Uncle Bandi

Where should I begin? I was born in Miskolc in 1922, where there were two religious communities, the Orthodox and the Neolog. My father was deeply religious, so we belonged to the Orthodox Church. I later became Neolog, but this didn’t mean losing my strong Jewish identity. I went to a Jewish elementary school in Miskolc, and, as I was a good student, I was accepted to a secondary school run by the Minorite order. Later, after graduating in 1940, I went to study at the University of Economics. This was our big break since the whole family moved to Budapest because of my studies. Had we stayed in Miskolc, all of us would have been deported.

While I was at university, everyone my age was taken to labor camps in Ukraine, and the great majority of them never returned. As a university student, I was able to get a deferment from year to year. Nothing was done to me until March ‘44, but when the Germans entered the country everything fell to pieces. I was kicked out of the university and called up for labor service. For a while we worked in the packing-house on Kálmán Tóth Street and spent our time hauling frozen halves of pigs around. We got decent food and were put up at the Páva Street Synagogue. Then, on October 15th, following the Horthy Proclamation, the Szálasi regime came to power, gendarmes suddenly had our sector surrounded and they herded us to the railway station in Józsefváros and shoved us into cattle cars. All I could manage to do was to jot my parents’ address down onto a preprinted postcard with the message that we were being taken, but I’d no idea where. I dropped this to the ground before stepping into the wagon. By the time they got it, they were already stuck in the ghetto.

Two months beforehand, while I was still in the labor service, a humorous thing happened. Our Hungarian lieutenant called the whole squadron together and told us he had good news for us, the entire squadron was going to the Rókus Chapel the next day to be christened and then everyone would receive a papal letter of safe passage. This document bore an almost mystical significance, both the Germans and the Arrow Cross militiamen accepted it because they were afraid of what the West would do. This news was naturally greeted with a cheer, the only ones not cheering were some Orthodox Jews and myself. I thought to myself that I didn’t need any letter of safe passage for a price like that. The way I saw it, any religion that preaches helping those in need, then demands they convert to Christianity in exchange for that help, is just totally unacceptable. It was blackmail, plain and simple, and I wasn’t going to fall for it.

I had a very good friend from the squad, he was a working-class Jewish guy from Újpest. When he heard that I wasn’t in for the deal, he was absolutely beside himself and started swearing a blue streak. He asked what kind of a crazy bastard I was, it’d just take a little water poured on me, it didn’t mean anything anyway and once the war was over I could just have it undone. I turned in for the night. On the morning of the next day, my friend comes up to me and throws this piece of paper at me. I asked him what it was and he said what would it be, you ass, it’s your papal letter of safe passage. What letter, I answered, I was asleep the whole time. Well, you were, but I wasn’t. And that when they’d called roll at the Rókus Chapel, he’d answered under his name and mine. So he’d gotten christened for the two of us.

When I was deported a couple of months later, I was searched at the German border and they took every little thing away from me. The gendarme shoved the letter of safe passage back at me with a guffaw and said that I could keep, it wouldn’t do me any good anyway. And he was right.

We were taken to Balf. What a terrible memory. From December to March fifty of us were sleeping in an open haycroft in the freezing cold. Beginning at five every morning, we dug trenches in the mountains so when Russians came we could beat them back from there. We were crawling with hundreds of lice, a lot of us came down with typhus from the lice, including a friend of mine. One day he was so delirious with fever that he couldn’t even make it outside for a bowl of the crappy soup we got. After work, I snuck away to get a potato or two that a Swabian German woman would leave for us at the gate from time to time. I told my friend to hang on, Gyuri, I’d cook the potatoes and be right back in a flash. An hour later and he was gone: the sick barn, where he’d been lying, was emptied and everyone in it was taken out and shot. In another barn the author, Antal Szerb, was there lying on a bunk. I went to see him. He was out of his mind, in the last stages before death. The guards had beaten him all over and he couldn’t take it anymore. I was with him in his last moments. We didn’t know each other, but it so happens that he courted a cousin of mine, at least according to my cousin he did. I didn’t talk to Antal Szerb about that, though.

In January, ‘45, the Russians invaded Budapest and were making their way toward us. One day after work we were commanded to grab our gear as we were pushing on to Germany. We were frightened. My legs were terribly swollen from starvation: I couldn’t even get them into the wooden clogs we wore so I wrapped them up in rags. Due to the pain I was in, I’d gotten a krankenzettel the previous day, so I hadn’t had to work for a day. When the guards surrounded us to herd us off, I thought this sick certificate would mean I could stay. I said goodbye to my friends and I showed the guard my paper which certified that I couldn’t walk. He listened to all my explanations for a minute, then slowly took his rifle from his shoulder, lowered it at me and said one more word and I’d be staying there forever. So I stepped into the line and started walking.

Luck was with me. I found out later that the ones who’d stayed behind were marched out to the trenches we’d dug by the German lager gendarmes and shot right there.

