heartbeat.

The last photographs show the four men hanging, and the crowd milling around them.

A phone call to Garcia’s sister, Melba Goode, in San Jose, provided more background to the story.

Goode had found the photographs years ago in a wooden trunk belonging to her former father-in-law, James Goode. He was a World War II veteran. He had been stationed in Hungary, she said, and had met and married a Hungarian woman, who became his war bride. Both are now deceased.

Goode said she had assumed that the photos were from Hungary. But she wasn’t certain who was being hanged — war criminals or innocent people. “I just wasn’t sure about any of it,” she said.

She brought the pictures to her home, where they were stored for years until her son recently urged her to throw them away.

“They kind of scared me,” she said

But she hesitated to discard them: “I said, ‘Well, they’re history. We probably shouldn’t throw them away.’”

“I figured that somebody might have some interest in them,” she said. “History . . . even if it’s bad, people should know.”

The photographs are being donated to the Holocaust museum.

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