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ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY

$\textstyle \parbox{3.5in}{
\small
And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee,
and thou shalt honour me--Psalm 50:15.
\normalsize
}$

A desolate landscape drenched by the sun, no trees anywhere, our camp was on flatland, isolated from the fields, from the villages. It had barracks of a uniform rust color; the houses of the guards on the edges of the camp; others for storage; a large ditch serving as a latrine, its stench offensive to our nostrils. Barbed wire surrounded the camp.

In the barracks we enjoyed the unheard-of luxury of wooden beds without mattresses, piled up on top of each other. There was also a heap of straw in a corner. It looked old, used. I preferred to do without it, afraid as I was of lice and bugs. I put my clothes on the bare wood. The nights were warm so that I did not need a blanket.

At daybreak, we aligned for the appeal. In that particular camp we were the only labor battalion. We numbered about one hundred fifty men. We received our ration of bread for the day, which I ate immediately. We were then marched to the warehouse to get our spades or other tools necessary for our daily work. Each of us was responsible for these, and we had to hand them in after the day's work.

Our labor consisted of digging ditches and erecting fortifications at a place distant about a mile and a half from the camp. I realized that an enemy army would have to come down on the plain from the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains for its invasion of Hungary. In this sense, sending out Hungarian labor battalions to Polish territory was justified, provided - and this seemed to be the case - that the Poles themselves did not have the manpower to fortify their own country.

The daily march from the camp to our place of work was the only diversion in our otherwise unbearably dull life. At noon, we were given a thin soup from the mobile kitchen that was sent out for us. A half hour to eat and to rest and the work was resumed till sunset. Sometimes our guards authorized an extra half-hour rest in the afternoon on condition that our work assigned to us be completed by the end of the day. These guards were Hungarians themselves, foreigners in the country. They felt lonely and in the need of human communication. It was only with us, their prisoners, that they could speak at all, which brought about a certain relaxed atmosphere among us.

As one project was completed, we were sent out to other locations at a greater distance from our camp. We could then see from afar some villages peacefully huddling in the shade of a small wood. The peace of nature was in striking contrast with the nonsensical war that was raging in the world. The Polish peasants, men and women, looked very much like their counterparts in Hungary. I was digging ditches, day in and day out, and wondered about the sanity of mankind, about its inability to enjoy what nature had offered to it.

My hands holding the spade worked independently of my mind. My thoughts were from one point in time and space to another, embracing mankind, God and the Universe. My arms were just a machine, and I really lived in those days through my mind, in my contemplations.

In my thoughts I was with my wife, my son and my family; my imagination was so vivid that I actually saw; them, talked to them. More than once, I was punished for my escape from the ugly reality; I was brutally recalled to it by one of the guards.

One day I received a tremendous blow on my back.

"Say, you pig, are you dreaming or what?" a voice thundered.

The guard had noticed that the ditch I was digging was not advancing fast enough. The heap of dirt around it was too small for him. He criticized the way I was holding the shovel.

"What was your occupation before we picked you up?" he inquired.

I told him that I was a rabbi. This answer amused him immensely.

"A rabbi, he is a rabbi!'' he repeated laughing. He went to tell the news to his fellow guards, then he planted himself behind me. "So you were praying instead of doing honest work!'' he said. He then egged me on to work faster and faster, until my pace of shoveling became frantic, he kicking and whipping me all the time. He finally got tired of mistreating me, and ordered me to pick up a heavy tree and run with it to the top of the mountain. I cannot understand how I managed to get there. I felt at first that my heart was falling out of my chest, then suddenly, a dull pain paralyzed me. It threatened to knock me down, it ran down to my legs; my lips became parched and I was totally shaken.

From then on, T tried to avoid that cruel guard whenever I could. Yet, if he happened to be in a bad mood, or set his eyes upon me, he started his scathing remarks about me.

"This do-nothing, the Rabbi! This phony," he used to say. Then again, "How come you don't have a beard, you swine? Too bad, I would tear it out."

