For decades, Holocaust survivors rarely, if ever, spoke about their horrific experiences, even then only among close family and friends, never publicly. My parents were no exception. While today there are countless memoirs or oral history accounts, that was not the case in the past. Personal experiences were hardly ever reported in the media. I was, therefore, more than astonished when, in early 1984, upon their return from a holiday in the picturesque Giant Mountains in today’s Czech Republic, they told me that they had made a one-day train trip to Trutnov where my mother was a Häftling, a concentration camp prisoner, during the war. I was even more stunned when my mother sat down at her typewriter, summarized her memories, and sent them to the most popular women’s magazine, “Nők Lapja”. And to my greatest surprise it was published!
This is what she wrote.
György Polgár, a son of Gabriella Vágó
Nearly 40 years later, I returned to Trutnov, at the foot of the Giant Mountains, where I was a forced laborer. At that time, the town was called Trautenau, and the surrounding countryside was the Sudetenland. Where did I arrive from? From Auschwitz.
Not a Bite to Eat
On June 9, 1944, we, the persecuted were herded into cattle cars in Győr. An SS officer announced that we will report for labor service. The train didn’t stop before arriving in Auschwitz.
The horrors of the journey have already been written about many times. Everything was true. In Auschwitz, we marched by Dr Mengele and his magic wand. This wand – we did not know then – made the difference between life and death. I was lucky: with my mother, I was ordered to go to the side that meant life. We were first kept in a toilet barrack for two days, and later we were wet, cold, and starving for another six weeks. We slept on the bare ground when we didn’t have to line up for the “Appell” in the “Birkenau B Camp” barracks for hours. We saw the chimneys, and by then, we knew why they poured smoke day and night. We saw crutches stacked in piles and women kneeling, half unconscious. They most probably did something wrong in the eyes of the SS commandos. We feared the clubs, the dogs, the men, and women in uniform. Shyness and feminine vanity did not matter anymore.
In August, (we even didn’t know what day it was) the SS commando came to the block to sort us out. My only thought was not to be separated from my mother. I managed to stay with her because I had grown old in these two months, almost like her, although I was only 19 years old.
They tossed black clothes and a pair of sandals at me. We were forced into cattle cars again, but we were indeed taken to work this time. After a few days’ travel, we arrived at the town of Parschnitz on the outskirts of Trautenau.
We were taken to an empty, unused two-story factory building. It was furnished with high bunk beds. We were given mugs, plates, and brown tin spoons. We had covers – a blanket to be shared by two of us because two women had to sleep in a single bay.
We worked in the AEG plant in Trautenau. First, we had to clean, practically with a toothbrush, a freshly painted hangar, carrying two buckets of water for 12 hours without a bite to eat. At four in the morning, we were given some warm water they called coffee and 100 grams of bread. In the evening, we received a so-called “Eintopf” (one-dish soup), which was no more than a thin soup made from potato skins.
Yarn for Bread
I lost weight and was no more than 40 kilos. At a particular moment, my mother mustered all her courage and asked the “Lagerführerin” to transfer me to some easier work. Apparently, the woman was in a good mood because she did.
From then on, I had to assemble spare parts for airplanes. My mother worked on a big machine. We met in the evening. Winter came, and we walked two hours a day to the factory and two hours back to the Lager. Wooden clogs replaced our sandals. The wooden shoes often fell off my feet from their weight when the early snow grew to several centimeters. I limped along with my comrades.
In our camp, there were political prisoners from Kistarcsa, internees, women from the cities of Hatvan, Miskolc, Mosonmagyaróvár and Győr. Polish women also stayed with us. They worked in the textile factory. We exchanged with them yarn and knitting needles they made for bread, so we had scarves and caps for the winter to cover our bald heads.
We went through various hardships. A commando came to take away the sick every two or three weeks. We never saw them again. Pregnant women were taken back to Auschwitz to be gassed. Several of our companions went mad. We looked after them as long as we could cover for them, and they stayed with us, but this couldn’t last too long.
