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The Holocaust

 

[Pages 426-433]

The Ghetto of the Bungur forest

Translated by Susan Geroe

The Bungur Forest, which in our free association became identical with the image of the ghetto, is situated on a smaller mountain crest, a few kilometers from Des, in one of the railway track turns towards Desakna. Some time ago, these woods were the scenes of summer excursions, an area for picnics that proudly displayed poplars, and some oak or beech woods here and there. Sunny mornings, bicycle trips, fun, and happy childhood memories related to this place. Now, on that unforgettable beginning of May into the fifth year of war, nobody was thinking of those days anymore.

Dr. Lehnert, County chief medical authority, as well as the other local authorities bear responsibility for the cruel sins they committed in not making any arrangements in the Bungur for the needs of the concentrated Jewish people, which consisted mostly of children, women, and the elderly. According to orders, the decision of where to place the Jews - within the streets of the Jewish neighborhood, brick factories, or herd them onto other places - depended of local authorities. In Des, the local City Council considered two suggestions. (Mr.) Kramer, the pharmacist, suggested to set up the ghetto in the practically all Jewish Kodor Street, having to move less than forty Christian families into Jewish homes. The other possibility was to herd the Jews into the Bungur Forest. Dr. Vekas introduced the latter possibility and that was the one the City Council adopted. Dr. Kramer, the physician, voted with the City Council, against his brother's Kodor Street proposal. After the war, instead of standing for accountability, Dr. Vekas committed suicide.

Thus, in Des, the choice fell on the woods. Why, if the Jews were to be locally mass murdered, they would not have to be transported elsewhere? Or, perhaps, because the railway was not far away? However, several ghettos in Hungary were situated far from the railway, among them the ghetto of Kolozsvar.

The Bungur was not a residential area and they didn't even think of wood planks that we could use to build cover over our heads. There was no water, none to drink or to use for freshening up. There wasn't a secluded place prepared for privacy for the many thousands of people... The only thing they thought about was straw. "Litter for the animals", where the Jews could lie down. Straw was the only thing they prepared for the converging Jews in the Bungur Forest, but we can't forget that straw either. With cruel calculations, they handed over the fresh straw already gathered there to the retreating Crimean and Ukrainian refugees who joined the German forces and in exchange, we got the used, cracked and lice infested straw left there standing for weeks.

The authorities in Des thought about providing appropriate accommodations for the Jews... Is there any wonder why even the Germans objected to the extent of the Hungarian abuse?

The yellow starred procession was standing in rows of five and took off from the temporary gathering area of concentration towards the Bungur Forest. Armed guards were escorting them to prevent the Jews from escaping or falling behind. Along the streets they marched, windows started to open and one could see behind the glass gloating faces, smiling with greedy joy. Here, this is the end of the little Jew! They were lumbering in the middle of the road like animals, and due to the suitcases they were carrying with stooped backs, the rows started breaking up. The elderly were making way for themselves with the help of their canes, while little children were crying because they didn't see a smile on their mothers' faces. Their fathers, who had been taken to forced labor battalions, they no longer even remembered.

Who knew that this was only the beginning of the beginning? Who knew that from the ranks of this distressed yellow starred march, ninety-six souls of every one hundred would not reach to enjoy life by next May, and would become one with dirt and dust, smoke and ash? They'd become statistics: out of the Jewry's six million martyrs, six hundred thousand were Hungarian Jews, and from that number, ten thousand were from Szolnok-Doboka County...

Infants in their mother's arms, little children with yellow stars on their frantically beating chests, sad-faced young girls and mothers with worried looks in their eyes, helpless old people - the procession filed by the Roman-Catholic Church. There was more sympathy in the painted eyed of the crucified Jesus than in those of his ordained priests, more humanity and sadness than in the curious eyes behind the windows.

