I had a liberal education, I went to grammar school in Budapest, then I spent a year in Vienna in a catholic boarding school, after which, when I returned to Budapest, I enrolled in an Italian school which started up then, and I finished my studies at the school in 1941.
By that time in Hungary, the government, which had always been a right wing government, there was no democracy in the West European sense of the word in Hungary, there was no clear universal suffrage The regime kept moving gradually to the right from the mid-30s onwards Hungary declared itself a kingdom, although it had no king The Head of State was the regent, admiral Horthy who was an Admiral in the Austro-Hungarian fleet By 1940, or 41, the Hungarian Parliament brought in legislation discriminating against Jews and really it was in the later part of the 30s when I was at school and some of my schoolmates were openly Nazis that I realized that I was of Jewish stock which built up an antagonism between me and those of my Nazi schoolmates
Now, I wanted to go to university. I wasn't very clear what I wanted to do but I thought I wanted to become a cartographer, so I wanted to enrol in the university to do geography and to do this, I had to prove that I wasn't a Jew. Well, that was not very easy and my poor parents had to acquire all the documentation, the birth certificates and marriage certificates of their parents and their grandparents who, of course, were born and bred in various parts of the Hungary that existed before the First World War and which was a very much larger territorial entity than it was after the First World War when in the Paris peace treaties Hungary was reduced to a much smaller rump state, parts of the old kingdom of Hungary were annexed by Czechoslovakia (Slovakia was part of Hungary). Transylvania was allotted to Romania and the Banat and Bansag which are now called the Voyvodena, and are an autonomous province of Yugoslavia went to Yugoslavia, together with Slavonia and Croatia. Now some of my parents were born in what is today Rumania, others were born in what is today Yugoslavia. So! it wasn't an easy job to get papers, documents, especially since compulsory legislation came in perhaps after they were born. So, anyway, they had to get all these certificates and papers to receive a certificate stating that they were not Jews, for me to be able to apply and to get a place at university. We did get this certificate, I was eventually accepted to enter the University of Budapest and I started my studies in the autumn term of 1941.
1941 was a difficult year for Hungary. It concluded under Prime Minister Teleki, Count Teleki who was a Professor of Geography, a non-aggression treaty with Yugoslavia. So, and when the Germans, in the middle of the last war, decided to attack Yugoslavia and Greece they used Hungarian territory for marching their troops onto the Yugoslav border and attacking Yugoslavia across Hungary and, of course, across the joint German/ex-Austrian Yugoslav border. When this happened in late April 1941, against the wishes and determination of the Prime Minister, he committed suicide And so another Prime Minister was put in his place who was more compliant to the Germans than this previous one
And, of course, not only did the Germans, with active help from the Hungarian army overrun Yugoslavia, but in the summer of 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, again, on one wide front, starting from the Baltic across Poland and from Hungary too By then Hungary extended its boundary from the pre-1939 one right up to the Carpathians, so it had a joint frontier with the Soviet Union The Germans attacked the Soviet Union from Hungarian territory and eventually they forced the Hungarian government to supply troops to the Eastern front
The war went alright for the Germans up to a point, namely the seizure of Stalingrad which started in 1942, and then the advantage turned against the Germans in 1943 and the Soviet Union started attacking on various fronts and the German front gradually got pushed back westwards from its further extent when it was before the gates of Moscow and right down into the Caucasus Hungarian troops and other satellite troops that took part, such as Rumanian, Italian and Spanish all suffered very heavy casualties I suppose that at the instigation of Hitler, Hungary brought in regulations in 1943-44 compelling the Hungarians to set up labour battalions of Jews who would have to perform various menial tasks behind the front All I can remember about this is that some of my relations, cousins, and cousins twice removed, were called up and got away by the skin of their teeth And they told us horrible stories about what happened behind the German lines when SS troops attacked these labour battalions and killed a large number of them during the retreat
Now, we move to the spring of 1944 and it was fairly obvious by then that the Germans could not win the war, that eventually they would lose the war and therefore Hungary would be on the loser's side. But not only that, Hungary would lose very heavily because it propped up and kept the Nazi regime going So, Admiral Horthy, the regent, started secret negotiations with the allies about an armistice, but of course Hungary declared war on the Allies in 1942, I think.
So, when Hitler got wind of these secret diplomatic activities he decided to do away with Admiral Horthy and his regime and the Germans occupied Hungary as an enemy territory, or a country which they had to rescue from subversive forces. That occupation occurred on 18 March, 1944 and soon after that the Germans nominated the ex-Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, an ex-diplomat, to be Hungarian Prime Minister who co-operated wholeheartedly with the Germans. He could be called the first Hungarian Quisling. You will probably not have heard of the name Quisling. Quisling was the first co-operator with the Germans, a Norwegian, who after the occupation of Norway by the Germans, co-operated and set up a government. And after that, all these political co-operators, were just called quislings.
Anyway, soon after 12th March, a decree was promulgated in Hungary that all Jews had to wear the yellow star on their clothes and so we soon had to make yellow stars and stitch them onto our clothes. That was some time April&endash;May 1944. Soon after that I got call-up papers to a Jewish labour battalion, so my parents kitted me out with a rucksack and all sorts of things that one might need and I, with several of my mates from the university, headed for the little country town of Jasbary, Not very far from Budapest, where we joined a unit, a battalion which was mixed: one half of them had to wear a white arm band and that meant that they were Jews but Jews who were christened at one time or another and were not actually practising Jews, and those with a yellow arm band who were practising Jews. Now, we spent about two or three weeks in Jasbary, doing nothing, and then out of the blue, in late May, we received an order that thirty five of us had to move from Jasbary and join another outfit somewhere in Transylvania. For this purpose we were given train vouchers and we were taken into Jasbary and put on the train and headed towards Transylvania. When we reached the town of Oradje - Oradje is the Rumanian name of the town, the Hungarian name is Nagyvarad - the train was stopped and a mixed unit of Hungarian gendarmes and SS ordered all Jews off the train and marched us into the, by then, established ghetto of Nagyvarad; that was an area of the town surrounded by high wooden stockade and here the Jews of the neighbourhood were collected in. All Jews were brought in and so afterwards, about a week after we arrived there, transports got under way, that is about a thousand people a day were taken out of the ghetto, taken to the station, put into cattle wagons and sent away We didn't know where they were going but we knew, fairly clearly, that sooner or later it was going to be our turn And so it was On 4th May my mates and I and so many others were taken out to the station, put into cattle wagons and off we went.
