Lajos Nagy, 'Basement Diary'
in 30 év. Magyar írók tanúságtétele (1944-45) (Budapest: Magvető, 1975), pp. 417-494. First published as Lajos Nagy, Pincenapló (Budapest: Hungária, 1945).
Translated by Gwen Jones.
Since 19 March 1944, we have been threatened by a dual danger: the bombings and the domestic persecutions. All Jews and the decent Christians had more to fear from the persecutions. The bombings could somehow be avoided, one could believe in their contingency and brevity, but the persecutions became merciless, and escape was nigh impossible.
We survived the American and British planes’ heavy bombing in Pest. It’s here that we saw the harassment of the Jews from one day to the next. We read about the Jewish decrees, which were issued almost every day. If it wasn’t some other sort of measure, then the Jews’ property was demanded, or Jews were banned from buying poppy seeds. The game was transparent: the enraged masses had to have their daily spiritual nourishment.
We saw how police and detectives hunted Jews wearing yellow stars on the street. They caught one now and again with the false accusation that the star had covered up. They were taken into the local district police headquarters, and from there, by evening, they were rounded up and taken away in black police cars to the deportation centre. […] We had to see how people were able to carry out this work; they did not disobey, they don’t slack off, and in fact the passion for hunting blazes within them.
Large-scale bombings began in April. We had to go down into the basement during the day and the night too. Whenever we heard the scream of the siren, we were threatened with suffocation, with being broken into pieces, the mind-bending pain of injuries. We fled underground, perhaps also so that we couldn’t hear the siren. During the day we took our bags, and at night we grabbed our clothes and ran downstairs. Many people even did their ties up.
Downstairs, the lights went on, the basement swam in light, and I sat down with my wife to play cards. At least we couldn’t hear our fellow residents’ discussions, at best, disconnected words reached our ears. Of course, among the words there were frequent repetitions: Jew, Jews, the Jews. I endeavoured to pay attention to what turned up in my hand, such as the twelve of clubs, believing that I was playing in the cards room of a coffee house.
After one attack, I went to see the damage to Keleti Station. A gentleman in the crowd was shaking his fist, and threatened-not the British, or the Americans-but the Jews. “I’ll choke with my own hands the first Jew who crosses my path!” Yes, the loser at cards is angry at the kibitzer. If he’s dealt a bad hand, there needs to be someone to blame. Bad luck brings fury, and the fury seeks a target.
In the same coffee house, the outstanding poet and journalist honours me by joining my table. This must have been October. Since I’d never had the chance to talk to right-wing champions of the pen, I seized the opportunity to ask him some questions. His friends and area of work seemed a good enough opportunity for him to furnish my questions with some useable enlightenment. I asked him what his friends thought about the whole thing. Do they still believe that the Germans will win? Don’t they see our approaching defeat, and aren’t they shaking with fear? How is it that they’re still able to continue what they started? […] I understand their depravity, that’s natural. But I don’t understand their stupidity, because that’s superhuman. How do they talk amongst themselves, by themselves, about the war and future possibilities?
The outstanding poet listened, and began to enlighten me: “Who should I talk about? I’m not on chummy terms with all of them. But I could talk about Mihály Kolosváry-Borcsa, for instance. Mihály, if you please, is a saintly man."
At that very moment, I was destroyed.
I lay down at ten o'clock, and soon fell asleep. I slept well. I was a little disturbed by the fact that my wife had not come down to the basement. But there was no point in forcing her; she argued that the basement was worse than upstairs.
After I got up I went upstairs to see her, sat down in a chair next to her bed, and we talked. I took her pulse, which was 80. For her that meant a slight temperature, because her usual morning pulse is between 60 and 64.
Ilonka came in to see us too. She lived in the same apartment as us, and at night, always slept upstairs on the second floor. She was a Jewish woman, in hiding with false papers. She started to complain about her own problems. She is afraid of the K. family. Mrs. K. had recognized her, and opened her mouth right away: 'This one is Jewish, I know her very well from Pécs!' Ilonka was now gripped by great fear. Her face was completely shattered and pale.
"We'll do something," I tried to reassure her. Right away, my wife came up with the line of defence. "Her husband is a military deserter!"
I was counting on the siege lasting two-three days. It's not passing that quickly. It's already difficult to bear. Not the fear, that's nothing. But all the suppressed rage. I am irritated by the people I see around me. I hold nearly all of them to be complicit in the war. Because they are patient. Because they are still wishing for the German victory.
