AN ISLAND IN A TOXIC SEA – SUBJECTIVE RECOLLECTIONS OF A YEAR OF ADVERSITY

 THE ISLAND OF ISTVÁN VASDÉNYEY


It is 1944. I am on an island of comparative security. The sea around me comprises the waters, skies and lands of our Hungarian soil, beset on two sides – a sea poisoned by peril, trepidation and fear […].

The bloodiest conflict between the largest armies in history has been raging for three years, and the Carpathian Basin has already been designated by providence as the arena of the great battles expected in the fourth. And we do not stand the slightest chance to steer clear of the cataclysm.

Everyone here was filled with dread, and for good reason.

The events that transpired bore out the wildest fears. We were at war with our powerful neighbour to the East, with whom our quarrel was neither territorial nor economic but ideological at best; hardly a casus belli.

Although our great neighbour to the West was an ally, it invaded the country nonetheless. The Regent was held in gracious captivity for four days, and not released until after the German troops had crossed the border and begun their march toward Budapest. The Prime Minister was first forced into hiding, then captured and sidelined in Mauthausen. The politicians of the opposition were apprehended. These iniquities were perpetrated by our own ally.

Along with the German troops came outfits of the Gestapo and the SS, with the aim of detaining and ultimately eradicating Hungarian citizens of Jewish descent. The most severe and perilous calamity afflicted the Jews captured by the Gestapo on 21 and 22 March 1944, who were to be used as hostages […].

It was plain to see that these rounded up hostages would face the cruellest treatment and circumstances, to the point of losing their lives […].

I am able to write this story down because the worst we feared never came to pass. After two gruesome months there came a lull, due in large part to the efforts of a Hungarian police officer, the commander of the internment camp.

By consistently upholding the prisoners’ rights as spelled out in Hungarian law, this commander made the camp an island of calm and safety amidst a toxic sea in turmoil as the country endured torment in the grip of two enemies, and camps elsewhere became a scene of unspeakable atrocities.

Over the decades since then, copious literature has been devoted to the courage of diplomats and private individuals who saved smaller and larger groups of the persecuted […].

I have termed the scene of this particular action the Shelter Island – the island of István Vasdényey.

I have decided to chronicle this purely Hungarian rescue initiative to pay tribute to the actions of Vasdényey, and also because the majority of the rescued hostages were members of the Budapest Chamber of Law, which has so far neglected to give them the recognition they deserve.

WHY NOT SOONER?

The question of why I have waited so long to write this memoir is a good one. What happened was that, as I was searching my huge pile of documents for poems to be included in a volume of poetry I was publishing in 2012, I miraculously stumbled across the list of hostages held in the camp at Kistarcsa. […]

I realised that I had forgotten some of the names and some of the events, all was to vividly come back to me as I went through the list. Without this document I would not have been able to write this story.

Apart from the list of names, I also found documents dated from 1944 […]. The list itself runs to eight pages and contains 215 names. […]


FROM A TO K


From the first days in Gestapo captivity in the prison on Rökk Szilárd Street, it dawned on us that the surname initials of the arrested lawyers were all between A and K in the alphabet. It made us believe the Gestapo would be content with this spread.

However, the list I obtained in 1945 also contained 10 lawyers with initials from M to W, clearly going beyond Jenő Ladányi, whom I had been considering an “honorary K”, admittedly by a stretch.

Jenő Lévai’s book Fekete Könyv [“The Black Book”] reveals however that the list of hostages was not deliberately limited by the Gestapo to start with Endre Aczél and end with Jenő Ladányi. Something entirely different had happened.

The Gestapo meant to arrest all lawyers of Jewish religion or extraction.

Page 93 of Lévai’s book leaves no doubt that the complete roundup of lawyers was thwarted by the intervention of the Ministry of Justice.

The detention of the ten lawyers from M to W proves that wide-ranging arrests had been in full swing, but the Gestapo dispensed with completing the campaign as a result of the steps taken by the Minister of Justice.

