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[Pages 249 - 253]

The Birkenau Platform

by Marton Istvan

Translated by Susan Geroe

On that end-of-May dawn, when we queued up in front of our ghetto homes waiting for orders to be deported, a gendarme called the eighteen-year-old Eva Szasz an unspeakable name. He did not talk to her privately, rather in front of her parents and some other hundred or so people. I heard it too. I was standing there, between my father-in-law and my wife, in one of the lines. Yes, I was standing paralyzed. Neither I, nor anyone else retaliated for the insult, which in fact was addressed to all of us, as well as to Eva, the university student. Had I then snapped at the gendarme, or at least beat him to death, my poor little wife who I thought would surely survive, could have been the proudest woman within the society of a handful of survivors - Jewish widows, widowed Jews. But the moment that challenged my resolve and honesty slipped away shortly, sarcastically, and I didn't act. Thus, whoever searches the database of my life, will not find even one impressive deed.

We were now stepping up from wide planks among the trees of Rhedey Park into the shaded cattle cars in groups of two, three, gloomily, or impassively, as if they'd allowed us to enter a movie theater after the lights were turned off and they were already showing commercials. Those people who got in first took the better places on the sides of the car, while those who got in later had only standing room. It was a warm summer morning. Birds were singing in the trees and a few blasé gendarmes were hanging out under the trees. Every car was filled and the civilians disappeared from the foreground. A pretty woman, the only civilian, who probably obtained permission to watch, was staring at this entraining process. She could have been the wife of an officer or the mistress of a field officer. Her experience had not been insignificant. She had witnessed the preparation for a horrific catastrophe with a smile, politely hidden behind her handkerchief. At least two thousand people who in three days time would no longer be alive passed before her. She was watching about forty death row cells resting on wheels, filled with people sentenced to die. She knew about the sentence, while those sentenced to death knew nothing. An SS soldier was fussing about the train. He wanted to demonstrate at all cost that he was on duty. His presence irritated us a little, but our gendarmes were not paying much attention to him, as if he weren't even there. When the train was about to leave, a gendarme yelled in his harsh regulation language through the closing doors: “If anyone escapes from among you, you will be decimated.” The women didn't even know what decimating meant. However, to the men it was clear that this threat was targeted at controlling simple-minded people. We were interested in one fact: who were escorting the train? Germans or Hungarian gendarmes? Our volunteer undercover men were watching these decisively important maneuvers from the narrow airshaft of the cattle car. The wheels were already in motion when the watchmen resounded: gendarmes got on the train. A great weight fell off our minds and we calmed down. Thus, we were going to remain in Hungary. Our grudge against the gendarmes changed into feelings of gratitude. They were our torturers, but at the same time our life saviors. They didn't hand us over to the Germans. “Let us consider the institution, the institution of gendarmerie, not the individual gendarme,” noted Jeno Vadas, a Main Street merchant. “The Hungarian gendarme never recanted his vows,” bubbled effervescently my former schoolmate, Lajos Berger, while twirling his moustache. The train, carrying its shameful cargo, was lurking now on the tram tracks in the outskirts of the city, about to reach the main railroad tracks. I didn't squeeze near the airshaft like other people, to see my beloved city for a last time, the place where I was born, lived, and robbed. Later, I glanced at Oradea's towers as we left them further and further behind. They were small, heartless, and the sky far away from them.

