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23 September 2018

From Goose-Down Peddling and Border Trespassing to Concentration Camp


 

A Story Found in the Family Archive


 

THE OZNA

 

This story is about the criminal trial of István Tóth. I found the mould-ridden case documents on a bottom shelf in the garage. They stated that Tóth, a farmer, was born in Hódegyháza (today Jazovo in Serbia), a village about 10 kilometres from the town of Csóka (in Serbian Čoka). The defendant’s place of residence is identified as “Molin”. I had to look this up. As I found, no village by that name survived, although it had existed, in 1832, as a commune of German settlers, formed on the estate of Count Ferenc Zichy. This village in the Bánát region was called Mollyfalva in Hungarian, and Molidorf in German. When Tóth was brought to court, in 1950, about a thousand people lived in that village. Then, as groundwater levels rose, the place became uninhabitable. In 1961, roughly ten years after Tóth had been charged, Mollyfalva ceased to exist, overgrown by woods and shrubs. Presumably, István Tóth himself, born in 1919, is now also dead.

In addition to the usual criminal documents, the folder contains an undated sheet the relevance of which is a matter of conjecture rather than clear fact. It was probably created in 1950, when the investigation started, and must be a copy several times removed from the original. My younger readers – and I can only hope there will be a few – will hardly recall that, in those days, copies would be made by inserting in the typewriter a number of blank papers, interleaved by carbon sheets. This meant that people well-versed in the mysteries of the typewriter had a certain power over copy legibility. If you wanted even the fifth copy legible, you simply banged harder on the keys! The first one or two copies in the row tended to read almost as easily as the original, as long as the carbon paper was fresh. This time, it was probably a well-worn carbon paper, and not a first copy at that, but it remains more or less legible. It is a list of assignments or groups of assignments, specifically seven by number, each marked by a Roman numeral. The first item, worded in flawed Hungarian, translates as follows:

Gangs/groupsactivities of various individuals and times when active”.

Nowhere in the text do we find a diacritically marked letter á, so frequent in Hungarian, presumably because the guilty typewriter, which must have been left behind by the German occupiers of Csóka, did not have a key for it. In the event, the letter was replaced by ä, with the Umlaut. Apparently, nor did the apparatus have provisions for the otherwise rare letters ő and ű or, if it did, they were happily ignored by the author. Another, particularly painful omission is that of the letter é, which yielded unfortunate words such as kisebbseg instead of the correct kisebbség [“minority”], easily misread, in the absence of the diacritical mark, for meaning “smaller asshole”. The bottom of the page features a handwritten note identifying the true nature of the document:

ÓZNA: Latest assignments.”

I had never seen a text like this among the case documents, or anywhere else, for that matter. In criminal cases, the defendant’s testimony before the OZNA was often recorded, but this particular piece of paper is completely different, resembling guidelines for internal use more than anything else. Does it suggest that István Tóth had been picked as a rat to report on others? Was it supposed to alert him to fields of action where he could distinguish himself by his services? Moreover, was it used by Tóth himself in an attempt to demonstrate that, rather than a hostile element, he was regarded by those wielding newfangled power as a friend of the system, fit to perform certain patriotic tasks? I cannot say.

Like all my contemporaries, I had heard a lot about the OZN, or OZNA – the “People’s Protection Bureau”, the equivalent of Hungary’s infamous ÁVO: essentially, the secret police. These days, few people remember the distinction between the OZNA and the UDBA, just as few in Hungary still know the difference between the ÁVH and the ÁVO. (In Yugoslavia, the OZNA was the military secret service, and it preceded the formation of other secret services.) The trepidation associated with these acronyms has largely vaporised since those days, although here and there I still hear people revert to a hushed voice when mentioning the OZNA. In any case, back in 1950, there was certainly no other way you wanted to utter “OZNA” or “UDBA”. It is also true that, as the secret services expanded their reach, an increasing number of local people were recruited to serve as informants. As we know, not all people are the same. Here and there, the OZNA was marked by a local touch. I do not imagine the CIA would ever set up, or would have ever maintained, an outpost in a place like Csóka, as the OZNA apparently did. This consisted of OZNA recruits, who happened to be from around Csóka or from the village itself. Some of them may have sworn more allegiance to the OZNA than to Csóka; others the other way round. The city of Becskerek (today Zrenjanin) had its own OZNA or UDBA informers. One of them was the protagonist of a story my friend Tibor Bencze told me a great many times. They lived in the same street; my friend in the middle, the UBDA sneak on the corner. This guy was good at sports, if memory serves, and even attended university briefly where he acted in plays, but he could not stick with anything long enough. Later, he worked as officer for a corporation while most of his friends graduated and became engineers or lawyers; one a famous athlete, another a noted actor. M. (as he went by the initial of his alias given to him by the UDBA) maintained these relations conscientiously, preferring to pen reports on his friends and acquaintances. One time he partied into the wee hours of the morning, drinking and playing preferans with two pals, Ivan and Karcsi. M. and Ivan had attended the same Serbian secondary school, while Karcsi’s alma mater was the Hungarian grammar school in town. They kept up the habit of playing cards together over the years. This time around, all in the company eschewed politically sensitive topics, keeping the conversation centred on women. Then, after a while, M. burst out:

C’mon, you guys, just tell me what the fuck I am supposed to report about you. They will know we played cards all night. I won’t get away with saying nothing.”

M. – unlike the UDBA itself – was regarded by my friends as amusing, if far from respectable. Would the UDBA have turned out differently if more fellows like M. had come its way? Perhaps not, but I cannot say for sure. Undoubtedly, the presence in one’s life of an organisation such as the OZNA or the UDBA alters human behaviour, and to some extent the people themselves. The yardsticks of courage shift; more acts (or gestures of inaction) come under the influence of fear; infirmity reaps greater rewards; even the rivalry with one’s neighbours discovers hitherto uncharted paths. But was there a capacity of being influenced in another direction as well? One that may have rendered the local outpost of the OZNA cool in a funny way?

I catch myself smiling, perhaps with a measure of sympathy even, as my gaze lingers on the long Ó in the acronym (correctly OZNA) as spelled by the author of the handwritten note. In Becskerek, even Hungarians used to pronounce OZNA with a short initial vowel, whereas the good folk of Csóka apparently evolved a pronunciation favouring an elongated ó. In fact, the word sounds more toothsome this way, arguably even more Hungarianesque. As for those latest assignments”, they must have been drafted in the higher echelons of the organisation, possibly at the Vojvodina regional level of the OZNA, but the Hungarian translation, in both the typed and handwritten sections, bursts with local flavour. It is also obvious that the text was not created by members of the local intelligentsia. The imperfections of language and usage, along with the marked couleur locale, exude a sort of humanity – or at least could be confused with humanity.

I wonder how the tasks preceding these “latest assignments” could have been worded. Did they exist in Hungarian translation as well? Let me copy here the first three sentences of Assignment No. VII, or, to be precise, the first three sets of words, each followed by a period. It is difficult to mirror in another language the misspellings of a Hungarian from Csóka (probably a ploughman), who found himself in the OZNA and was charged with the task of translating the document. In English, his flawed text might sound like this:

The mood among the peeple. The mood of ethnyc mynoritys and there posicion and opynion on the ivents. with specyficc names and dates.”

What must have been a novelty in 1950 (or perhaps at a slightly earlier date, when the document in question was delivered to István Tóth) was the requirement to supply specific names and dates. Quite possibly, some local “staff” may have formerly used in their reports phrases such as “the word is that…” or “many people say that…” or “it is rumoured in the pubs that…” Meanwhile, the agents “reported” on what they had actually heard or what they thought would be received as valuable intelligence. Not infrequently, these reports coincided with their own opinions, as did the claim that the system of mandatory surrender of farm products was a cruel one. Now those in the high places wanted names and dates. It must have been hard times for the poor OZNA, as it certainly was for those named in the reports.

 

A FRAY BETWEEN ISTVÁN TÓTH AND THE BANATER FINANZDIREKTION DURING THE OCCUPATION

 

So much for the OZNA; let me switch to the line of goose-down business mentioned in my title. The case documents incontrovertibly show that István Tóth sold goose feather down on several occasions while ignoring national borders whatever those borders were between 1942 and 1944. Today, he may have been innocent of trespassing. In any case, the financial authorities of the occupying Germans determined, without specifying the exact location, that he had smuggled goose-down into what was then Hungarian territory. What the papers do state is that Tóth’s shipments invariably stemmed from Hódegyháza (today Jazovo), near Csóka. They possibly headed across the Tisza River to the town of Zenta, which belonged to Hungary at the time. One of the three penal orders mentions that Tóth was caught in the village of Gyála, on his way back from a delivery (in which particular case he cannot have returned from Zenta). In all three cases, he was apprehended by German border guards on his way back. The orders imposing a penalty were written in Serbian, except for a handful of as yet undigested bureaucratic terms in German, such as Anzeige [“report”]. For instance, one Serbian sentence reads, Anzeige No. 441 of 9/V-942 accuses three individuals of import smuggling…” (One of them was István Tóth; his cohorts remain anonymous in the order.) The official seal identifies the acting authority in German as “Banater Finanzdirektion, Betschkerek”.

