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Lest We Forget: a Hungarian Woman’s Experience of WWII Soviet Aggression by Gellért Rajcsányi

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Essay

Lest We Forget: a Hungarian Woman’s Experience of WWII Soviet Aggression

Malenki Robot (“A little work”) Memorial at the Hungarian National Museum.

Seventeen years have passed since my grandmother told me about one of the most poignant episodes in her life: the story of how she was hauled off by the Soviets to be kept in a labour camp in Ukraine for years, when she was still in her twenties. 

A long time has lapsed since I made my notes. I cannot discuss anything with my grandmother anymore, as she has passed away, at the age of 91. However, her memory will stay with us. Now, at a time of another war in Eastern Europe, I share her story with readers, one among thousands of similar family stories and fragments of personal memories still with us today. 

I dedicate this to my grandmother’s memory—and to my young son and daughter. 

***

On four clicking wheels,
On rails leading to where
Letters will not arrive,
Where you have no name or address.
You do not grow tall here,
The rails start their clickin’,
What remained undone by Hitler
Is now to be done by Stalin.

—György Faludy, Hungarian poet

This is the story of my grandmother, Margit Fábián, from a period when Hungary became a toy in the hands of foreign powers, when everything, and its opposite, was possible, and when the innocents were punished in prison camps. Margit was one of the innocents who were sentenced to punishment without committing any offence at all. The account that follows is how she experienced her imprisonment, how she saw it from her own perspective.

Place of birth: the village of Abaújszántó

A sizeable village in the Göncz district of Abaúj-Torna County; the seat of the district with 706 houses and 4,379 Hungarian inhabitants; with a local court, a tax authority, a gendarmerie, a royal public notary, a customs guard office, a savings bank, a steam mill, a poorhouse, a sulphur spa, a post office, and a telegraph office. One of the main trading sites of Hegyalja wines. Its vineyards were already famous in 1275. (Révai Nagy Lexikona /Révai’s Grand Lexicon, 1911)

My grandmother was born in the village of Abaújszántó (a small village, on a contemporary scale) in 1919, near to the town of Tokaj, located in the world-famous wine region. As she repeatedly said, smiling proudly, she was born into a family which belonged to the local elite. They were retailers, running a general store and a furniture shop in Abaújszántó, and owners of several funeral homes in the Hegyalja region, as well as forest plots in the Zemplén mountains. The Fábián family had four houses in the same street of Abaújszántó, with nine children, the eighth of which was my grandmother. Twenty-six years later, at the time of the “nationalisation” implemented by the communist regime after 1945, the family would be stripped of all its assets. 

By the time my grandmother became a teenager in the 1930s, her elder brothers were already running parts of the family businesses. She went to school, but she did not want to go to university, and her parents did not plan any higher education for her either, in line with the customs of the period. Daughters in relatively wealthy families were led to expect marriages arranged by parents, to sons of other similar families in the same class. 

My grandmother did not really know the world in which she lived. When I asked her about her youth, she always said that people were content to live under Admiral Horthy’s regime (1920-1944). Why did she make this claim? She explained she went to the sweetshop with her friends every day; she cycled, went swimming, and used her ice skates regularly. They frequently went shopping in Kassa, the nearby historic town, and often dined in restaurants. She projected her own well-being at the time onto the contemporary world in its entirety. The village life had sheltered her, and she could not grasp what was happening around her. The next few years taught her a hard lesson.

IN CONVERSATION WITH MARGIT FÁBIÁN✝

German occupation

Collecting Hungarian Jews in ghettos and sending them to extermination camps was managed by the special Judenkommando under Adolf Eichmann’s command, with the cooperation of the Hungarian gendarmerie. Until the end of 1944, approximately 440 thousand people, the majority of Jews living in the countryside in Hungary, were deported. (Ignác Romsics: The History of Hungary in the Twentieth Century)

What was your first direct experience of the war?

The Germans took over the town in 1944. The officers were looking for houses for accommodation. Our house was one of the biggest in Abaújszántó. Of, course, they moved in.

Did you object to it?

No, why should we have objected? Nobody did. Anyway, the Germans were nice people.

Really?

Yes, they were very polite with all of us. Three older officers moved into our house, and I talked to them a lot. My German was the best in the family. In the winter we even went skating together. 

But do you know what the Germans did in occupied Hungary?

What I know is what happened in Abaújszántó.

As far as I know, a lot of Jews used to live in the town. What relationship did you have with them?