Now all we could see - we didn t have a map - all we could guess was that we were generally heading north. We went through the Carpathians, we went through towns the names of which we knew, one was Katovice, in Slovakia, and then we headed further north and we must have crossed from Slovakia into Poland and there we followed the route, we saw that we went through a town called Norisac, Norisanders in the old days it was called and then soon after that we arrived in a very strange and fairly frightening looking place.
The train stopped at the ramp and everyone was ordered out We had to form sort of columns and move on past a SS officer and his retinue, who ordered people to go either to the right or to the left, and only later did we realise that this SS officer was the famous, or rather infamous Dr Mengele, who did the 'selection.'That is, he decided who was to stay alive and who was to die It was those who were selected to go left who went very nearly straight to the gas chambers and we didn't know that, we could see that there were curious sorts of buildings around the place, with tall chimneys from which flames went up to the sky and there was a continuous belching of smoke from these smoke stacks.
From the ramp we were then pushed, driven to get onto lorries and the lorries drove straight into the concentration camp, with the name of Birkenau. Now, in Birkenau there were tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands I really don't know how many people , in one-storey wooden shacks.
And the first thing when we arrived at the camp was that we were driven into a shower unit where we were showered. After that our body hair was shaven off and then we had to queue up and each of us was tattooed on the left arm with a current number, and the number was the number of the Hungarian Jews and probably started with the new series A, and I was the number 12,210. Now we were then allotted our shack and there we just had to lie down at night. There was not enough room for everybody to lie down properly because it was so overcrowded. We had to sit down with somebody right in front of us so that our legs went round the person in front of you and then lie down on the person, on the chap, behind you. And that was how we spent the night. Whether you could sleep or not, that was up to you. We got one meal a day some sort of a soup which was made of some vegetables, which I suppose were mangolds or similar things which were what you grew for your animals.
Anyway, there we met several Slovak Jews who told us about the camp, how it functioned and how we would have to greet every SS man by taking our cap off We were given our numbers which were sewn onto the jacket of our striped prison clothes And then, two days later, we were taken out and moved to another camp, which was Auschwitz I, which was a so-called work camp. Here, everybody was registered and after a while we were allotted to our barracks to our buildings, where we lived and everybody was allotted to a labour commando. Now each of these commandoes had a leader, a boss who was also a prisoner, Haftling in German. Our boss - I was very lucky, I and several of my mates were allotted to the Kartoffel-Kommando which is a German word which means a potato mover commando That was our job, to move potatoes and other vegetables from the storage place to the lorries and vice-versa when there was a train that came in with fresh supplies of potatoes and other vegetables, we had to unload the train and carry the produce into a bunker where it was stored for later use. So, we were the Kartoffel-Kommando.
Some friends of mine, good friends of mine, got into the Brot-Kommando; they unloaded bread from wagons, onto lorries, and then from lorries down into the kitchens. Now, if you were quick at learning the mores, how to behave and how to survive in a camp, then you had to learn to steal, and one of the things that the Brotauflage had to learn was to cut up a loaf of bread, like a standard English loaf, cut it in four and hide it somewhere on their person, it wasn't very easy.
Now, the work period was something from six o'clock in the morning to six o'clock in the evening. So we were woken up at five and had to wash and shave as best we could and had something called breakfast which was a watery sort of coffee, one slice of bread and a patch of so-called jam. And after that there was 'Appel.' Appel was really a ritual counting of the prisoners before going off to work. That is, before (in front of) each block/barrack, the inhabitants had to arrange themselves in files and in columns of ten and they were counted by the Blockaltester who was the prisoner chief of the block and then the SS allotted to your block, or several blocks, came along and counted the prisoners and wrote down the numbers. And then in the end, all these SS reported to the Appelfuhrer, who was one of the fiercest SS around. And Kadoc's job was to total up the numbers and report to the Kommandant of the camp that the numbers tallied. If somebody died then he had to be taken out and laid alongside the living to be counted. We then marched out of the camp to the tunes of an orchestra which was made up of prisoners and who had to play various marches, to the tunes of which we marched out of the camp, and then on to our work place.