Once We Get Home
From early spring 1945, we were not taken to the factory but to the nearby forest to dig a bunker. One day, we, desperate wrecks of women, who no longer cared about life, spotted a barracks camp when marching to the bunker site. Men stood at the gate shouting at us, showing the number 15 with their hands and fingers. As we dug, we asked each other what that sign could mean. Then, by chance, we found a newspaper clipping torn from some French journal. We read that Budapest was liberated. The sign language continued, and after five days, when the men flashed only ten fingers, we realized that they were indicating how many more days they thought the war would last. We learned that they were French and Belgian political prisoners.
It was May. One day, returning to our barracks, we noticed a shop window displaying a black mourning ribbon on Hitler’s portrait. We could hardly conceal our joy. Walking along the center of the road – we were not allowed to use the sidewalk – we kept looking back at the display. A black flag hung at half-mast at the camp gate. From that day on, we hoped that something good would happen to us.
From far away, we heard cannon fire. The next day they didn’t take us to work. For days we were kept locked up. No one yelled at us anymore. We talked and cared for our sick who couldn’t get to the “Revier” (sick bay). We dreamed of nice food. We decided that if we ever got home and ordered mille-feuille at the famous Gerbeaud café in Budapest, we would sit at the table next to the lavatory, remembering the two days we spent in the Auschwitz latrine, being fed with slop from a bucket.
On Our Way Home
On May 7, 1945, at around five o’clock in the afternoon, we heard voices, together with the noise of heavy combat vehicles. The gate opened. A tracked armored vehicle stopped in the yard. Soviet soldiers got off it. They entered the building. By then, the Germans were nowhere to be seen; they had probably fled in the night.
Two young Soviet soldiers came in and greeted us. They told us that the war was over for us and that we were free. All the ragged women surrounded the two soldiers. We kissed them where we could and shook their hands. We saw sympathy in their eyes. They gave us some food. There was an interpreter, as a couple of women among us spoke one of the Slavic languages.
They asked us to strengthen ourselves for a few days, not to start the long journey, because the forest in the Giant Mountains was still full of Germans. After two days, we set off for home. In the Czech villages, the peasants put milk and bread in the windows of their houses. We realized that we were not the only inmates kept by the Germans; hundreds of political prisoners, French and Belgians, were also suffering in the camps of Parschnitz-Trautenau.
A Housing Estate at the Site
And now, after almost 40 years, here I was again! I looked around the streets of Trutnov, this small industrial town, walked on the sidewalk, not the carriageway. I asked a hotel concierge where the former AEG factory used to stand. When I told him why I was looking for it, he replied with much affection: he said it was close, within walking distance, and if I waited for a while, he would find the hotel manager to accompany me.
I found it by myself. It was Saturday, so the factory was not working. I explained to the porter, half in Czech, half in German, why I was bothering him. His tears began to flow. He remembered everything. He told me he was a schoolboy then and that they felt sorry for the prisoners but couldn’t help because they feared the Germans. He regretted that no one was in the factory because they would surely have let me in. He said I was the first Hungarian to come here since the liberation to see where we had suffered for months with our fellow prisoners. “I’m sure many of them are no longer alive,” he said.
We said goodbye and took a taxi to the former camp. The taxi driver drove us through the small town, and in five minutes, we were in Parschnitz or Porsici in Czech. We stopped. The taxi driver got out of the car with me in front of a memorial. We stood in silence for a minute.
A black marble plaque was inscribed that the Red Army liberated the political prisoners and deportees held here on May 7, 1945. “Their memory is being kept with devotion”, the inscription reads.
The camp building is still there but is empty and surrounded by a fence. A housing estate was erected on the site of the barracks. The driver told me he had fought some 50 kilometers from there as a partisan. He could not understand either why we had to march four hours daily, as it took only 20 minutes from the factory to the camp. Only the SS command could have answered that.
I saw the woods where we were cold and wet. I saw the house where the German commander-in-chief lived and the fortified building where we had to dig a defensive wall.
The inhabitants of Trutnov-Porsici did not forget us. The memory of the dead is remembered, along with that of the liberators. Every year a wreath is laid at the monument.
The taxi driver hugged me. He didn’t accept a tip. He probably told his family about us that evening.
Translated by György and Viktor Polgár