From the barracks I was sent to Nagybánya, a little town not quite fifty miles north of Cluj, that constituted the assembly place for labor campers. I took with me the image of the two women and of the baby, the image of the old man bent by grief. I carried with me the knowledge that they would be taken to the newly established ghetto, and from there to some unknown destination. I was a speck of dust in a dust storm, stirred by a whirlwind. I was conscious of my helplessness and this feeling weighed upon me. I said to myself, however, that millions were at that time just as helpless as I was, and that all storms abate eventually. That very same feeling of helplessness gave me courage and the determination to endure.
In Nagybánya luck at first accompanied my steps. I was assigned to an officer as his servant. He was an educated man, a teacher in civilian life. When he learned that I was a rabbi, he treated me with consideration, more like a friend than like a servant. I felt grateful to God, for I saw in my lucky situation the proof of His providence.
Through the officer, I learned that my family had been, indeed, interned in the ghetto in Cluj. I entreated him to use his influence so that I would be permitted to enter the ghetto to pay a visit to my beloved. I was terribly upset by reports that many people there, particularly those who were known to have been well-off, were subjected to cruel interrogation accompanied by torture to make them reveal the hiding place of their valuables. I had even heard that my father also had been taken for interrogation. I was almost losing my mind worrying about him. Had he, too, been mistreated, tortured like the others? Later, I learned that he had succeeded in persuading the torturers that he possessed nothing of value. He was allowed to go without anyone laying a hand on him. In this fact I saw a miracle. Out of so many hundreds insulted, beaten, tortured, he was the only one they had left go unharmed.
"They will never let you into the ghetto, or if they do, you would never get out again," the officer explained to me, "but I can take you to Cluj, close enough to the ghetto to see your family from a distance."
He kept his word. I saw my dear ones and they saw me. We could not exchange words, but we exchanged glances, gleams from our eyes that traveled to and fro. There they were, apparently in good health, and safe for the moment. In our plight, in spite of our tragedy, I felt about twenty-five feet away from them, separated by the barbed wire of the ghetto, something akin to happiness. That feeling was of course, mixed with pain and grief, but there was also hope that perhaps, by dint of some miracle, one day we would be reunited in safety.
From the officer, I also learned what happened to the Jews in the rest of the provinces. Their concentration in camps was carried out within a few days. Undersecretary Endre went on a country-wide tour to visit the new ghettos. Upon his return to the capital, he called a press conference. He declared that he had personally supervised the establishment of the Jewish camps in thirty-two cities and was satisfied that it had been done "in a spirit of human kindness and Christian humanity." This statement was prompted by the inquiry made by the papal representative to Hungary and for foreign consumption. The astonishing fact is that the foreign envoys accepted at face value the cynical, shameless lies of this notorious anti-Semite President
Roosevelt sent a warning to the Hungarian government on March 24, 1944, concerning the concentration and probable deportation of the Jews. This statement included the following passages:
The forewarning by President Roosevelt should have come years earlier to prevent the evildoers from carrying out their satanic designs in Europe. This admonition was transmitted by every conceivable means, including foreign language broadcasts and in leaflets air-dropped by the millions over occupied Europe. Furthermore, the above mentioned text of President Roosevelt's statement was forwarded to the diplomatic representatives of neutral nations and also carried in their newspapers. The British gave their full support to this statement and were circulating the same. However, the Russian government rejected endorsement of the warning and did not support it. Their attitude constituted a pattern which the Russians followed during the entire period of World War II, and continue to follow to this very day.
Endre and Baky, knowing that the German defeat was near, seemed to race against time in trying to implement the plan of complete annihilation of the Jews of Hungary. They hastily began the deportations of those in the camps. In the Northeast, these deportations started around the 15th of May, 1944. The gendarmes supervising them showed themselves worthy of their masters. Not even the Nazis, in their worst excesses, exhibited so much bestiality toward their victims as did the agents of Endre and Baky. It is a sad commentary along with many others about human civilization, that such things could occur in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century. Women were stripped and raped; sick and pregnant women were thrown into freight cars, treated worse than cattle. In Nyiregyháza the deportees were marched through the street in pouring rain. Children over one year old were forced to march with the others. The laggards were driven on by bullwhips. In Sátoraljaujhely, groups of men refused to enter the freight cars. They were shot on the spot.
It should be noted that the Germans wanted to send out on a daily basis one or two trains consisting of forty-five wagons, and containing about thirty-two hundred people. This pace however, was not rapid enough for Endre. He demanded that six trains a day be moved out with twelve or thirteen thousand people each. He mobilized five thousand gendarmes for this purpose. Thanks to Endre, the destruction of Hungarian Jewry was taking place at an incredible speed. By the 12th of June, three hundred ten thousand people had been deported.
