Ernő Szép, The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary
translated by John Bátki (Budapest: Corvina and Central European University Press, 1994), pp. 3-11
Let’s Get Up
On October 1944, which was the sixth day of the Szálasi regime at five-thirty (in the morning) Mr. T., our “apartment commander”, jolted me from the sweetest of dreams.
“Get up. You have to get up.”
I can’t say I was overjoyed by this wake-up call: the night before I had read, as usual, until one or one-thirty. By the time I raised myself on my elbows my two sisters were already standing on my bed, actually sofa, smiling at me.
“Nothing to worry about … just another line-up … it must be some kind of roll call …”
The apartment commander had already rushed out. He, too, had to get ready.
There had been a call-up of Jews on 1 October. The army physician, who recognized me, leaned close to examine my eyes for about twenty seconds before diagnosing an inflammation, and threw in a heart condition for good measure. That gave me a three-month deferment, until 1 January. And where would the war be by then?
The “building commander”, Mr. K., also knocked on the door: was I up? Sorry, but all gentlemen of Jewish origin must line up downstairs in the vestibule within thirty minutes. We should bring food for two days. I washed from the waist up, my younger brother shaved me (he too was coming); I gulped down a cup of herbal tea and a slice of bread (we were butterless), and swallowed about six plums. My sisters, having packed our rucksacks with whirlwind speed, now strapped mine on my shoulders, and placed a walking cane and a light blanket over my arm.
There were already about thirty-five “yellow stars” in the lobby, men standing around in a vague formation facing the entrance, all loaded up, some with enormous, many-pocketed backpacks, plus four or five little parcels and boxes dangling from their hands. Most of the gentlemen were between 50 and 60 years sold, a few under 50; some as old as 65, 70, 72 even. Upstairs, the building commander had made it clear that there was no age limit, we all had to go. I stepped into the line next to Mr. B., a dear man, company director in civilian life. Each minute brought more yellow-starred tenants packed to go. A black-shirted lad who looked about seventeen stood with his back to the entrance. Bareheaded, without waistcoat or jacket, he wore the black shirt and Arrow Cross armband, and had a holster on his brand-new, yellow leather belt. His hands clutched one of those repulsive, big old rifles, the butt resting between his boots. Bayonet fixed, ready to charge. That lad stood stock still, eyeing us in a decidedly unfriendly manner. The gate was locked. A policeman, also young, armed with rifle and revolver, stood by the wall near the list of tenants’ names. Up above the courtyard, behind the guard-rails lining the galleries of all six floors, women and children were watching us. They were not allowed to come down. The building commander and the deputy building commander, Baron D., (both of them Gentiles) were coming and going on small errands: one of the yellow stars had left his cigarettes upstairs, another his razor, yet another his medication. Here came a late arrival gingerly descending the stairs: an elderly gentleman who directed an enquiring glance and an upward toss of the head at a friend facing his way – the kind of look that accompanies the question: “What do you say to this, old man?”
Baron D. had already whispered in my ear the news that four other Arrow Cross youths were combing the upper floors to make sure no one was trying to hide. Yes, here came another lagging yellow-starred tenant, and another. That made about fifty of us. Some conversed in whispers but most were looking down at their feet in silence.
Well, at least just about all of us were together. The clock on the wall showed six-twenty. Down the stairs came the four youths outfitted with armbands, bayonets and revolvers, with the concierge in tow. Two went down with him to the bomb shelter, the other two took the elevator to the roof terrace. Only two bedridden invalids, too sick to move, were allowed to stay upstairs. All of a sudden the lad standing guard by the entrance bellowed at someone:
“Take off those gloves!”
At the head of the line one of the gentlemen had apparently taken the liberty of putting on his gloves, because the thin strings of his packages were cutting into his fingers. He started to explain this in a gentle, patient voice, but the youngster screamed at him again:
A loud silence ensued. I could hear a sigh behind my back.