PORTENTS SINISTER AND MISLEADING PRIOR TO 1944 11 MARCH 1938

This was the day the Germans invaded Austria and occupied Vienna. News of the Anschluss caused Kornél Leopold, the husband of my second-degree aunt, to commit suicide, deeming the future absolutely beyond hope in the note he left behind. The events unfolding corroborated his dark vision: several of his family would be killed in 1944.

In our family he was the only one who committed suicide. Every time something went wrong afterwards, we would say to one another, “See, Kornél was right. He was the smart one in the family after all.”

Kornél remained a decisive influence for me. Whenever I got into trouble, he would always cross my mind, although I never wished to follow in his footsteps. Consciously or not, I remember him to this day every time I pass below his former apartment in Teréz Boulevard.

MARCH 1942

This was when Regent Miklós Horthy replaced the pro-War Prime Minister László Bárdossy with Miklós Kállay.

The new premier’s character, conduct and speeches kindled hopes in the majority of the population that the country might still avoid catastrophe, stop short of the worst, and possibly even sign a separate peace treaty.

Discounting the war itself, the country lived in treacherous serenity for two years. In fact, the economy even improved somewhat. Even the doomsayers began to entertain dreams of a better future. […]

During these two years of deceptive tranquillity, under the spell of illusions of a better future, we let down our guard and began shedding our suspicions. This is why we were so taken aback by the country’s invasion in March 1944.

WEDNESDAY, 22 MARCH 1944 DELIVERY TO THE TYRANT”: THE DAY WE LOST OUR FREEDOM

That day, I was prevented from attending my classes at the university. Early in the morning, an SS petty officer accompanied by a taciturn Hungarian policeman showed up on our doorstep saying he came to bring in my father, the attorney Mózes Bálint. (Of course, he never told us where or why.)

He then stormed through our apartment, fortunately without acknowledging the presence of my mother and my sister. He took a fancy to me, however, and bid me to come along […].

The policeman in his entourage just stood there silently and did nothing, even though it was his duty to stop me, a Hungarian citizen and student of the Pázmány Péter University, from being arrested by a member of an alien army at will, without a warrant. […]

We were driven to the Rabbinical Seminary in Rökk Szilárd Street in District VIII. The building was crammed full of detainees, and more were pouring in.

The highlight of the day was the appearance of Wisliceny, a senior SS officer, a corpulent man doing his best to come off as being well-intentioned.

Addressing everyone present, he told us, in a tone of voice devoid of menace, that we were all hostages (Geisel), and would pay with our lives should an assassination attempt be made on any German soldier in Hungary.

Short of such attempts, we would be let free without harm.

Then he fielded questions, one of which I remember keenly. A learned colleague asked why he of all people was arrested, when he had served in the army on the side of Germany in 1914, and was decorated for his merits.

Wisliceny replied that this was no fault of the Gestapo, the list had been given to them by the MÜNE (at the time, a well-known acronym for National Association of Hungarian Lawyers) […].

KISTARCSA, APRIL 1944

DAYS OF DANGER

One day in April (I forget what day it was) the hostages were taken to the internment camp in Kistarcsa, officially named the “Auxiliary Asylum”.

Although we were relieved to leave the dreary prison in Rökk Szilárd Street, and appreciated the fresh open air of the camp in the countryside, our conditions in captivity in Kistarcsa soon turned harsher.

The hostages were put up in Building B, while the SS troops were quartered in Building A across from us.

The tension between the two buildings was tangible, although it was obvious that Building B would never have the means or the courage to storm Building A. The SS, armed to the teeth just in case, were more numerous and composed of entirely different individuals than the outfit in Rökk Szilárd Street.

The psychological difference was best illustrated by the fact that while the SS in Rökk Szilárd Street used the polite form of address, the ones in Kistarcsa only used the informal “you” with the detainees.

