Hungarian Conservative

Regent Horthy’s Israeli Friend Reuven Hecht and His Efforts to Help the Horthy Family

Aerial image of the Hirschberg Castle
Aerial image of the Hirschberg Castle in Weilheim, Bavaria where the Horthys were held captive by the Nazis.
Carsten Steger/Creative Commons
Reuven Hecht was a right-wing Zionist who worked with the revisionist movement's founding father, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and after the founding of the state, became an Israeli entrepreneur and right-wing politician. Today, a museum and park in the Jewish state bear his name. After trying to help the Horthy family obtain a Swiss visa, he remained in correspondence with them until his death in 1993.

In 1945, Miklós Horthy, who at the time was in exile in Germany, was visited by a strange guest: Reuven Hecht approached the family in a friendly manner and, later, as an Israeli politician, tried to help the Horthys obtain a visa to Switzerland. Why did an Israeli public figure befriend the former regent, and do the documents in Hecht’s Israeli estate reveal new information about Horthy?

Reuven Hecht was born in Antwerp on 15 August 1909 into a merchant Orthodox Jewish family. The Hecht family soon moved to Switzerland, where he became a follower of the right-wing Zionist (revisionist) movement: in 1933 he worked with the movement’s founding father, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and after the founding of the state, he became an Israeli entrepreneur and right-wing politician.

Ze’Ev Jabotinsky PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Today, a museum and park in the Jewish state bear his name.

So far, there is nothing about Hecht’s career that would make it very different from that of other right-wing Zionist activists.

However, the politician is also famous for being the ‘Jewish supporter of Miklós Horthy’,

which some see as a kind of proof of the allegedly philo-Semitic pedigree of the regent who had signed the anti-Jewish laws and abandoned rural Jewry in its time of need.[1]

Hecht, as a ‘grateful’  Jew who supported the governor, is quoted in the memoirs of the governor’s daughter-in-law, Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai, with an overt apologetic edge: as she wrote, Hecht visited them in Germany ‘to thank the governor for what he had done for the Jews, because, as he said, he knew that my father-in-law had supported the emigration of Hungarian Jews to Israel. He also knows that it was not the governor’s fault that this plan failed.’ [2] In the following, we will try to shed light on Hecht’s relationship with Horthy, and the motivations that may have prompted him to contact the former governor.

Following their German interment at the end of World War II, the Horthy family lived in Weilheim in Oberbayern, Bavaria, where they first met Hecht sometime in 1945. According to Hecht’s recollection, the two were introduced by Sam E. Woods, the United States Consul in Munich, and met several times until 1948. According to an interview he gave in 1983, in connection with the meeting,‘ I had in mind the establishment of the Jewish state and the capital of Jerusalem.’ [3]

Unfortunately, we cannot answer in detail the most important question: what did the would-be Israeli politician and the former governor of Hungary talk about? But the riddle is not completely hopeless. In fact, Hecht took short notes of their conversations, which contain largely irrelevant information and impressions, but which shed some light on what the two discussed.

One of these meetings, held in a ‘castle’  in Weilheim—certainly the nearby Hirschberg castle —was attended by Hecht, and, according to his notes, if the names written down next to each other are to be taken as an indication of attendance, by other Jewish and later Israeli leaders, and ‘the admiral, his wife and his brother [Jenő Horthy]’. On the Jewish side, the male names given, apart from Hecht, can be identified as Arye Altman, leader of the revisionist movement, and Zvi Kantor, secretary of the movement.[4]

If the order of the sentences in which he wrote them down suggests any kind of chronology, Horthy was already talking about communism before the coffee was served. Here, however, we are confronted with Hecht’s strange methods of note-writing: while he thought it worth noting that he ‘ handed over the Nescafe himself ’, he wrote of the former governor’s words only thus: ‘Bolshevism, etc. ’  After other words indicative of the atmosphere (‘caviar, vodka, music, speeches’), a ‘pol.’  which probably refers to political themes. Here, the words ‘Auerbach’  (perhaps Philip Auerbach, at that time the German state commissioner responsible for helping those persecuted by the Nazis?), Ohrenstein (certainly Binyamin Ohrenstein, a leading member of the Council of Liberated Jews in Bavaria), Woods, Juden, Exodus, follow, which are difficult to interpret.[5]

It is interesting to note that the word ‘Exodus’ is in the notes.