That boy was quite handsome; he wore his long hair slickly plastered down. In civilian life he could have passed for an art student. I think he must have worked in a factory; he was probably someone who yelled himself hoarse at a soccer game. Perhaps he was not a bad fellow, and it was only the revolver, the bayonet, and the ideology, of course, that had turned him into a wild beast.
He cocked his head high, and roared at us:
“Fall in by fours, at the double!”
This was accomplished after some slight confusion: naturally some of the gentlemen preferred to stand next to a friend. It took five or six minutes for the shuffling on the ceramic tiles to cease, until we stood there in good order. There we stood, and ten, twenty minutes went by. We were not allowed to smoke, get a drink of water, lean against something or lie down. Talking was also forbidden. Now it was past seven. What about that draft? And when were we going? The gentlemen hung their heads in sad, sad thought. And the sons and in-laws away in forced labor, whom they had not seen for years, and had not even received any letters from them, lately. About married daughters far from the capital, or aged parents in the countryside, all of whom had been deported that summer, taken to Germany. In my anxiety I kept shrugging my shoulders, first the left then the right; the straps were tight, those two straps of the rucksack. I saw the others doing the same, shrugging and jerking their shoulders, raising their hands to contemplate them, like actors in a strange drama. Or else picking at the fingernails of the left hand, using the right thumbnail, out of sheer boredom. A gentleman who had a tic now twitched his head back even more frequently than usual; after each head-jerk his mouth gaped open three times, so urgently that you’d think he was trying to swallow flies. Another gentleman, without any hand luggage, studied his wedding ring, twisting and turning it. Another kept rubbing the right side of his face with the back of his hand, rubbing, rubbing, like a man who’d just shaved, only he’d been doing this, with brief pauses, for the past fifteen minutes. Three ranks ahead of me someone, with exquisite patience, was scraping away at a spot on his coat sleeve. Up above, by the guard-rail on the third floor, a woman, who had started to wipe away her tears, turned around and went inside.
Two youths came down the stairs wearing army uniforms with armbands. One of them (a corporal) stopped on the lowest step to survey our gathering and issued the command:
“Fall in by threes!”
After much stamping and shuffling of feet we stood lined up by threes. Moving back from my row was Dr. A., a chemical engineer who had worked for twenty-five years in a laboratory in Paris. He came home about fifteen years ago. He had his wife were so tormented by homesickness, they just had to come back home.
The corporal called out to the guard at the entrance:
“Szabó and Trajcsik still in the cellar?”
“What the hell is taking them so long?”
Now the two soldiers went after Szabó and Trajcsik, down into the air-raid shelter. Meanwhile we were kept standing there. They were gone for another quarter of an hour, in no hurry to come back at all. We stood and stood. We stood and stood and stood. […] Outside, the men, women and children passing by our building would stop for a quick look at our yellow-star troop: we, too, allowed our eyes to trail after anyone going past. When someone coughed, ten, twenty coughs followed suit, just like in the theatre; lucky lungs, someone had thought of them. Men of a certain age, smokers, hack and hawk like this, mornings, for a good five or ten minutes. A few now succumbed to the coughing attack that usually follows the first cigarette of the day. They shook their heads ruefully, made all sorts of efforts to repress the rising cough; most couldn’t even reach for a handkerchief because their hands were full of packages. The ensuing silence was only broken by the streetcar’s clatter or the rumble of an occasional car. There was a war going on in the world, dear God; and war was a raging madness, isn’t that so? And yet the world could be so peaceful and still, so replete with slowly dragging time and boredom. […] What in holy hell’s name could those four warriors be doing down in the cellar for so long? My neighbor on the left, Mr. B., the director, whispered his mounting concern about the safety of his air-raid shelter kit. He, too, kept all those most precious items we like to stuff into our air-raid bags down there. There was a shelf set aside for them in a corner of the shelter.
