03. 19. 2012. 19:14

Anima Rerum. The Soul of Things (excerpt)

Everything related to train wagons had good associations for us. The one thing we never dreamed of was that we’d also be herded into a wagon someday, and that it would be unbearable. How unbearable? A person can bear anything.

1 Cattle car = 100 bullocks

When I meet a stranger I’d never seen before, had never heard of or known nothing about his ancestors or progeny or any of his relatives – in short, I have no idea whose son or calf he is, as we used to say back home; in short, I know nothing about him, but if he’d been to Auschwitz, the information surfaces during the first five minutes. Considering the way we immediately recognize each other, one would think that a special pheromone cloud had been developed specially for those who’d been to Auschwitz. We communicate without having to elaborate. We speak the language of accomplices.

“From where did they…?”
“How many days did it take to…?”
“The ramp? When?”
“Who else from the family?”
“They gave your little sister to your grandmother?”
“In Brežinka?”
“Which camp?”
“Your Blockälteste?”
“And how long were you…?”
And what everyone relates during the first five minutes:
“The trip in the cattle car.”
“The primary selection process.”

The words cattle car have pleasant associations for me from my re-Auschwitz life. There were extensive fields on my maternal grandfather’s farm where I became familiar with some wonderful examples of the flora growing in Hungary that are now either on the list of extinct plants or on the list of protected plants. One of these fields was saline and wasn’t good anything except grazing. However, since this lovely field had saline soil, wild chamomile grew on it in abundance, and come spring, its flowers were gathered with the help of big wooden combs, were dried, stuffed in sacks, and taken to the railroad station of Mezőkövesd-Mezőnyárád, where the sacks were loaded onto wagons and dispatched to one of the pharmaceutical plants in Pest.

I didn’t see the spring chamomile because I was going to school then. But once in a while, when I had a tummy ache, I drank chamomile tea, because grandmother sent us chamomile by the bagful. We even used it to wash our hair. But in late July I could watch the salt flower or Limonium (Statice) gmelini blossom with its branching lilac arms stretching in all directions, toward the sky, too. The whole field looked as if it had been covered with a big, soft, lilac eiderdown. Under it was a chorus of millions upon millions singing a soft pianissimo, because all the bugs, bees and wasps that existed in this big wide world seemed to congregate there, intent on the salt flower, dancing around it, sucking its honey, using it for a swing. Yet it has a strange smell unpleasant to the human olfactory organ. Bugs, of course, have a right to their own opinion, and so do I. Today, the Limonium gmelini is also a protected plant. But every August I hastily pick a lapful from the vicinity of one or another underpass and head home with my booty as happy as a lark. Just like the bugs, I also love its tart smell. No wonder. One whiff and I’m back home on the farm.

Everything has its use, even a field of saline soil, because apart from the chamomile and the salt flower, this meadow also produced a good grade of grass. Every April, on St. George’s Day, meaning the 24th of the month, we bought a hundred bullocks. Our only overhead was the one solitary young herdsman who tended them. In September they were sold and put in cattle cars in Mezőkeresztes-Mezőnyárád, just like the chamomile. The clear profit was what they ate on the saline meadow and for which they showed their appreciation by gaining weight. It made perfect sense.

I like to ask the provocative question: Who knows what a bullock is? We all know the umbrella term cattle. The male of the species is the bull, the female is the cow. But what about the heifer? And the bullock, which has still a lot to learn before it can become an ox? Well, for your information, it’s like this. The calf, when it is born and we think it is as cute as can be is a “calfkin”, but not because it’s got a proper you know what. If it’s a girl, then it’s a heifer, if it’s a boy, then it’s a bull. And once the joi de vivre is excised from it, it’s called a bullock, and after it studies diligently and grows nice and big and is hitched to the yoke, it’s an ox.

