The following is excerpted from Cold Crematorium:Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz, József Debreczeni’s firsthand account of his deportation to Auschwitz, from Hungary, in May 1944.
The long train, comprised of low boxcars with German insignia, was grinding to a halt.
“We’re stopping,” the word spread among the barely conscious, listless crowd.
We suspected that we were nearing our destination. We’d been herded aboard two and a half days earlier in Bačka Topola, and since then we’d stopped just twice, and only for a minute or two. On the first such occasion, some sort of thin soup was handed in through a gap wide enough to fit only the bowl containing it. The second time, the train slowed down along the open tracks.
The bolts screeched open, and the German military police, in grass-green uniforms, barked shrilly: “Aussteigen! Zur seite! Los! Los! [Exit! To the side! Come on! Come on!]”
We stopped by an embankment awash with flowers and beside a little patch of woods. Who could say where we were? In Hungary, Slovakia, or perhaps Poland? The henchmen, in their grass-green uniforms, announced that we could relieve ourselves.
“Going into the woods is prohibited! We will shoot at every suspicious movement!”
Hundreds upon hundreds of people stampeded toward the designated narrow space. Old women’s fading eyes were grotesque mirrors of terror. Six days earlier, these women had been sitting in their lovely old armchairs talking of Sunday lunch. They’d been listening to the radio and looking out at their yards from the living rooms of their provincial homes, awaiting news of grandchildren away on forced labor service.
Old women’s fading eyes were grotesque mirrors of terror. Six days earlier, these women had been sitting in their lovely old armchairs talking of Sunday lunch.
Younger, married women. Days earlier they’d been sprinkling their bosoms and arms all over with eau de toilette, and discreetly draping their skirts over their knees each time they sat down.
Girls. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. They’d learned to curtsey properly. At home they’d left schoolbooks; perhaps a few timid love letters in ribbon-tied, paper lace–adorned boxes of chocolate; and wildflowers pressed between the pages of keepsake albums.
Men. Young and old. Wide-eyed schoolboys and disheveled adolescents. Grown-ups in their prime, men getting on in years, octogenarians. They run; they run. For two days they had no way of relieving themselves. They spread their legs instinctively, squatting like animals. Urine collects in pools.
Nearby, the camp guards, in spick-and-span grass-green uniforms, don’t take their eyes off them. Not a line stirs on the faces of these guards. They aren’t human. Nor, any longer, are those who are squatting.
I believe that somewhere in Eastern Europe an extraordinary metamorphosis took place at the edge of a verdant forest along a railway embankment. That is where the people of this tightly locked train of hell were transformed into animals. Just like all the others, the hundreds of thousands of people that the madness had sent spewing out of fifteen countries toward factories of death and gas chambers.
At that moment they put us on all four legs for the first time.
The train is slowing….
What remains of life stirs in the darkness of the train cars. Of the sixty human beings herded into our boxcar back in Topola, fifty-six still show faint signs of life. Primal terror, hunger, thirst, and lack of air have already done in four of us. Their corpses have been heaped into a pile in a corner. Most of us are from the southern and central Bačka region of Serbia’s Vojvodina. Mr. Mandel, the old carpenter, a good friend of my father, was among them, and he was the first to fall. Mr. Mandel had made the furniture for more than a few girls from Bačka for their betrothals. He did so always reliably, honorably.
What the old carpenter died of, I think, was that his cigarettes had been taken away. For sixty years he’d smoked fifty a day. Not a man alive had ever seen Mr. Mandel without a smoldering cigarette. His supply, along with his jewelry and money, had been confiscated back in the camp in Topola. For twenty-four hours en route, Mr. Mandel just stared blankly, stubbornly, deliriously, at the surging mass of people all around, at the billowing of all those stinking, steaming human bodies.
Sixty years of work had stained his hands to a mahogany hue. On the train his right hand sometimes moved mechanically, as if holding a cigarette. Between his index and middle fingers Mr. Mandel raised the imagined cigarette to wilted lips. Like a child pretending to smoke, he even pursed his lips to puff.
But after Nové Zámky, that aging head of his tilted to the side. His death was not an event. Here death could no longer be an event. For a moment, Dr. Bakács from Novi Sad, raised that haggard head above the frayed fur vest. He gave a tired wave of the hand. Dr. Bakács was already in a bad way, too. Perhaps he was thinking that in twelve hours some other doctor in the car would be taking note of his own death.