At last the four soldiers emerged into daylight. The last two were very young, barely twenty. The corporal looked us over, and pronounced the command:
“I want a head count. There should be 54 men.”
Two soldiers leaped up and ran to the entrance, where one of them started to count by turning sideways and slashing the air with his arm, and taking a step back with each slash:
“Three, six, nine …”
The other, as if to check the count, followed in his footsteps. All 54 were present and accounted for.
We stood at attention, like little cub scouts. Next to me Mr. B., the director, could not suppress a smile, and I likewise; fortunately our smiles went unnoticed. The boy with the slicked-down hair opened the door. Again, the corporal spoke up; it was like a loudspeaker reverberating in the vestibule of our six-story building, in the middle of which rose the spiral staircase, a modern design.
“Listen up: we march in total silence and order. No talking. Keep even intervals. If you lag behind or step out of line you’ll get a taste of the rifle-butt. Forward march!”
The gentlemen, those who could see the upper floors, sent up cautious, sidelong glances of farewell. We marched out of the building at ten past eight.
The Apartment House on Pozsonyi Road
The door through which we marched out was the front entrance of an apartment house on Pozsonyi Road. My brothers, sisters and I had been living there since the end of June, when Jews were ordered by law to move into designated buildings (no doubt to encourage their notorious solidarity). A large, yellow, six-pointed star, the Star of David, was nailed on the front door. On Margaret Island, where I had been living, everyone had to clear out even earlier, on Sunday 19 March, when German troops entered the country. Two hundred and seventy German officers were billeted at the Hotel Palatinus. I was the only guest permitted to stay until Monday for, unlike the transients, who had a suitcase or two, I was loaded down with books, pictures, and all my belongings – my whole life, in fact. I had lived on that island for 33 years. When I set out at eight in the morning, seated on a trunk on top of the horse-drawn wagon, dear old Misley the desk clerk took leave of me and told me not to worry. I would be back in a couple of weeks. This was not a real military occupation, he said; oh no, not at all, it was only a transitory passage to secure supply lines. He had this in strictest confidence straight from the quartermaster’s corps. When I passed on the good news in town everyone laughed at me. I moved in with my sisters on Thököly Road. From there we moved in June to the yellow-star building on Pozsonyi Road, to share a fourth-floor apartment, having spent a painful, miserable fortnight waiting around until at the last minute we found bearable accommodations. On moving day we received a foretaste of what was to come: the mover’s helpers helped themselves to some of our better items of clothing and linen. Their skill, approaching legerdemain, was such that my two sisters, who supervised the movers, never noticed a thing. And I had even offered cognac to the scoundrels before they set out, as the morning was unusually cool; plus they were given an extra 100 pengős for lugging the upright piano to the fourth floor on Pozsonyi Road.
In that apartment we occupied the maid’s diminutive room, and a fine larger room with a balcony facing the Danube. We shared the balcony with our neighbor, Dr. László Bakonyi, a most pleasant and cultured man, retired court clerk and son of Samu Bakonyi, secretary-general of the religious community and well-known opposition party deputy from Debrecen. The large apartment also sheltered a third party, a small family of a humbler sort; their part also had a balcony, as well as the bathroom, which of course was shared by all. Dr. Bakonyi lived there with his wife, little daughter and 80-year-old mother; she was at the age when some women turn into charming little girls again. I very much enjoyed hearing the savory Debrecen accents of Mama Bakonyi. Also living with them (sleeping on a trunk in the hall, where she sat or lay down almost all day) was an old nanny. This old nanny was not a blood relative; poor thing, she was a destitute governess, taken in by the Bakonyis ten years before, out of charity. So now we, too, had a chance to experience first-hand some of the not exactly desirable features of living in close quarters with families of strangers. I recalled reading about the life of families sharing an apartment, and even a single room, in Moscow during the first years of the revolution, in Romanov’s novel Three Pairs of Silk Stockings. But our situation seemed bearable, compared to theirs.