“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Agi’s Story
The Hungarian Nazis occupied my hometown, Sombor, in March of 1944. Sombor was a commercial town of 35,000 people that served the large agricultural province of Vojvodina. Its population was made up of Serbs, Hungarians, and Volksdeutsche, the latter dating from the time of Maria Theresa, plus quite a few Jewish families such as mine. Vojvodina was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and eventually of Yugoslavia. I was born in Budapest, under special care in a private clinic, because my mother had had an earlier stillbirth. Before the occupation, I had completed the first part of examinations for a high school diploma, and it was my plan to study chemistry at the Sorbonne.
At the time, my father, Dezsö, was a wholesaler in wood, fertilizer, and sacking materials. My mother, Jolan, worked with him in the family’s business office. Mother was the guiding force of our family, having supported her own family from the age of 18. Up until the Nazis took over the Hungarian government, we lived in an atmosphere of patience and optimism that the war would end.
Mother and I were home alone when the police patrol came. Our maid showed them the cellar and the bathroom to prove that no one was hidden there. Martial law dictated the immediate execution of people hiding or clustering in groups. One night they came to our house for a total search after a boy at school accused me of being a Chetnik, a nationalist Serbian group that opposed Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis. My accuser led the police as they came and explored every corner in our house and emptied every drawer. They were purportedly looking for explosives. My boyfriend and husband-to-be happened to be there courting that evening as Mother toured the policemen around. The search officer was a lawyer, an educated man, who apologized to my mother that he had to ask certain questions of me. Meanwhile, soldiers stood outside pointing their guns at our house.
As I put it together, all this happened because a bunch of 16- to 18-year-old boys in Sombor, all just kids, had formed a club they called “The Nines” (because there were nine of them), and because they were all friends of mine. To act tough they wrote “Nine” on their left arms with ink. The police asked my boyfriend, one of the nine, to roll up his left sleeve and made me translate the inscription, “The Nines,” which they found on his arm. Then they arrested us all and took us in for questioning.
A rumor spread that Chetniks were actually hidden in our attic, so the police returned to take my mother in for interrogation. They took us all to a schoolhouse where we were detained. Mother, now increasingly desperate, began babbling. Then she fainted when the soldier escorting us remarked, “We just shot a Chetnik across town 10 minutes ago.”
I recall not being afraid then, even when the officer accused me of being a spy for The Nine. They were just kids, after all. The police couldn’t really be serious. But the arresting officer admonished my mother: “You had better pay more attention to the company your daughter keeps!” That officer then became the prime witness who formally denounced the Club of Nine. When later a friend of his came to us to apologize for his stupidity, it was too late.
Though they had nothing specific on the kids of The Nine, we were all suspect thereafter. All nine boys were temporarily imprisoned and interrogated by one investigating committee after another. It was during this period of widespread local panic that I felt closest to death. In fact, in those days the Nazis and our police were hanging Orthodox Serbian priests in the churchyards, along with scores of young people they distrusted and feared.
Soon, all Jewish men in Sombor, my father included, were taken to a nearby village and detained in a sugar factory. Jewish women were forbidden to appear in public places. All the laws valid in Germany were now being applied to activities of Jews in Hungary. Already, there were signs in our local stores saying, “Jews not allowed.” I had to wear a six-pointed yellow star when I was on the street.
About that time, my mother planned one Sunday afternoon to visit friends in Budapest. We kids thought it would be fun to accompany her and several of us piled into her taxi. Mother put her foot down, and put us out. She was afraid that in the company of our suspicious group of rowdies she would not get permission to return to Sombor.
It wasn’t long before our house was requisitioned and a Hungarian couple moved into four of our rooms. For a whole month, our family squeezed into the remaining two rooms. Then a rumor circulated that all Jews from the newly Nazi-occupied lands of Yugoslavia, Slovakia, and Romania would be removed and concentrated centrally to prevent collaboration across frontiers. The day for the general assembly was announced. I realized that after that day there would be no possibility of escape. The Nazis were by then ensconced throughout most of Europe.