On the evidence of the order dated 30 October 1943, István Tóth confessed to have taken “the wrong path [stranputica in Serbian] at 8 in the morning on 7 May 1942, as he delivered seven kilos of goose-down to Hungary. The following day, still “on the wrong path”, he traced his secret steps back into the Bánát region, bringing with him a variety of merchandise from Hungary. The document provides a meticulous list of the goods found on the hands of István Tóth when he was apprehended at the post marking km 207:

5 and a half metres of shirting;

12 small boxes of shoe polish;

3 head scarves;

2 metres of apron cotton;

5 spoons;

3 pairs of women’s pantyhose;

5 kg of lime;

1 comb;

100 cigarette papers;

2 skeins of thread;

1 lump of gum Arabic;

3 ribbons.

The document (which features the longest list of all three) makes a mess of singulars and plurals, while it does not make it clear whether the given quantities were smuggled in by the three accomplices collectively, or by Tóth alone.

The other two orders describe similar felonies. The one dated 13 October 1943 states that István Tóth was captured by German border guards precisely one year before, at 9 in the evening on 13 October 1942, when he had spirited away nine kilos of goose-down to Hungary, according to his own testimony. On his way back, he brought a pair of women’s pantyhose, some twine, a man’s shirt, and fifteen and a half metres of tailor’s cloth. The third order, dated 24 February 1944, establishes the offence as “crossing the border from Hungary into the Bánát via an officially unrecognised route”, on 8 December 1943. This time the merchandise consisted of four kilos of goose-down, and the administrators took the trouble to take down István Tóth’s own deposition. In his defence, he cited the shaky livelihood of his household. He had crossed the border in an attempt to obtain medication for his ill wife, and paraffin for the lamps of his mother-in-law, as this lighting fuel “was commercially unavailable in the Bánát”. He had been caught with twenty litres of paraffin at the kilometre post 208.

I am not quite sure, but I think it very likely that István Tóth made such exploits on several more occasions, although he was only caught three times. In all three cases, the Finanzdirektion determined a criminal offence on his part, seized the goods found on him, and imposed a fine which he could redeem by imprisonment if he was unable to pay – precisely, by one day behind bars for each ten golden dinars. Well, the cumulative amount of the fines came to about 50,000 dinars. I do not know whether these dinars were “golden” dinars.

A closer look at the list of smuggled goods would seem to lend credence to István Tóth’s claim that this whole goose-down business served the ends of a family household. He obviously looked across the river border to find articles they needed but which were “nowhere to be found for sale” in Csóka or the Bánát region at the time. Let me pause at one of the articles for a second. According to the first list, István Tóth (acting alone or with his associates, but certainly in defiance of Hitlerian power) intended to bring in twelve small boxes of shoe polish, among other items. Was this considered a necessity just as vital as, say, spoons, shirting, lime, paraffin, or sewing thread? Perhaps it was, back in the day. As for me, I have for some time resigned myself to living the rest of my life in the absence of shoe polish, although a good few decades ago I did feel it inevitably necessary to have some around the house. Having read about István Tóth’s categorising shoe polish among the goods worth taking serious risks for possessing, even in times of war, I asked some friends, including a few my junior, whether they still used any, and whether they recalled that in the past this was deemed an essential commodity. The answers were all but unanimous. None of them kept shoe polish anymore, although some felt mildly nostalgic upon hearing it mentioned, and all remembered having once used it themselves, if only as a nod to decorum. An acquaintance from Novi Sad said he had chanced upon a nearly empty box of shoe polish in the corner of the bottom drawer of his wardrobe, tucked away behind some old pairs of shoes, which made him feel like he was fumbling in a sort of “miniature museum” (his words).