But certainly, there were people who understood that time would come when there would be a heavy price to be paid for all this. Evidently, there were also those who cried. Two German soldiers were standing in a doorway. Weapons on their shoulders, they were guarding an arms ammunition warehouse, or a military office a grim faced lumberjack from Wurttemberg and a blond cool fellow from Hamburg - both with tears of human compassion in their eyes.

This is how the City of Des took farewell from “its Jews”. That is how the Jews departed towards their established temporary residence in Bungur on May 3, 4, and 5, (1944) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, so that Saturday, the day of rest would not be unsanctified.

Who knows in what kinds of thoughts were the members of the column absorbed as they were dragging towards uncertainty? There were those people who have heard about Jewish internment camps, even those who've heard about the Polish death camps. They were left with one last hope, that which the local authorities were feeding them to calm them down. They held to the one last straw in the convulsively locked hands of the gagging person: the Bungur Forest accommodation would be only temporary and they would receive emergency shelters in the city, in the emptied Jewish neighborhood, in Kodor Street and the surrounding area. Jews would move in together and that is how they'd wait out the end of the war.

In her thirties, Lazar Eva, the nationally renowned artist from Des whose reproductions were published in art journals and Jewish papers, was carrying with great difficulty her palette and painting gear. To the question if she thought she'd have the possibility to paint “there”, she answered with conviction: “Naturally. No matter where they take me, they would recognize my talent as a painter.”

Notwithstanding, Lazar Eva's artistic eyes and talent captured in her last painting the following view: Jews wearing yellow stars were marching, under the surveillance of armed guards. Old people with bent knees and with rugged walking canes, painfully beautiful Jewish mothers with infants on their arms, Jews burdened with bundles on their backs were moving in front of a Crucifix. And Christ pulled his hand from the nail and covered his eyes with his blood-dripping palm. “I don't take responsibility for this!” is the title of the painting.

Up, towards the Bungur Forest. A dusty, unpaved road, where horse drawn carriages from neighboring villages usually trotted, now, for the last three days became a long-long human snake of a winding path. It was an exhausted procession that finally gained relief from the woods of the forest. As it turned out, besides the lice infested straw, the local authority thought of other certain things, after all: they surrounded the Bungur with barbed wire. Of course, they did not fence in the entire forest with the symbol of the dictatorial regime, only one area. Sufficient enough not to give Jews too much space, lest they'd be able to use water from the small creek that flowed at the bottom of the forest for washing up or doing laundry. The ghetto did not include even one brick building where first aid could have been given to patients wallowing in pain, or medication administered to the crying, frightened children. There was no room for an emergency hospital, nor was there medication for urgent needs.

People, worn out, sorted their mingled bags and were happy that the strings they used in a hurry did not unravel and the contents did not spill all over. What was left, that is, after having been searched like robbers.

Nails and hammers turned up, cords and ropes, and they drew sheets between four designated trees before the sullen night was to descend. With blankets spread over them, the shack was ready, the tent erected. For the Jewish tribe was a tent-living nation at the dawn of its history, at the time of the forty-year wandering in the desert. During that era, the spirit of the nation, which preserved the memory of the Egyptian enslavement perished in the scorching fire of the desert sun. In the same fire, a new offspring toughened, the first offshoot of the nation builder generation. Three thousand years had passed since the death of the wilderness ancestry.

The tents in the Bungur Forest were not assembled by strong manly hands, but by the wrinkled tired hands of the elderly. The youthful and inexperienced hands of the young folk held the hammers, the shaking hands of women were tying knots to strengthen with twine the sheets and blankets that often fell, pulled down by their own weight, to branches and tree trunks. It was also for protection against cold and wind, and for keeping safe in the dark, keeping the flame of the flickering candle from going out and the twinkling nightlight burning.

At that beginning of May, the Lord has shown that he didn't forget completely about his chosen people, his people chosen to suffer, and sent us a rainy, cool May. This generation in exodus, the tent-living galut generation, was also condemned to death. However, the people were not leaving from a land of bondage into freedom, rather this battalion was marching from life into death. There was not only one generation that was to die, but aside from survivors, all the young and old and in between of the tribe.