When all this happened I was twenty one years of age. I had been in fairly good physical condition. I was an active sportsman. I swam, I played water polo, I cycled fairly large distances and in winter I went skiing in the hills of Buda. Really I,was in a very good physical condition when I got to Auschwitz. And the work that we had to do really toughened me up. By-the-by, the first job, which was the standard job, was to carry potatoes, and these potatoes had to be carried in a large wooden box which had handles in the front and in the back. So two men filled up this box with potatoes, there may have been between one and two hundredweights of potatoes in each box, and then we had to trot with this box from the railway wagon down into the bunker and unload the box and then trot back to the wagon. And the other way round when the SS sent a lorry or several lorries, then we had to trot up from the bunker which was below surface level, say a storey beIow, we had to trot up on an incline and with the filled-up boxes and lift them up to the lorry and throw the potatoes over the rear plank. Eventually, it wasn't only potatoes we had to deal with, also other vegetables, root vegetables that were sorted in our bunker, eventually we had to deal with huge sacks of herb tea that we had to unload and store, and then load up again. And then we also had to participate in our bunker in the sorting of the effects, mainly the food effects of those people who were gassed straight away. Well, not only those people, everyone who was in a transport carried some sort of personal belongings and food. All the food was sorted on the ramp at Birkenau and then it was taken by lorries to our bunker and we then had to unload the lorries and the foodstuffs were sorted in the bunker. All the jam, for example, whatever make it was, homemade or whatever, these jams were emptied into big wooden barrels and when the barrel was full, the top was laid on, was forced in and it was ready to go, and other foodstuffs were also sorted like flour and sausages and this, that and the other
For some reason, I can't remember the reason now, but some research would probably find the answer, this sort of activity and the place where it took place was called 'Canada' in !local camp jargon. This 'Canada' business that is the sorting of food lasted all the time while Hungarian Jews arrived in Birkenau,throughout the summer of 1944 into the autumn and it ended by about the end of September or sometime in October 1944. So, that was part of our job. And as a consequence, of course, we could if we managed to, which wasn't quite as easy as it sounds, we could of course steal some of these foodstuffs and eat it ourselves and if we were very, very brave we could try and smuggle it, tied onto our legs or onto our backs or onto our stomachs under our tunics, we would try to smuggle it into the camp. Now, I said it was a dangerous business because as we marched into the camp, there were five SS standing at the gate and we had to march past them. They would select, every now and again, one prisoner and frisk them and if they found anything on them then they were severely punished. So, it was a toss-up whether you would manage to smuggle it in or not and whether they would find it or not. But, most of the time, we managed to bring it in and that was a great bonus because food stuffs formed one of the currencies in the black market inside the camp and you could buy anything for spare food because a lot of the others in the camp were not able to steal food wherever they worked.
There were work stations around the camp. One I remember was called Effektenkammer because that was the place, a huge storage place where the other stuff, the other material the Jews brought with them in their transports and was taken from them, the other stuff was sorted and then taken to the Effektenkammer, shoes, trousers, underwear, all sorts of clothing and other objects, were all taken. sorted, registered, recorded and stored in that Effektenkammer.
There were other colleagues, other prisoners who worked in other units. There was a rubber factory somewhere. I can't remember exactly where, where one of my colleagues, an actor, used to work and he was very poor in terms of camp society because he couldn't steal anything of any use in the rubber factory.
One of my very best friends who survived. who used to be a lawyer, he worked in the Brotauflage-Kommando, and he usually managed to have some surplus bread and with this bread he paid a French prisoner, who was another intellectual, to give him regular French lessons for example. So all sorts of things went on in the camp.
Another friend of mine, an ex-University mate of mine, worked in the so-called camp hospital. Well, hospital is too grand a word for this establishment really because they didn't dispense any medicine. There was hardly any medical care. All there was was that if somebody fell ill he could be handed into the hospital and just lie there in a bed and recuperate as best he could. Some did, some didn't. Anyway, this friend of mine was an orderly in the hospital.
Next to the hospital was the 'Bunker' and that was the prison in the camp where they kept various people whom we didn't know why they were in prison there, but some of the escapees who were caught were put there and then later executed in front of all of us at Appel time in the evening. I was witness to three executions during my stay in Auschwitz, two of them were single people and I don't know who they were and why they were executed, and the last lot were three or four Poles who managed to escape but were caught. And I can tell you that it wasn't a pretty sight and I hope that nobody will ever have to witness an execution in their life because it is terrible, especially when you know that the people who get executed are totally innocent. The last execution which I witnessed, Appel Führer Kadoc was kicking the man whi!e he was actually hanged.
Strange as it may seem, there was even a brothel inside the camp. The women must have come from various countries, some were German speakers and some were Polish speakers, or Czech speakers. They were garishly made up and I don't really know who was interested in using their services but anyway. it was there.
And of course homosexualism was rampant in the camp too and some of the poor children who got into the camp, who managed to stay alive and were not condemned to the gas chambers straight away, sooner or later became the toys of homosexual Kapos of Blok ???Lelester, willy, nilly.
Well, life went on
By the way, the interesting thing is that because of the complicated extended network of prisoners of various nationalities there were in Auschwitz, as far as I can remember, there were a number of German political prisoners; I knew one who was a very good friend of mine in the hospital, and as I may have mentioned already, our Kapo, that is the head prisoner of our Kommando, was also a German political, he was a chemist from Leipzig, a communist, who was interned in a concentration camp as far back as 1936 or 1937/38. He was a very, very nice man and I can really thank him a lot of having taught me the A to Z of camp life and how to watch out for SS and how to behave properly. By 'properly' I mean in the right way, so that you don't get caught and hit because all these SS men walked about with walking sticks and the walking sticks weren't there to help them walk but to hit prisoners when and where they could and how they liked.
I was hit many times in the Bunker because, of course, sooner or later I was caught by the SS who was in charge of us, an Unterschaffer who was really, in normal times he would probably be a criminal, but, he was a very clever fellow and you had to watch out all the time that he didn't see anything illegal that you were involved in, I mean hiding things or stealing things. He caught several or many of us at one time or another, and he operated with a pick axe handle And he could easily break somebody's bones when he hit out. Sometimes we got punished, a whole lot of us, and then we would just have to jump about on our hind-legs, and do press ups and all sorts of other kinds of punishment. As you spent more and more time, you got wiser to these things, and learnt how to dissimulate, and how to act and that was very important not to be caught, you had to act and to dissimulate.