There came one final day when I still had a chance to cross the Danube and join up with the partisans in Yugoslavia. But my father had gone and I felt I simply couldn’t leave my 56-year-old mother. Then, in one day, all the young Jewish men of Sombor were rounded up by force and taken away. We were to be next.
We had packed our belongings and were ready when the police arrived with a patrol of German and Hungarian soldiers to take us away. They escorted us on foot to the collection point where we all sat on our bags to await the night. I managed to slip past barriers to look for my father, who had been there in detention for a month, incarcerated with my uncle, the father of my cousin Dushy. Seeing them, I ran quickly and gave them some of our food. We had no time even to embrace. In my last ever glimpse of them, my father and my uncle, they were holding hands with their arms held high above their heads.
The next night, under armed guard, we were marched to the rail station and up to the freight cars. Like animals, we were sealed into these cars. In our car were women of all ages along with a few sick old men. All transports of Jews and other “undesirables” took place at night. Ages sixteen to fifty were slated for work camps while those younger and older would stay at the collection point for later shipments. I was able to stay with my cousin Dushy, but at this juncture I was separated from my mother. Our final“big event” was to divide all our family possessions. I never saw Mother again. I understood that she was taken to Auschwitz a month later and led straight to the gas chambers.
Our first stop in the cattle train was Baja, on the former Hungarian-Yugoslavian border. There, we were herded out of the cars and walked in columns to an old mill. Everyone found a tiny spot there, answered roll call, and then lay down on the cold floor to wait, munching food that we had brought along.
Eventually, we women of ages for the workforce were sequestered in one freight car and told that our destination was work camp. Actually, most of those from Sombor survived this grand deportation that took all told about a month. Many of us ended up in the same camps.
I was in the first transport of Sombor citizens to arrive at Auschwitz. Each freight car held about 40 people. During the long trip we stopped only once during daytime, in open country. Mostly I sat on the floor resting against my rucksack and kept comfortable enough. We were young. Our spirits weren’t low, but we had no idea where we were going. All along, we carefully and voluntarily rationed our food and there was much sharing of delicacies such as chocolate and roasted coffee beans.
We arrived at Auschwitz on a sunny morning, May 2, 1944. The S.S. troops asked where we came from and ordered us to line up in an open area alongside the train. When we were told to place all our belongings in one pile, we became concerned that we would never find them again. Desperately, we scribbled our names on our luggage. Some Volksdeutsche from Yugoslavia, trying to be nice, spoke to us in Serbo-Croatian, saying, “Just stop worrying about your baggage. You won’t see it again.”
A truck came along and the old and sick among us were ordered to climb on. The rest of us walked. This was the first of many points of “bio-selection” that, in fact, determined our fate. Some families were separated forcefully, others were left to stay together, all without rhyme or reason as far as we could see. The old, we learned eventually, were all put to death immediately after arrival.
We were asked if there were twins in our group, the very special bio-selection for Dr. Joseph Mengele (who, they say, still lives in South America). He studied characteristics of twins, purportedly to encourage more twinning among the Germans. One set of fraternal twins from my town, Sombor, was taken away to him. The girl twin is still alive.
Once in camp, we hadn’t far to walk. Our first impression was of mud everywhere, but the most awful impression was from the three-meter-high concrete posts with their electrified fences, watchtowers, and guardposts at intervals. The first prisoner I saw inside the camp was a Gypsy woman, pale and apathetic. Her little girl just nodded and nodded and kept asking where she was. We turned our faces away. These first encounters made the most terrible impression on me. But we followed along without thinking. It was such a relief to be in the open air and out of the stinking boxcar.