Well, haven't we always been the Lord's chosen people? One of the less numerous people chosen to survive…

The anguish filled sad nights of the Bungur Forest ghetto came alive with the cries of the hungry children and the muffled sobs of the women. Exhausted older men and well meaning older children were trying to help wherever they could the inert women and mothers. If the supply of sheets and blankets was insufficient, they built a tent from branches near relatives or friends. They dug holes and gathered dry wood for fire to at least provide a way to heat milk and food for the small children. This is how primitive men carried out these domestic chores a long while ago, in the Stone Age, but at least, they knew that the hole had to be dug in the direction of the wind…

They dug ditches around the tents so that water would not collect under people sleeping inside the tent, and thus it could run down the slopes.

Men with camp experience from World War I have refreshed their foggy knowledge of thirty years ago. There were not many of them, since the lion's share of the lot had been called into labor force units. Nevertheless, one person remembered one thing, another something else. We started digging entrenchments for hygienic needs. The authorities designated for trench digging a place that was on the highest point of the enclosed ghetto's territory, the most eye-catching spot, above which, we placed a tree trunk propped on two buck like props. Later, we made a little fence from twigs to provide privacy to people using the facility, but the ordinance called for a fence that could be only high enough not to cover the face of the person.

These regulations served as new measuring sticks in the process of dehumanization on the way to the Auschwitz gas chambers.

A few days later, the ghetto leadership, set up in haste, obtained a permit to construct separate toilet facilities for women. On the first day though, when there was no outhouse, turns had to be coordinated: women in the morning, men before noon, women in the afternoon, men in the evening. Everyone could go in the evening because it was pitch dark, one could hardly see ahead of his nose, but one had to be careful not to fall in the ditch. That is what happened to poor (Mr.) Biener, the tinsmith, who got a heart attack in the process and was found only next morning in the trench.

On the fourth day, we separated the trench across with another little fence to have separate facilities for men and women. We had one problem solved. Our energy was consumed with solving such difficulties, as to not give us time to think about the most important issue: to escape from the ever-narrowing death ring. Later, the authorities permitted Jews to have wood planks brought in from their own warehouses.

When night finally fell on the chaotic gypsy style encampment ghetto, the ever present choking smoke, the fumes of the primitive fires lit to try to warm up, often in vain, the children's food ceased to some degree. The sobs of mothers worried about the fate of their children quieted, and the darkness and silence were broken only by the noise of the children crying in their sleep or fever.

Volunteer guards were walking around within the area of the tents, which were set up with little experience and without plans. With the few flashlights to be found, they directed people who were searching for their tents, those who lost their ways, and they were also trying to quiet with a good word, medication if available, or just plain water those who were weeping.

Fire engines brought water into the ghetto and one had to stand in line for water with pitchers and buckets. It was at the water queue where systematic, cruel beatings took place without any reason whatsoever, simply for the sake of abuse. The guards hit those standing in line with their fists and feet, whips and sticks. But water was a life necessity and the Jews endured the beating, slapping, whipping. If a little water spilled, if the bucket was too big, if the pitcher was too small, if “you looked the wrong way” at the guarding gendarmes it made no difference what the excuse was, the beatings started up.

In a few days, under the stewardship of Mrs. Miklos Friedmann, we set up a soup kitchen. (When we mention her name, our hearts weep. Mrs. Friedmann had a little daughter named Noga. She received this Hebrew name, Noga, in the bitter galut. Oh, how this star too, burned out…) First, only the children received a cup of warm soup daily, later, everyone could stand in line for the food.

Most families did not have an adequate supply of provisions and the one-dish meal prepared mostly from donations by the other ghetto residents meant a great deal of relief for them. Foodstuff, such as peas, beans, and potatoes, brought in by the local authorities was totally insufficient. They distributed rationed bread at 160 g (5.6 ounces) per person.