As I said, there were various nationalities in camp not only Germans, German political prisoners, then there were German criminals who had served their prison terms and who were then not released but put into the camp. And those criminals were sometimes worse than the SS.
Then there were a large number of Poles of all kinds from simple peasants to professors. There were Czechs. There were Danes. And there were Frenchmen. And my friend who paid for French lessons with a slice of bread, through his French teacher got the latest news about the war everyday because some of the Frenchmen used to work in the SS garage, and maintenance garages where they managed to use whatever radios there were built into the cars, and listen into the BBC broadcasts in various languages which of course went on 24 hours a day during the war and were the sustenance of, not hundreds of thousands, but millions and millions of people in German occuped territory because that was the only source where you could get to the truth of what was going on during the war.
We were fairly lucky in having a reasonably continuous stream of up-to-date information about the movements of the Eastern front, the German-Russian front as it continued to move westwards, that is, towards us. And so we knew, or felt, or thought, that sooner or later that front would reach Auschwitz and we just had to work out what the Germans would do with us when that happened which wasn't easy.
Now just a few words perhaps about the sadism of some SS men which could be indescribable. There was one pair of SS men, two young men in their early twenties, whose favourite sport was putting a potato or an apple on a prisoner's head and then using that for target practice with their pistol or revolver. That was just one kind of entertainment for themselves and their fellow SS men. And there were others.
Anyway, gradually, it became winter and it's very cold in winter in Poland. Luckily, for some reason, our barracks had stoves in them and we had a supply of Silesian brickettes and there was heating in the blocks. Otherwise I don't think we would have survived. We were also issued with some kind of winter clothing.
Now, towards the end of January or early February, there was something in the air. We had several air raid warnings. Air raid sirens went and we once or twice heard aircraft passing by and I think there may have been some bombing too, somewhere in the vicinity, but could never establish where it happened and what the target was, but anyway it was obvious that Allied aircraft managed to penetrate as far as Auschwitz into German airspace. And then suddenly word went around that the camp would be evacuated and we would be taken away. So we went around and wherever we could lay our hands on spare clothing and hoard some food - we would do that in preparation for our move because it was quite obvious that the SS wouldn't bother too much about feeding us properly on the way and they didn't REALLY care whether we stayed alive or not. So we had some food set aside and in due course, I think in the first week in February there were so many inches of snow lying on the ground and where there was no snow the ground was frozen solid, we were called to Appel and a declaration was read that the camp was going to be evacuated the next day. The next day we dressed up with all our gear and all our spare food and we were formed into columns and marched off, in a generally westerly direction. We walked for two days; the first night we spent in a farm shed and then we were driven on until we reached a railway station, some sort of a junction where there was a train, or several trains waiting, all with open platform wagons and we were forced to climb into these wagons and there were some forty of us to an open wagon and when the train was full with prisoners it drew out of the station and started moving away. And all we could do was keep our eyes open and see where we were going. The one thing I can clearly remember was that the train skirted Vienna to the north. I recognized the names of the suburbs of Vienna and the train moved on to the west, and finally it pulled into Mauthausen, which was another big camp just to the north of the river Danube, north of Linz.
Here we had to get off and were marched into Mauthausen camp where we were allotted to another set of barracks. We tried to keep together, friends, but it proved impossible sooner or later because they were giving us new numbers which were metal number tags which they put on our arm. They then sorted out the prisoners to go into different groups. That's when I had a very, very good friend with whom I shared my bunk and my rations and we helped each other all the time and that was one of the methods of staying alive to see that you had a pal with whom you shared, you helped each other. And this pal of mine, Robert Schmidt, we managed to stay together right up to this time in Mauthausen when suddenly he was pulled away and allotted to a different group and I never saw him again. He never came back.
So, from there, from Mauthausen, I was then moved with the others to a sub-camp of Mauthausen. Every main camp had a number of satellite camps around it which had various purposes. There were various industrial installations, factories or goodness knows what. I was taken to a sub-camp which was called Güsen 2 only a few kilometres from Mauthausen. And here in Güsen II I was asked what my trade was, I said I was a locksmith, and so they put me into a factory where they were making some kind of parts of guns, or some sort of armament. However, pretty soon they found out that either I wasn't much good at working on a lathe or that I was just sabotaging the thing because I broke the tools on it, willy nilly. So after a week or two I was kicked out of this unit and then I had no job for a couple of days, but in the block in which I stayed, in which I lived, there were several Italians, and because I was fluent in Italian I had acquired several friends amongst these Italians, one of whom was a lawyer, an advocate from Bologna and this friend of mine who had been in this camp for a longer time, I can't remember how long, he was caught by the Germans as a partisan, he arranged that I would be allotted to a Kommando which had to move machinery from one hut to another or from one factory to another. And the the head of the prisoner unit was a Spaniard, a Republican Spaniard who escaped after the end of the Civil War into France and was caught by the Germans in France and taken to the camps. He accepted me as a member of his elite. Kommando, there were only about eighteen or nineteen men in that unit and for some reason or other perhaps due to the good connections of this Spaniard, we had reasonable food there, better than some of the many others had in Güsen.
However I didn't stay in that unit for very long, for some reason or other I can't remember any longer how or why, I was allotted to the potato brigade again. The job of this brigade was to uncover...
(Can you stop it a minute) I was just telling you the system of supervision and of keeping order in and out of the camp was based on a method of counter-selection, which either worked or didn't work. Counter-selection being that the SS selected those people whom they considered to be trusties and were put in charge of either a work Kommando or a block. The boss of a work Kommando was called a Kapo which is short for Kamaradschaftspolizei which in English would be 'a police of comrades' and the Blockaltester was the senior in the block whose job was to supervise that order was kept in the block, that it was cleaned and that the food was distributed and so on and so forth.