My privileged situation with the humane officer did not last. A few days after our return from Cluj to Nagybánya, I was assigned to a labor camp. Hard labor in the camp was all the more strenuous for me because I had not been used to it. Nevertheless, I decided that I would exert every effort to do whatever would be required of me to the best of my strength and ability. To this resolution I owed my life. Indeed, one day our camp in Nagybanya was visited by high-ranking army officers and officers of the gendarmerie. We were all summoned to an "appeal." The officers took turns in drilling us for hours. Those of us who at any moment showed any slowing dawn, or any lack of response to their commands, were taken out of the camp and disqualified as workers. They were beaten, insulted as good-for-nothing loafers, and taken by gendarmes to the ghetto to be shipped with other victims from Nagybánya to Auschwitz.
Thank God, I was not among them. The drill-gendarmes and officers did not criticize my performance. I saw in this fact proof that my will to endure was an effective force, provided God would lend me health and strength and that He would remain with me ....
I was saved from Auschwitz, but my situation was far from enviable. I too was to go to Poland to work there as a slave laborer. We packed our rags and were marched to the railroad station where cattle cars were awaiting us. On the floor of the cars there was some straw. We were also given some bread and there was water in one barrel. As we filed into the cattle cars, there was no bitterness in my heart, at least as my personal situation was concerned. I remembered what I had heard about the way the unfortunate internees, my brethren, had been shipped from Hungary to their fateful destination. At least we were not crowded to the extreme in our wagons. We could lie down, use our personal bundles as pillows under our heads and were not mistreated by our guards. To be sure, we were hungry and tired, but that was a permanent state with us. It seemed to us that all mankind was starving, and that it was not possible that anyone could rest enough and satisfy his hunger. I made it a rule with me to eat my bread at once, because I did not wish to tempt any of my fellow inmates by the sight of my bread bulging from my bundle. I ate my bread and drank the water allotted to me, and then I tried to murmur a prayer, to think of the Lord, to ask for His assistance. I fell asleep rather easily, and slept sufficiently to refresh myself, in spite of the swaying of the train, the din caused by the rolling cars, the sighs of the men around me, in spite of the moans, the screams they uttered in their dreams.
After two days of the journey, we arrived at the Hungarian-Polish frontier. There we had to transfer to another train. One by one we alighted and stretched our legs. We were cold, numb from the long immobility, numb also in our souls. The cattle car had reduced our human sensitivity. We felt empty, indifferent to anything that was happening to the outside world, to what would happen to us. Or so we thought. Our insensitivity was at once shaken by the arrival of another long train of cattle cars completely sealed, filled with humans. Out of the sealed cars came voices of children; of women; of people gone insane; cries for help; screams; the sound of sobbing; the appeal of children for help for their mothers; the cries of victims who shouted that they were choking, who asked for air; a dissonance of lamentations recorded from the circles of Dante's Inferno, as it were. Never, whatever I saw, whatever I went through later on, did anything shake up my innermost being as much as this encounter with the invisible but highly audible fellow-sufferers. "Members of the human race" I thought, "are treated in this way by other members. Both the victims and the torturers are degraded. Mankind in its entirety is engulfed in a tidal wave of evil and crime that is sweeping away what so many generations have built up in terms of human solidarity."
It seldom happens to any human being that he suffers from the plight of others more than from his own personal woes. Yet this was what happened to most of us in those few moments while that train, filled with the doomed and the damned, railed by before our eyes. My tears sprang forth abundantly, perhaps a reaction of nature to the burning, gnawing sensation inside my chest. The anguish of our helplessness was unbearable. We hurried to get into our own cattle cars in gloomy silence. I, descendant of rabbis, a rabbi myself, felt the weight of centuries of persecution of my people on my shoulders during those bitter minutes.
Jaramce was the name of the camp toward which we were directed, a foreign name which we had to learn. It remained indelibly imprinted in my memory because of the way it became, from a mere name, a living reality. As the letters spelling out that name leaped one by one into our field of vision, a terrible crash was heard. Our train was shaking, tilting, threatening to turn over. Then we felt as though the ceiling was collapsing, and again as though the bottom of the car was open under our feet. I felt like I was hit over my head by something dull, but tremendously powerful, stabbed in my sides by sharp knives. The door of the car opened under the shock; I jumped out, remained lying on the ground, stunned but unhurt.
Our train had collided with another one coming from the opposite direction. I saw many people running, gesticulating. I got up, looked inside the car. There lying on the floor, were bodies of those killed by the collision. Others had been badly injured. Everyone inside was terribly excited, and again I heard lamentations, moaning. The guards who were to receive us cursed. Stretchers arrived to take the dead and the injured away. I said to myself that my leap out of the car, acting upon an impulse, probably saved my life for I had been sitting in that part of the car that had been almost flattened by the collision. Once more a miracle occurred in my life. One of those events that unbelievers call a chance occurrence. I attributed it to the protection of God, and I addressed a silent prayer of thanks to the Almighty.