Two people went mad. They raged incessantly for many hours. Bloodshot eyes bulged from their waxlike faces as they sprayed foamy spit all over and tried clawing at the faces and scratching at the eyes of those standing nearby. Without further ado, the camp guards shoved these two and those rounded up from the other boxcars into the woods when we stopped to relieve ourselves. A few minutes later we heard the crackle of machine-gun fire. One of the grass-green henchmen let out a thick, vile guffaw, and spat.
No, we didn’t look at each other. We’d been on the road too long for that.
On the road… to where?
I was somehow amazed at myself. This road…Subotica, Budapest, Nové Zámky. Lo and behold, I’m still alive, and I haven’t gone mad, either—so came the fleeting thought. Not that I was thinking much. To be thinking, I too—no matter how much I’d managed to hold myself together—would have needed cigarettes. And yet I had none.
Lake Balaton, frothing a restless green, comes into view through the tiny cell window of the car. On this windy, rainy first of May, tonguelike waves vomit with revulsion toward the train. I see Nagykanizsa. We rumble past the small city without stopping, though back in Topola policeman number 6626 said we’d be brought here to work.
“Have no fear,” 6626 had whispered to us. “You’re off to Nagykanizsa, where you’ll do agricultural work.”
Number 6626 was an amiable, sober-minded Hungarian peasant. He bellowed loudly at the internees loitering about in the yard, hauling stewpots, drawing water from the well, or standing about exhaustedly, but meanwhile—when the German guard wasn’t looking—he winked at us blithely, wagging his head, like some chummy little rascal.
It was May 1944, and by then few Hungarian peasants were still so beguiled by Nazism that they couldn’t see this much: Döme Sztójay, László Baky, László Endre, Béla Imrédy—pro-fascist Hungarian leaders—and other such murderers had lost the game. Someone would have to pay for the blood, the tears, and the kicks.
Number 6626 was mistaken all the same. We didn’t go to Nagykanizsa.
The mirror of the Drava River sparkles meaninglessly upon us. On the other side is Pavelić’s Nazified Croatia. That is, death. Just like that, from the middle of life. I wave my hand as did my onetime teacher of Greek, Mr. Lendvai, from the window of his faculty office ten days earlier in Sombor, as we were being loaded onto trucks on the street below, in front of the high school.
The world is over. Everything is over. So said Mr. Lendvai’s wave of the hand.
I’m standing on the bed of the truck, wearing a backpack and a jacket with a homemade, regulation-size yellow star. Mr. Lendvai, whose class I finished in 1924 with an A, and the other teachers look out numbly at the truck and its anxious throng of passengers. Our eyes meet, and Mr. Lendvai waves his hand just so. I understood.
The world is over. Everything is over. So said Mr. Lendvai’s wave of the hand.
Nenikekas Judaiae…nenikekas Judaiae….Wretched Jews…wretched Jews….
The prisoners walk on the sprawling grounds of the Topola internment camp. Older folks dodder along, hands clasped behind their backs. Some people exchange tearful smiles on recognizing each other. Present here is practically the entire team of Yugoslavia’s onetime Hungarian-language daily paper: editors and other staff, old and new. Our cynicism masks our despair.
“The women and children were rounded up yesterday,” says stumpy Lajos Jávor, who suffers from heart trouble. His bloodless lips are wincing strangely even though his perpetual smile is frozen on his face. “In Subotica, Sombor, Novi Sad. Everywhere. They rounded up everyone.”
Dr. János Móricz, the onetime editor in chief, to whom I’d once handed over my first pieces, in anxious veneration, wipes his pince-nez spectacles and snaps at me: “Translate this to Hungarian if you’re a translator.”
Hopelessness takes off all its clothes in everyone’s eyes. Damp, frayed straw mattresses lie about within the ugly, red-stone building. The persecuted sit on heaps of suitcases and rucksacks, staring blankly ahead. A few of them still have cigarettes, which they managed to hide from the guards on arrival. They are now prodigal smokers.