Now, some of these Kapos and Blockaltester were criminals, or they were homosexuals or whatever, and primarily the aim was to select the worst ones who would keep us under and only when the SS slipped up or couldn't find a proper criminal for the job did good people, I mean really good people, camaraderie people get appointed to these supervisory jobs.
There was a mixture of these. The boss in Güsen, the boss of the toilet block, was a German criminal, and he would have all sorts of curious fancy rules about what, who, when and how you could use the latrines and if he felt like it he would chase you away with your pants down because he either perceived that that was a time when you couldn't use the latrine or he just didn't like your face, or would kick you into the latrine in fact.
Now, during the period I stayed in Güsen, which was from February to about early April or mid-April, the war, of course, was nearing slowly its end. The fronts closed in on the core area of Germany and there were more and more and more air raids all over Austria. I can quite clearly remember seeing crews of anti-aircraft guns as we passed, as we were driven past, which were manned by boys of 13, 14 and 15... So, the Germans, the Nazis, really had to drag out anybody, any able-bodied person whom they could press-gang into serving in some capacity or other in the armed forces, either the Wehrmacht or the SS.
Now, during this period air raids because more and more frequent and in the end they became a regular feature of daily life.I remember seeing Lightning fighters coming down, swooping down on the watch towers of our camp, machine gunning and strafing these watch towers which, of course, were manned by the SS with machine guns trained on the camp .And very often these very SS had to run helter-skelter from their towers to find shelter from the air attacks.
Whenever the siren sounded for an air raid, all activity had to stop in and around the camp and we were driven by the SS into tunnels which had been dug into one hillside quite near the camp. These tunne!s were built out into a maze many kilometres long and a Messerschmidt aircraft factory was gradually [ ...] in them and production went on. I can't remember, and I may never have seen who the people were who worked in these aircraft factories. But the fact was, whenever there was an air raid, be it day-time or night-time, we were driven by these axe handle toting SS at high speed into these tunnels. And they hit out at us all the time and if they caught you in the head, and they managed to kill you - so what?
It didn't matter, it was a curious sort of attitude, to drive us into shelter and killing us whilst doing it but there was never any rhyme or reason in the action of the SS. You just couldn't work it out, there was no reason, there was no clearly understandable motivating thought behind their action and you could never tell how an SS would react to something and what his reaction would be and how you would suffer as a consequence of that action. Anyway, we spent hours and hours and hours in these tunnels into which we were driven. We weren't altogether unhappy at being there because at least they were dry, they weren't cold and we didn't have to do any work. It was difficult to sleep but at least we were safe and reasonably warm and I remember, strangely, but very clearly, that We had interminable discussions about what we would cook if we ever got free and back to our homes and what we would want to eat because, of course, that was the main thing on which your mind concentrated in these conditions.
So, time passed increasingly as Spring approached in these bunkers, in these tunnels in which we spent the time during air raids.
Finally, to get back to where I worked when I was kicked out of the machine moving Kommando, I was allotted again to the potato Kommando whose job was to open up the potato clamps which spread over a fairly largish area just next to the camp and where the SS kept large supplies of potatoes and other root vegetables for the kitchens, both theirs and the camp kitchens, and what we had to do was to open up these clamps and move out the potatoes and load them onto lorries when they came and when the day's loading was finished we had to cover it up again. But because we worked here on these potato clamps we managed to steal quite a lot of potatoes of course, and because SS manpower decreased day by day there were no searches as we were marched back into the camp. There was no orchestra here, there were no searches, and we managed to smuggle in quite a reasonable amount of vegetables which we managed to just rub down into some sort of a mash of raw potato which we simply mixed into our soup which we had as our rations every evening, and.so complement our diet with it and also trade to a certain extent, although there wasn't much to trade in, by that time. There was nothing that people could steal and there were no establishments like there were in Auschwitz where various items of clothing or food or other things could be stolen and exchanged on the camp black market. So, that's how I spent at least March and the early part of April in Güsen and then suddenly towards the middle of April we were again selected on some basis or other which we couldn't fathom but it seemed that the Jews were taken out from the crew, from the prisoners, and we were then assembled in a column and marched out of Güsen and marched into the countryside. We crossed the Danube by a bridge, I think at Enz and continued on our march. There was no distribution of food on our march so we could only eat if we took anything with us, we could eat that, otherwise there was nothing to eat. If you stopped and tried to dig out something or harvest something in the fields whatever SS was around would just shoot you, and there you were. If you couldn't walk or you couldn't march on they shot you the same and there were dying and dead left left, right and centre on the path of our walk. I can clearly remember every now and again when they let us stop and sit down for a while trying to eat grass, which I couldn't really. I tried to eat it and I couldn't, it all came back. And then I collected live snails and ate these. It didn't matter what it was as long as I could eat it and keep body and soul together.
Anyway, this march lasted some three or four days. That's when I saw these anti-aircraft batteries manned by young lads in their lower teens.
Some of the soldiers which were our guard, were by then not in SS uniform. In fact they were old men over the age of fifty, some really in their sixties who were called up by the Germans in the last months of the war. They were called Landstürmer, a sort of Dad's army, and they were pressed into service to guard us on our march towards the next camp so, they had very little food with them. I can quite clearly remember how carefully they managed their food which they took from their knapsacks when the order came to stop and rest. After three or four days march, crossing the Danube and heading south, we arrived at the last camp in which I stayed which was called Gnuskirchen and this was really a camp where they simply, the SS simply collected people and just kept them there and let them die. By then, this camp of Gnuskirchen was in a young forest of pine which, however, was dense enough for not letting much of the sunshine through and it was cold and dank and damp and I remember that there was mud everywhere in the camp. There were few huts, too few to accommodate all the prisoners in the camp. There was not enough room on the floor of these huts for everybody to sit down and lie down. So, continually one had to jostle for position to have enough floor space to stretch oneself. And, I must say that till this time I really, in a way, managed to stay alive by will-power, mere will-power. I wanted to survive. I said to myself, if they manage to kill you, if they manage to make you die, then you will have lost. If you manage to stay alive, then you will have won and they will have lost.