All I meant to say re. the above is that for us there was something joyful about being able to put something in a wagon, at times chamomile, at times bullocks, sugar beat for the sugar processing plant, rape for pressing oil, and wheat, corn, oats, barley, reed, and who knows what else. The log for the Fahídi Lumberyard that was turned into boards, laths, and firewood also came by wagons. Everything related to train wagons had good associations for us. The one thing we never dreamed of was that we’d also be herded into a wagon someday, and that it would be unbearable. How unbearable? A person can bear anything.

By June 27, 1944 only one wagonful of people were left at the Scherli Brickyard in Debrecen, but even then, the Scherli boy was busy taking pictures of us. He had no time to lose. They were removing his favorite subject. We must’ve made an uplifting spectacle as we gathered our belongings, deciding what to leave in the dust of the brickyard and what to take with us, after which the Hungarian gendarmes began herding us into the wagons with their fists, if necessary.

It would make a separate book to answer the question: What does a person need to survive?

You take for granted that you are living in a yard that has a pig sty, a chicken coop, rabbit cages, a barn, a granary and tool shed, countless fruit trees, a sand pile, sport equipment and who knows what else. Who knows how much there is? You take it for granted that you are living in a house with rooms for various functions, a kitchen and several bathrooms and what have you, each equipped in accordance with its function, lots of furniture, paintings, chandeliers, carpets, a piano, books, music scores, etc. You take it for granted that you have closets full of summer clothes and winter clothes, shoes, coats, hats, toiletries – you have everything. And then suddenly you have to decide what of all these things to take, what little bit that you can carry, what you think you cannot do without. This is the last phase, and it doesn’t happen all at once.

The Hungarian authorities were careful not to shock us and deprived us of all that we had and our favorite objects, step by step. First they deprived us of our opportunities, the shops and factories that guaranteed our income, then our houses and gardens, then whatever we took with us into the ghetto, thinking it was ours, and then, when we went from there to the brickyard, the little we’d taken with us, deeming it absolutely necessary. But we were wrong. My father’s warm, dark blue housecoat, for instance, which he used to cover me at night because I was cold, was soon taken from us too, of course, along with the Bunsen burner mother used to cook our meals.

Everyone in the family had a knapsack, a haversack and a small carrying case in one hand so the other could be free. The knapsacks, haversacks and carrying cases were chosen to suit our size and strength.

Still, there were exceptions. Gilike carried my small wooden stool, which she loved, and she carried her teddy bear and her favorite Kruse doll. Boci and my mother carried a big clothes hamper in their free hand which contained heaps of diapers, baby toiletries, bibs and baby clothes, with Ferike, Boci and Lajos’s six-month-old baby boy lying on top.

It is wonderful when you have a cousin eight years older than you. She has a beautiful long blond braid, attends the same school, and when she graduates, you take her place in gymnasium. Boci – Anna Borbála was her real name – studied at the Music Academy, graduated, and when she left the school, I was admitted. She was a real grownup. She was very thin, not our thickset kind at all. The circumference of her waist was the same size as the circumference of her head, incredible as it may sound. Her wasp waist would have put any real wasp to shame.

Boci had many suitors, but her choice fell on Lajos, even though Lajos walked with a limp, the remnant of the polio he had as a child, before the Sabin vaccine was invented. This is why Lajos was not in forced labor. There was no other young woman near or far whose husband was at home. They were all in the Ukraine or at the front, though a couple of the lucky ones were serving at home in Hungary.

Boci was happy. For the first time in her life she weighed more than fifty kilos. She was nursing Ferike, and she was a very beautiful mother. She was radiant, full of the joy that cannot be put into words, the feeling that connected her to her little son, the meaning of her life, her happiness. We walked around them on tiptoes. Having this tiny island of normalcy in the horrendous upheaval, uncertainty, fear of the future, and filth was like a gift of providence – the charmed lives of Boci-Lajos-Ferike hovering above our own existence, something that all of us would have liked to safeguard as long as it was humanly possible.