Recently, I too found an archaic object in our family house in Becskerek. It was an old ice skate wrench. You see, not only thoughts but existence itself is often adrift between the shores of the nonsensical and what makes sense. The sheer existence of an ice skate wrench is a case in point. The years directly following the Second World War permitted freer, I mean relatively freer, movement, so ice skating quickly came into view. At the same time, it would have been an inconceivable luxury, morally and financially, to keep a separate, purpose-made pair of skating boots that would have no other use whatsoever. Shoes represented serious value and were hard to come by in those days. To become eligible to purchase a pair, you had to collect “points” (the Serbian word for it, tačkice, was even adopted by many Hungarians as tacskica) before you could redeem them in the store. No wonder people did their best to make their shoes last as long as possible. A single pair would often go through several rounds of mending, even cobbling. There were still cobblers around. You had to fasten your skates onto the soles and heels of your shoes or boots using a special wrench to tighten the mounting bolts. When you took off the skate assembly, you could use the shoes as – well, ordinary shoes. Across the street from our house in Becskerek, there were stretches of land behind the back yards with large pools of stagnant groundwater throughout the year. City fathers might term them “sustainable groundwater” today. Our word for them was bara. We reaped their benefits in the winter, when for weeks, sometimes months, the bara froze over thick enough for skating. We would bring our skate wrenches, mount the skates, then remove them from the boots when we had had enough. With a little practice, we glided around with reasonable confidence. Some of us even ventured onto the thinner ice, but the risk was not all that great, with no more than 10 to 20 cm of water beneath. One of our German neighbours was the most skilled. His name was Gerhard. He could even do pirouettes. This was back then. Today, not a single bara remains. The fields beyond the back yards have been built in. We no longer have frost harsh enough for any ice to form over a bara or even a puddle, for that matter. In fact, we have no winters as such any more than we have cobblers. The Germans are long gone from Becskerek, and most Hungarians have left as well. I do not know what became of my skates. All I have is this skate wrench, without a context.

Could this be the fate awaiting bookmarks, too?

 

BUT WHAT HAPPENED IN MACAHALMA?

 

The sources known to me tell a story of tragic and shameful events in Macahalma. The question that interests us here is whether, and to what degree, István Tóth had anything to do with them. Located in the vicinity of Csóka, Macahalma was home to a highly reputed model estate, particularly famous for its flower cultivation. The Lederer brothers also ran a distillery here. During the war, the place was converted by the German occupiers into a concentration camp filled with partisans, resistance fighters and others. The prisoners were routinely humiliated and tortured; some of them died in the camp. The guard was mostly supplied by the HIPO, short for Hilfspolizei, the German auxiliary police.

Among the background information on István Tóth (born in 1919 in Hódegyháza, a farmer by occupation, a citizen of Yugoslavia, of Hungarian ethnicity, knows how to read and write, married with one child, in detention awaiting trial since 10 September 1949), the indictment mentions that the accused is “reportedly without criminal record”. It may be that the prosecutor would have found it less than patriotic to simply say “no criminal record” when referring to an individual he was apparently eager to categorise as a war criminal. Doing so might have even seemed like praise. The insertion of the word “reportedly” was obviously meant to distance the prosecutor from a semblance of positive characterisation, when in fact, at this point, he was supposed to furnish objective data and formulate claims on behalf of the prosecution. (Part of the prosecutor’s job was to decide, within his own discretion, whether “criminal record” should be construed as including sanctions imposed by the German authorities during the occupation.)

According to the prosecutor, from early 1944, István Tóth,instead of joining the patriotic forces”, served as a guard in the concentration camp, became a member of the HIPO, and committed a number of war crimes, effectively aiding a foreign power (Germany) “at war with our country”. The indictment goes into specific detail, charging that Tóth, like any other HIPO serviceman on duty, dealt out blows, forced prisoners to run up and down, and tormented them with commands to “get down, now get up!” – all of which were found to satisfy the statutory elements of torture. In a specific instance cited by the prosecutor, Tóth is claimed to have beaten a certain Kojičin Milan and one Ostojin Stevica with a stick. The indictment also states that, when Csóka had been liberated, the defendant “first joined our army in order to hide his evil deeds, then moved to Mollyfalva, so it took a while before he could be apprehended”. He was not charged with homicide, though, only with other categories of war crimes pursuant to Section 3, paragraph (3) of the Act on Crimes against the People and the State.

