WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
was born István Katona in 1924. My father was the manager of a large
agricultural estate in Kartal, a village of few thousand people, 40 km
from Budapest. We lived the normal Hungarian assimilated Jewish existence:
I went to Jewish elementary school, had my Bar Mitzvah, went to the local
synagogue on High holidays. My mother kept a kosher household.
My father was only 55 years old when he was forcibly retired in 1942, due to the Hungarian anti-Jewish laws. The law restricted the number of Jews in certain professions. The same year, when I just finished High School, my parents moved to Tarnaméra, the village where my father was born. As Jews were not allowed to go to university, I went to the town of Gyöngyös, where I started an apprenticeship as an electrical mechanic.
The Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, and imposed a new government. This government, with German supervision and the enthusiastic participation of the majority Hungarian population, brought in daily more and more restrictions. Jews were not allowed to travel, at the train station they arrested all Jews, who were interned and later deported. Within weeks we had to wear yellow stars. Within six weeks of German occupation, by the end of April, we had to move into newly erected ghettoes. At first, these ghettoes were organized only in the country. In Budapest at that time they established the so called "yellow star houses" where the Jews had to live, and later they had to move to a ghetto too.
The ghetto was the most horrible, humiliating, soul destroying experience. My parents had lived a comfortable, middle class existence. My father was a proud Hungarian, his eyes were filled with tears in hearing the Hungarian Anthem and not by hearing the "Shema Yisroel."
It was already a shock leaving our home in 1942 and moving to Tarnaméra, in a small part of our ancestral home. My father, now without a daily occupation at 55, felt like a useless homebody.
In Tarnaméra everybody knew he was a Jew, even without yellow stars. One felt a Jew, like one is black haired, has freckles, or limps. It was a fact, which could not be changed. But to wear a yellow star, to become a target of ridicule, shattered my parents.
For me personally, the ghetto life did not last long. First, as a young man I was conscripted into the ghetto police. Within two weeks came the order that everybody born in 1924 should go to a forced labor battalion on the 15th of May, 1944. My parents were downhearted to be parted from their only child, but thought --very realistically-- that anything would be better than the ghetto. How true it was, though I did not know that at that time.
I was called up into the labor battalions with all the boys born in 1924 on the 15th of May, 1944. Although we were wearing the yellow star, we did not experience any problem in boarding a train to Jolsva, in northern Hungary, a part of the country which had belonged to Czechoslovakia from 1918-1938. It was an exhilarating feeling to sit in a passenger train carriage and not be kicked, abused and swore at by all and sundry. We were assembled randomly, about 300 in one battalion, and given a group of guards of old Hungarian peasant soldiers. Our number was 107/302. Our guards came from the surrounding country side, which was a lucky break.
The Czech republic was a real democracy, based on equality, multiparty system and civil liberties for all. Our guards lived in that democratic --although for them alien-- state for twenty years. They were ethnic Hungarians who first welcomed the Hungarians back in 1938, but after 6 years of Hungarian rule, they saw the difference.
They were not harsh to us, in fact our treatment was mild compared to stories heard elsewhere. We had to work hard, and they were strict but not cruel.
I straight away met an old acquaintance, Stephen Herman. I acquired lifelong friends, like George Varnai in Sydney, Laci Ivan in France and that helped. Stephen lived in Spain after the war. We worked in Ozd in the steel mill, in Putnok in a timber cutting camp and later, from July, in Budapest. Here we were housed in a bombed-out block of flats in Reitter Ferenc Street and worked in the army food depot, and later in the railway station, all the time loading and unloading goods trains. Half of the battalion was from Budapest. These boys --legally or illegally-- went home to visit their families on weekends, who by now lived in the "Jewish houses", and they brought in food, clothing etc. Even I went out to visit my mother's aunt, who was my only relative in Budapest.
On the 15th of October we were standing in line for lunch. The radio was on and we heard Horthy's proclamation for asking for peace with the Allies. We were extremely happy, our freedom has arrived.
Some of the boys, who worked at the railway station unloading weapons and ammunitions, got hot under the collar, commandeered the horse-drawn carriages of the battalion and went to the railway station to collect weapons and arm ourselves for the eventual liberation.
It took less than six hours for the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazi) Party to take power from the Horthy regime, with the tacit but forceful help of the German Occupation Army. Somebody on the street noticed that we had armed ourselves and reported us to the police or the Arrow Cross Party.
Police on trucks arrived and as we had already heard on the radio, that the Nazis had taken over the Government, there was a surrender without fight. The trucks took us to the Police Headquarters. We stood in the corridor for hours with both hands held up in the air, facing the wall. Any slackness was rewarded with a rifle butt in the back. One by one we were led in and interrogated. When the police found out who were the "ring leaders" who brought in the arms, it was about 4 AM. They kept the "instigators", about 15 men, who, after further interrogation, were deported to Auschwitz. The rest of us were escorted back to our quarters. We were given additional guards, as the Arrow Cross did not trust our regular army personnel, who had been with us since May.