And somehow, this worked fairly well until about the last week of my stay. The last week, which was the last few days of April and the first few days of May 1945. But, as I said, there were no proper facilities to wash yourself. Even if there had been, most of the time you would be too tired, too hungry and too lethargic to go and wash. And, as a consequence, of course, with so many unwashed people, dirty people, who had no chance of washing any of their clothes, clothes hung on you for weeks and weeks on end without being washed, they stood up very nearly on their own if you didn't wear them because they were so dirty.
I developed a large wound on my lower leg, which wouldn't heal, and I didn't know it opened and why it opened, it wouldn't heal, but never mind, it was there, I couldn't do anything about it. There was nothing you could do. There were no facilities for treatment and no SS would bother in the least because they just couldn't care. That was now part of the order of things, to treat prisoners, if they became ill, and if they died so what? And in fact, hundreds and hundreds of my comrades died there in Gunskirchen of merely hunger and disease. And, of course, everybody's body was full of lice. The lice were crawling all over our bodies, inside our clothes, and we couldn't do anything about it. You can't get rid of lice unless you can wash and wash your clothes and keep clean. And food rations declined, and although we heard that Red Cross parcels had arrived in the camp for us, meant for us, and sent to us, by the Red Cross by one way or another, these parcels didn't reach us, in fact, until the very last but one day of our existence in the camp. When for some reason or another, and it must have been fright by the SS that they would be caught and caught with these parcels undistributed and in fact they probably delved into them too. And so, they suddenly decided to hand out these parcels to whosoever was left alive but by then, there were so many people dying in each hut that we were ordered for the last two days, we were ordered to pull these corpses out of the huts and pull them to the side on the edge of camp where they just had to be heaped up into larger and larger heaps of skin and bone corpses. And these must have been, I don't know how many of them, it looked like hundreds as I look back to those times. I can't remember how many and who of my friends died there, if there were any left.
Anyway, about 4th May, just the day I believe before an official armistice was signed by the Germans, we heard artillery fire in the distance and then we heard small arms fire in the distance, and. suddenly, some people started shouting, 'Look, the SS are gone! They have escaped! They are gone! There is nobody! We are free!'
And so the first reaction of all these people, after all those deprivations, and hunger, because there was real hunger in the last three, four weeks in that camp, we just stormed the huts that were used as magazines by the SS and we would eat, quickly, whatever we would find there. There was just humble bread, which was all gone mouldy, green and yellow with mould, and there was margarine, packets of margarine and goodness knows what else and we stuffed ourselves silly with food, and when we had our fill we just walked out of camp... trying to find our way back to civilisation. And after some disorderly searching in the wood, right and left, some path, which eventually led us to the main north-south road in the neighbourhood, which led to the little town of Gunskirchen which was some eight or nine kilometres from the camp. And as we started walking on this road American troops arrived and passed us, and motorized units, tanks and armoured cars and then more motorized infantry. And these infantry men on seeing us, started to throw us bits and pieces of their rations - tins, biscuits, bread, cigarettes, chocolate and whatnot, and we would just catch these things as they were thrown from the lorries and stuff some more into ourselves.
Now you can imagine that it wasn't very good for anybody. I was liberated having half my normal weight. My normal weight as I can remember was about 60 kilos, and I must have been about 30 kilos then. In fact I was a walking skeleton, crawling with lice.
I can remember some woman was cooking some broth in one of the houses along the road and these liberated prisoners were queuing up for just a bowl of soup there; but I was with a young Hungarian boy, and we just pressed on to get to the first town, and we got, late that afternoon, we got into Gunskirchen and we were tired and desperate and we just wanted to find a place where we could at last lay our head down and sleep properly, stretched out, on our own, without having to fight for space on the floor with others And we found a house, and I talked to the man, the owner, and I said we wanted to sleep and he let us use the attic of the house. He must have been some kind of peasant, or agriculturalist, because the attic was filled with hay. And I remember lying down in this hay to sleep, and we must have slept the best part of twenty four hours because it was mid-afternoon the next day when we woke up. And we went out into the street and looking around and wondered what to do and we saw the good burghers of Gunskirchen coming from a given direction, pushing prams full of food which they took from some magazine or other which was broken open by the local population. We followed the traces, we followed the people where they came and found this magazine, this warehouse and went in, and I remember they broke open sacks and boxes and what not, and a lot of the food was just lying on the floor and I remember stuffing myself with dried fruit and sugar. And in one room I found there was coffee, so I tried to find some container and found some sort of a bag and filled it with coffee and carried it with me, which was pretty stupid and useless. And then we found another room in the same building where there were German army coats, and I got one of these coats, because, of course, I was in tatters and put this coat on and put the coffee in the pocket of this coat and then we went out again into the streets and, in one of the squares, there were American soldiers, with American lorries, and they were catching all these prisoners and ordering us to board these lorries. And when the lorry was full they took us to Hersching and this place Hersching used to be, was a German camp, a Luftwaffe camp attached to a large air base, and the Americans decided to make a refugee camp here of all the liberated prisoners, be they concentration camp prisoners or some war prisoners, there were some Yugoslavs who were liberated, I don't know where or what, but I have the feeling that some of these Yugoslavs may have been farmed out to peasants to work the land, and they were freed there and taken by the Americans to the same camp.