The corpse has been lying on the roof next door for over a week now. This corpse is that of a Jewish man. The story goes that he was living in the hotel next door, without wearing the star, and was hiding with false papers. The Arrow Cross carried out a raid in the area, and news of this reached the hotel, where the Jewish man in hiding was afraid, and so he snuck out. He went outside into the cold dark street, without the hope of finding accommodation. He knocked on the front gate of the house opposite, but it didn't open. He knocked on our front gate too. Some people heard him knock, but didn't open the door. They didn't know who was knocking, what they wanted, and it could have been fatal to let a Jewish refugee in. An Arrow Cross car turned into our street, they discovered the Jew, and one of the persecutors jumped out of the car and shot him in the head at close range. (...) The head of the corpse inclines to the right, as if he were resting it on his shoulder, his ragged coat is also open to the right, as if to display his wounds. His clothes are ragged too, but he has really good shoes on his feet! (...) On the fourth day, the good shoes were no longer there. They say that a woman came along, stopped at the corpse and then knelt down next to him, carefully going through his pockets. She didn't find anything there, but pulled the shoes off his feet. While she was carrying out this diligent work, a small crowd gathered around her, and someone asked her what she wanted and what she was doing. The woman calmly replied: I am his wife. But from her entire conduct it was clear that she was a stranger.
Every day there is torture. Not so much because of the hardships, because those are not yet that onerous, but because the spiritual anguish is so tough. When one hears others taking, in one's weakness one wonders, am I the stupid one? The newspaper still comes out, and news reaches us too. According to the newspaper and the right-wing kibitzers, the German liberating army is already on its way. They're already on their way from Bicske [a small town west of Budapest]. Someone who hears this gives thanks in a hoarse voice, and actually blubs: 'Thank God, thank God!' Right next to me. I listening, reeling. This is the anguish that I can no longer bear. That I cannot voice my own opinion with the appropriate harsh words: this almost destroys me. I feel I no longer have any human dignity.
Yesterday morning I saw Jews being driven towards the ghetto. The march lasted for hours. I learned that they were being taking from protected houses on Pozsonyi Road. A mix of police and armed Arrow Cross escort the march. I've seen lots of marches like this. It's a wonder that the weather is dry and the sun is shining. Because until now, whenever they were driving the Jews somewhere, it was always raining. And the bombings had stopped! As if God had turned against the Jews.
I cannot describe those feelings and thoughts that live and burn within me at such times. Perhaps the greatest among them is wonder. But such a torturous wonder that its force almost tears me apart. A frightened wonder that turns into fury, and beats the sky. How is this possible? This! After many thousands of years of culture, the work of so many writers, intellectuals and sociologists. After Jesus, Petőfi and Freud. My God! I am a writer. After this, what can I write about man? Because I have to see how man has passed the test here. Irreparably, for all eternity.
The besiegers are standing here, beneath the city. The die will be cast within days, at most weeks, and then the reprisals will begin. Not by the Jews, but by the decent people. And this is a problem for the evil-doers even now! They've got time for this, they're not sufficiently afraid. Instead of all hiding underground, they're in circulation like crazed sheep, shooting themselves in the head one by one, hanging themselves, jumping into the Danube. What could they be thinking? They must know it's over for them. And yet still they go to the Jewish houses, drive people out of them, hurt them, rob them, steal and herd drive the Jews onto forced marches, they escort them, guard them, carry out their duty. I hadn't expected this either. I usually say I was always a pessimist, but always joined in: this reality is far more terrible than anything I expected. It can't be true that they are still hoping for victory. This is impossible. Perhaps they're hoping that they'll manage to escape. They're just playing confident in front of one another. They will each other on, and their apparent confidence keeps their spirits up during the terror. Because if they gave a sign that even they saw their cause was lost, that would be the hour of their end.
So it is wonder that eats me up. And the shame. Shame because I do not do anything, I am an oafish observer. I cannot realize my fantasy of going up to them and shouting: "Hey, scoundrels, brazen villains! What are you doing? Are you losing?"
I am ashamed of the community of which I am part with these evil-doers, that I too am Hungarian and Christian. Oh, what will I say if I have to go abroad after the war? Hungarian! How can I deny it? This feeling of shame only pops up and then vanishes instantly. Because I always disavowed the evil-doer. The division is not between Hungarian and Jewish, Christian and Muslim, or full-haired and bald, but: there are stupid and evil people, and there decent people.
Is my wife's eighty-one-year-old grandmother living in the ghetto? We thought she was already dead. But then a little oddball named Szmuk arrived, who was allowed to leave the ghetto because he bought food and medicines. This Szmuk knows my wife's mother and described precisely where she lives, which is how we could check the veracity of his reports. We learned from him that the old lady was still alive. We sent her something to eat, and my wife wrote a short letter. Will Szmuk hand over the package?
My own mother, at the age of eighty-one, died when the war had reached the vicinity of Budapest, in November. She lived with my younger brother in Kispest when the city was already under cannon-fire, and she had to spend much time in the basement, in fear. Who knows how much fear she endured, or how little she slept. She could barely eat any longer. She fell ill, suffered a brain haemorrhage and died. I was there at her funeral. The way she lay on the catafalque will remain in my memory for ever. It was as if she was alive and merely sleepy, only her nose had become a little pointy. I cried at the catafalque. A funeral in Kispest, in November 1944! The cemetery could have been shelled at any moment!