So we were walking, making our merry way to Germany, and every time we halted for a bit we rested or searched for food in the grass because what they gave us to eat was next to nothing. One kilo of ration bread was cut into 18 pieces and we each got 60 grams a day. We were coming close to some German village when we heard shouting. The local lads were standing on both sides of the road and hitting the marching Jews with clubs, a lot of poor people lost their lives there. Not one of their blows hit me: since I wasn’t carrying anything, I could jump out of the way. We were told that all those who were in better conditions were to go forward to smaller lagers. I was afraid that if I joined them I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace and I’d be shot, so I decided to stay behind with the infirm.

The SS showed up the next day and anyone who couldn’t walk was thrown onto trucks, and we, the ones who were still able to move, were commanded to follow the trucks on foot. When we reached the Danube, there was this rickety barge and a lot of soldiers and we were shoved one by one into the bottom of the barge, into the hold, where coal was usually shoveled from. I don’t know how far I fell, but I didn’t land hard because the ones who’d been taken off the trucks had been thrown into the hold before us. I was clutching a piece of bread and somebody snatched it from my hand. I tried to make out in the dark who it could have been, but he disappeared and I felt that the very last thing that would keep me alive was gone and now there was nothing left. That’s how that night passed.

The next morning a ladder was lowered into the hold and everyone had to go up it and there were a whole bunch who’d died during the night and we had to throw their bodies into the Danube. Then we went to shore. They took us to a shower and the rumor spread that gas would come out of the showerheads. Water came out of ours, so we washed ourselves. Then they ordered us out buck naked into the freezing cold and to the barracks. There were four of us to a bunk, as naked as the day we were born, and this went on for a week or two, Things got better because there was always somebody who died during the night and eventually there weren’t four people to a bunk, but three and then later there were only two. They made soup out of all kinds of rotten leftovers and refuse and this is what we got to eat. This was Mauthausen. It was impossible to last more than two weeks here, or only for youngsters like me. I was 22 at the time.

One day I looked out the window to the appelplatz, which was this huge field where the captives had to report for the headcount every morning. Two vehicles appeared on the road, the likes of which I’d never seen before. One was a jeep, the other was some kind of a truck with machine guns. They were the American advance guard. About ten soldiers were in the two vehicles. Nice and quietly they went up to the command post’s building, which was guarded by German soldiers. They stared each other in the eyes for a few minutes, then, without a hit of violence, the Germans raised the crossing gate and let the Americans into the middle of the appelplatz. It all happened so quietly it was like the world had stopped.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The captives who’d been kept there for years and could barely walk were running towards the Americans. Or more precisely, they were trying to hobble towards the Americans while letting out this roar like they were animals. By that time they ‘d lost anything resembling a human voice, but after just a few steps they stumbled and fell and then got up again and again. When they reached the American soldiers, who were standing there like they’d been turned to stone, they leaped on them and kissed them from head to toe. Meanwhile they were making these sounds that bore no resemblance to civilization, it was like they were cavemen straight out of the Stone Age. The soldiers didn’t understand what was going on. This was liberation’s unforgettable moment and I can still see it all in my head as if it’d happened just yesterday.

The Americans set up tents for hospitals, I was put into a hospital, too, since I couldn’t swallow, my gastric juices had all disappeared and only liquid could go down my throat. The Americans weren’t prepared for treating non-combat wounds and I was sent home in a month. They put me on a train with two other guys in similar straits, but in a bit better condition and they helped me get around. I arrived home four days later.

I wanted to get to Dohány Street, where I’d last seen my parents. All of a sudden, as if it were some kind of a dream out of the past, I caught sight of my Jewish girlfriend, walking towards me with a smile on her face on the arm of her husband. She’d gone into hiding and managed to survive. For me it was inconceivable that anyone left alive wouldn’t be in the same miserably condition I was in. I stayed out of her sight because I didn’t want to scare her in my prison clothes. It was already June and Budapest had been liberated since January.

I couldn’t find my parents at Dohány Street, so and I went to their previous flat on Baross Street. Getting there took me hours, I had to sit down and rest every thirty meters. The door opened, or rather the window in the door, and there was my brother standing there. I hadn’t seen him for two or three years by then. I said hello Karcsi, but he didn’t recognize me and slammed the window shut because people were very frightened of strangers at that time. Then my mother came out—my parents were already home, they’d been liberated from the ghetto—and my mother recognized me immediately. She’d been counting the days until I’d come back. I was in bed for months afterward and my mother spent every minute with me. I couldn’t have asked for better care.