Anyway, these Yugoslavs were in a much better shape physically than we were. They could walk and work and so the Americans straight away ordered them to set up a kitchen for the camp. And we found ourselves, well, this was a properly-built complex of barracks, and we found ourselves a place, a room, in this barrack and then other ex-prisoners came and eventually there were about five men in the room that we took. At last we could wash properly, but everybody, most of us, had some kind of stomach cramp, or stomach upset and diarrhoea, and it was nobody's business how the corridors got dirtied by these people, myself included, as we were running for the toilets. And so, we would have to wash these clothes but then there was nothing that we could wear. So, I went round in search of clothing and I found some German army or Luftwaffe clothing in someplace or another and gradually I got myself dressed in these bits and pieces of German army uniform. And I managed to get a rucksack somewhere and luckily on the second day. Well, not luckily really, it was obvious that finding thousands and tens of thousands of prisoners was totally unexpected on the part of the Americans and they just organized this camp very, very hurriedly and for days, for several days, there was just chaos and utter lack of organization. And it only settled down after two, three, or four days to some sort of semblance of order. But gradually things started to be organized into some sort of system.
For example, on the second or third day American soldiers from the medical corps went round every building and each one of us was sprayed over with D.D.T. And so we got rid of our lice in next to no time, through this action. And that was a godsend because I can tell you that some people very nearly got eaten by these lice. When you have lice multiplying on your body, the lice live on the blood that they suck out of your body, they live on the skin and they lay their eggs on the hairs of the body, and lice multiply at the rate of a generation a week or a fortnight so everybody got more and more lice as time went by. And it was really a second liberation when we got rid of our lice.
On the other hand these poor Yugoslavs who were ordered by the Americans to set up a camp kitchen and cook for us, they were given all the necessary raw material that the Americans could organize for them, that they could find - I don t know where the stuff came from - but, of course, Yugoslavs only knew how to cook their own simple dishes, highly spiced dishes which, of course, wasn't quite the right type of food that these people needed, but there was no other. And so, the rate of disease was mowing down scores and scores of people even after liberation, because a lot of people had all sorts of stomach upsets and of course typhoid, well, there is a kind of typhoid which is transmitted by lice, and that was rampant amongst the population, the ex-prisoner population. Then there were all sorts of heart disease, with tuberculosis, and this, that and the other. And it took the best part of a fortnight for the Americans to organize some sort of a hospital complex where we handed in our ill, our diseased comrades, so much so that as I said earlier, that there were either five or six of us to a room, after a fortnight there were only two of us left, all the rest had to go into hospital. I myself went to Day Clinic with my wound and that wound was then dressed by a captured German army medical doctor every day. And it started to heal after a week, but the mark of that wound is still on my leg.
Bit by bit we regained our strength, and with our strength and with the stomach getting back into some sort of a more normal balanced equilibrium, we got hungrier and hungrier of course and the official rations that we got, although they were very generous, didn't seem to be enough. And that's when I started to... to make excursions.
The Americans established a camp for their personnel on the airfield, and that airfield was then used by the American troops to evacuate Allied ex-prisoners of war to their country of origin. And because the Americans were then fed fairly well on whatever material they had for their messes, an awful lot of food was chucked out, which was left over and we soon found where this food was thrown out. At first the cooks made sure that they put this food into reasonably clean boxes of one kind or another so that when we found it we could salvage the food and finish it off. But then, after a while, their medics found out and forced the cooks to cover these left-overs with petrol and set it alight and burned it for health reasons, which of course was quite reasonable.
That was also the time when I went round to the American camp and started digging in the refuse bins. And I found lots of newspapers and magazines and pocket books. (The army asked during the war for publishers to print books in paperback pocket format so that they could be given to the troops who wanted to read, and a book like this would fit into the back pocket of a trouser, and when they finished with a book or a magazine they just chucked it out and it went into the refuse bin.) So, clever Tommy Revesz fished out all these books and magazines and I can remember finding amongst the magazines, there was Life and Time Newsweek what more and Saturday Review. I took these back to my room and summoned up my scanty knowledge of English and started reading about what happened in the last weeks of the war, and what happened in Europe. Well, of course, there was no dictionary and whatever I didn't understand I just had to fill in by using my imagination.
Amongst the piles of books and magazines I once found a packet of pipe tobacco. And somehow I managed to find somewhere a pipe and one day, after food, I filled the pipe with this tobacco and lit it. Never in my life did I smoke a pipe before. I used to smoke cigarettes until I gave it up in camp because if you wanted tobacco you had to buy it for food. And if you sold your food, you, of course, worked for your enemy and against your best interests and so I gave up smoking back in Auschwitz, and I didn't smoke for a long time.
So, it was a sudden kick this first draught of pipe tobacco and I nearly became unconscious because I was unused to breathing in tobacco smoke Pretty soon I had to give up the idea of using this packet of tobacco.
I also tried my English on some American soldiers. There was very little communication because my ear was not attuned at all to American speech. I never heard American, broad American, spoken before and I could hardly understand what they were saying. It was very difficult, and my English was also very scanty, very bitty. So, after a while I gave up. And that's when I began, well, I gained back my strength. And I started walking into the village, into Horsching, and I literally went begging from house to house. I don't know why and I can't remember why because by that time we had more or less enough food. It must have been really a sort of looking for a different kind of human contact, not just ex-prisoners, but ordinary civilians. I suppose I don't know and it didn't matter to me whether those Austrians were Nazis or not. I couldn't start trying to sort out who was what.