All my life I loved to travel. In those days we traveled to far off places by train. We did a lot of traveling because we had relatives at great distances, a lot of relatives, and so we were always on the go. After the Anschluss of 1938, there was no one we could visit in Vienna, because the tantes had fled to Bratislava. Then, when Slovakia also came under German occupation and we still had most of the Fahidi branch of the family there – from the Weisz branch my Aunt Hédi, my mother’s older sister and her family as well as mother’s various uncles, aunts, cousins – we couldn’t visit each other because by 1942 they had started deporting the Jews. We were happy to just receive news that they were still alive.

Human adaptability is nothing short of miraculous, the way we steadily slipped into our own annihilation. When a shipwrecked person finds himself on the open seas holding on to a board from the side of the boat, he is hoping that another boat will pass by and he will be saved. Then another piece breaks off, but there is still something to hold on to, there’s still hope. And when the board gets even smaller and he can hardly hold on any more in the rough seas, he is hoping more than ever, because a miracle must materialize! But no miracle materialized. What materialized were the cattle cars on June 27, 1944 that took us away.

I had pleasant memories of getting on a train in groups, such as the school outings and club scout and brownie camping trips, the innocent little pushing and shoving as we boarded, the cries of the children calling to each other, because it was very, very important to sit next to friends, the pleasant chirping like that of a flight of starlings alighting on a branch that you hear when many people crowd onto the same train.

Our train of June 27 had nothing in common with these memories. The train pulled into the Scherli Brickyard along the rails with loud screeching and jolting. It wasn’t a passenger train but a cattle train whose steps couldn’t be reached from the ground. They laid planks against the sides so we could climb up.

The ghetto’s medical supplies had been put in charge of Tanti, officially known as Dr. Lenke Szerényi, the sister-in-law of my uncle Antal Fahidi, and who, being part of the family, lived with us in the ghetto on forty square meters divided up to house ten people, which in those days counted as a veritable luxury. We took good care of the medicine, thinking that it would be of great service for all the people from the ghetto once we catch up with them.

Thanks to these small crates of medical supplies, when the cars were backed up and everyone ran amok without regard for the others, dragging their bags behind them, trampling their neighbors underfoot, elbowing them out of the way as they shouted the names of family members, the gendarme on duty held back the crowd in front of our wagon. We dragged in the crates of medical supplies and, since all saints point their fingers at themselves, may God forgive us, we dragged in our own possessions as well. In fact, the whole lot of us were the first in the wagon. Tanti went up front with outstretched wings as the royal guard of the medical supplies, my uncle Antal, kicked and beaten beyond recognition, his wife, my aunt Margi, my mother with Boci, and between them Ferike in the laundry basket, Gilike, me, and my father and Lajos, Boci’s husband, pushing some important package before them that they felt could not be left behind, not for all the world.

We ended up in the most distinguished place, under the palm size opening of the cattle car that they called a window and that was covered in barbed wire, lest someone should attempt to escape through that small hole. We even had time to arrange our bags to serve us as seating accommodations and place Gilike’s small stool by the tiny window so she could look out if she got on top.

Once we were in the wagon, all hell broke loose. The gendarmes broke ranks and the whole group started charging like a herd of cattle, wanting to be first in the wagons. The mêlée was indescribable. Those who were stuck in the back pushed those in front of them for all they were worth. Those in the front lost their balance and, tripping and stumbling, cursing, jerking at the handles of their bags and sacks, calling to the rest of their family, tried to stay on their feet, while those inside the wagon tried to find a secure place for themselves from where the flood of people would not be able to dislodge them. As the wagon filled up, with the decrease in the available space the possibility of movement decreased, too, yet many were still shouting and pushing their way in. At that point the gendarmes came to the rescue; they beat the breathless crowd until they, too, were crowded inside the cattle cars to the last man and his last bundle.

Since you can’t change your ways in the blinking of an eye, once we were settled in our miserable nest, we first of all accommodated ourselves to the hell around us and tried to keep to ourselves as much as possible so that the outer world should filter in to us in a manner we could deal with. Then, since only a saint can step over his own shadow, we began to hope. For what?

“For one thing, we don’t know where they’re taking us.”

“For another, we’re completely uprooted. We’re in a vacuum.”

