A couple living in Budapest, Hungary, decided to renovate their apartment, and hired workers to get the job done. One of them took a screwdriver to their walls and discovered papers with handwriting on it. “We thought we’d ruined the neighbor’s wallpaper,” Brigitte Berdefy, one of the owners of the apartment, told the AFP. But it was so much more: 6,300 documents “from a 1944 census that was a precursor to the intended liquidation of the Hungarian capital’s 200,000 Jews in Nazi death camps.”
The ink from these documents was still legible, too, since minimal air could get in the walls and previous of the owner of the apartment smoked (apparently nicotine preserves), and they were handed over to the Budapest City Archives. “[These documents] hel[p] to fill a huge gap in the history of the Holocaust in Budapest,” said Istvan Kenyeres, the head of the archives, who received the historical trove in September.
The May 1944 Budapest census was to identify houses to serve as holding locations for Jews before moving them to a planned walled ghetto in the city’s seventh district.
Two months earlier Nazi Germany had occupied Hungary and deportations in the countryside to the gas chambers of Auschwitz began almost immediately.
The forms found in the Budapest apartment contain names of each building’s inhabitants, and whether they are Jewish or not, with total numbers of Christians and Jews marked in the corners.
Said Kenyeres: “Jewish people filled in the forms honestly, they refused to believe where this might end up.” She believes that some 23,000 other documents remain, hidden or stores somewhere, that could provide insight into the events of the time, surrounding the Holocaust. “People should look behind their walls, you never know in Budapest what could be there.”
At the time there were an estimated 200,000 Jews living in Budapest, and 600,000 total in Hungary. Most of them were killed in concentration camps.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.