One day I suffered at his hand an ordeal that it is impossible for me to describe accurately. My tormentor must have been drunk, for he was in a particularly vicious and dangerous mood. He came to me and hit me with his fist, then with a stick.

"This is going to be your last hour, you buret" he growled. "To the wall with you!"

He made me stand against the wall and said, "Now I will shoot you!"

He pulled a gun out of his belt and aimed it at me. I closed my eyes, tried to pray, but no words came to my mind. Suddenly, the images of my beloved emerged before my mind's eye.

"Oh Lord, accept my life as a sacrifice and spare them from similar agony. Lead them back to freedom!'' These words were not articulated, rather thought in a flash. Everything was image and color in my inner world, colors and images that changed into each other, chased each other, independent of my will.

"I am going to die!" I heard a voice in the midst of this kaleidoscope, followed by a laugh. The sound of this laugh made me open my eyes.

"You are trembling, Jew!'' the guard said, lowering his weapon. "Next time I'll finish you off." He grinned and departed. I must have been in an awful shape, for one of my fellow inmates came to me and wiped my face. Much later I learned that the guard who thus tortured me, subsequently joined the Communist Party, and was welcomed there.

Even among my fellow inmates, there were some who resented my prayers mornings and evenings. "Much good does it do for you!" they railed. It seemed to me that these men envied me for despairing less in our situation than they were, for keeping up some hope, and in spite of all, a sort of serenity. At least, looking back, this is how I can analyze their hostility to my saying of prayers. They called me a fool and also a fake, just as our guard did. Nevertheless, none of them denounced me, and with time, a few even started to speak to me in a friendly tone. The exhausting work and the insufficient food undermined my health. I felt constant fatigue, and fever alternating with chills. I was allowed to stay in our barracks for a few days. One morning, before the others aligned for the appeal, one of the men, a gaunt fellow with a pale complexion, eyes red from lack of sleep, came to my bed and handed me something wrapped in a piece of cloth.

"Take this," he said. "I saved it up yesterday for you."

It was a portion of his daily bread. I looked at him, not comprehending. Was there such a thing possible in a place like ours? "I want you to have it," he repeated. "You need to get your strength back." He dropped the precious package into my lap and scurried out, not to be late to the appeal.

I learned that this generous benefactor of mine used to be the owner of a small grocery store in the outskirts of Cluj. His wife had been deported and he had not heard from her. Fortunately for them, they had no children. I prayed from then on every day for him and his wife. We became attached to each other in the subsequent weeks, till events separated us.

The high Jewish holidays came. We went out to our daily chores as usual. On the eve of the Day of Atonement, as we gathered in our barracks after work, I stepped forward and asked whether anyone wished to join me in the prayers appropriate on the occasion. I would recite them from memory, as we possessed no prayer books. To my surprise, eleven men replied in the affirmative. Three others volunteered to watch so that we should not be surprised by the guards. On that evening and on the following day no one, not even those known to be notorious unbelievers, uttered a single word of mockery or disapproval. The mood was sad but solemn; I noticed that most of my companions in suffering withdrew into themselves on that day, addicted to meditations. This, I said to myself, is the real meaning of Yom Kippur after all, the withdrawal into oneself. Such an attitude implies meditation, and meditation implies an élan towards God. Religion was not dead among us in spite of all the vulgarity and brutality that reigned in the outside world. On the contrary, deep down I believe each of us, even the professed unbelievers, reserved a corner for transcendence. Without belief and hope, none of us had a chance to survive. This was more important than a strong body and muscles.

Thus the days went by resembling each other in their monotony. It seemed to us at times that this life would go on without end, that there could be no change ever; we were to finish our earthly existence in this foreign land, in slavery. Was I born for this? I often asked, meditating.