But we’re together, we’re strong, we’re healthy, we are very close and love each other very much. So many things working to our advantage must surely guarantee a bright future.

We’ll be there soon…
We’ll be somewhere...
Somewhere where they are expecting us, where they need us.
We will work.
We will be together.
And together, we can survive anything.
Even the bit of time that’s left till the war ends.
Then we will go home...
To Debrecen...
To our garden, our house, the farm.

They pulled to the door of the cattle car, then locked it. We waited for the train to start. And then they opened the door of the wagon again, and shoved Uncle Laci Falk inside. Then they bracketed the door again.

Uncle Laci Falk’s brush factory was to the east of the fence of the Fahídi Brothers Joint Stock Company. We loved Uncle Laci. He had a great sense of humor, he was kind, very cultured and extremely musical. It was said of him that he wanted to be a concert pianist, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. He sent him to Germany to learn trade and finance at one of the best universities. In Germany Uncle Laci wasted no time in falling in love with the first woman within arm’s reach, married her, bought a Bösendorfer, and to the consternation of his family, showed up on their doorstep with the love of his life.

Woman as such – how we saw her, ranked her, and what made one one way and another an other – held pride of place in our family storehouse of prejudices and preconceptions. For instance, there was the Viennese woman, unsurpassable, the be all and end all. She was elegant, tasteful, charming, cultured – nothing put superlatives. (Not so the Parisian woman who you could be sure would be wearing makeup, but you couldn’t be sure that she’d bathed first.) At the opposite pole was the German woman. She bathed, all right, but she was as hefty as a barmaid, had no taste, and didn’t know how to dress or cook. It was a mystery what made her a woman at all. Luckily, the exception proves the rule, because going in face of family prejudices, Uncle Laci’s wife, the German Friedl, was the embodiment of the ideal woman. She was all smiles, sweet, elegant, charming, the way a woman should be, and to top it off, she even had a heart and brains to go with all her other good qualities. Still, although Friedl was one hundred per cent Arian, Uncle Laci was, for all intents and purposes, a Jew, and though he stayed behind, his hiding place was discovered, and in the moment past the last, he was put in the cattle car with us.

June, as we know, is a summer month, and the cattle car was ruthlessly assaulted by the sun, but eighty souls plus their belongings was the technical minimum that had to be stuffed into each car headed for Auschwitz.

The sun is beating down on us, the temperature inside the wagon is rising.

There is no water. There is no water for anything!

There is no drinking water, there is no water for you to wash your hands or place a wet cloth on your throbbing forehead, no water to clean a baby’s bottom, or for a sick man to take his medicine. There is no water!

The sun continues to beat down on us, the temperature inside the wagon is still rising. How many degrees could it be? Thirty Celsius? Or fifty? There is no water!

Your throat is dry, there is no saliva in your mouth, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth, and you are sweating as the temperature keeps rising. It must be as hot as Hell, because it couldn’t be any hotter there either. Ferike, long since divested of his diaper, is suffering lying naked atop the hamper. We take turns fanning him.

Gilike never says a word. She does not weep, she does not cry. She is a big girl, eleven years old. I’d like her to cry or scream, shake her fist, curse. Anything! But Gilike just looks. I will see her eyes as long as I live. Gilike just looks, taking us in mute and soundless. But her eyes speak for her. They are accusing us, questioning us. Why? What have I done? I’m such a good little girl, I’ve never done harm to anyone in my long eleven years of life, so why, why, why?

Uncle Tóni is quietly moaning and dying, his huge body one gaping wound. Having been kicked and beaten, he is covered everywhere by black and blue marks, open wounds and bruises. Tanti is applying creams, giving him injections, trying to alleviate his pain as best she can. His wife, my Aunt Margit, is fanning him to alleviate the suffering.

Boci and Lajos, the always cheerful, joking Lajos, are sitting dejectedly side by side. Pimi and Pami. That’s the pet names they gave each other. They don’t say anything, but the question hovers above their heads: What will become of us? And what of Ferike, the light of their eyes, given to them to bring them joy and happiness? What will happen to them? What? What? What?

