From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944
In 2012, Zsolt Zágoni edited and published a notebook written in 1944 by Rózsi Stern, a Jewish woman who escaped from Budapest. Written in Hungarian, it was translated into English by Gábor Bánfalvi, and edited by Carolyn Bánfalvi. The notebook is of primary historical significance because it summarises, in forty-four pages of handwriting (published in facsimile), the events beginning from the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 until the author’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen. It describes the general scene in Hungary, the looting of her family home, and the deportation of the Jews from Budapest.
Also, Rózsi Stern was the daughter of Samu Stern, one of the elected leaders of the Hungarian Jewish Council in Budapest during the latter stages of the war under German occupation. In March 1944 he was the leader of the group which was obliged to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann, the SS man in charge of the final solution in Hungary, about the fate of the Jewish community. Given the controversy surrounding these events, and Stern’s life, it could be seen as a controversial document. However, as Zágoni himself points out in his ‘Forword’,
… the importance of the notebook is that an everyday person – realizing the extraordinariness of the events – decides to tell her story, her fate, and the dramatic days of her family’s life and the black weeks and months of in Hungary … while she tries to understand the incomprehensible.
I have decided to draw attention to it here, not just because of Holocaust Memorial Day, but because it deserves to gain a wider readership outside Hungary, where it is published. Hopefully, the extracts I have chosen will demonstrate something of its importance:
November 15 1944
Caille Inn, Geneva, Switzerland.
We, the Bamberger family and 318 other Jews, were granted a privileged fate by God’s will. After a terribly frightening, dangerous and adventurous five months, we can watch from Switzerland the collapse of the Germans and the Hitler regime at the end of the fifth year of the war. Although the lives of the three of us are safe now, we are dreadfully worried about my father, Irma (her sister), my husband’s entire family, and all of our relatives and friends at home. According to the radio, it is only a matter of days until Budapest will be taken by the Russians. But who knows what human evil can still do to the poor remaining Jews. We are totally cut off from them, but I still have firm faith in my good Lord that he will help our beloved ones along with the other long-suffering Jews. Therefore, I just keep praying to him and asking him to shelter and protect them from all harm, so soon we can meet again in happiness.
May it be like this! Amen.
March 19, 1944
The German Invasion of Budapest
On this Sunday, news that the Germans have occupied Budapest has spread like wildfire. People, especially Jews, are in unimaginable fear and shock. We have so far only heard from the radio and from stories of survivors about the brutalities of German terror and now we feel that the Jewish community in Hungary is facing the same fate. Unfortunately, our fears were justified. Already on the first day, some of the Jewish gentlemen holding the most prestigious positions were interned. They came twice to our house, and to the Community on Sip Street, looking for my father.
My father wanted to buy time, so our whole family spent the entire day and night with one of our doctor relatives. This is where we were notified that Krumey Obersturmbannfűhrer (lieutenant colonel) had ordered all the Community leaders – including priests, principals, and the president – to be present in the Sip Street office at 10 ‘o’ clock on Monday. We begged my father not to go, as we were afraid that he would be interned too. He said he would not hide and no matter what happens he would go to the indicated place. I cannot describe how nervous we were. Irma spent the whole morning walking up and down Sip Street, so at least she would see if my dad was being taken by the Germans. The Germans were negotiating with dad in a very polite way, and they assured him that nobody would get hurt and that they wanted to work with the Community.
They formed the Jewish Council with eight members, with my dad as the president. They were responsible for making sure that the regulations were carried out properly, and this was the prerequisite so that the Jewish community would be saved from the atrocities. Unfortunately, there was cruelty and lies behind the smooth manners. One of their first moves was to have all Jewish phones cut off, so that we couldn’t communicate with each other. Then radios had to be turned in. The Jewish Council had to make unimaginably great efforts to meet this incredible range of demands, which had to be taken care of within 24 hours. (We also had to turn in typewriters, paper goods, furniture, apartments, bicycles, gramophones with records, drinks, pictures, and much more). Whole warehouses and private properties had to be placed at their disposal within 24 hours. Jewish stores were closed and the goods were confiscated. The image of Budapest changed completely within the course of 48 hours. All business transactions were paralyzed and all you could see were worried, terrified people. Eskü Street 3 (dad’s house and also where Irma and her family live) turned int a scene reminiscent of the great migration. Relatives, friends, and acquaintances all turned to the president. What would happen now? What were we supposed to do? What fate is waiting for us? We always looked at my dad as a superior creature for his intelligence and kindness. Now I remember, with tears of emotion, how heroically he comforted and encouraged everybody and suppressed his anxiety and worries for his own children and grandchildren… even the Germans were impressed by his brave and calm behaviour…
… People began to be collected from the streets. For example, if a married woman or a young girl went to the store or men left for work, you never knew if they would see their families again or would be captured on the street… At night men and women were taken from their homes… The yellow star had to be worn on your clothes or your coat on the left side above the heart, firmly sewn on. A lot of people were afraid to go out onto the street like this, branded, especially the Jews who… had denied a long time ago that they ever belonged to us. Amongst these – mainly the youth who didn’t know that they had Jewish backgrounds and now according to the German law they became Jewish again – many chose to commit suicide.