No one here bothers with tomorrow. Nor even with the next fifteen minutes. Despair doesn’t look through calendars, and it pays no heed to planning. Tomorrow is shrouded in a fog of distance so hopeless that it might as well be the next millennium, when people might be wandering about in skirts or tunics, when there won’t be relocation camps and, perhaps, the guiltless need not be punished.
Tomorrow….But who bothers with that? After all, even the women were rounded up yesterday. As were the children. But why? Almighty madness, why? We don’t dare think through the thought. There, in Topola, few of us had heard of Auschwitz, and little at that. Vague snippets of information about the chilling terrors of the Polish ghettos had reached us, true, and with chattering teeth we can recall the deportation of women from Slovakia, but only yesterday all this was distant and unbelievable.
Not even now did we dare think seriously that we would be hauled away, abroad, thousands and thousands of innocents. We tried cheering up ourselves and the others by concocting technical difficulties.
“The Nazis now have other problems. Where would they acquire the coal, boxcars, trains, and people needed to pull off this sort of mass migration?”
So said Béla Maurer, lawyer and political commentator, in a tone of voice tolerating no dissent. Indeed, the others’ expressions were encouraging. Hungarian workers and peasants had not yet been irrevocably clouded in their thinking by the madness of the brownshirts. They sensed instinctively that the folks in charge had lead in their wings. The more intrepid among them mouthed off in taverns about villainous things going on. They were already smiling at the flowery communiqués from the front, at constrained euphemisms such as “breakaway military maneuvers,” “strategic retreats,” “redeployments,” and “repositioning.”
On Hungarian land, smug Germans were already being showered with dark glances. The people could see what their leaders didn’t want to see: the tired, rumpled, unshaven Wehrmacht regulars; the imbecilic, apathetic SS guards, whose merciless eyes had already sunk deep under their helmets; the ditzy fifteen- and sixteen-year-old kids draped in shirts made of tent canvas—the army with which the German “allies” had occupied the country. They saw they had to go back, and they knew there was no going back.
Empty streets, shuttered windows, defiantly sullen faces. The awaiting silence of the inevitable horror skulked in the villages of the Bačka region, too. The quiet of the coming storm stood on tiptoes.
When we set off on the four-kilometer march from the grounds of the camp in Topola toward the railway station, none of us—not the men with their bundles and backpacks, not the waddling kids, not the tired women—knew about Auschwitz. But the bayonet-adorned Hungarian policemen the Germans had positioned every fifty meters along the road, they knew.
Hatred smoldered in the eyes of the policemen. That carefully seeded hatred whose proxies, trained to follow commands, didn’t exactly question a whole lot. And yet there were some whose sober-minded peasant humanity was resuscitated by the stunning scene. A few of the armed statues lining the road murmured: “May God save you!”
The half-conscious people wobbling along don’t even glance that way, but that ominous sentence of farewell is still resounding in me when, from far away, I first glimpse our train along one of the platforms at the station. The cars with their “DR” emblem—Deutsche Reichsbahn (German National Railway)— speak a German even more German than that of the German camp guards accompanying us. We’re being deported, after all. The best-case scenario: gas chambers. The worst-case: slave labor until death.
We’re being deported, after all. The best-case scenario: gas chambers. The worst-case: slave labor until death.
And to think how sorry we’d felt for those eight among us who’d taken their own lives at the camp when the order for departure had come—when it became clear that our Hungarian camp was nothing more than a relocation site. The whole thing had been more tolerable, after all, as long as we could keep telling ourselves that they’d keep us there or order us to some other place in Hungary. Topola, Bačka….!
This familiar conceptual duality, this thought, had somehow kept the terror of utter hopelessness at bay. Topola was still a bit of home.
Our eyes sought hope, and glinting before them was the dubious, if not yet completely discredited, promise of personal security represented by the four numbers gleaming on the belts of the Hungarian Royal Gendarmes. Grasping at the straws of a familiar landscape, we held out hope that we were not yet completely outside the law of our land.
A Hungarian Nazi could be just as cruel as a German one. He could be just as determined. But his ingenuity—so we felt—had not yet warped into the sadism of the gas chambers.
Copyright 2023 by the Estate of József Debreczeni. Courtesy St. Martin’s Press. Cold Crematorium: Reporting from the Land of Auschwitz by József Debreczeni and translated by Paul Olchváry is available via St. Martin’s Press.