We asked where the older people were. The response, “You’ll see them, but don’t ask questions.” Then the routine of our days began, and we began to learn how the camp really operated. The first 36 hours in Auschwitz we went through the registration process without sleep, without food, without sitting down, and with constantly being ordered to “Go here, Go there!” Finally, we were allowed to shower. In the dressing rooms, we had to leave neatly stacked what little remained of our possessions and then bathe in the huge shower rooms, under the watchful eyes of the guards.
We were then moved to another large room where women prisoners were stationed all around to cut our hair to two-inch length. Those with head lice had a complete shave. There was no time for shame. They clipped the hair from under our arms and our pubic regions while we stood naked. We exited on the opposite side into yet another large room for the distribution of new shoes. They were never matching. We were given no hose, no panties, no bra; only a skirt and blouse.
Then we were sent to a station for identification, which was sewn on all our clothes with the six-pointed Jewish star next to our number. Political prisoners had a red star, prostitutes a black one, and criminals a green triangle. I was given a large red star on my shirt. Then came the tattoo pen where the whole job was done in five minutes in a rapid stippling motion, always on the left forearm. There seemed to be no regulation size of the tatoo; the five-digit number being made along with a triangle for Jews. I looked around to find the tattooist doing the smallest, neatest figures. I still have my tattoo. It is a part of me and a part of my life. Why should I get it taken off?
By this time, we were so tired we were sleeping standing up. Finally, we were led to blocks containing large two- or three-level bunks wide enough for about seven people in a section. We lay on two straw sacks; our group of five had only two coarse blankets. There were 800 to 1,200 people per block, each block about fifty meters long. Over time, the blocks became more and more crowded, eventually up to twelve people sleeping in one bunk. I chose the upper bunk, the only one where one could sit upright.
The dormitory blocks were headed by selected prisoners, like trustees, some of whom had already been there two or three years and obviously knew all the ins and outs. The highest authority was in German hands but most camp control was in the hands of these special prisoners who drew their favorites into the better situations. The “big lady,” the chief prisoner guard in our camp, was ruthless, but the leader in our block took a fancy to me. She even let me keep two photographs of my boyfriend, though I lost them in all the later moves. One was a head shot and one was of us together in bathing suits.
In the mornings, we had ersatz coffee or tea that was warm and watery and had a special flavor that made me wonder if they were giving us bromides to keep us under control. I am told this is a common delusion among institutionalized people.
For the first six weeks, we were in quarantine, separated from the work camp by wire fences. Under quarantine, we had no useful activity, no recreation, no walking — only trips to and from the latrine.
After the quarantine expired, our work schedule was six days a week. We were permitted free time in the great yard for only a short time on Sundays. Gatherings and chatting were discouraged, and when they happened we were always scattered quickly. I was very fortunate because my room leader, Moritzka, a Slovak woman, maintained her humaneness during the whole four years she was there. I remember it particularly comforting when she sang “Mama” to us in Italian.
We’d go to bed at sunset and were awakened at 3 to 4 a.m., then were rushed to the latrine. The latrine was simply a long ditch over which were benches with holes, maybe a hundred holes in a row, in back-to-back pairs, a small block of wood separating them. There the “scheiss capo” would see to it that we didn’t stay long. The capo had a terrible switch in her hand to threaten us and kept shouting, “Up, up, don’t stay so long!” In the washrooms, there was running cold water but no soap or towels. We washed and dripped while the guards kept yelling at us, “Hurry, hurry up!” In these and so many ways we were tortured, and this entirely by our fellow prisoners.
We asked again where the old people were kept. Some said, “Just look at that smoke from the chimneys!” Others said, “You’ll see the old ones when you get to the work camp.”
First thing in the morning, the room leaders in each block cleaned the area and made beds. Then we were all lined up outside for roll call, no matter what the weather. This lasted up to two hours in the morning, and again on return from work in the evening.