The images of my beloved, my wife holding our baby in her arms, my mother and father looking at me from a distance, kept returning to my mind's eye. At times I felt an almost unbearable longing for them. I would have given my life just to see them, to speak to them once more, but most of the time these visions conveyed to me the hope and promise of reunion. It occurred to me that my strong will and longing could force our destiny, and that these apparitions actually foreshadowed our future. Armed with this hope of eventual reunion, I fought the voice that made suggestions to me in my loneliness, to give up, to renounce, perhaps to put an end to my days. I simply chased away any such impulses. I did not allow them to take hold of me.

One day an unexpected event brought tremendous excitement into our lives. A plane flew over our camp, passing at great speed. One of us recognized it. "It's Russian!" he exclaimed. "The Russians must be closing in on us!"

That night no one slept in the barracks. Till the late hours after the lights were extinguished, groups were discussing in whispered tones the news.

"The Germans are finished," some said. "The Red Army will soon be here. We shall be free!"

This conclusion filled my comrades with tremendous joy. It did not last, however, because one of them remarked, "It's not likely that the Hungarians and the Germans will simply let us go where we please. They will drag us along if they have to withdraw from here."

These words had the opposite reaction. General gloom settled on most faces.

`We should try to surrender to the Russians," someone opined.

"This would mean to exchange one slavery for another. We would still be prisoners then."

No one could offer any convincing conclusion, but the apathy and resignation that characterized our previous days were gone. We were alerted to the fact that a change was bound to occur in our lives very soon.

We were right in our supposition. One day in the month of September, the guards announced, "You must pack up. Tomorrow at dawn we will leave:"

We learned that our camp was to be transferred back to Hungary. We received the great news with mixed feelings. We feared a return to the country of Endre and Baky, the likelihood of their finishing us off before the final defeat of Germany and her Hungarian ally. On the other hand, we rejoiced at the imminence of this defeat that was becoming obvious to all of us. The problem for us was to survive until the time of liberation. (At the time, indeed, we had no reason yet to regard the Russians otherwise than as liberators, because they combated the Nazis.)

We were to make the journey from Jaramce to Hungary on foot, by forced marches. Daily we covered an average of twenty-five to thirty miles. We marched ten to twelve hours a day, resting only after complete darkness settled on the land. We spent our nights in the open fields, without shelter, in any kind of weather, in rain, heat or cold. Our feet were swollen, the soles of our feet full of blisters; most of us had to shed our shoes because they were full of holes, and so torn, that they no longer protected our feet. So we marched barefoot; marching became increasingly painful to us. We had little to eat and were continuously egged on to hurry. No wonder that so many of us were in a weak condition, several unable to continue. It must be said that

These words had the opposite reaction. General gloom settled on most faces.

``We should try to surrender to the Russians," someone opined.

"This would mean to exchange one slavery for another. We would still be prisoners then."

No one could offer any convincing conclusion, but the apathy and resignation that characterized our previous days were gone. We were alerted to the fact that a change was bound to occur in our lives very soon.

We were right in our supposition. One day in the month of September, the guards announced, "You must pack up. Tomorrow at dawn we will leave:"

We learned that our camp was to be transferred back to Hungary. We received the great news with mixed feelings. We feared a return to the country of Endre and Baky, the likelihood of their finishing us off before the final defeat of Germany and her Hungarian ally. On the other hand, we rejoiced at the imminence of this defeat that was becoming obvious to all of us. The problem for us was to survive until the time of liberation. ( At the time, indeed, we had no reason yet to regard the Russians otherwise than as liberators, because they combated the Nazis.)

We were to make the journey from Jaramce to Hungary on foot, by forced marches. Daily we covered an average of twenty-five to thirty miles. We marched ten to twelve hours a day, resting only after complete darkness settled on the land. We spent our nights in the open fields, without shelter, in any kind of weather, in rain, heat or cold. Our feet were swollen, the soles of our feet full of blisters; most of us had to shed our shoes because they were full of holes, and so torn, that they no longer protected our feet. So we marched barefoot; marching became increasingly painful to us. We had little to eat and were continuously egged on to hurry. No wonder that so many of us were in a weak condition, several unable to continue. It must be said that the latter were not shot, as happened so often in similar conditions, but admitted to a hospital. I asked for the same favor, but my guards found that I was in a relatively good condition, able to go on. I thought then that I would never live to see the end of the journey. I could hardly move my feet; in fact every move was an ordeal for me. If, in the beginning of the war, anyone had told me what I was going to go through, I would have said that this would be impossible for me to bear; but, I presume, many hundreds of thousands of people could have said the same thing about themselves.