We liked them. Several Jewish families lived on the street; my mother also had some Jewish friends. I did not really understand why others did not like them. All of them were gentlemen, doctors, lawyers, retailers. Perhaps this was the problem; many of the poor claimed that they had an easier life. After the deportations, my father sadly commented that if they are taken out of the country at all, they should build a country of their own where they could live in peace at last. 

You remember the deportations?

Yes, it all happened in the span of a single day. In the morning, the town crier announced that the Jews must stay at home. He made the announcement every time he stopped after walking a hundred metres. Then they came for them in the afternoon.

The Germans?

No, no, they did not do anything like that. There were volunteers, civil Hungarian police, who were running from house to house. Feri Augusztin was one of them, a smallholder, and Józsi Bialkó, a butcher. I will tell you about them later. They ordered the Jews out of their houses. They were only allowed to take a few kilos of personal belongings with them. They took all of them; from children to pregnant women … and really old people who were as old as I am now.

Nobody escaped?

The Flegmann boy was hidden by his lover, a Hungarian girl called Gizi Géczi. He was the only one who managed to stay in Abaújszántó.

Did you know where they were being taken?

Nobody knew, not even the Jews themselves. We thought they were being taken to do forced labour, and they would come back. I have visited Auschwitz once. I cried a lot there. No one deserves such a terrible fate.

You did not help the Jews? You did not try to hide them?

We did not have the opportunity, as German officers were quartered in our house. But we managed to give them bread, some food, secretly, over the fence in the back of the house. I remember we were standing in front of the gate, crying. We knew something bad would happen to them. They were first taken to the town hall, then they were taken away in cars, perhaps directly to Auschwitz. The street became empty then. My mother was crying for a week, missing her friends.

Russian occupation

German units and Hungarian units still fighting were being squeezed out of Hungary by the Soviet army step by step. The behaviour of Soviet troops with civilians at many places and on many occasions proved that the fears during the war had been justified. (Ignác Romsics, The History of Hungary in the Twentieth Century)

When did the front reach Abaújszántó?

I don’t remember exactly; what I know is that the German officers said goodbye first when they started to retreat. They said, if they survive the war, they will write us a letter. We did not receive letters from any of them.

Was there any shooting in the town?

Luckily, no. When the first Russian soldier appeared in Abaújszántó, my father made me and my little sister hide in a hole in the wall behind a closet. But we heard many times that the Russians were brutalising the women.

How were you then captured by the Russians?

Feri Augusztin came to my father and told him to hand over his daughters, me and my sister Ella, and also my brother’s daughter, Jolán, to the Russians. This was the same person who earlier chased the Jews out of their homes. He informed the Russians that we were wealthy Hungarians, and that Germans had been living in our house, as if it had been our fault. He was threatening Dad, saying that they would execute him unless he gave up his daughters.

At this point, my grandmother recounted that years after the war when she was walking in the street in Abaújszántó with her husband, who would later become my grandfather, she looked into a yard of a house where she saw Feri Augusztin, who had grown old by then, sitting on the porch, enjoying the sun. 

“The bloody bastard is sitting in there; the Jews were taken away and I was taken to a labour camp because of him,” she said to Grandpa. “You see how old he looks now?” 

“I’ll go in and beat him to death,” Grandpa cried. “The older he is, the easier it will be,” he said, and put his hand on the doorknob. But my grandmother held him back. 

“I don’t want to see either a brawl or a killing here. I suffered enough when I was in Russia. I am happy to be back in one piece.”

This is how she pacified my granddad.

On the road to prison camp

About 600,000 people were captured by the Soviets, most of them soldiers, but approximately 100–120,000 civilians as well. (Ignác Romsics: The History of Hungary in the Twentieth Century)

The Russians said that we had to go and do forced labour for three days, to do “malenki robot” [a little work]. 

Did you believe it?

No, not really; we had a hunch that it would take longer. This was why it was so painful to say goodbye when we had to go to the town hall. It was almost three years, eventually. We were told to take warm clothes with us and enough food to last for days. We left in February, 1945. We were taken from Abaújszántó to the town of Szerencs in horse-drawn wagons. It was really cold, with sleet; I was freezing so much that the Russian soldier driving our wagon gave me his gloves so that I could keep myself warm a bit.

So, you did not have to be too scared of them, right?

He was nice, yes, but later we had a mixed experience with them. In the town of Szerencs we were quartered in some ruined military barracks where we stayed for several days. Many, many people were taken to that place. We had to sleep on bunk beds with straw mattresses, and the shattered windows were letting in the February cold. There was only a stove in the middle of the halls. We had no water in the building, we had to use the well in the yard of the mill next door. 