They were no worse than their colleagues in the Hungarian gendarmerie, who rudely called peasants under suspicion in their custody by their first names. […]

ST BARTHOLOMEW IN KISTARCSA: A ONE-SIDED BUT BLOODLESS SKIRMISH

One night in May as we lay asleep, we woke to the terrible din of SS troops breaking into our building, roaring (in German, of course), “Wash your feet! Wash your feet!”

They kept yelling as they chased everyone into the bathroom, showering the laggards with blows. Nobody turned the lights on. Only the SS torches shed any light, and woe befell anyone that that light fell upon. They marched from room to room, pummelling everyone within reach. All of this took quite some time. The bathrooms brimmed beyond capacity with frenzied people snatching the few bars of soap from one another’s hands. All the while the yelling, tossing, scrambling and thrashing did not cease for a moment, the silent suffering of the blows here and there giving way to wails of pain.

It seemed it would never end. But eventually it did, abruptly as if by dint of miracle. […]

The episode left us wondering for a long time what the SS could possibly have hoped to achieve by this vicious episode.

It cannot have been on an inside initiative; that would have been unprecedented for the SS. They must have been obeying orders. But to what end? If the purpose was to promote personal hygiene, they could have done that during the day. We certainly had the time, and the bathrooms were available. We took showers regularly.

In the middle of the night, this action could have served no purpose other than to rouse and terrorise the prisoners, perpetuating their fear. Quite possibly, too, the SS was looking for an excuse to use their guns in a tasty little shootout, to finally draw some blood.

In any case it made us fear that the assault would happen again, or worse become routine.

A few days later we discovered we had no reason to fear further atrocities from the SS. Nothing like that was to happen again.

COMMANDER VASDÉNYEY TAKES ACTION

The commander never communicated with us directly. We saw him rarely, mostly when he arrived in the morning and left for the day in the afternoon.

No sooner had he received word of the SS action that night than he took steps immediately, telling the SS captain in Building A his soldiers would not be henceforth allowed to enter Building B or establish contact of any kind with the prisoners there.

To his own police staff he issued orders to keep all SS out of Building B.

While he never shared these instructions with us, he made sure we learned about them from the prisoners employed in the office, so as to allay our fears of further assaults. […]

THE EMERGENCE OF THE ISLAND

Commander Vasdényey did not sit on his laurels. After banning the SS from our premises, he must have requested either his superiors or the SS chiefs of staff to remove the SS troops from the camp altogether.

In justifying this request, he probably never invoked the harassment and abuses committed by the troops that night. More likely he argued that the presence of the SS was simply unnecessary. In the capacity of camp commander, he would personally see to it that no one could escape, which made keeping the SS stationed there in such large numbers plain overkill.

And, lo and behold, we were given another sign from heaven: all the SS troops were reassigned away from the camp. Standing at the window as we watched them march away, we found it difficult to contain our elation and to refrain from waving them good-bye. They glanced up at the windows, and did not wave to us either.

It so happened that, by the end of May 1944, not a single SS soldier remained in the Kistarcsa Internment Camp. Supervision of the prisoners was transferred to the exclusive competence of Hungarian police.

Whether due to their own goodwill or merely obeying the Commander’s orders, the police went about their tasks in an exemplary manner, not once committing an act of verbal, let alone physical abuse. They didn’t even yell at us. True enough, we would also do our part by steering clear of any disorderly conduct.

We were free to move around the grounds as we pleased. During the day, we were allowed to leave the buildings; the entrance would only be locked for the night. The only thing we were prohibited from doing was leaving the camp itself. I hasten to add that none of us really had a desire to do so.

By then it had dawned on us that the situation was a lot worse in the city and around the country outside the camp. Life and personal safety were much more precarious outside this island of serenity.

No one in the camp was ever put in harm’s way, in those days at least. The Commander would never have allowed it.

All the prisoners enjoyed the rights accrued to them as interned individuals under the rules of Hungarian public administration, and under the penitentiary rules applicable to prisoners. Moreover, these rules were always construed liberally, and in goodwill.