In February 1950, when the prosecutor filed his plea, István Tóth was in detention in Nagybecskerek, pending results of the investigation. My father spoke with him there as is apparent from a letter my father wrote to the defendant’s wife the same month:

Zrenjanin, 21 February 1950
To: Erzsébet Tóth née Szemerédi farmer
Jazovo
z. p. Ostojicevo c/o István Lele

 In connection with the criminal proceedings against your husband, please bring with you the next time you come to town the penal orders issued on your husband during the German occupation on charges of border trespassing. I have talked with your husband today. Yours sincerely,
 

The address of the recipient reveals that István Tóth’s wife continued to reside in Hódegyháza (Jazovo), not in Mollyfalva. The couple had one child. Tóth himself lived (or squatted down in hiding) in Mollyfalva (also located in the Bánát region, close to Magyarcsernye), from where he probably ventured out from time to time to meet his wife. The address also suggests that Mrs Tóth lived in the house of one István Lele. Presumably the Tóth family home had been seized and they had to move in with acquaintances.

The “penal orders” my father requested Mrs Tóth to furnish were executed by the German-run Finanzdirektion in the matter of the illegal trading in goose down. In 1943, these documents demonstrated that István Tóth was on the wrong side. This time around, they served to show that he cannot have been an evil man after all, since he was found guilty and sentenced by the German occupiers. For his part, my father needed to have the penal orders specifically for purposes of a submission he filed on behalf of István Tóth on 22 February 1950. In this he also stressed the fact that István Tóth, unlike other prison guards, never enlisted with the HIPO, nor did the role he played in the concentration camp have anything to do with the auxiliary police. He ended up in the camp because the occupying authorities had imposed a fine on him (as the penal orders demonstrate). As he was unable to pay the fine, imprisonment and forced labour were awaiting him. Instead, István Tóth accepted, under duress, to serve as a guard in the concentration camp. The defendant admitted to having hit Kojičin Milan and Ostojin Stevica with a wooden stake, but only in order to stop a fight between them. The document underlines that, after the liberation of Csóka, the case of István Tóth, along with those of several other residents of Hódegyháza, was reviewed by the local People’s Liberation Committee, which found him innocent of any serious offence and ordered his release from custody. (Those found guilty by the committee were taken away and punished.)

The submission continues by relating how István Tóth joined the People’s Liberation Army after his release. (This was possibly when the assignment from the OZNA reached him. He may have stashed it away among his other papers, which his wife would later bring into the office during his trial.) After the war, he became a farmer-settler in Mollyfalva, and a member of the People’s Front, as attested by Mihály Bicók.

The submission was filed with the attachment of a deposition signed on 22 February 1950, by one Lajos Vastag, who had served as chairman of the People’s Liberation Committee at the time István Tóth’s case was investigated after the liquidation of the concentration camp in Macahalma. The affidavit was also authenticated by József Tóth, chairman of the same Committee in 1950. The document, written in (flawed) Serbian, states that the investigation of István Tóth’s case proceeded with the participation of partisans who had been prisoners at the concentration camp. They confirmed that Comrade Tóth was released on account of his good conduct. Moreover, as a candidate for membership in the Communist Party, he could be counted upon to support popular power in the future (“… će biti dobar radnik za izgradnju socijalizam” – loosely translated as “will good worker be to building socialism”). The text concludes with a recommendation by the local People’s Liberation Committee to the People’s Authority of the District Court (Narodna Vlast Okružnog Suda) to consider István Tóth an “asistiran”. The Serbian version of another Latin word, amnestiran, would probably have better fitted the bill.

This is about all that the case documents divulge; the court itself cannot have known much more than that. The trial was held on 28 February 1950. A hand-written note my father scribbled on the summons says that the verdict was delivered to the defendant’s wife on 11 March. No copy of this original verdict survives; there were no Xerox machines in those days. I tried the Municipal Archives of Nagybecskerek, only to be told that no document of any kind had been kept regarding István Tóth’s trial. Next I contacted Csaba Majoros, a former student of mine, now a lawyer in Zenta. He did find a baptismal certificate, which states that István Tóth was born on 14 December 1919, in Hódegyháza, and married Erzsébet Szemerédi on 29 April 1942. Having served his sentence, he came back to Hódegyháza, but the exact date of his return remains unknown. Majoros also found out that István Tóth died in 2002, his wife in 2013. Their son Bálint lives in Hódegyháza.