But there was one family who were very kind to me, very, very kind indeed, and they invited me in for a meal eventually, and he was a housepainter I believe. And I went there several times and the second or third time I thought, well, I ought to somehow show my gratitude and give them some sort of present in exchange for their kindness. Suddenly realised I still had the bag of coffee which I got hold of on my first day of liberatedness. So, I took the coffee with me and offered it to them, and to my great astonishment they said, 'No thank you. We don't use the stuff. We only use ersatz coffee.' They had never had real coffee in their lives. That hit me as a very strange thing but of course that sort of thing happens in deepest rural Austria.
Anyway, they let me roast the coffee somehow and let me make my own coffee for my own enjoyment and that was great. That was very ,very nice and very enjoyable.
Anyway this was the first non-prisoner contact that I had after liberation and as you can see, this is one meeting that lodged itself in my memory as something extraordinary and worthy of remembering.
I think I stayed in Horsching camp for the best part of May, that is several weeks at least three weeks or so, and then the American commandant of the refugee camp must have received his orders to let the various refugees return to their countries of origin. And so, we were asked where we came from and where we wanted to go. And, Hungarians who wanted to go home were loaded into army lorries and we were all taken to another refugee camp on the outskirts of Linz. And this refugee camp was really a huge mixture of all sorts of people: Hungarians who escaped in the wake of the German withdrawal from Hungary into Austria, they didn't dare or didn't want to experience the occupation by Soviet troops. Some of these may have been, a lot of them may have been Nazis, a lot of them were just ordinary civilians too frightened, quite rightly, from being in a front line zone and escaping from Hungary; and there were a lot of gendarmes were caught up in the firing and most of them culpable in some way or another for rounding up the Jews and guarding the ghettos and generally helping the SS to perform Hitler's 'Final Solution.' So it wasn't a very pleasant place to stay when one was really highly suspicious of the various right-wing characters or ex-Nazis, or acting Nazis.
But never mind, one was looking forward to returning home and getting reunited, hopefully, with their family.
And so, we were kept there for another week or ten days and one's details were taken down and eventually transport was organized by the army authorities and a train was made available and all Hungarians who wanted to return were bidden to board the train which would take us home to Hungary and in in fact what happened was that the train - well, many of the railway lines were, of course, unusable due to Allied bombardment, and so the train had to take a circuitous route and ended up in the then Soviet zone because Austria was divided into four Allied zones of occupation. There was an American zone, a French zone, a British zone and a Soviet zone. And the Soviet zone were the two easternmost provinces of Austria, namely Burgenland and Upper or Lower Austria. And so, we were taken by this train to the Soviet zone. The train ended, stopped and ended in Vienerneustadt, it was a very large marshalling yard and it was up to us what we did from then on. The Americans washed their hands of us. Well, they couldn't, I suppose, do anything else, it was beyond their power to organize our final transport home, that was left to the Russians, well, the Soviet administration. Well I don't know how it worked, it didn't bother much about this part of their administrative duties. So, we spent, with this young friend of mine, we spent the night in some warehouse near the marshalling yard and next day we were making enquiries about transport and about eventual and possible trains which would take us back into Hungary. And eventually we heard, well - there was only news by word of mouth, there was nothing official, there was no means, no ways of communicating anything because... and there were no regular trains, there was no schedule, there was nothing. It so happened they put together a train and by word of mouth we heard that that train would leave at a certain hour on the next day and head for Hungary. So, we kept a look out, and when we heard the train was standing in the marshalling yard, we boarded the train and the train eventually, after several hours waiting, it pulled out and it really and truly took us back into Hungary, into the town of Schopperau which is a border town on the Hungarian side of the Austro-Hungarian border. And in Schopperau it stopped, it ended and we were let go We walked into town, which was fairly well preserved, there was no fighting and it wasn't defended by the Germans and so the town was intact. And there was a market going on in town where a lot of the peasants and some of the citizenry were offering all sorts of things, of food and household goods and whatnot for exchange, or sale - but I think there was very little money around and it was more or less worthless anyway but, I had neither money nor anything to exchange. We were told eventually to report to the local office of the joint committee for Jewish refugees, I think that was the official name, but I'm not sure.
And, so we went there and reported and names were recorded and our numbers, camp numbers and we were given food and we were given some money and we were told that there might be a train soon, leaving Schopperau for Budapest in whatever way it could go. And so, we didn't stay in Schopperau for long. There was in fact a train and that train took us by a large circuitous track, first to the south, south of Lake Balaton and then back north and in about twenty four hours it reached Budapest from Schopperau. And, the train stopped outside, in a suburb of Budapest. I got off and I was overjoyed to be back and... but I don't know what was moving me, or what sort of feelings or thoughts were motivating my decisions or movements but I didn't go straight home where my parents' flat used to be. It was partly luck, partly a matter of transport, I managed to catch a train and then cross the Danube by Margaret Bridge and so I ended up in the flat of my uncle's divorced wife, my auntie. And that's where I learnt that, when I got in and they welcomed me with open arms and tears, and that's where I learnt that both my parents and my sister had been killed on the banks of the Danube in January 1945, simply by being taken by Hungarian Nazis there and just machine-gunned into the Danube. And that's what I came back to. I was on my own. And, of course, I found out, that most of my extended family, my relations whom I didn't necessarily keep contact with on a continuous basis, were killed somewhere or another. Either in concentration camp, or by Hungarian Nazis or by the SS or by the gendarmerie. Some way or another there was a pogrom in Norisad where some of my auntie's cousins were killed by Hungarian gendarmes, and others were taken to Auschwitz. And others were killed, my grandmother died of hunger in the ghetto, in the Budapest ghetto, and there was nobody left apart from my uncle, my mother's brother was the only blood relation left alive.
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