At meal time we were fed an inedible soup that we ate anyway, from enamel bowls, without utensils. We also received a thick gruel of flour with some green leaves in it. The worst for me was in the fall when those awful red beets replaced the greens. We got a quarter of a tiny loaf of bread in the evening; some said that the flour, dark and heavy, was made from wild chestnuts. This bread was the only thing I could eat with relish. Occasionally, we had a pat of margarine, a tiny slice of sausage, a piece of strong cheese, or a lump of sugar.
The block and room leaders managed to get the best food for themselves, then would trade food for shoes, stockings, and sweaters. Stealing was called “organize.” “Klepsi, klepsi” was the term for taking things on the sly or to deal for food, clothes, and such. Incidentally, we never received any of the Red Cross packages supposedly sent to Auschwitz.
People often ask me about guards bothering us women. I never heard about any woman being forced to sleep with the German guards. I suppose the guards would have been punished if they had slept with us. I did hear of a few lesbian attachments among the prisoners, but I never saw or experienced overt sexual approaches from either sex. I did hear, too, that top prison guards in the men’s areas kept young boy favorites who were called “pippers.”
One day, we were allowed to write post cards of a few words to anywhere as long as we voiced no complaints and gave our address as Waldsee. Many did not write for fear that recipients might be put in danger. But I wrote to my husband-to-be, with my return address as #7 Waldsee. He told me later he had guessed that I was in a work camp near the Swiss border. A few even got answers from their cards. Once when I was off at work, others said that my name had been called at mail time, but when I asked, my room leader told me that I had got nothing.
To socialize, we would visit down the line in the block, but there was little real amusement and no real group feeling. Lights out was shortly after dinner. We never even considered getting each others’ full names or home addresses, since we had little idea that we would survive to have friendships later.
Eventually, I began to think and tell others that we were all going to die here. Soon nobody wanted to talk to me. Nevertheless, from some basic survival instinct I continued to try to better my lot.
One regular selection procedure was that everybody had to jump over a large stone at the end of the day. If you were too weak or sick to jump over the stone, you were sent directly to the gas chamber. Girls sometimes fainted in line at the roll call, but it was never advisable to show weakness. There was one large girl who had been in the camp since age twelve and was now sixteen and a room leader. One hot summer night at roll call when an old woman leaned against the barracks to rest, this wild girl attacked her, slapping her viciously. But it was really to impress and warn her.
I’m often asked if we knew anything about what was going on outside or in the war. One older lady in my block would fabricate troop movements in which the English, Americans, and Russians would be advancing toward Auschwitz, but we had no reliable news. Prisoners in contact with the main office spread rumors, but we dared not show any knowledge. Fear was constant. It was best to stay a sheep in the flock. In fact, the greatest danger was to become obvious or to be different in any way. Therefore, people were afraid to be themselves.
When our quarantine was finally completed, I was first put to work opening packages brought to camp by incoming prisoners. This kept me in food pretty well. I had to open everything, each can of shoe polish or toothpaste tube, to look for hidden jewels. When occasionally I found some, I placed them in separate neat piles. Jewels, of course, were of no value to us. Clothing and food were the chief currency in camp. When working we got twice-a-week supplements of food, which included a larger piece of sausage, an extra third of a loaf of bread, and sometimes a potato. Room leaders would on occasion build little fires in the dormitory and cook the potatoes with fried onions. I adored that smell of normal food! Fried onions had been our usual topping for meals at home; they became my greatest fantasy. I was determined that fried onions would be the first thing I would eat if I ever got out of that camp.
The whole time in camp, I had only one menstrual period. No one had periods. One month after liberation, my periods started up again. I also never had a cold or flu the whole time in Auschwitz. For my regular toilette, I obtained a toothbrush from where I worked and hid my smaller personal things in a jacket that had an elastic waist and wristband. Somehow, I always got by the cursory control procedures. As a matter of fact, I was never caught at anything. There was no toilet tissue and often we couldn’t wash afterwards. I can’t remember how I trimmed my nails. I guess I bit them.