Finally, remembering my father’s habit of penning the verdict on the summons of each case, I gave the papers a last glance just in case. And it was there. He wrote it in Serbian, probably right after he had read the verdict and had not yet switched back to Hungarian in his mind:3 godine!”Three years”, followed by an exclamation mark. Now that the verdict has departed from the real world, leaving behind no more than pieces of a puzzle without a context, I wonder if that exclamation mark was supposed to convey a sense of triumph or just the opposite: indignation.

I am also wondering what kind of verdict I would have handed down. István Tóth was 25 when he spent months in Macahalma. He had been in the business of smuggling goose down at the age of 23 to 24. Back in 1928, Kurt Tucholsky wrote that “he who is capable of witnessing a war without being disgusted is not a human being but a patriot”. Well, with István Tóth, patriotism was not the problem. As far as I know – and I did experience some of this as a child – ethnic Hungarians in the Bánát during the occupation generally preferred to steer clear of commitment rather than openly siding with either party to the conflict. Some did join the HIPO and a few volunteered to serve in the German army, but they were rare exceptions to the rule. And yes, some bonded with the partisans, a handful even attaining the status of “popular hero”, but this was not really typical, either. While a number of Hungarians received credit after the war for “championing the just cause”, most of them did not cherish the cause itself so much as their friendship with a Communist neighbour whom they were eager to help. That is how they came to be reckoned among the fighters. István Tóth himself tended to evade conflict, and if this was not possible, he simply drifted with the tide of events. He kept ducking checkpoints along the border, but he was busted three times. He also tiptoed around history. It was not by following this or that “righteous idea” or belief that he trespassed borders; he was driven by the need to procure pantyhose, gum arabic and shoe polish for his family. What he took with him was not ardent conviction but goose down. Then, at one point, as no more byways and detours remained, he had to face the fact that the World War had come to Csóka and even to Hódegyháza. The restrictions of movement in space also implied a restriction of ways in which one could move around. Essentially, you had to march from place to place. Anywhere. It was no longer feasible for István Tóth to simply stay put at home and continue to till his strip of land. The prosecutor was right in suggesting that he might as well have marched with the patriots, meaning the partisans. Joining them would presumably have been an act of escaping a prison sentence and forced labour. Instead, he chose to accept to serve in the Macahalma camp – which in essence amounted to the same act of fleeing something worse. In the absence of joining the partisans, the only option open to him was the penitentiary, in one of two versions: either as prisoner (for one day for each ten golden dinars of his debt) or prison guard in Macahalma.

In one case I am familiar with in Becskerek, these roles became jumbled within a single family. Karcsi, the preferans card-playing buddy of the UDBA informer whom I have mentioned, had a German surname. He considered himself Hungarian, though, as did his father, who held office in the Hungarian cultural association. On 19 March 1944, Karcsi’s father was arrested by the Germans. According to my grandfather’s diary, a group of German militiamen, who also paid us a visit that day to bring in my father and grandfather, said that “the leaders of the local Hungarian community are being rounded up and taken to an internment facility”. (When they found that my grandfather was 77 years old and bed-ridden with illness, they left him alone, but they did take my father away.) The “rounded-up leaders” were held in custody for just one day. As the Germans later explained, the arrests served purposes of security only, and were carried out on the day Germany occupied Hungary, its ally in the war. Karcsi’s father, too, was taken to an “internment facility”. Among the guards he discovered his own father (Karcsi’s grandfather), who landed this role as someone who had always embraced his German identity.

István Tóth also chose to be a guard. It was not a good decision, to be sure. But what exactly did he do or not do in Macahalma? Even if the People’s Liberation Committee was correct in finding him “innocent of any serious offence”, he was hardly to be regarded as a dissenter in his role as prison guard. What he joined under pressure was the staff of a concentration camp during what would be the last months of German occupation. It is not always easy to distinguish between drifting with the tide and movement by one’s own volition. Indeed, it is a matter of dispute in criminal law whether such a distinction is necessary. The camp guards certainly beat and tormented the prisoners, and István Tóth could not afford to flout expectations. In hindsight, these acts proved to have been punishable offences, regardless of whether he had dealt those blows with enthusiasm or loathing. And this cannot be a subject of debate. The context had been gone; the sheer acts remained.