We started to eat; I mean those of us who had something to eat. We received for the road a half army ration of black bread per person and a tin washbowl of water for the car. It contained about five-six liters of water. Not much for seventy-two people. Chief Rabbi Vajda managed the water usage. He dispensed it by the shot glass to those who were thirsty, when it was time to drink. The Chief Rabbi's family brought along a considerably large laundry basket full of clothes. A cradle was on the top, foodstuff, diapers, and other clothing on the bottom. The basket was resting on the washbowl in its width, back to the engine, taking up the place of three people. But nobody griped. Ivanka, the Chief Rabbi's little son deserved that much space. I no longer recall who started a speech in appreciation of Prime Minister Sztojay. Pretty soon, it dragged to Imredy because, without a doubt, the changes that affected us were direct consequences of his ministerial nomination. “Were Imredy not made part of the government, we would have been delivered to the Germans.” The intelligentsia, crowded on the left side of the car, continued talking politics to the enjoyment of the few men and women on the right side, which were listening with respect. Prompted by a private thought, I said: “Imredy is a British follower.” Everything was included in this thought. Naturally, also the fact that he was the executor of the British action of saving the Jews. Within seconds, my declaration was met with warm response in every corner of the car. Although rumor had it from the gendarmes that the city of Kassa (Kosice) would be our journey's end, Kassa did not even come up in our elated frame of mind. We were going to Mezotur. Namely, according to oozed out secret, a few weeks ago six thousand Jews were requested from the gendarmerie command. Jeno Gold anticipated that this small Transdanubian town had already been emptied to accommodate us. “We're going to eat lots of chicken there, because Mezotur is the Eldorado of chickens.” We gave in to this thought easily. But suddenly, the train took a rough turn onto a sidetrack and wrecked the Mezotur illusion. The sun was shining hot upon us. It felt like the walls of the car were almost on fire. The men took off their jackets, the women undid their blouses. The children were crying for water. There was no water. The Chief Rabbi already portioned out this resource. In one word, we were going to Kassa, after all. How swell it would have been in Mezotur, in the center of the country. Kassa was situated on the border. Everyone felt that we no longer were going to be in the forefront, as we could have been in Mezotur. This was rather disquieting. Everybody had something to say: we were going to live in cazarmes; they would take the men from there for work; we were going to sleep on straw; and, we were going to be cold for sure, for nights were cool in Kassa. “Let's not forget, gentlemen, Kassa is already a mountainous region,” stressed a young man who wanted to be part of the discussion by any means. At the train stops, mothers were begging for water. At times, they got some. The children drank a few gulps and quieted down. A woman announced sensational news: “We're not going to Kassa, we'll get off at six kilometers from Kassa, where they're concentrating all the Jews from Transylvania in a bunk-encampment that is being built right now.” For the time being, we're going to live under the sky! But we don't have any covers, and we can't lie on the bare ground! We must do everything in our power to get the children, women, and elderly under cover. We must build the barracks! Who will not take part in this work, will be looked upon as traitor. Yes, but will the command allow us to do the work we want to do? My poor friend, Ungerleider, suggested rather humbly: “We should form a committee that would be always in touch with the command and discuss the most pertinent issues.” Yes, yes. They had already elected my father-in-law president of the committee, but nobody disturbed his thoughts. The picture of the camp near Kassa appeared in our own field of vision. A wood merchant even named the station where we were going to get off. There was an old lumberyard whose director was a very gracious gentleman. A party spoiler's worrisome voice meddled in the oracle's forecast: what if the director was called up into the army? We were approaching Kassa. People were becoming anxious. “Supposedly they will take the youth to Germany.” That's silly. “It is impossible that Imredy would agree to such atrocity! At best, they'll ask for a few skilled laborers.” Old Mrs. Weisz's wailing voice is still ringing in my ears: “Is a seamstress also considered a skilled laborer?” She was worried about her daughter.

We slowly rolled into Kassa. The train stopped far away from the terminal building. Were we getting off here or six kilometers from here? We were waiting. The doors of the cars did not open. It was quiet, and nobody broke the silence. Two-three gendarmes and an old reservist with a shotgun were hovering about in front of the train. They opened the doors: “One man gets off and brings back water”, sounded the order. I jumped off with the bottles. In front, the engine was feeding. How much water did it need for those six kilometers? I was running back with the water so I could make another round. The washbowl should also be filled, who knows how many kilometers would those six become. By the time I returned from the pump which was on the other side of the train, a slender blond gendarme first lieutenant sprung up from somewhere and a Gestapo officer, who with his head turned into a profile position told him something. The German ran away, seemingly angry. He was pale, his face ashen, his nose elongated, as if its root became loose. He was racing across the railway tracks, swearing hoarsely. The gendarme officer addressed me, appointed me car-commandant and took me along. They placed a fifty-kilo capacity jute sack into my hand, then with my participation began the last sacking of the Oradean Jews in Hungary. Another gendarme, holding a civilian hat in his hands also came with us. The first lieutenant stood in front of the train and pronounced the sentence over three thousand Jews: “All valuables must be turned in. If the Germans find something, they will mercilessly execute you” – he barked stridently enough to make sure even the infants heard him. This is how we found out that they handed us over to the Germans.