We were allowed to take walks any time of the day. There was a flat-topped mound adjacent to the building we called Doberdo – a fine place for exercise, jogging, basking in the sun (it was summer already), playing cards or chess, and having long chats.

We were free to receive mail and packages, and to write letters of our own. Theoretically at least, we were allowed to receive visitors, although our relatives were reluctant to use this option, given the dangers lurking for them if they attempted travel by the national and suburban railways.

From the letters we got we learned that we were in a far safer place than our folks, prisoners in their own right locked up in their own homes.

And we remained free to take a stroll on this island of ours, under the watchful eyes of Commander István Vasdényey, while the high seas of peril roared in turmoil around us.

THE SHELTER WEARS THIN

Through no fault of Vasdényey, it did eventually happen. One night the Germans took away some of the camp inmates by force. The hostages in Building B were spared however.

Vasdényei probably made calls to all the high places he could, because the miracle descended again: the kidnapped prisoners were returned a few days later.

My mates related how they were corralled in wagons, and that their train had almost made it to the Slovakian border when it was suddenly turned back.

Those saved were all joyous and grateful for their lives, but their jubilation did not last long. The SS, apparently unable to cope with this new fiasco, showed up and dragged away the very same prisoners a second time. The SS had saved its face, and this time it was too late for Vasdényey to do anything for the victims.

We learned later that our unfortunate mates were taken to Auschwitz, where they met their doom.

We, the prisoners left behind, realised with dismay that the island was a safe haven only as long as we were allowed to stay there, and that by leaving – whether as prisoners or on our own accord – our very lives would be at risk.

NEW RULES OF PACKAGE INSPECTION

Incoming food packages were handed out twice a week at the entrance to Building B, by the police officer on duty. He would open the packages and rummage through the contents checking for weapons, poison or any other forbidden object with which a prisoner could inflict harm on himself.

We happened to have in our ranks a lawyer named Gyula Fleischmann – the only prisoner of orthodox convictions among us – who routinely denied receipt of the packages sent to his name, on the grounds that the police officer picking through and opening the contents compromised the kosher certification of the food items, rendering them unfit for consumption by the addressee.

The police reported the anomaly to the Commander who, after some brief contemplation, ordered the food packages to be handed over to Fleischmann without being opened for inspection. This episode speaks volumes about the man that István Vasdényey was.
From the Pyrenees to the Urals, Europe was full of concentration camps, but ours was the only one where something like this could conceivably happen.

THE LIST OF HOSTAGES

The  overwhelming  majority  of  the  hostages  were  lawyers,  members  of  the Budapest Chamber of Law.

There were three clerks: Endre Friedmann, Lóránd Ingusz and Péter Katona. There was one law student: yours truly.

Since  time  immemorial,  hostages  have  always  been  preferably  picked  from the ranks of dignitaries. This is how we had three barons among us: Marcell Madarassy-Beck, Miklós Kohner and Andor Dirsztay.

Notable industrialists, traders and bankers were represented by the prominent entrepreneur Jenő Vida, member of the Upper House; two younger brothers of Lipót Aschner, the owner of Egyesült Izzó (Tungsram), the incandescent bulb manufacturer, Samu and Jakab; two proprietors of the Ulrich factory, Richárd and Imre Minkus; and the textile manufacturer Antal Buday-Goldberger and his son Berthold.

We also had eight interns, all of them secondary school students in Rökk Szilárd Street, where they had attended school regularly, helped out with the daily chores, then returned home in the afternoons.

They were taken along with us to Kistarcsa and were regarded as hostages and prisoners, just like us. Then there were 10 to 15 female hostages among us. Treating the eight underage students and the women as hostages was not only rude but a downright violation of international law, just as taking hostages from among the citizens of an allied state contravened international legal norms. Then again, the lords of the Gestapo were hardly Knights of the Holy Grail, nor did they wish to lay claim to that honorific title.

A DRAFT CALL IN HAND

It was May 1944. A draft call for military labour service has just been delivered to my home address, then forwarded to the camp in Kistarcsa.