One day, we had a very thorough surprise inspection of our barracks in which everything we had collected was confiscated and thrown into a huge pile. I kept a nightgown around my waist containing food for my cousin. Somehow this got through inspection without detection. Afterward, nobody could believe it.
We washed our clothes only when we washed ourselves; there was no opportunity otherwise. Everything was always rush, rush, and we went for days without thorough bathing. We had a shower about once a week, but this was not regular. At work I would take things that were easy to hide and that provided warmth and comfort, such as laces, high shoes, and other durable things. But at the delousing about once a month, I was horrified because I would have to undress completely and thereby lose all the little creature comforts I had acquired. Often I was able to avoid the delousing procedure.
On the way to work I had to pass the crematorium with its high wall and chimneys. Sometimes a door was ajar and I could look in and see huge piles of baby buggies and baby clothes. Before long, we knew pretty well what was happening. One morning going to work, I saw a woman in a grey summer uniform with only half her long hair shorn. She was being taken away, crying desperately. While she was being prepared for work crew it was discovered that she was pregnant. No pregnant women were allowed to survive.
One night, an entire block of Gypsies was taken away for elimination. We heard screaming and shouting and shooting coming from their block all night long as they were being herded to the gas chambers. Then all became deathly quiet. Some time later, sparks flew from the chimneys. We had got accustomed to the odor of burning flesh, but this night it was especially rank.
Another night a woman escaped. She was brought back after only two days. Those who were out of quarantine had to go watch her being hanged. We learned about a Sombor girl who was shot escaping from the transport train. Apparently her body was put in the morgue at Dachau but she wasn’t dead. She eventually escaped and now lives in Belgrade. Every day there was a new rumor about some such event.
Unfortunately, after some weeks, I lost my good job and my next assignment was in the Weberei. There we worked through the winter without heating, weaving straps — always five meters long, five centimeters wide. We learned they were used for some purpose in German submarines. Lift two strands, insert one strand, back and forth we wove for hours. When the strand reached proper length, it was cut off by a work leader. I recall one girl pausing at her work once just as a German officer entered the Weberei. Hers was the first beating I saw. He even stepped on her with his boots.
At the end of a day’s work, we occasionally were inspected, totally nude, by Dr. Mengele himself, as part of his special selection. Some were given numbers and transported directly to the crematorium. One day my eternally optimistic friend, an old lady from Brussels, didn’t come back from this inspection. Another day, a girl with whom I had gone to school for twelve years in Sombor, and who was confined to the Totenblock (death block), jumped from a window and ran away. Later, we learned that she was involved in a diplomatic exchange with Sweden — of prisoners for auto parts — and that she actually was sent to Sweden before the war ended.
One day I met in camp another Jewish girl I knew from Zagreb. She had been caught there acting as courier for the partisans. Having become well-established and privileged as a prisoner, she soon succeeded in getting me into a hospital block mainly of older Polish non-Jews, a group never exterminated outright. To be admitted to the hospital block required one to have a fever or a minor ailment needing no more than a three-day hospitalization. When she first saw me she remarked that I looked near death. I desperately wanted to avoid separation from my cousin, Dushy, in our part of the camp. It turned out that the nurse in the hospital block took a liking to me, and, though I soon got better, she arranged that I stay on in the hospital from mid-December to mid-January 1945.
Meanwhile, my cousin, Dushy, my only family, was put in a commando work group that dug ditches to regulate the flow of the river. During this assignment she got the Lagerkrankheit (camp sickness), with anorexia and diarrhea. Then she died.
The Beginning of the End
By early 1945, prisoners in the concentration camps in Poland were already being moved gradually back toward Germany. All able-bodied prisoners had to leave the hospital, and so I went to the convalescent block and soon joined the daily roll call of those able to work. One night there was a big commotion throughout Auschwitz, almost a panic. We were all ordered on a moment’s notice to march to the next concentration camp westward. In clusters we hiked along, but sometimes in the chaos groups broke off to try to hide. They were quickly found, and then ran away and hid again, time after time. In the confusion, my block group left without me and I found myself in hiding with a group of several hundred Poles. We sensed that something big was happening when we saw the camp just ahead being burned down. But then we heard that Nazis were returning to look for Jews to shoot along the road. They didn’t get back as far as our hiding place.