And nobody tried to put up any resistance? How is it possible that everybody just tolerated being held captive?

There were some who managed to break away. When they went out for water, for example, or when the guards disappeared for a while for a little warm-up. I said to my sister Ella that we should also try to flee, but she did not dare to. She was scared of being found and killed. So, I could not go, either; I had to take care of her. 

Did you stay in the barracks for a long time?

They kept us there for a couple of days, until a sufficient number of prisoners of war were collected at the place, men, women, young people, and old people as well. There were eleven of us from Abaújszántó, if I remember correctly. Then, after a few days, they took us to the railway station. Trains were lined up there, with many boxcars. That was how we were transported to the labour camps. Women and men were separated, to be loaded into separate cars. We were peeking through the walls of the wagon and saw that the Hungarian railroad men were crying, mourning for us.

It must have been freezing in February. How was it possible to survive the journey in the boxcars?

A small woodstove was installed in the car. We used it for heating, and for cooking as well. It was a hard job, because every time the train jerked, the soup was spilt, and we had nothing left to eat for a while. There was no toilet, just a round hole in the floor. When someone was using it, the others turned away.

How many of you were in the same car? How did you pass the time?

There were perhaps ten of us. We did not talk much about our situation, since we knew, roughly, where we would end up. We tried to console each other, and sometimes we sang. Russian soldiers acted nicely on one occasion. There are two mighty rivers in Ukraine, the Dnieper and the Dniester. When the train crossed the bridges over them, the soldiers opened the door of the boxcar so that we could see how beautiful their country was. The rivers looked like the river Tisza of Hungary, but of course I like the Tisza better. 

“Malenkij robot” (“A little work”)

Do you remember what it was like when you arrived?

Yes, we were on the train for four or five days, and when we got off, I was awed. Beautiful snow-covered hills were all around, so it was as if I arrived home, in the Zemplén hills. It only turned out later that those hills were the waste heaps of the coalmine, not real hills.

What was your final destination?

The name of the place was Shevchenko. When we got off the boxcars, we were disinfected, and then we were allowed to clean ourselves. We were taken to large barracks, where bunk beds with a blanket were assigned to every one of us. Nurses came, who touched our arms and thighs, to see if one was strong or weak. The strong had to go to the mine. The weak were assigned to the fields or to kitchen duty.

So, this was where you spent the next three years.

No. Due to Ella’s illness, we were taken to an even larger place after a year, where there was a hospital, too. 

A hospital? Did you receive medical attention? Were there doctors? 

No, we rarely saw doctors. We had a fellow prisoner, a veterinarian from Rakamaz, who acted as our physician. We had no choice, if we wanted to stay alive. 

Why, what happened?

They said that typhus broke out. The dead were carried out every morning—a girl called Mimi was among them, a general’s daughter. We were friends. I still remember, I can still see it now … how poor Mimi was carried off on a stretcher.

Was there no medication for treatment?

They only brushed our tongues with something. But perhaps it was no medication, either. Anyways, Ella and myself—we managed to survive the epidemic.

The strong and the weak

Where were you assigned eventually? Were you strong or weak? What was the result of the ‘professional’ examination? 

At first, I was found to be weak … and they assigned me to kitchen duty. I was very lucky, because this way I managed to eat enough every day. We almost always prepared either beetroot soup or cabbage soup, and soon became nauseated by it, but we had no choice, we had to force it down. The cauldrons we used were so big that we could only clean them from inside if we stood on a chair. It was easy to get dizzy… But it was good to work in the kitchen, because I also managed to smuggle some food for Ella. I always gave it to her in the evening. She was sick many times, maybe she would have died without me. Whenever it was possible, I also brought some food to Mr. Balogh, who used to work in one of the ministries in Hungary, and to the old priest of Tokaj.

Do I assume correctly that the prison rules became softer with time? 

The rules did have to change to some extent. After all, we were closed off together with our guards and Russian workers; we got to know each other, sooner or later. In the last year we worked in the fields outside of the camp, and in the end, we were even allowed to go to the market. There we exchanged stuff with the Russians: they purchased milk from us, and we spent the money on fruits, because that was what we were missing most. There was deep poverty in Russia at the time. And they made the people believe it was us who had caused it. A fellow prisoner who spoke Russian told us what the people in the village were saying when we were marching to the fields in front of them: that we came to Russia because we had been starving in Hungary, and we wanted to take away their bread. Russians are a strange people. One day in the spring there was a racket on the other side of the barbed wire, so we ran up to it to see what was making all that noise. People were marching with huge red flags, chanting, and we had no idea what was happening. We thought the Russians lost their minds—we had never seen May 1st celebrated before.