The call was not just for me; all of my peers got one. Yet it was unlawful in my own specific regard. As a full time university student, I was supposed to be exempt as long as I was taking classes.

Should I stay or should I go? Are they going to let me off on account of the draft call? That was the question. To be or not to be?

If the draft call had been delivered to the house in Rökk Szilárd Street, then the answer would have been “Go”. If, on the other hand, I had received it the day after the inhumane abuses of “foot-washing night”, then the answer would have been an even more resounding “Go!”

But this here was Vasdényey’s island, where no more atrocities could happen, where I had my rights. Where the draft call sends me I would have obligations only. Here I was a hostage, but I had come to regard hostagedom as an elite status of sorts. In comparison, a labour serviceman is a slave bereft of rights, at the mercy of the supervising personnel, to be dispatched at will to Russia, Serbia, the marshes, snow fields, or a copper mine… Not me, for sure!

I was the one to decide, I alone. I would not ask anyone for advice, not even my own father. I would stay! Yes, stay!

On this island of ours, which fluctuat nec mergitur: “It floats and does not sink.”

Here, on this island which is willing, and hopefully able, to save my skin.

NEWS SERVICE

We had no radio, we had no telephone, but the papers did make it to the camp somehow. I no longer remember whether we were really allowed to read papers, but we did receive one daily newspaper or another on a regular basis. A single copy for two hundred souls. Snatching it from the hands of the next person was out of the question.

But there was a solution to this quandary. He was called Dániel Brüll – a lawyer, of course.

He was the official addressee of the paper, perhaps the subscriber himself. When he finished reading it, we would gather around him, 10 or 20 of us at a time, and he would tell us the contents in detail, sometimes reading certain sections out loud, then followed up by an expert situation report on the war in his own words. His audience would then disperse throughout the building, bringing word of the most important events to everyone. […]

A TOOTHACHE

A toothache is never welcome, but it is especially bad news when it attacks in a camp. The inflammation of the ear is even worse still, for that pain is truly unbearable. One of our fellow hostages got an earache so bad we thought he would go crazy. But this island would not let any of its inhabitants go insane. This man was taken to the hospital, and we got him back in a couple of days completely healed.

I only had that toothache, and believe me, it was plenty for me. What do you do about a toothache in a concentration camp? Camps like that are not known for amenities like dentist care. You will be lucky enough if someone can lend you a painkiller.

But you see, this here was an island. We had medical care, even a dental clinic of sorts. It was supposed to be an Auxiliary Asylum after all, where the sick could expect to receive due treatment, and did. Tooth and all.

THE COMFORTS OF CAPTIVITY

It was hardly luxury accommodation, but it was alright. Quite comfortable, in fact, compared to the hovel in Rökk Szilárd Street.

In light of what we had heard, and would later hear, about the other camps, where people spent the night outdoors under the sky, in damp cellars or in horse stables if they were lucky – in that context, our quarters in Kistarcsa seemed positively first-class.

The rooms were fitted with two-tier bunks with decent mattresses and blankets. Best of all, each of us had his own berth.

On the downside, we suffered regular attacks by bedbugs at night, and by fleas during the day. Then we laid our hands on some insecticide, which helped decimate the bedbug army, and a mate came up with an ingenious defence against the fleas. Hiding in the long fibres of the blankets the fleas remained invisible, but when we took the blankets outside, all of them were lured out by the warmth of the sun and began to hop around, so we could catch them easily.

The bathrooms had been equipped with an adequate number of showers. There was no crowding, no hustle-bustle, and we did not have to get up all at the same time. Water was never in short supply.

There were no restrictions on electricity use. Although a mandatory curfew was in place, no one ever bothered to enforce it. We had a separate mess hall of sorts, enough electrical outlets, and unlimited access to cooking facilities.

My father, who had never taken time off his reading and writing to work around the house back home, proved to be an excellent cook in the camp. He would cook me up meals from the ingredients sent from home. I never had to fry an egg for myself!