The sack soon was filled with money, jewelry, fountain pens. People ripped open their clothes, where they'd hidden valuables. The situation changed to serious, and only few people remained who took a chance on continuing to hide valuables. The sack I was holding was full. Plenty of gold fell even on the floor. People were throwing out their leftover emergency reserves through the openings and doors. They set me aside with the sack. And while the first lieutenant and the gendarme continued to collect treasures, nobody paid attention to me. I felt sorry for the old reserve soldier who was watching the railway tracks. I gave him a gold necklace and a gold watch. I gave a peasant boy my wife's gold wristwatch and a fountain pen to bring me a few cigarettes. For a few cigarettes, I gave a railroad man an old fashioned pair of gold earrings, two gold rings and a fountain pen. But he also coaxed out of me a gold watch. I feel sorry I was not more generous. It should rather have gone to them what was ours than to the Germans, or to the Arrow Cross. When we were marching in front of the cars with the sacks, one of my friends yelled from the door: “Pista, we are being deported!” So far, we have never used this harsh expression; it was now that I heard it for the first time from our people. We had spoken of relocation, evacuation, but nobody had dared talk of the devil for fear of making him appear. Suddenly, we were ordered back into the cattle cars. I saw Erzsi Feher, daughter of Dezso Feher for the last time in the Kassa train station. The beautiful society lady stood in front of her car. She had her two hands tightly clenched into her hair. She looked upward and with her contorted mouth screamed silently something toward the sky.

A gendarme came and hollered into our car Hungary's farewell: “If someone from amongst you escapes, they'll execute the car-commandant. But if the car-commandant escapes, then they'll exterminate all of you.” Evening fell. The passengers raked up the poison from the bottom of their sacs.

Nobody slept that night. Shrunk like dumplings, bodies were swarming on the floor. People could not extend their legs, and as they were squashed, they were kicking and poking one another. I was sitting in a small place near my wife, with my knees pulled up like an Aztec mummy. I was complaining that the kid ran away with the gold watch without bringing cigarettes. From my three cigarettes, I gave one to Ungerleider and another to Erno Markovits, who was in despair and had been deliriously complaining about not having been able to say good bye to his Christian wife, Lujzi, who lived outside the ghetto. We could hardly wait for the morning, to be able to extend our legs and arms. The train winged us in a western direction. We were going to Germany. It would be so nice somewhere on the beach. Sure, so that they could bomb us! “They take us to a place where there is no air alarm!” Hitler will account for us to future generations. A high style politician like Hitler, satisfies the present with threats and the future with not redeeming those threats”. Hitler is a genius – raved an elderly relative of the Chief Rabbi.

In the afternoon, the train engine curved sharply to the east. We're done for. They're taking us to Poland. We're going to Lublin. In the ghetto, we didn't want to believe Eva Szasz, who was a dactylographer at the Gendarmerie Commanding Office and to whom an officer spoke about Lublin. What else could there be in Poland other than Lublin? Lublin was the equivalent of Poland and vice-versa. We were going to Lublin: to agonize, starve, in the frightful uncertainty! My wife huddled herself on the floor near me and announced that she was no longer willing to live. “You, take care of yourself, please, you will survive for sure, but I can't face the torrent of suffering,” she said and convincingly enumerated her reasons. I brought to her attention that her reasoning was paradoxical, since if she committed suicide, the Germans interpret that as an escape, and I, the car-commandant would be executed. She immediately backed off from her resolve, although she already entertained such thoughts it in the ghetto. She sat back in her place and gingerly embraced her father. In the nightfall, I noticed my father-in-law getting up, first stretching his legs, then reaching back into the pocket of his coat. My wife seized his arm. What do you want to do? – she yelled frightened. Do you want him executed? She disarmed her father the same way as I disarmed her. I believe that I committed a grave error. At that moment, I didn't know for sure. Later, Lili, my wife, carefully took out the poison from his pocket and put it away.

