An incredible effort by Jewish divers is set to use sonar to retrieve the bones of Holocaust victims shot and thrown into the River Danube in Budapest 75 years ago.
Hundreds of Hungarian Jews were shot and their bodies tossed into the river in 1944, where their remains have lain ever since, but this week ZAKA, an Israeli search and rescue organisation, said it had won permission to recover them.
The decision to allow divers to start work was announced afer a meeting this week between Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and his Hungarian counterpart.
Accounts from 1944 record how Hungarian Jews were shot on a bridge over the giant river in mass executions committed by members of the far-right Arrow Cross party, which took power briefly between October 1944 and March 1945.
Until then, Hungarian Jews had been saved from deportations to death camps in other Nazi-occupied lands by the Horthy regime, but Arrow Cross officers immediately reversed this once they took power, herding 80,000 Jews onto trains.
Of those shot and killed in Budapest, many were suspected to be partisans and saboteurs who had earlier attacked Arrow Cross units, so the now-ruling party saw it as revenge as they hunted Jews house-to-house before killing them en masse.
Now, 75 years on, and following three years of negotiations, ZAKA divers are set to undertake the “historic task” of retrieving and finally burying the bones of those killed, in accordance with Jewish law.
The organisation’s volunteers work around the world, including in the aftermath of natural disasters emergency, but said the river would pose particular challenges.
“The movement of the water and boats, natural decay and even repair work to the bridges over the Danube all add to the logistical challenge of the project,” said a spokesman.
Divers will use a recently-purchased sonar device which can descend to a depth of 150 meters and scan within 130 meters, quickly identifying objects and transferring the information and exact location to the device operator.
Rabbi Shlomo Kovesh, who heads the Hungarian Jewish Federation EMIH, had been appointed by the Hungarian government as a special liaison for the project, and contacted ZAKA last week to advise that all the permission had now been given.
The dive team will be led by ZAKA Special Units Commander Haim Outmezgine, who is currently in Budapest and plans to begin searching this week.
Deri, who was in Budapest, met the divers on the riverbank, adding: “I am pleased that the Hungarian Interior Minister has promised assistance, support and technological equipment for the benefit of this project, and I hope that the ZAKA divers will be able to bring these holy martyrs to a full Jewish burial.”
ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav said: “This is the final act of chesed that we can do… We see this as a mission of the highest order and value, to do everything we can to finally bring them to burial in accordance with Jewish law.”