Within two weeks, on the 29th of October, 1944, we were given marching orders to an unknown destination. Approximately half of the battalion were Budapest boys. Most of them deserted, went home or somewhere in the city, illegally hiding, as they thought it a better risk for survival. We from the country had no choice at all, nowhere to go.
The direction was to the west. We reached the Hungarian-German [former Austrian] border in less than a week on foot, [about 200 km]. It was horrible, our group was now part of a big march. Our battalion had a fairly good behaved, formerly Czech citizen "crew," but there were guards supervising even them, and these guards did not think twice: anybody who tried to escape, or was too sick to walk, was summarily shot.
On the 4th of November, 1944, at the border, they turned us over to an SS officer, who commanded a guard outfit of teenagers in the uniform of the Volksturm, a German auxiliary brigade. Our sergeant major stood us in line and started to sing an old Hungarian song "Now anybody should tell me in my eye, whom I offended in my life time" [Most mondja el valaki a szemembe, kinek mit vétettem én életemben]. He started to cry, because most probably he knew what is waiting for us.
Contrary to other people's experience, we were herded to a passenger train. The doors were locked, a guard was placed on each connecting platform. We passed railway stations without stopping, for several days. One day, we reached the station of a large city, where lots of German Red Cross ladies were waiting to give food and water for German troops going or coming to the Eastern and Western Front. They could not fathom who we were, the passengers, so they tried to comfort us. They were rudely repelled by our guards, but we were a curiosity for the people on the station, as we had civilian clothes and were in custody.
We were taken to an office building, SS guards asked our name, date of birth, and profession, then they asked, when were we taken prisoners by the German Army? Some of us said, that we are not prisoners, we are in the Hungarian Army. These people were quickly reminded with a box on the ear or a kick in the private parts, that what we are, stinking Jews. Nevertheless in the German files, we were called "Hungarian Jewish Political Prisoners," as I have personally seen in records I saw when I went back to Buchenwald in 1990.
Everybody was given a number, reminded, that we now had no names, just numbers, which should be noted and answered, when called. I became No 87645. My friend, Laci Ivan, who had an unbelievable mathematic memory became No 87654. He was "annoyed" that he received a number, which could be so easily remembered.
My occupation was registered as electrician. A couple of days later there was a notice on the barracks board, asking for tradesmen to report in the office. One of my friends, who was an electrical instrument repairer, went for "Erdarbeiter" as he translated this as "farm laborer." But the correct translation was "construction laborer." He could not do that job and died shortly.
I reported for an electrician's job, as did a few friends from the battalion, who were tradesmen. One even brought his cousin, hoping he could pass as an electrical assistant. So we were sent on November 15, 1944 to SCHLIEBEN to work in an antitank missile factory [Panzerfaust] I was put in the electrician's unit, in a separate section of a barrack. Our KAPO was a Polish political prisoner with the name of Narczys. I do not think he ever was an electrician, but a fairly reasonable man. He covered his back and we had to work hard, but he was not cruel. We also had a German electrical foreman, a local electrical master from the village, who was quite decent.
Every morning we had an "Appell" count and marched to the factory. At night even the dead had to be brought back, recounted and if the number was not right, they recounted and recounted again and again for hours. The guards were extremely cruel. The favorite pastime was to take off a prisoner's cap and throw it against the electrified barbed wire fence. The prisoner was ordered to pick it up. Then either he was killed by the high voltage of the fence or shot as a would-be escapee.
One day --as usual-- I was speaking in Hungarian with my friend Jancsi Csillag, while working on an installation. A guard from the tower shouted in Hungarian "you stinking Jews, work and don't talk" We found out that he was an ethnic German from Hungary, who had joined the SS. He was with us until the liberation. He tried the same "hat trick" with me one day, jokingly or spitefully, I don't know. I didn't fall for it and he didn't force the issue.
As electricians, we had better food, better quarters and could move in the camp without guards. The best job was working in the kitchen. Some piece of equipment or an appliance went wrong frequently. We made sure of it. An extra bowl of soup, a piece of bread that we could obtain, made the difference between life or death. A favorite was the potato skin, thrown on the scrap-heap. We collected them, washed, and baked them on the barrack stove: it was a veritable feast.
There was an enmity between Hungarians and Poles. The Poles could not understand why the Hungarians did not speak Yiddish --which for them was an everyday, national language. They despised us for that, for the fact that most Hungarian Jews were assimilated, thinking of themselves as Hungarians first, who also had Jewish religious beliefs. Polish Jews were Jews, not Poles --Jews and nothing else.