At night, Ungerleider touched my shoulder lightly. He found a cigarette in his pocket and wanted to share it with me. We needed a cigarette holder to not waste any tobacco. Lindenfeld had a holder, but he was asleep on the other side of the car, among the swarming mass of people. I went on all fours to get the holder, rising above arms, legs, heads, amidst kicks and curses. I fell on a man, a woman, a child, a virgin and a young couple too, until finally succeeded on falling upon Lindenfeld himself. He wasn't cross with me, gave me his cigarette holder, then I retreated. It took me at least half an hour to make this five-meter journey back and forth. By the way, fate brought me together with Ungerledeir later in the camp again. It fell upon me the mournful task of lifting onto the camp ambulance my poor friend's nearly dead, kicked up bloody body. When my friend died, I came to a bitter vindictive resolution: if I were ever free again, I'd fight to have the multi named Grosswardein be named once and for all after the murdered brave assistant painter Mor Ungerleider, in memory of the inhuman era in which we lived. Perhaps today, what I so seriously thought of then sounds ridiculous.

Not by a long shot does one find graveyard mood such as in Poland. How could people live here? One could only die here. Even God created it to be the graveyard for millions. A battlefield. A country in the color of the ground. The train twisted and turned vile, not unlike a lunatic. Sometimes we thought it returned to places it once left. Where were they dragging us? What did they want? Why didn't they give us water? Suddenly, side-tracked to some dead-end platform, I noticed deportation cattle cars painted white. They were taking us back and forth until we were going to die of thirst. I didn't say a word about my discovery to anyone. It was better that way, because by evening, after a long dazing ride, we unexpectedly stopped, and they started opening the doors of the cattle cars. We were not allowed to get off and didn't receive any water, but were able to breathe fresh air through the meter long opening. An SS soldier announced with good intent that we arrived. “This is the final destination,” he said. “Thanks God!” added Mrs. Weisz. We were in Auschwitz. A city was in flames across from us. A few minutes later, they rolled back the traverse doors again. Inside the cattle car, the darkness matched that we felt inside our hearts. Everyone was preparing for sleep. Nobody spoke, there was nothing to talk about. We made fools of ourselves often enough and that kind of wrong judgment stays with you even in the casket, according to Meredith's writings. My father-in-law felt the pocket of his coat that was hanging behind his head, then murmured into his moustache: “Well, I'll face everything that awaits me.” He sacrificed his own death for me.

This was the first quiet night. The multitude of brave people was well rested as they marched to their final resting place. Around one o'clock at night, the noise of car engines and the blinding floodlights awakened us. We had not even noticed that the trained moved during the night. In the evening, there was no road across form us. Those lying on the floor turned their necks towards the good morning bidding light. The eyes of those who were asleep in a sitting position opened. But nobody moved, as if the cattle car were our secret hiding place. We felt the danger. We were observing with bated breath. My wife looked at me, I at her. Suddenly, the last car passed by. It turned dark once again and we never saw each other. They started opening the doors: “Everybody get off, the luggage stays in the car.” This meant execution. Had we have to get off with our bundles, they would have taken us to a ghetto, for sure. But this way, where could they take us? I lost my head. I was the first to jump off the car. We were standing on a long blacktop. From afar, floodlights were trying to shed light along the length of the platform, unsuccessfully. Uniformed shadows with straddled legs were standing here and there. They were holding in their hands walking sticks the wrong way. Behind the floodlights, a huge covered truck was standing athwart. The gassing truck. That was where they were going to execute us. I was in panic and was showing everyone the truck. Suddenly, I fell to the floor. They hooked a cane between the muscle of my neck and my larynx, that's how they slammed me down. Right away, a young man from Margitta plummeted next to me, blood oozing from his mouth. They broke his larynx. “Men fall in on the left, women on the right!” The line-up went slowly. We lined in rows of five. Somewhere, from under the cattle cars convicts in striped clothing appeared, hustling among the men and women. They were endlessly carrying human bodies within the small clearance – the dead, sick, suicides – those who already died and those who had just taken the poison as they got off the train. Almost every cattle car had dead. Ours had none. Our dead were still alive during the train ride. My father-in-law stood in the first row as the others politely showed him the way, wanting him to be their spokesman in case of need. I stood in the second row, but from time to time ran to get news. I drank honey and fat in my thirst, for water was not to be found even for millions. I got as many cigarettes as I wanted, as now, those who in the cattle cars made up plans to economize, became suddenly generous. We all felt the cool breath of death above our heads. The news spread that the convicts were throwing the dead people one upon the other behind the truck and a hill was already growing from the bodies. The burning town we had seen the previous night from the train was burning here, nearby. But we still didn't know that those flames could also freeze. We didn't know we were standing by the crematoria. The British radio forgot to report about the German fires. Good for them. They reported of shot down airplanes, victories and defeats to the Jews of Hungary. What would have happened, had we known that the gas chambers were on the watch for us?