My father and mother still feel that they must serve as a good example to the others and must keep everyone’s spirits up. They say they know that we’ll arrive at a place soon where we can all live normal, proper lives, and where we will be given work worth doing. We will all work. The work may be more strenuous than what we’re used to, but we’re strong and healthy, and what is most important of all, we’re together and will stay together. We’re inseparable. Besides, the Germans have as good as lost the war, we just have to hold out for the short time till their ultimate defeat.

Meanwhile, besides the lack of water in the wagon, there is now also a lack of air.

At the far end of the wagon someone goes berserk and breaks out in incoherent screams. There is no stopping him. We’re all sweating and we smell. The air grows heavier. We’re suffocating in the heat. Our lips are sticking together. Our legs are heavy and swollen.

We are human beings. We are biological beings. We are subservient to the laws of nature. We have human needs that must be met. There is no toilet in the cattle car. In the cattle car there is only a pot – one pot for eighty people. What has that unfortunate human being done who is forced to stand next to it? Why is he being punished like that by fate? The pot fills up in no time, and its smell lingers and lingers. And what happens when the pot is full? You can’t order the law of nature to suspend itself.

Gilike is standing at the “window”, looking out the hole. At least I don’t see her accusing glance. She smiles and waves.

“Who are you waving to, Gilike?” I ask.

“Uncle Laci Falk is so funny! He’s rolling down the embankment. I’m waving to him.” Thus Gilike.

Lo and behold, when I came back home I learned that before we reached Kassa, Laci Falk asked the gendarmes to throw him out the wagon upon his own request and responsibility, and probably not a little due to the persuasive force of his money. He later told me that he indeed waved back to Gilike. But this time he managed to hide so well that they didn’t find him.

It also belongs to Laci Falk’s story that after the war he and Friedl reopened their brush factory and reanimated their pre-war connections. Brushes made by the Falk Brush Factory were exported to various countries, including Sweden. Laci had a good nose for business. Before they could nationalize him, he packed some of his machines among his brushes, and left the country with his wife. Later, they helped a lot of people from their new home in Sweden.

Meanwhile, our train reached Kassa. It is evening, the sun is not shining. The temperature in the wagon is a bit more bearable. They push the wagon door open. We’re given water and an empty pot. The orders are given in German. Along with the pot, a gun barrel also appears in the wagon door, and we hear the order: Hand over any gold you have because if you don’t we’re going to start shooting! So we gave them some gold. In fact, whenever there was a change of guard and the same orders were given, we still had gold to give them.

After the relatively bearable night the daytime heat continues, the horrible stink, the lack of water. Those that have lost their mind continue to scream, those that have died continue to lie among us, a bunch of inanimate corpses, those that are ill continue their death agony. But the wagon train is patient, it continues on its way for two whole days, three altogether, until we arrive at our destination.

It is dawn. The light is just breaking. There is no station sign. We have no idea where we are.

They push open the wagon door and amid ear-splitting shouts and curses we are dragged out of the wagon. Whoever can’t get out is thrown out. But we have soil under our feet at last, something to stand on. We can stretch out. The fresh early-morning air feels invigorating.

There are a lot of strange characters around. I don’t know what to make of them. They are wearing ugly gray and black striped pajamas. They have funny looking sailor’s hats on their head made out of the same striped material. They are shouting in a strange language that bears some resemblance to German, but isn’t. I don’t even see any Germans around. These striped figures must be the bosses around here, or so it seems. They certainly act like people in authority.

The striped characters tell us not to mind our belongings, they’ll be taken after us. The babies are taken away from their mothers and given to the grandmothers. They tell us we’ll be marching on foot. Those that can’t come with us will be taken by bus. We are happy for the chance to put our numbed bodies in motion. Those who look young are asked their age. If anyone says they’re less than sixteen, the striped characters scream at them, you’re sixteen, and don’t you forget it! If anybody asks, say sixteen, understand? Don’t forget. Sixteen. You’re sixteen!