Exodus could very well be the ship carrying Holocaust survivors seeking asylum, which was intercepted by the British authorities off the coast of Palestine on 11 July 1947 and on which three passengers were killed. The incident became a huge international scandal, so it would be interesting to know what Horthy thought of the incident.

The Haganah ship Exodus after being taken over by the British on 22 March 1947. PHOTO: Frank Shershel/Wikimedia Commons

But that is all we know. However, if the word indeed referred to the ship, it helps us to identify the date of the visit: it was probably not long after the incident: the scandal must have been fresh enough to become a topic of conversation. This is supported by the fact that Hecht and Kantor were in Bavaria in August 1947. The note concludes with Hecht’s usual lines quoting irrelevant details: ’I was glad to talk to you’, ’if you have nothing better to do, drop by to see us’.[6]

Edelsheim-Gyulai wrote in her memoirs that Hecht had tried to obtain a Swiss visa for the family, but did not share the details. Hecht’s papers include his correspondence with the Swiss authorities about the Horthy family. On 30 June 1948, the Israeli politician wrote to a certain Rothmund, who was the head of the Cantonal Aliens Police. In his letter, he requested a visa for a one-year stay of the Horthy family ’in a Swiss resort’. Although he was confident of a favourable decision, he added that the family would like to know in advance whether there were any obstacles in principle to the idea, for ’understandable reasons’. As he explained, Horthy was only present at Nuremberg as a witness, one of his sons was taken to Mauthausen by the Germans, and the son would probably leave Switzerland for Brazil. He then went a little further than the one-year stay plan and asked for asylum for the Horthys, arguing that

‘the whole family had been interned by the Nazis’.

He also mentioned that Horthy’s grandson—István Horthy Jr.—needs a good, Swiss and democratic education, and that Miklós Horthy’s wife, Magdolna Purgly, is seriously ill and cannot stand the Bavarian climate. All the family wanted now was peace in a neutral country, ’because the admiral, as an enemy of communism, wants to retire completely’. Hecht asked the Swiss police for a statement of principle by the end of the week.[7]

Rothmund replied the next day, but stressed that he could not give a position of principle in such a short time, and asked about the financial situation of the Horthy family.[8]

Although Hecht could not answer this question, he assumed that the family’s living conditions were ‘properly taken care of’. As he again pointed out, the Horthys wanted to live ‘in modest and inconspicuous circumstances, in a small apartment or boarding house, in a place where foreigners go on holiday’, preferably near Montreux.[9]

Hecht, however, apparently did not want to leave the decision to chance, so he turned to a diplomat known from the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, the rescuer of Jews, Carl Lutz, who was then working at the Swiss Foreign Office. Hecht first spoke to him by telephone, then sent him copies of the letters he had exchanged with Rothmund, and thanked Lutz for personally dealing with the matter.‘ I know that the Horthy family will be very grateful to you for this.’  Further letters indicate a cordial relationship: Hecht wrote to Lutz once again that ’I must convey the warm greetings and thanks of the entire Horthy family for what you had done and will do for them’, and

expressed his opinion to the family that Lutz ’is very kind, devoting his whole energy to the question.’ [10]

Carl Lutz. PHOTO: Fortepan/Wikipedia

A few days later Hecht also met Miklós Horthy Jr., who, on his way to Brazil— where he had previously worked as Hungarian ambassador—urged the Swiss authorities to process the visa application. In a later correspondence, Hecht also warned Miklós Horthy Jr. that the Swiss authorities might demand a host country’s declaration of acceptance of the family providing a destination after the visa expires. In response, Horthy Jr. replied that Brazil was not a good idea because it only granted visas for three months, so Portugal was the first option. The Portuguese embassy had not yet replied to ‘my poor family’, but with the summer holidays on, that was not necessarily a bad sign. This conversation already foreshadows the later fate of the family: the Horthy family emigrated to Portugal and the governor eventually died there in 1957.