We were standing on the Birkenau platform, before history's most unmerciful, bloodiest tribunal, but we hadn't had the faintest knowledge about it. Millions were given the death penalty here and not one sentence was ever commuted. The horrific judge, that slender officer with a slight smile, who waited with remarkable patience until everybody dragged his body off the train, was already preparing the judgment. So far, he sentenced at least four million people to death by a slight hand movement. He waved to the left and to the right with the hand he held above his belly. He did not point his thumb down, he wasn't Caesar after all, although he murdered more than ten Caesars, and he wasn't a plagiarizer either, because there had not yet been a precedent to pronounce sentence with the pointing finger. Whom he sent to the left died within the hour, the rest he sentenced to death by starvation, slave labor and exacerbated cruelties. Nobody in this world ever rampaged with such quiet, polite, almost pleasant demeanor as this officer.

The midnight circus show had started. The officer stood by the group of lined up women and began to wave. As in Madach's tragedy, my acquaintances started marching in front of me in long lines. Even if somebody had factitiously encouraged us to assail those few SS soldiers and kill them, we would have paid no attention. The Hungarian Jews' respect for authority knew no boundary even outside state boundaries. Quietly, without a grumble we were watching how our lover, child, mother, were sent onto a dark unknown road, without us. News rumbled over us that only beautiful women were chosen and the others were not needed. My father-in-law saw when they made my wife stand aside. Oh! They wanted to use our women to amuse the soldiers, as they did with the Slovakian women! Within a second, I gave in. If that was the price to save one's skin…

Mrs. Dezso Feher appeared before me in full floodlights, straightened out, with both her arms thrashing in the air, screaming: “Don't separate me from my children!” An SS soldier shoved her in the side, and then as if she'd have escaped from a hole, she started down a road, which suddenly darkened between a wire fence and a white building, disappearing from view forever. I wanted to reassure my father-in-law: they would select the doctors, I told him, but he didn't care about his own fate. “Would it be better for Lili?”…he asked. He wasn't thinking of what I was thinking with my dirty mind. School principal Dezso Sebestyen was standing next to him at the edge of the first row, with his typical haggard looks. I saw him take out a small box that contained little vials, then empty the vials into his mouth. Suddenly, I too felt like taking a little poison: dear Sir, would you have in your pocket more of that stuff? – I asked with confidence. “Sorry, there is no more.” – he answered politely and slipped back into his former tight posture. A few seconds later, he collapsed like an empty sack. My father-in-law, a doctor, did not even move. In this place, both, the SS doctor-executioner and the deportee doctor-victim equally served death, rather than do anything against it.

I believe that the presence of two SS soldiers would be enough to have five thousand people evacuate harmlessly from a burning theater into the fresh air. The reason for this - the terror triggered panic I had seen in Birkenau, when nobody dared act upon what his frantic thoughts suggested, instead, letting only eyes to bulge and mouths to drop.

The officer stepped in front of my father-in-law, smiled kindly at the seventy-three year old gentleman and touched his shoulder in a friendly manner: this way, please. My father-in-law started out on his last journey, and for as long as he could, he searched with his sight for his daughter. The officer only motioned to the others.

What happened to me from there on is not important. Male war adventure. I lived an ancient or middle age adventure in enemy captivity. All I can tell is that it was impossible to endure the captivity with a normal brain and a healthy mind. I believe that for the patience required to await liberation, a little insanity or melancholy were indispensable. Every loss entails sadness, but the loss of liberty brings about severe melancholy. Through the entire time in concentration camp, I was melancholic, otherwise I would have run into the electrified wire or had myself shot by the guard. Then, the others would have called me insane.

I can draw in a few lines my camp self-portrait, which we all more or less resembled. Here it is: a skeleton, shovel in hand, his clothing barbed wires, life threatening to touch.

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