Apart from cultural differences there was an other factor, which I could understand but never condone. They constantly reminded us, that they had been forced into ghettoes and taken to concentration camps 4 - 5 years earlier, while we had lived freely, albeit restricted by "mild" anti-Jewish laws. The Pole who was in the camp was a survivor of a bitter struggle just to live, and wanted to live, even by treating us badly.
I survived in spite of that constant reminding that I was a "traitor" who lived well, while they had suffered.
I was lucky with my trade, and also I firmly believed, all the time, without any doubt, that I would survive, I had to survive.
The German foreman brought in newspapers, so from that we knew that the war would not, could not, last long. So we did everything to survive! My firm belief in that made me psychologically strong. There was barely a minute when I doubted that I would survive.
Within days our KAPO contacted the commander in Schlieben, who came around [he was the commandant of both camps] and told the Flössberg SS to do something, as the circumstances did not help the production and the German war effort. He was not worried about our health, but about the number of missiles. That was his only concern, but we were lucky that this helped us too.
Towards the end of March came my only moment of doubt about my survival. I was extremely weak with diarrhea, miserable after the exceptionally cold 1944/45 winter. My left big toe had been frostbitten since 1941, an extremely hard winter, when I walked to school, so now it was inflamed enormously.
The Jews from Transylvania, in 1944 a Hungarian territory, had a problem [Transylvania, in Hungarian Erdély, was taken in 1920 by the Trianon Treaty from Hungary and became a Romanian territory. Hitler gave it back in 1940 to the Hungarians]. They wrote to King Michael, to send a train for them. The King replied, that it must be a mistake, they must be Hungarians, as Jews were not deported from Romania, so why don't they go back to Hungary. It was the way he paid back to the Transylvanian Jews, who always regarded themselves Hungarians, even under Romanian rule, between 1918-1940.
During the night, there was a knock on the wall. An Austrian man asked us, why were we locked in. We told him, that one of us is a suspected SS, wrongly accused. He broke the wall of the shed and lead us through the gardens to the street, where we reached the sector occupied by the Western Allies. Who knows, was it his good heart, or did he want to help an SS?
Next day we went by train to Hungary. I did not go further than Szombathely, a border town, where the Hungarian medics put me in hospital. I had three weeks of freedom since liberation, weighed 35 kg., with my 183 cm height. I was operated on my armpit, received antibiotics, and good nourishing food.
When they felt I was well enough, around the middle of July, I went to Budapest, where I knew I had my mother's aunt. The train travel was a nightmare. People stormed the train in the second it pulled in the station. Thousands traveled, mostly for scrounging for food, as Budapest, 6 months after liberation, was a city of starved people, totally without affordable food supply. There was a rampant inflation, one's wages was not worth a kilogram of bread at the evening of a pay-day. People sat even on the roof of train carriages, just to get somewhere, somehow.
My reaction from the concentration camp was, that I could not conceive anything funny. I spent 10-14 days in Budapest before going to Tarnaméra. One day I went to see a Charlie Chaplin movie. The audience roared with laughter about the misfortunes of the little man. I could not understand why they laughed. I just felt sorry for him. So I walked out in the middle of the screening.
When I reached Tarnaméra, I realized that I arrived back to a forgotten existence that I had left just 15 months ago. Those months were eradicated from my life, when I became a non-person in a near to animal existence, from October 1944 to May 1945.
Nobody recognized me, not a living soul, but one.
When we left to the ghetto, we gave our little fox-terrier to a neighbor. The dog was on the street, came towards me, licked my trousers, sniffed and jumped up and down. I became myself again, who, at last, been recognized and loved --by a dog.
Our tenant seemed glad to see me, and told to go to the police station, where my friend Alex Seidner (now in Melbourne) was the local chief. He was the first Jew, who returned to Tarnaméra in the early spring of 1945, so he became the police sergeant. I slept in a bed, washed myself, ate and tried to become a normal person.
It sank in slowly, that I would not see my parents again. Even in the summer of 1944, we thought that they would be taken away from the ghetto to work. Some people even received a postcard, from a mysterious WALDSEE, somewhere near to Switzerland on the map.
I did not receive any, but I did not get very worried. In the concentration camp we saw men, women, but no children or old people. But the daily struggle, just to survive, blunted our senses. It was not selfishness, that we did not think about anything not connected with our daily survival, it was pure animal behavior. The Nazis did not think, that we were better than an animal, so by their treatment we became one.
In the next months, after inquiries, I found out that apart from me, only two uncles and two cousins survived from the whole family. The family consisted of: 1 grandfather, 2 parents, 19 uncles and aunts and 19 cousins. So 5 of us were left out of 41 persons! 36 murdered by gas, by beating, overwork, or starvation. Nobody will ever know the exact truth about how they died.
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