For the longest time, we heard no more, but in the night sky we saw brilliant air battles among fighter planes. We believed that the Germans would blow up all prison camps as they retreated, but we also considered death in a camp was an easier one than scrambling about in wooden shoes and thin blouses and skirts through the winter snows of Poland. We were told we had thirty kilometers more to walk to the next camp. I knew I couldn’t last that long. I figured the Germans would soon find and shoot me, leaving me to die in the snow.
We continued, nevertheless, our westward trek, scavenging food along the way, and finally arrived at a cluster of warehouses. There we formed into small search parties for food, discovering staples of beans, noodles, flour, potatoes, and margarine. Arriving at a deserted camp where there was a heated block with real beds and linens, we settled in. There, thanks to the good food we had scavenged, we began to come alive again, even to hope.
All of a sudden, an S.S.company, retreating in a Volkswagen, stopped outside our camp and shouted for all Jews to come out of the block. I sneaked out a back entrance and ran to the next camp to notify others so that they could hide, hoping our place would appear abandoned. The Germans collected, nevertheless, about 100 Jews from the block that I had just left, took them out in the woods, and shot them. After that, no more Germans appeared.
We heard artillery coming closer and closer, day and night, and heard air battles all the time. We left our block only to get water. One terrible afternoon there was a huge explosion just outside the barracks. I simply had to go see what was happening. When I walked around a corner of the block house, there I was, face to face with two Russian soldiers. I ran and hugged and kissed them. They told me there were no more Germans anywhere around.
It was all over.
Those of us left were assembled back at the main camp. Two girls from my hometown, still with long hair, had just arrived in Auschwitz. They recounted how some of them had been let out of the transport in Austria where they were enlisted into heavy farm work. From others I learned the story of what happened to my mother. She had wanted to get down from the rail car in Austria but my sister had insisted, “You can’t leave me.” It turned out that all those who stayed in Austria survived.
We were taken to a holding camp at Birkenau, only twenty kilometers from and formerly a dependent camp of Auschwitz, and there we spent a week of confusion. The crematoria are still well preserved there. Our women were being constantly harassed by Russian soldiers who would usually come by the barracks at bedtime. I could speak a few words of Russian. Once, when a Czech woman panicked as she was being approached by soldiers, I told them that she was “with child, here, in the tummy!” and they left her alone. Another soldier came up close and tried to touch my hair. I started a coughing fit, feigning tuberculosis, which frightened them to death. But there was always a danger of wild gang attacks by those Russian soldiers.
It turned out that in the last days of the war a cousin of mine had been transported to Bergen-Belsen, another famous death camp, and there put into one of the last Nazi “experiments,” with typhoid bacilli put in their food. She and many others died just a few days after our liberation.
Most Yugoslav survivors of Auschwitz were taken to displaced person camps in Katowice, organized by the Russians, and were not allowed to come directly home because of “security questions.” I was more fortunate. As I traveled through Novi Sad, I stopped to visit another Jewish cousin married to a Catholic. Most Jews who had intermarried had not been deported. In fact, I had kept hoping that my father and uncle’s pre-war conversion to the church might have saved them, too.
My husband-to-be, who was not Jewish, had stayed in Sombor as a student and later served in the civilian guard as a fireman. He had arranged a big surprise party for me at my cousin’s house in Novi Sad, where I arrived on the 17th of January, 1945, my birthday. All of a sudden, I saw him, handsome, in uniform. We were married a month later in Sombor. A year later, in 1946, I enrolled in the University of Zagreb to study chemistry, as I’d always wanted to do.