Miklós Horthy’s tomb in the British Cemetery of Lisbon. His body was relocated to his birthplace, Kenderes and was reburied in the Horthy family crypt in 1993. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Miklós Horthy Jr. concluded his letter with warm words: ‘We have talked so much about you in the family that your absence has left a void.’ A few days earlier, Hecht had thanked him for the ‘enjoyable’ meeting.[11]

In the end, the Swiss authorities rejected the Horthys’ application at the end of August. Hecht did not give up the case: he continued to argue before the Swiss authorities that Purgly was seriously ill, but could not be treated alone because ‘the members of the family that have gone through so much suffering cannot be separated’. In addition, Hecht noted, it should be taken ‘into account that

Horthy was the first European head of state to turn against communism with all his might.’

Earlier, Hecht had personally delivered Purgly’s medical records to the Swiss authorities: they showed that she had previously suffered from several severe pneumonias and was in a very bad condition. In his last letter to Miklós Horthy Jr., Hecht himself did not understand what had happened: he said that the authorities had reacted positively and that Lutz was optimistic. In his letter he wrote that Lutz would not give up the cause and that ‘he himself would speak up for them in all important places’. At the end of his letter he hinted that he would now leave for Israel, but that the case would be in good hands with Lutz.[12]

The documents do not reveal much more about the relationship between the Horthy family and Hecht, or about the Swiss visa issue, but some details can be reconstructed from other sources. According to Swiss newspapers, Miklós Horthy visited Zurich with his family in November 1948, although it is not clear for what purpose or for how long. In her memoirs, Edelsheim-Gyulai refers to the fact that Hecht later sent her books ’on Jerusalem and Israel’. ‘He proved to be a good friend and we corresponded until his death on 14 April 1993,’ she wrote. What this correspondence might contain is an intriguing mystery: the Horthy family archives are still closed to researchers, but a historian who had access to the database told the author of these lines a few years ago that ’decades of correspondence with Reuven Hecht is in the family’s possession’. [13]

[1] For Horthy’s role in 1944 see: László Bernát Veszprémy, Tanácstalanság. A zsidó vezetés Magyarországon és a holokauszt, 1944-1945, Budapest, Jaffa, 2023.

[2] Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai, Becsület és kötelesség, Budapest, Európa, 2001, vol. 1., 248.

[3] Jabotinsky Institute (Tel-Aviv [hereon cited as JI]), K7A-3/26/4. 5.

[4] Zeev W. Mankowitz, Life Between Memory and Hope. The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 280. Arye could possibly have referred to Arye Ben-Eliezer, but the former leader of Irgun was then involved in organising the aliyah in France, and Kantor’s presence makes the presence of another representative of the revisionist organisation more likely.

[5] Mankowitz, Life Between Memory and Hope, 243. and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (New York), RG 294.5. Folder 200.

[6] JI, P124-3/122. and JI, P124-9/10.

[7] JI, P124-9/10.

[8] JI, P124-9/10.

[9] JI, P124-9/10.

[10] JI, P124-9/10.

[11] JI, P124-9/10.

[12] JI, P124-9/10.

[13] Edelsheim-Gyulai, Becsület és kötelesség, Vol. 2. 124.

Reuven Hecht was a right-wing Zionist who worked with the revisionist movement's founding father, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and after the founding of the state, became an Israeli entrepreneur and right-wing politician. Today, a museum and park in the Jewish state bear his name. After trying to help the Horthy family obtain a Swiss visa, he remained in correspondence with them until his death in 1993.