29 AUGUST 1944: A NEW CABINET TAKES THE OATH

The day after the 29th Dani Brüll was all excited as he read us the news that the Regent had relieved the pro-German Döme Sztójay of his duties as Prime Minister and appointed Colonel General Géza Lakatos in his stead.

Attorney Brüll, by then known as a cautious commentator, was now overcome by unbridled joy, forecast better days to come, and even envisioned the possibility of Hungary entering into a separate peace treaty. In any event, we would soon set be free, he opined.

And oh, miracles of blessed miracles, we were released a few weeks later, on 27 September 1944.

27 SEPTEMBER 1944: THE DAY OF DELIVERANCE

Early morning that day the letters of release were handed out to us, the camp gates were flung open, and we were free to go. We were overcome by the sheer rapture of freedom, but our joy was short-lived. As we rode the Gödöllő suburban train homebound, we became conscious of atra cura, the “dark worry”, or sinister anxiety of an uncertain and perilous future, lurking behind us.

We had quit our island of shelter because we had no choice, and were now sailing home on a poisonous, tumultuous sea.

A 19-DAY CALM BEFORE THE STORM OF 15 OCTOBER

Under the new cabinet, the raging seas subsided as if a film of oil had been poured over the cresting waves. We had more freedom of movement to run errands or procure food. […]

During those calm days we had a chance to visit with friends and relatives. It felt nice to see them again, even if some of them we were to see for the last time. Quiet days came and went until 15 October, a fateful day of dread, dawned on us. At noon we were listening to the speech of the Regent announcing he had just proposed an armistice to Russia. A few hours later, Szálasi, backed by the Germans, took over and inaugurated a three-month reign of terror which wreaked the greatest destruction of buildings and human lives in the history of Budapest. An account of these three horrific months would outgrow the confines of the present recollections. In writing this piece, my aim was solely to remember the good things, specifically the magnanimous rescue of human lives carried out by the command and personnel of the Hungarian police stationed in Kistarcsa.

As I did not keep a diary in captivity, this account necessarily relies on my failing memory. Some of the data recorded herein may be incorrect as a result, but what truly matters in the story certainly holds true. Not only was I one of the youngest of the prisoners but I am the only one of us still alive, as far as I know. I often remember a line written by the poet Sándor Földi, my very first true friend, to the dying poet Imre Stein in 1943: “Woe onto him who is left behind to mourn.” May this piece of writing then serve as a tribute to the memory of my departed shipmates.

SPRING 1945

The weather had thawed and it was a fine warm day when István Vasdényey, Commander of the Kistarcsa camp, paid a visit to my father. He came to convey his respect for all the prisoners formerly under his command.

We were lost in conversation for a good two hours, recalling old memories.

We asked him if here quired us to give him an affidavit of humane conduct. He said he had no need for such a document. He made ready to leave, and we said a heartfelt farewell to him.

I believe this visit was an extraordinary event. At least I personally have no knowledge of any other commander of a concentration camp who took the trouble and the courage to visit his former prisoners in their homes.

He was a man of exceptional qualities, to be sure. Later we found out that the State of Israel planted a tree to honour István Vasdényey as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”. When I visited Israel as a tourist, I looked for that tree in vain. This prompted me to write a letter to Tommy Lapid, a distant relative of mine, who had served as Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. He answered by email […] informing me that “Vasdényey does have a tree in the Yad Vashem, but his name on the plaque is misspelled”.

Here is hoping that official Hungary will one day pay tribute to this distinguished individual!

***

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Committee acts on behalf of the State of Israel in awarding the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” to non-Jewish individuals who exercised selflessness and self-sacrifice to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. They include István Vasdényey, Commander of the Kistarcsa Internment Camp, and Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy, Minister of Defence in the Kállay cabinet, who went to great lengths to alleviate the suffering of labour service personnel in 1942–1943. As of 1 January 2005, Yad Vashem honoured 658 Hungarians with the title.


(Excerpts selected by Éva Eszter Szabó, from Sziget a mérgezett tengerben. Budapest 2014. Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel)

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