Getting Out Alive
The German Occupation
I was sent to a labour camp somewhere in greater Budapest. I believe it was in Kispest (“little Pest,” a southern suburb) or Újpest (“new Pest,” a more northerly suburb). I stayed in greater Budapest throughout my career as a forced labourer. At the main camp, the commander and the guards were indifferent, but not sadistic. The inmates were a cross-section of Hungarian Jewry. Among them were Orthodox Jews who worked wearing their skullcaps and who prayed wearing their prayer shawls every night, and assimilated Jewish inmates – those who were not Jewish in any religious sense, but who were Jewish by virtue of Hitler’s edict. The forced labourers represented all parts of the economic spectrum, all ages and all levels of education. I shovelled dirt with Dr. Schisha, a vascular surgeon (who had operated on my varicose veins when I was fourteen) and with a Justice of the Kúria, the highest court in the land. There were, of course, a lot of less accomplished fellows as well. The food was edible, lots of mutton that did not smell very good, but care packages from home improved the menu. We had occasional day passes to go home to be with family and friends, have a hot bath and savour mother’s cooking.
Such was life in the main camp. From the middle of July to the middle of September, I, along with a large group of young people from various camps in and around Budapest, was sent to Hárossziget (Haros Island), an island south of Csepel (an island south of Budapest), which was a very punishing experience. What made it worse was the sadistic camp commander and the nasty, mean-spirited guards who worked under his command. Rubble from the bombdamaged city was trucked to the island and piled up in pyramid-like heaps. Our job was to quickly level these pyramids. I remember when big chunks of the wire-mesh glass roof of our bombed-out railway stations arrived at the island. Without the benefit of work gloves, we had to break it up and handle the dirty jagged glass. Apparently, the purpose of the job was to fill up the marshy part of the island. But it was a make-work project, as they could have trucked the stuff directly to the marshes.
Around the middle of September, we were relieved by a new group, so we returned to the main camp. Occasional day passes were given and at times I would be home at the same time as my father and Jancsi. They were in separate camps in Budapest and coping quite well. Mother lived in our apartment at Hold Street No. 6 III. Her brother Feri, his wife, Blanka, and several friends had moved in with her. Each room housed a family, which lessened the chance that the authorities would put strangers into the apartment.
It was in this atmosphere, when we all happened to be at home on October 15, 1944, that Admiral Horthy spoke to the nation via radio during a midday broadcast. He conceded that Germany and Hungary had all but lost the war. He urged the population to avoid further bloodshed and to stop resisting the Soviet army, which stood about fifty kilometres east of Budapest. It was a happy moment. We all laughed and cried and hugged as we believed his speech signalled the end of the war and that we had all miraculously survived. We knew that most of the Jews in the countryside beyond the capital had been deported, and that most of them had been killed. But we believed that Horthy’s last minute change of heart, which was most likely motivated by his desire to alter his quisling-like image for post-war effect, gave us a reprieve. We believed that time had run out for the Nazis. The Soviets would soon be here and all would be well.
The euphoria lasted for almost an hour. Then we began hearing conflicting reports. Finally, news came that Horthy had been arrested by the Gestapo and that Ferenc Szálasi, the head of the extreme right Arrow Cross Party, had been appointed by the Germans to form a government. His reign of terror began that afternoon. That was the last time I saw my father. We had a long talk and agreed on two principles: 1) As long as our respective labour camps remained in Budapest, we would be safer in those camps than if we were to escape and start hiding prematurely; and 2) Before the camps were moved, we should make every effort to escape in order to avoid deportation.