When a Seventh-Day Adventist, Moldovan Mihai heard that the Jews were starving, bravely and without thinking too much, he took his only cow into the ghetto. The authorities arrested this Romanian man and beat him so atrociously that for the rest of his life he remained a paraplegic. The once strong miner became a shaking, ruined man, incomprehensible words bubbling through trembling lips from his toothless mouth.

This happened on May 14. It was the same day when Endre Laszlo stated that “in the matter of the Jewish question, we take action not because of orders, but voluntarily, out of conviction.” In truth, the deeds of the Hungarian people did not rebut the fact that they acted “voluntarily”, rather than on Nazi orders.

One day, the gendarmes were looking for Singer Jakab. Savage beatings and tormenting were already taking place to persuade Jews to disclose where they hid their valuables. There was no reason to hide anything, as that would have placed everyone in danger. However now, it was not the Hungarians, but the Germans that were looking for Singer Jakab - a German officer and three German soldiers, in a Wehrmacht car. When the gendarmes led Singer to face the officer, the German shook hands with him. (This officer lived in Singer's commandeered house, and after the ghetto transfer, he moved also into the rest of the property.) Now, he brought a car filled with foodstuff. Flour and sugar, rice and lard, beans and compotes and pickles, he had it all placed in the car and brought it out to the ghetto, “because probably there was need for it”.

This German officer had none of the so-called responsibility towards the Jews, whatsoever. But he acted like a human being. He had tears in his eyes at the sight of the ghetto. The eyes of the Hungarian population mirrored a despicable satisfaction. The weekly newspaper of Des, “Szamosvolgye” was the mouthpiece of choice for publicist Sztojka Laszlo, where he roused the Hungarians for the “final reckoning” and expressed his regrets that the ghetto was set up in the Bungur Forest. “It is too beautiful of a place for the Jews. They should have been taken to the open fields to acquaint them with Nature.”

The beatings became more brutal when the infamous gendarmes from Somogy, the most bloodthirsty beasts that surpassed the SS without having gone through SS training, replaced the local police and gendarmerie.

After a lengthy persuasion, and following the concentration into the ghetto also of the Jewish population from the surrounding communities and villages, the authorities agreed to the enlargement of the ghetto. Thus, it now incorporated the small brook at the bottom of the forest and provided the possibility for washing one's body, dishes and clothing. And the farmhouse, where they immediately set up an emergency hospital became part of the ghetto too. There was no medication available, but physicians were aplenty, and yet, they transferred two doctors from labor force units to the ghetto.

These two doctors, on the eve of the first deportation transport (when railway cars had already arrived) committed suicide. Dr. Szocs, a middle aged man from Debrecen and the 26 or 28-year old Dr. Biro from Budapest, injected each other with morphine, but to ensure the outcome, they swallowed a lethal dose of the drug as well. Dr. Szocs agonized for 24 hours, while constantly mentioning his 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son before succumbing to death. Dr. Biro's young constitution, overcame the poison without the help of any medication.

Dr. Engelberg Oszkar, who demonstrated a brave attitude all along and defied on several occasions the actions of the authorities, was named Doctor in Chief of the ghetto.

In the ghetto, he promulgated the idea of hiding in the forests. Had others listened to his advice, much fewer Jews from Des would have perished in Auschwitz.

He himself went through all the hardship of the Fascist years. In 1941, he was accused of being a communist, was arrested and interned to Kistarcsa, where he spent two years. In 1944, he was taken first to Auschwitz, then Bochum, and finally to Buchenwald. Liberated from Buchenwald, he returned to Des and worked for the state. Today, retired, he lives alone in Des. His two younger brothers, Dr. Engelberg Eduard, a physician, and Dr. Engelberg Izso, an attorney, live in Israel.

In the ghetto emergency hospital, Dr. Fried Andor from Bethlen tried to alleviate the suffering of the sick 24 hours a day. Young men, who did not pick up on the opportunity to go into labor force units worked as his volunteer assistants.

 

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