We didn’t even notice that we’d been separated into two groups, men and women. Tóni must have stayed behind in the wagon. He was alive, but he couldn’t get off. My father and Lajos got off, but the next second disappeared from sight. I concentrated on staying by mother’s and Gilike’s side, so I didn’t see how or why the men had disappeared. We were busy with Ferike. Mother and Boci had placed him on top of the hamper again, just as when we’d got on the cattle car. One of the striped characters told them to hand Ferike over to my Aunt Margit, but they said he’s not heavy, they don’t mind carrying him. – And so they did.

The first imperative was given:

“All doctors step out of line!”

Past fifty and in full knowledge of her responsibility, Tanti came forward.

We had formed nice, regular rows by then. I was walking on the outer side of our row next to Boci who was still holding one ear of the hamper with Ferike on top. Mother was holding the other ear in one hand and Gilike by the other. My Aunt Margit stood at the other end of our row. It felt good to be able to walk and move at last. Day was breaking, the sun was coming up, and along with the new day the hope inside us was renewed; see, we’ve made it, we’re going to get decent work and we will do justice to it, we’ll get by, we’ll stick together, the family is together. Besides, the war is almost over.

That’s when we spotted the Germans. There were just a couple of them, both men and women. They were standing where the column was heading, so we had to pass by them. When the lines reached them, they spoke to us in a quiet, almost friendly way. Upon hearing them, some of us went in one direction, some in another. And if anybody wanted to remain with the person who was told to go to the left, the Germans told them to rest assured, the strong would continue on foot, while the weak and tired would be taken after them by bus. They would soon be together again. Which put everyone’s mind at rest. Naturally.

After a while, our row also reached the group of Germans. Since she was nursing a child, Boci was slightly more corpulent then usual. The eight years of difference between us didn’t show on her. Also, we resembled each other. When we reached him, a friendly German gentleman asked us, “Are you twins?”

“No,” we said, and in obedience to the gesture of his arm, I…

… went to one side,

Boci, the hamper, and in the hamper Ferike, and on the other side of the hamper my mother, Gilike, and Aunt Margit…

… went to the other.

The next row was already standing in front of the Germans, who continued to motion with a friendly wave of the arm: this way and that.

The greatest tragedy of my life had just happened to me and I didn’t know it.

In the blinking of an eye I was orphaned. I had lost my father, my mother, my little sister – all of my closest relatives, except for Tanti. My youthful years were over. I turned into an adult. From then on I had no one to rely on except myself. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I had no idea, no idea at all.

The extraordinary ingratiation ceased the minute we were at some distance from the selection committee and, as I later learned, from Mengele, who was in charge of selecting out most of the Hungarian groups.

We were put in charge of the SS Aufseherin, the whips were cracking and so were the orders, slaps were flying, and so were hits in the back and kicks. We formed rows of five and were driven on the run to the bath at Brežinka, whether we wanted it or not.

Anyone who would like to know what the multi-chamber entrance area that ended in the shower room at Brežinka was like should go to Buchenwald, which was built on the same model. There they can also see the furnace in its original condition. In Auschwitz, the Germans blew up the crematoria and the rooms that led there before the Russians reached them. Two years ago they pieced together a furnace so that Bush could have himself photographed in front of it, but the entrance area was nothing like the original. To see the original you must go to Buchenwald. On my first visit to Buchenwald, I immediately felt at home as I walked through the rooms of the Brežinka bath that were so familiar to me. These were the rooms where:

– our heads were shaved bald,
– our body hair was removed,
– where we were sprayed with animal disinfectant, and
– where we entered as human beings and emerged as Häftlings.

Anyone who has been a Häftling once will never be the same person again. Something inside you snaps in two and can never be soldered into one again.

SS Aufseherin: female overseers of the prisoners.

Häftlings: concentration camp prisoners

Excerpt from the as yet unpublished English translation of Éva Fahidi, Anima Rerum. A dolgok lelke (Anima Rerum. The Soul of Things). Tudomány Kiadó, Budapest, 2005-2006.

Translated by: Judith Sollosy

Tags: Éva Fahidi