Toward the end of September or in the beginning of October, we arrived in Hungary. We traversed a territory that the Versailles Treaty had given, after World War I, to Czechoslovakia, and that had been returned by Hitler to Hungary.

As we advanced, there were many signs that the population expected the defeat of the Germans and their allies We managed to talk to some people and were told that Rumania had already capitulated and joined the Western powers. Also, that the British and the Americans had opened a second front, and that their armies were advancing in Europe. These rumors wonderfully boosted our morale. I also observed that the population was on the whole sympathetic to us, that they expected great changes in the near future.

Toward the end of October, we reached the town of Hust. That town had, before the war, a large Jewish community. In the town we found several deserted synagogues and Jewish homes. In the synagogues the sacred scrolls of the Torah, together with many Jewish books of scholarship and prayers, were torn, mutilated, scattered on the floor. We viewed these profanities with sorrow and dismay, but we were unable to do anything about them.

We did not stay in Hust, just went through and continued our march. Toward the evening we reached a small village. By that time my physical condition had worsened considerably. In addition to my swollen feet, I developed a constant fever with swollen glands. I knew that, no matter how much I was resolved to oppose the strength of my faith to the suffering of my body, physically I might collapse. I asked therefore one of our supervisors to allow me to rest up during the night in one of the abandoned Jewish homes. He granted me this favor, which in itself was extraordinary.

As I entered one of the homes with some friends of the labor battalion, we again beheld sacred books spread all over the floor. I examined them and to my great surprise, I discovered the book of my wife's grandfather, who had been a prominent Jewish leader in Hungary, known for his piety, erudition and kindness. The fact that this holy book came into my hands at a time when I was despairing of being able to hold out any longer acted upon me as an elixir of life, renewing my strength, instilling new courage into my soul. Miracles are of diverse nature; they can be recognized by their effect on individuals. The appearance of those holy scripts emerging from nowhere, at a time when faith was trampled upon by would-be conquerors, when evil seemed to triumph, constituted certainly a miracle for me, even though no one else was aware of it. That night, stretching out my tired legs on a run-down sofa that no one had dared to carry away, my mind was at rest and I slept the sleep of the just. I awoke refreshed, determined to go on. I kept the book of my wife's grandfather as a talisman; its powers protected me throughout those difficult times.

The next morning we had to move on. Reports had been received that the Russians were advancing very fast. We accelerated, if that was possible, our march and the guards saw to it that no one left the marching line. Germans joined the Hungarian guards commanding our Jewish Labor Battalion. It was clear to me that something decisive would soon happen to us, as the war was approaching its final phase. It was to be feared that, upon returning to Hungary proper, the Germans or their Hungarian acolytes would liquidate us in all haste. This fear was corroborated by the news, communicated to us by other labor battalions in the process of being repatriated, that the men admitted to hospitals during the previous days of our forced march had been picked up by Germans and deported. I once more realized my miraculous luck; had my request to be hospitalized been granted, I would now be on my way to Auschwitz or some other extermination camp!

On the same day that followed the discovery of the book written by my wife's grandfather, I received another piece of news. Someone told me that he had witnessed the departure of a special contingent of internees from Cluj to a foreign country. The contingent contained the members of my family. It was rumored that they were sent to Spain.

Much later, I learned that the real destination of that special contingent was Bergen Belsen, Germany. At the time however, it filled me with infinite joy and redoubled my courage. I decided that on the first occasion I would try to escape from the battalion.