When you were allowed to go to the village, how come it occurred to no one to flee? 

We were in a camp surrounded by barbed wire, the fence secured with floodlights, it was impossible to break away from there. There were some attempts, still; people hiding in haystacks for the night, and going this way or that, but all of them were caught and brought back. They were beaten up so badly at night that it was difficult to recognize them at lunch the following day. Some people may have been beaten to death. It put everyone off any further plans to escape. It was no joke. 

And what about the relationship between men and women? After all, you were there locked up together for years.

That was forbidden. Married couples were also hauled off to prison camp, but they were separated. Sometimes the guards came to the dormitories at night and lifted the covers to see if they found four legs or only two legs underneath. Even the Russian soldiers kept their distance. They would have been executed if they had been found out or caught in the act. 

Women in the mine

I presume it was better to work in the fields than in the kitchen. 

We were planting tomatoes. We worked hard for a while, but Mrs. Bauer, a lady from Abaújszántó, said we should be no fools to continue like this, let’s dig a hole and stuff all the plants into it. Which is what we did. When the supervisor was off our backs, we laid down on the ground and rested. 

It must have been easier to wait for the end of imprisonment like that. 

No, it did not stay like this. Another round of check-ups came, and the nurse established I was already strong enough to be sent to the mine. So, I had to go down into the mine. I should not wish it to happen to my enemies! We had to load the coal into the trolleys, and we also had to carry support beams to the new shafts and galleries. There were ducts that were so narrow that we had to slide through them on our bellies. We were a thousand metres underground. The mine was so big that we were carried to the main galleries by train. The driver of the small train was a Russian woman, her lips were always covered with thick red lipstick, but she had lice on her skin… I still remember her. It was a cruel time for me, and also for my little sister. She was forced to load freshly made bricks, thirty-five kilos each, onto wagons. I visited her once at work, I wanted to help, but I only managed to lift a brick up to my knees. Ella wrote a letter to our parents, saying that they should sell everything and go to the West, because it was hell on earth here. But they did not listen to Ella, they stayed. They did not have to sell anything. A bit later, everything was taken away from the family by the communists.

So, you were allowed to write home? How did it happen?

At the beginning, we were not allowed to write letters. In fact, back home, people were told that the train which was transporting us was bombed on a bridge on the way. People at home believed we were dead. Later, we were allowed to write letters, but some of the more decent guards told us to write stuff which did not have to be censored. Ella’s letter still made it home, somehow, I still do not know how.

And the time also came when you could go home, too. 

I was working my sixth week in the mine when the Russians started saying we could soon be heading home. But we hardly believed anything they were telling us by then. Finally, September 1947 came when we heard the news: we were allowed to return to Hungary. One eye wept, the other twinkled … Of course, we were not sad about leaving the camp, but because only Hungarians of the motherland were allowed to go, those from Transylvania and Southlanders had to stay. We had many friends among them, and we have never heard from them since, we do not know what happened to them.

Homecoming

How were you received when you returned?

After we crossed the bridge at Záhony, we got off the train, we dropped to our knees, and kissed our home soil. We were back home. People gave us white loaves of bread there, but when we arrived in Debrecen, what I saw just took my breath away. The railway station was beautifully decorated, and long rows of tables were set for us so that we could eat our fill after long years of suffering. People had been waiting for us. 

And how did you get home eventually?

From Debrecen, we took a slow train to Abaújszántó. We were greeted by an arch of triumph, and the whole village gathered to welcome the survivors. Eleven people were taken away for three days “to do a little work,” and ten of us returned after two and a half years. It was a girl who died; her wedding took place shortly before she was taken away. The news of her death was brought by her brother. I don’t really remember how it was when I saw my parents and siblings again, I was not really myself then … At home, in the house, we told them about everything, slowly, with Ella. Her fiancé, Sándor, waited for her for almost three years. Soon enough, they got married. Our Dad was rather old when we got home; he used to tell everyone, all he wanted anymore was to see his daughters return from prison camp so that he could spend another year with them down here on earth. Indeed, he passed away a year later.

***

So, the head of the family died a year later: when the communist’s ‘nationalisation’ commenced, when the Fábián family lost all their assets, for which generations had worked hard to accumulate, decade after decade. It also marked the time when my grandmother met the man who became my grandfather. It was not their fault that the world they had lived in collapsed. She married without any money, but out of love; the beginning of a new era, with a chance at a new life.

Margit Fábián

Gellért Rajcsányi is the editor-in-chief of Mandiner.hu.

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