Two to three months later a mass funeral was held for the victims murdered in Balf. This was the first time I stepped out of our home on Baross Street. This is where I heard what had happened to the sick captives who’d stayed behind. Somebody touched my shoulder during the funeral and asked, Bandi, don’t you recognize me? I really didn’t, his face was covered with deep scars. It turned out we‘d been in the same haycroft in Balf, but he’d stayed behind when I left. Two days after we left they were taken to the trenches and shot. He got hit, too, but he didn’t die. He heard the guard standing above him say to another guard that this one’s still moving, but he’d run out of bullets and told the other to give him some. He got them and shot my buddy in the head, but the bullet went in one side of his face and came out the other. Then they left him for dead. One-and-a-half hours later the Russian advance guard showed up on horseback and transported him to the hospital in Sopron. He was probably the only survivor.

Many of my friends had a taste for communism after the war because they hoped that from then on, it’d never matter again who was a Jew and who wasn’t. A lot of them joined the Communist Party and got positions. More than one ended up in the Hungarian State Security Force. I didn’t join anything, but the knowledge that many of my friends were in the new administration relieved me.

I enjoyed the comfort of my family and the fact that I’d gotten back both of my parents, which was a really rare thing. So I didn’t rush to leave the country, a decision that proved to be a serious mistake. Many left in ‘48, but I stayed. I didn’t see what times were ahead. In ‘49, when the communists took over, it occurred to me that the time had come to go, but by then it was too late. Even though I had contacts among the State Secret Police, where all the decisions were made about who’d get a passport simple friendship obviously didn’t count for much as my applications kept being refused.

I tried to escape across the border, but with the luck I’ve had my whole life through, I got caught. And not far from Balf, actually. I was sent to 60
Andrássy Street for interrogation, where I spent a few wonderful days, and then they decided that freeing me would be worrisome from a state security standpoint, so I became an enemy of the state who’d tried to escape to the capitalist West. For this I was interned at a detention center in Kistarcsa, where I spent the next eight months enjoying my ‘holiday,’ so to speak, building solitary cells at the state internment camp. I was released after 8 months, but couldn’t get a job anywhere since my little adventure in Kistarcsa was listed on my record. After almost a year of no work, I simply left this episode out of my application and then I got a job in foreign trade at a minimum salary.

After a year we got a new group leader and he listed each and every one of my personal details to me, face-to-face, including the very day I tried to cross the border. He proudly asked me if I had guessed how he knew all this. I was standing there absolutely broken inside, I knew it was all over for me and then he tells me he was the one who’d signed my discharge papers at the State Security Force. He was a Jewish kid with the exact same past, the only difference being that he’d joined the party and become the administrative commander of the internment camp in Kistarcsa, but since he’d worked from Budapest we’d never actually met. He asked if the Comrade Party Secretary knew about my past and I confessed he didn’t and he replied that if he were standing in my shoes, he’d immediately report it. Then he just turned heel and left me standing there. It’d be hard to describe the state I was in after I knew what was ahead of me. I’d lied about my past and, what is worse, I was working in foreign trade of all places, so I knew I was looking at a sentence of at least 10 years, or maybe even more, for tricking the Hungarian state. That was one sleepless night I spent afterward: I waited the whole night for when they would come get me, but nothing happened. The first thing the next day I reported the incident to the party secretary. He just waved me back to the department with the warning that he’d be keeping his eye on me. I stayed at this job for another four years, until ‘56.

‘56 was the third time I crossed the border without a passport and this time I finally made it. My wife and I went to America straight away as two of my aunts had settled here more than a hundred years ago. We got our visas immediately. They welcomed us with open arms because we were what they called ‘freedom fighters.’ A law was declared saying that 50,000 visas were to be handed out to Hungarians from ‘56 and we got two of them. We both got jobs, life was getting better and better and we had no financial worries. I can say that the American dream worked out for us. To tell the truth, I haven’t met one Hungarian refugee living in poverty in New York.

Hungary is a memory, and one that can’t be erased, as most of my youth took place there. Most of the Hungarians living here don’t even want to hear a word about Hungary. Even my wife felt that way. If I hadn’t pushed for us to visit home from time to time, she never would have gone back. The way I see it is that it’s individuals who need to bear the responsibility and guilt, not the state or community. A state cannot be declared guilty for the sins of individuals. All that said, Hungary unquestionably behaved very badly toward the Jews and if Hungarians hadn’t taken such an active part in the deportations, far fewer Jews would have died. In a nutshell, a very heavy blame lies on Hungarians, which, of course, they don’t want to admit to, but I have so many memories of Hungary that I don’t want to erase all of these just by simply declaring that I’ll never go back.

But I don’t know anyone else who has gone through as many terrible things as I have. My story is not like the one the girls tell about being hidden away the whole time where they only had to tremble in fear for what might happen to them. To me their story seems like something out of an operetta. If I had a child I’d show him Hungary, but I unfortunately haven’t got one, and this is my biggest sorrow. I am completely alone. Nobody is left from my family, my wife died long ago, my relatives in America live outside of New York. What I need the most is company; this would mean all the world to me.