The opportunity to do so presented itself to me sooner than I had expected. A farmer met our column coming from the opposite direction. I quickly asked him whether there was a road nearby that led to another village. Accosting an inhabitant of the places we were traversing was forbidden under penalty of being shot on the spot. Nevertheless, I had taken a chance, for I had decided to risk my life for my freedom. The farmer answered that there was a country road approximately half a kilometer away that led to a small village. I mentally weighed my chances of getting away without being noticed. I was in a state of euphoria, convinced that I would succeed. I had faced death on a number of occasions; all seemed to prove to me that a benevolent higher force was protecting me. Without this confidence in my destiny I could not have made that fateful decision, but I made it instantaneously without hesitation.

The road indicated by the farmer appeared. I quickly ran away, and hidden behind a tree, I saw that I had not been missed. The column moved ahead; soon it disappeared from my sight. I was alone. I was free.

I wandered into a village, as I recall named Barring, formerly Czechoslovakia. All military forces, Hungarian or German, had been withdrawn from there. The villagers received me with open arms. I represented in their eyes a victim of the oppressors which they had learned to hate. I was in a state of complete exhaustion, badly undernourished, my hands and feet swollen, running a high fever. Truly I would not have lasted long had I not made my escape.

The priest came to see me and I told him that I was a rabbi who had escaped from forced labor. I asked him to help me in the name of God. The priest - his name was Mogyorosi - took me to his home, gave me light food and offered me a bed; then he called a physician. I remained under the latter's care for about a week.

My forces restored, I decided to return to Cluj, my native town. It was at a distance of about four hundred miles from the village. I took leave from my host, and from the friendly villagers. I promised to keep in contact with them through their priest, giving news about myself. Unfortunately, this was not possible because soon after my departure, the village was annexed by the Soviet Union, and cut off from all communications with the outside world.

The priest arranged for me a ride with a farmer who was going to Hust. His carriage, drawn by horses, was carrying vegetables to the market there. I was hidden under a heap of vegetables. Before we reached the town, I alighted from the carriage to avoid jeopardizing the safety of that kind farmer.

As I approached Hust on foot I was stopped by a Russian officer. He ordered me to follow him to the nearby military headquarters of the Russian army to work for them. I did not speak any Russian, but I could make myself understood in the Slovak dialect of the people of that region. I explained to him that I had just escaped from a forced labor camp of the Nazis, and that I was not in a condition to do any menial work.

Far from sympathizing with my plight, his cold answer was, "Evrei ne rabota," which means, "The Jew does not want to work." He forced me to go with him, indicating by his gestures that he would shoot me if I refused.

I was still so weak, I could hardly stand on my feet. My heart was beating at the thought that from one slavery I was now falling into another; the new slave masters did not seem to me any better than those I had escaped from. "You will not hold me!" I said to myself, and I determined that I would once more run away at the first opportunity.

The Russians put me to work at once. I had to carry on my shoulder sacks of corn or of wheat from one storehouse to another. I really thought I would collapse under the load. I had violent chest pains as though a thousand knives stabbed me at once from my shoulder down to my abdomen. Breathing caused me excruciating pain; the sweat was running in streams down my spine, along my cheeks. I had basically a healthy constitution and was quite robust by nature, but somehow the fatigue of past hardships, the emotional upsets, the worries and the grief, all that had undermined my strength. The few days spent in the village had somewhat restored my strength, but much less than I had thought. I needed time and rest to fully recuperate.

Fortunately for me, there was total disorganization at the place where I was working. After about an hour, I suddenly found myself unguarded. I left the sacks on the ground, and ran out of sight as fast as my legs could carry me.

I hid in the barn of a farmer till the night. When darkness fell, I set out toward my goal, Cluj. How I was going to get there without being caught by the Russians, I had no idea. I did not even know why I wanted to get to Cluj, since I had been told that my family was no longer there, but I hoped that I would meet old acquaintances in my home town, Jews and non-Jews who would help me help others. Also, I entertained the idea that perhaps from Cluj I would be able to go to the capital of Rumania and perhaps abroad.