Above: Lídia Bamberger
Rózsi’s account goes on to describe what happened to close relatives and neighbours in Budapest, as well as to the Jews in the countryside and provincial towns, where the Jews were first of all forced into ghettos and then deported or sent to forced labour camps as part of the army (I have written about these events elsewhere). Ghettos were then made in Budapest as well, and designated buildings were marked with a yellow star hanging on the front gate. In the best cases, friends and relatives were able to move in together, five or six of people to one room. Rózsi’s family had to move because their house was designated as a yellow star building, and they occupied his apartment on the first floor, though all the other Jewish people staying there were soon moved on to another apartment house. Together with their father, there were nine of them living in the apartment by June 1944. Her husband, Gyuri, decided they should leave for Palestine, but her seventy-year-old father could not be persuaded to leave his responsibilities, and Rózsi could not imagine parting with him and her mother’s grave. She would also have to leave her husband’s family, including her eighty-year-old mother-in-law. In the end, she decided to leave with her husband and daughter. They were supposed to spend eight to ten days in a German camp outside Vienna and then travel through Germany and Spain to reach Palestine. The question was whether the Germans would keep their word and allow them to reach the Spanish border.
Departure and Transportation:
On 30 June, her father, accompanied by the German soldier who had been billeted with them, took them by taxi to the camp with their luggage. After two hours trying to ensure their safety, he left them at the internment camp, the synagogue on Aréna Street, which was already crowded with people, mostly those saved from the brick factories in the coutryside. Finally, after an anxious day standing in pouring rain, they boarded carriages ready to depart:
We sat lined around the sides, squeezed against each other, with our legs hanging down. Those who couldn’t fit like this were standing, leaning on each other, trying to balance… On both sides of the carriages there were German soldiers following the procession. All the way I was happy that my family didn’t see me in such miserable conditions. People on the street gathered in groups were wondering where all these yellow-starred Jews were being taken. Only on a few faces did I see compassion… After a two-hour carriage ride, we arrived at the Rákosrendező train station – on the outskirts of Budapest – totally soaking wet. It was starting to get dark by the time we occupied the wagon that was assigned to us.The suitcases were piled up against one of the walls of the wagon, and the backpacks were hanging on nails all around. In the meantime, people from other camps arrived, so by the time everyone got on there were seventy-two of us in our wagon… The wagon was only supposed to hold six horses or forty people…
We were sitting on our blankets, as tightly packed as we could be. There were twenty-six… children in our wagon, including sixteen orphans with one guardian lady… It was a miserable scene, especially seeing so many mentally worn-down people. Some people tried to stretch out, which was almost impossible, and others tried to make room for their legs while they were sitting. Little children were crying from fear and because of the unusual environment; the bigger ones were fatigued, sleeping and leaning on one another. The adults, worn out from the stress they had gone through, were arguing or weeping in silence. Everybody was wondering how long we would be able to take this. And we took it, and even worse… The wagon had no toilet, of course, so our human needs could only be taken care of when the train stopped for awhile abnd we got permission to get off, which was not too easy either as the wagon was very high, so women and children could only get off and on with help and that could take some time… People jumped off the train like animals and shamelessly took care of their needs… because there wasn’t enough time to get farther away…
On Saturday July 1st at 10 a.m., we departed (from Ferencváros Station). We all rushed to the wagon’s only small window to wave a last goodbye to Budapest and everything and everyone that meant our life until now. Tears silently dripped down our faces and our hearts were broken from the pain. Maybe this was the last time we would ever see the Danube, the bridges, and the whole beautiful city where we were born and raised. The youth began to sing the “we’re going to find a new homeland” Hebrew song. Perhaps they will find it, but the older ones cannot be replanted.
The train moved at a quick pace to the border at Mosonmagyaróvár, arriving there at 6 p.m. During the night a baby girl was born, with the help of the doctors in the carriage. They stayed there for four days, built latrines, washed themselves fully as well as their clothes, and bought provisions from local villagers. Their German guards protected them from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie. On 6 July the train was directed to Komárom and rumours spread that they were being taken to Auschwitz. However, they arrived at the station in the Vienna suburbs in the evening of 7 July, and were then moved on to Linz by the next morning, having been told that the camps around Vienna were full. Here they were disembarked and disinfected, fearing that they were to be gassed. When they departed, having been thoroughly humiliated and terrorised by the guards, they had little idea where they were going or how many more nights they would spend on the wagon:
The train sped towards Hannover. We stopped one or two times because there were airstrikes., but this didn’t even affect us anymore. We had submitted to our fate and were totally indifferent.
We arrived on the 9th, a Sunday morning, at an improvised forest station near Hannover. It was a huge prison camp. We washed ourselves in big troughs and after an hour’s break, we sped further towards our destination, Bergen-Belsen.