I am searching for an analogy by which to better comprehend István Tóth’s situation, and I am having a hard time finding one. If I ever felt any peer pressure to comply with certain patterns of behaviour, it was during my compulsory military service. Needless to say, it was in peace time, in 1965–1966. If we did something well, we were rewarded by thunderous praise. I do not remember what we did well. It may have been the whole squad succeeding in forming a proper line before the allotted deadline following the afternoon’s nap time. We all tried hard. So did I. Sometimes we would tighten our belts around the waist without routing them through the loops to save time. “Vrlo dobro!” (“Very good!”), came the thunderous praise. “Služimo narodu!” (We serve the people!”), we roared in unison. We were unassuming, you see. We did not seek to distinguish ourselves out of ostentation; we only claimed to act for the benefit of the people. It was hardly possible to go against the tide by doing or not doing something based on one’s personal decision.

I remember once venturing so far as to strike a casual tone of voice with an officer, of course making sure that this was not readily apparent from the outside. It happened at curfew time as the captain checked whether each of us placed his uniform on the chest in front of the bed according to regulation. The shirt had to be folded to a rectangle of the exact same dimensions as the pants, with the cap placed neatly on top of the pile. I was not exactly skilled at it, but I thought I had done a pretty decent job. There were about eighty of us in the sleeping quarters filled with bunks. When the captain entered, we got out of (or got off) our beds and snapped to attention in our pyjamas. The captain halted at my bed, his gaze on my folded pile. “I want to fuck this cap of yours!”, he hollered. The captain could only be answered in one way: “Yes Sir, Comrade Captain!” In Serbian military code, “yes sir” was replaced with “razumem”, meaning “understood”. So I duly replied, “razumem, druže kapetane!” (“understood, Comrade Captain”), except that I did not enunciate “razumem” with the requisite firmness but mumbled it in a way that could be heard as “understandable” or “I understand you”. The captain paused for a second, then moved on. Nothing happened. In any case, my cap was aligned perfectly with the edges of the folded shirt and pants. The only problem was that the five-pointed red star on the front piece faced the rear wall instead of the door as it was supposed to. I simply turned it in the right direction.

In a word, if you find yourself in a group, you will soon be under pressure to behave in a certain way, even if it is not a concentration camp. Of course, in a concentration camp all of this plays out in a far more cruel and inhumane fashion. For all intents and purposes, you do not have elbow room to act on your own. What could István Tóth have done? Was he supposed to pull fake punches? Or increase the intervals between his commands of “get down” and “get up”? Admittedly, it was his own decision to accept to serve in the camp. However, it so happened that the alternative was for him to become a prisoner in some German camp. All right, he might have joined the guerilla fight, except that he was not coerced to do so by the partisans themselves – and, apparently, he was not to be torn from his wife and newborn son, or the land he cultivated, except by coercion or main force. Had I been his lawyer, I would have had no qualms about arguing that István Tóth, a farmer in Hódegyháza, had faced an extremely difficult predicament, although I would not go as far as to say that he made the right decision.

Let me pause at the single most specific charge of the entire indictment: his use of a hardwood stake. The prosecutor pointed out that István Tóth wielded it so fiercely that the stake broke under the blows he meted out to the prisoners. István Tóth himself claimed to have brought the stake down to bear only “two or three times”, and then only to separate Milan Kojičin and Stevica Ostojin, who had come to blows themselves. Then again, using a stick is hardly the proper way to break up a fight. It is not easy to tell the difference between what seems natural in a given situation and wrought-up state of mind from what is truly natural. And if you cannot make that distinction, you will be held responsible when the situation has changed.

It is conceivable that István Tóth treated the prisoners more leniently than the other guards did, perhaps even helping them here and there. At least this much is hinted at by the testimony of several former prisoners, based on which the local People’s Committee determined that he had not committed any egregious offence. However, he did not, and could not, back out of all expectations, and for this he must be condemned with good reason. His guilt is compounded by the notoriety of the Macahalma camp. In 1950, it was virtually impossible to acquit anyone who had served as a guard there. True enough, István Tóth hastened to join the partisans after the liquidation of the camp, although the prosecutor argued, correctly by any reckoning, that he had not done so out of sincere conviction. One might add that neither was it sincere conviction that had led him to agree to serve in the camp in the first place.

István Tóth, the defendant “reportedly without criminal record”, was sentenced to three years in prison. I am not sure he comprehended everything that happened to him in his life. In his diary, Márai quotes a sentence by Lermontov’s orderly. When asked by the poet whether he understood his poems, the orderly replied, “If I understood them, they would not be poems”. For his part, István Tóth could have rightly said: “If I understood it, it would not be life.”

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel




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