Today a decree issued by the government's commissioner for public supplies caused great alarm. According to the decree, foodstuffs and factory materials, wood, and coal must be registered in an inventory by concierges, and reported.
Many corpses on the streets throughout the city. One cannot know the reason of death, but it is probable that many are shot at night.
In the autumn, I too took a couple of trips during the heaviest bombings. I had things to do. Everywhere the police and air-raid supervisors stopped me, and tried to chase me into a nearby house. I paid them no heed and went on. Once I was on Szív Street when the attack came. At the siren, I went into a large house. (...) Then I went into another house. That was a yellow-star house, and the Jews living there didn't all fit in the basement, and were standing around in the courtyard. They recommended a better house on the corner of Szív Street and Aradi Street, where there were fewer than ten people living. This is where I proceeded to.
New order, for a guard at the front gate, pairs of women. The guard takes care that no strangers should enter unnoticed. So that some thief shouldn't be able to go up into the apartments. An hour and a half earlier, Csöngei had been standing in front of the gate. An Arrow Cross man and a soldier had caught a Jewish woman on the street without the yellow star. They took her to the nearby Arrow Cross house. When they passed our house, the Arrow Cross man asked Csöngei for a light and asked quietly: 'Brother, are there any Jews in this house?' Csöngei answered: 'No.' 'Thank you', said the Arrow Cross man, and went on his way.
Every five minutes, someone exhorts you about something: please stand over there; don't sit there; don't wash here now, please. I sit next to a small table and write by lamplight. A woman comes over and says: 'Mr. Nagy, don't break the lamp, or there'll be trouble.' I told her to carry on being smart. She apologised: the lamp was hers, she'd brought it from the countryside, and if the glass broke, it couldn't be replaced. She's right, too.
The mood varies. The Germans who re-occupied Bicske and Esztergom are nowhere. Sighs burst out of people. I am writing here at Mrs. G.'s place. Here the Jewish girl's despair is particularly great. I too am disheartened. I cannot adequately console the girl enough. Mrs. G. went out for bread. She's returned just now, saying that the Jews are being taken in large groups from the protected houses to the ghetto.
What do they want with this ghetto? Nothing good, that's for sure. One can only think that they want to kill the Jews. The ghetto itself, the crowding together of Jews, their starvation, the denial of their means, this is already murder. The Jews live piled up on one another's backs, they have nothing to eat, they are cold, dirty, and can also have their health ruined or be killed by the humiliation and constant fear.
When I saw the barricading up of the roads leading into the ghetto at the beginning of December, I just stared. I established that they were perfectly mad. And whoever was with them, whoever believed in them, they were all mad too. Even the worker who put the barricades up. And they're still herding the Jews into the ghetto!
Those in opulent spirits even make jokes about the street shootings. I've heard, for example, this turn of phrase designed to force a smile: "Stop! Who were you?"
T. talks about having seen Jews being led yesterday from the Pozsonyi Road area towards the ghetto. Not one of them had a face that could have been called human. He only saw tired, infuriated, violet, almost purple faces. And the rain fell inexorably.
In the afternoon, women lounging at the front gate start making friends with a young German soldier. (...) The soldier is a lovely lad, the women encircle and chat with him, they stroke him, devouring him with their eyes. They invited him into the house, took him down to the air-raid shelter where he half undressed and had a wash, even washing his feet. He laughed and was grateful, the women were happy, almost kissing the soles of his feet. Well, if the women are inviting the soldiers down here, they'll certainly bring a few lice with them, brooded one of the men.
People seize every opportunity to turn their rage upon one another. Particularly the stronger against the weaker. And the pro-Germans are still the strongest. They can always hand over to the Arrow Cross the ones they are angry at.
Around ten o'clock, the Arrow Cross appeared in the house and carried out a raid. They were hunting for Jews, and checked everyone's ID. Mrs. G. is a half-caste with a very Jewish face, and according to the decrees, counts as a Jew because her husband is Jewish. But her husband has false papers proving he is a Christian. The Arrow Cross man looked at the papers, looked at Mrs. G., and asked:
'How much did these papers cost?'
Smiling, she replied:
The Arrow Cross man laughed, and went on his way.
Anyone could accept this as a jovial case. But I was horrified. I felt some deep pain in my heart. The sort one feels before fainting. Even now they check my ID papers! Carrying out a raid! This is what their minds are occupied with. They have time for this. They have the spirit for this. It was at this moment that my true fear began, and lasted until the moment of liberation. No, that's wrong, it lasted until after that too. I confess that even today, it has not yet entirely passed. The terrible feeling is still alive, just sleeping. It stirs within me at times of intense remembrance.