A whole bunch of German soldiers were waiting for the train, holding enormous bloodhounds on leashes… They yelled their orders harshly. They counted us by putting us in lines of five. This took about an hour and a half in the strong afternoon sun, and we almost collapsed from fatigue. After this, we walked nine kilometres. Sick and old people and our luggage were carried on trucks… We reached an immense camp. There were prisoners here of all types and nationalities: Russian, Polish, French, Dutch, Hungarian and Jewish. Each barrack block was separated with wire fencing. We got block 11. When we arrived, everyone was registered, and then they assigned our accommodation. Men and women were separated… Lydi and I got barrack F and Gyuri got a bed in barrack D. Our barracks were across from each other. The Tordas and a few other people were also assigned together with us.
About 160 of us were placed in one barrack, as an average. It was a dark wooden building with one small window (without lighting in the evening) and three-level wooden bunk beds above each other. Lydi and I got bottom beds so I wouldn’t have to climb ladders. Between the beds there was just enough room to turn around. It was very sad to move in here, but we were so tired that we were happy to have the possibility to finally stretch out. However, this only happened much later. Once everybody had a bed, we received an order to line up… Lining up took place in the yard, with people grouped by barracks. The first lineup took two hours in the pouring rain, with us wearing thin summer clothes without hats… The first dinner was next. They brought soup in pots. We stood in a line individually with the mess tins we were given. Unfortunately, no matter how hungry we were, we couldn’t swallow this slop. In the backpack we still had a little bit of food left from home, but we really had to be careful with that because our prospects were not very encouraging… we had to lie down wet, without blankets. It was a divine miracle that we didn’t catch pneumonia… It is hard to imagine sleeping in these physical and mental conditions. Sometimes a child would start crying, suppressed sobbing and deep sighs, for the old life and loved ones we left behind. You could hear other people snoring, and the different emotional and physical manifestations of 160 people. There was not a single minute of silence. Crowds of bedbugs and fleas rushed to welcome us. However, towards the morning, sleep still overcame me because I was greatly exhausted.
That is where the notebook ends. On 1 August, 1944, Lydia sent a postcard, which still exists, from Bergen-Belsen to her fiancée in the labour camp in Northern Transylvania. It told him that she and here parents were ‘doing well’ and had ‘the best prospects’ of continuing on their journey. Apparently, a ‘Collective Pass’ allowing group border crossing, stamped by the Swiss Embassy in Budapest and signed by its Consul, Carl Lutz, was what eventually secured their onward journey and border crossing. Rózsi’s father, Samu Stern, died on 9 June, 1946. There were many accusations made against him, and have been since, for the role he played. Krisztián Ungváry, in a historical tailpiece to the notebook, points out that the prominent members of the Jewish Community, like Stern (who had been one of its elected representatives before agreeing to become its president under Nazi rule), experienced within a few days of the occupation that their former social connections were worthless. Those who they could rely on before were either arrested or removed, and the Hungarian authority’s statements revolved around absolute obedience to German commands. Ungváry states clearly that
Eichmann and his colleagues systematically used the operation of the Jewish Council to calm the victims and make them carry out as many of the anti-Semitic measures as possible.
I will be writing more about this, and the controversial rescue mission of Rudolf Kasztner in the near future. For now, it is enough to state that, contrary to popular mythology among many Hungarians, those who were at all interested in what was happening to the Jews in the March-October 1944 in Hungary had relatively broad access to information. Hungarian soldiers returning from the eastern front and refugees escaping from Galicia could provide accurate information about the details of the Nazi final solution. As the notebook extracts above show, Rozsi’s group certainly knew what Auschwitz meant at the beginning of July. The question remains as to why these pieces of information did not interest a significant part of both the Jewish and non-Jewish population. Stern himself had no illusions about Eichmann’s goal because he himself stated:
I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.
Unlike his family, Samu Stern did not escape abroad where he would have been safe, and after the ‘Arrow Cross’ (Hungarian Fascist Party) gained power he managed to survive somehow in illegality until the Soviet troops arrived in the ghetto towards the end of January 1945. Thereafter, he was accused of collaboration, and even the police started a an investigation against him, but he was never sent to court. Before he died, he wrote a memoir, which was published in Hungarian in 2004.
Lídia Bamberger’s son, Péter Sas, gave his grandmother’s to the Zsolt Zágoni, in his apartment in Budapest. Zágoni read it all there and then, and realized that it had to be published. The notebook had been in the Sas family ever since it was was written, probably from notes Rózsi took on the deportation from Budapest to Bergen-Belsen. She probably wrote up her notes into prose in the blue-covered notebook in Geneva after their crossing from Germany (Belsen was not liberated by the British until April 1945). Besides the 15 November entry (above), the name of the hotel she was staying in, ‘Caille’ is printed on the back cover of the exercise book. Lídia married Pál Sas in October 1945, after returning home with her mother to Budapest, though she remained ill for a long time, an illness which her mother nursed her through, saving her from becoming another victim of the Holocaust.
Zsolt Zágoni, ed. (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest (published by the editor).