I had a little money, given to me by Mogyorosi, the charitable priest of Baning. It helped me at the outset of my perilous journey to buy some food; some was also given to me by the peasants.

I met other former labor campers who were now heading home. They told me that they avoided capture by the Russians by giving the soldiers watches or anything valuable. One of them owed his freedom to the fact that he had been able to keep a small chain with a medallion that contained the picture of his mother. A Russian soldier took the medallion and returned the picture to him, letting him go free.

I traveled in the company of this man for about a week. It was easier for two to look around and watch, to inquire about the whereabouts of the Russians; also we shared with each other whatever we could get in the way of food.

After we parted company, I journeyed alone. I was now able to do some work on farms to earn shelter, a few eggs and some vegetables. In slow and cautious stages I thus advanced, crossing Hungary toward the territory now occupied by the Rumanian army. Indeed, the Rumanians had reoccupied the provinces they had held prior to Hitler's arbitration regarding Transylvania; Cluj was now under their control.

I crossed the border that separated the Hungarians from their Rumanian neighbors. A lonely traveler, with no other assistance than his will to survive and his faith in the Providence, in God, I looked back and I sighed with relief. I had come back from afar, from the depth of misery, from the threshold of death. The words of the Psalms escaped my lips in an irresistible, deep-felt prayer:

$\textstyle \parbox{3.5in}{
\small
And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will
deliver thee, and thou shall honour me.
\normalsize
}$
How differently the Rumanian army behaved from the Russians! An officer to whom I identified myself and told my story, gave me a paper that invited all Rumanian authorities to lend assistance to me. Soldiers gave me food, allowed me to travel with them on military vehicles; thus I reached Cluj some time in October, 1944.

The city offered the sight of unbelievable chaos. The hurricane of war had left in its wake nothing but devastation. My own and my parents' home had been utterly destroyed; what little furniture was left was ruined. Our library, composed before I left of more than two thousand volumes, was in shambles. The floors were littered with torn books. I could not salvage anything, for it was dangerous even to stay inside the house. The walls or the ceiling could collapse any minute.

Most of the once splendid synagogues were in ruins or were being used as depots. What had taken centuries to build, was maliciously, deliberately destroyed. Two savage armies had passed there: first the Hungarians then the Russians. They had faced each other, but they had behaved the same way. They had emptied not only the Jewish homes, but the entire city of anything valuable. The, Russians, so-called allies, behaved just like their enemies. They were looting, stealing wherever possible. People were constantly on their guard; young girls and women were hastily sent out of reach of the soldiery. The Rumanian army had been ordered not to interfere with the activities of the Russians in order to avert any clash.

I had nothing but rags to cover my body. Where would I find some clothes? I remembered that, prior to my departure, we had buried in the Rabbinical College (which was our property), a few of our clothes in a large box. I went there and found a suit and an overcoat, along with a few shirts. I was transformed from a beggar and a tramp once more into a civilized human being.

Food and lodging were my next concern. One of my former neighbors, a Gentile, a fine decent man, offered me hospitality for a few days till I could formulate some plans concerning my future. I could only have one plan, namely that of retrieving my family. Concerning their whereabouts, I learned from various sources that indeed my wife and son, as well as my youngest sister were part of a special transport to Budapest. From there they had been taken to Germany, and then allegedly to Switzerland. This transport was the result of negotiations undertaken by Dr. Rudolf Kastner, for the purpose of saving as many Jewish lives as possible. These negotiations and their outcome constitute in themselves a much debated, important chapter of the history of World War II. They were earned on in haste, under the greatest pressure, for the Nazis were bent upon exterminating all the Jews in Europe. The fate of my family was intimately connected with their outcome.



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Next: JEWISH LIVES - MERCHANDISE Up: faith Previous: INTERNMENT AND DEPARTURE FOR   Index
MG 2005-05-25