When Berdefy’s husband peeked into the crack, he saw handwriting, not destroyed wallpaper, she said.
The well-preserved collection consists of 6,300 pages from a 1944 census, which Nazis used to identify the city’s Jews before deporting them a nightmarish ghetto.
Curious, the couple pulled bricks out of their wall until they reached the buried documents. They found more than 135 pounds of pages from the May 1944 census, issued just two months after Nazi Germany invaded Hungary. The invading troops immediately began deporting Jews who lived in rural areas to death camps.
The census — long feared destroyed during World War II — documented the religions of people living in the city’s apartment buildings. Nazis used the results of the survey to identify Jews, who were first forced to move into all-Jewish apartment complexes and later to sickening ghettos.
“Jewish people filled in the forms honestly. They refused to believe where this might end up," said Istvan Kenyeres, the head of the Budapest City Archives.
About 200,000 Jews were forced to move to 2,000 Jewish-only apartment complexes after the census. They were later pushed into a walled-off, run-down ghetto, where some died of starvation.
The Russian army arrived in 1945, saving Budapest’s Jews. Most of the city’s Jewish population survived the war, unlike Jews from the countryside: About 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Nazi’s concentration camps.
The yellowed papers found in the wall were remarkably well-preserved, thanks to little air exposure. Such legibility is rare for World War II-era documents.
“Most wartime papers are more faded or rotten than medieval documents, on bad quality paper due to the rationing,” Kenyeres said.
There are still about 23,000 papers missing from the 1944 census, which historians thought was long lost. But there’s a new hope after the discovery of the first 6,300 pages.
“People should look behind their walls, you never know in Budapest what could be there,” Kenyeres said.