I once had an uncle. He was murdered a little over eight years before I was born. Of course I never knew him, nor do I still know much about him. The world into which I entered, so few short years later, seemed very different to the world from which he departed.
He was married to my mother's oldest sister (my mother had seven sisters and two brothers). My aunt and uncle had two beautiful children, Zsuzsie and Robbie.
In 1938, Czechoslovakia was dismembered, divided into a number of parts, in the wake of then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's mindless policy of appeasing the German Führer, Hitler. The south eastern region of Slovakia, including Košice where my family resided, was gifted to Hungary. To Chamberlain, this was merely his participation in a game like Monopoly. How could he not realise that he was playing with other peoples' property, with real peoples' lives?
The gain in this deal for the newly Hungarianised Jews was that they were not deported and exterminated early with regular Slovak Jews whose expulsions commenced in 1942. The Jews of Košice were to survive an additional two years of somewhat normal living. Eventually however, they too were caught up in the rapid, bulk deportation and subsequent mass murder of all Hungarian Jews.
During those two quiet years, Košice’s Jewish population continued in an insulated world. It was obvious that things were no longer as they had been between the wars. However they were totally unaware of the mass homicide and infanticide of their brethren taking place close by. They continued their daily lives, albeit under a new, more restrictive regime. They were forced to use a different language, which anyway most already spoke fluently. Before Chamberlain’s cataclysmic changes, Czechoslovakia, under the guidance of presidents Tomáš Masaryk and his successor, Edvard Beneš, had been the most liberal and the most democratic country in Europe, possibly in the world.
However there was persecution during these two quiet years. My uncle was arrested in 1943. I do not know of which crime he was was officially accused, other than of course of being Jewish. He spent a number of months in gaol (for some reason Americans spell this as jail). He was incarcerated with Polish Jews. These co-religionists had escaped from various Nazi work and extermination camps. Slovak and Polish, being both from the slavic family of languages, are similar enough to allow basic communication between parties. (Most European Jews spoke some Yiddish, though Hungarian Jews less so.)
My uncle's new acquaintances related to him what was happening in other regions of the continent. They furnished him with exact details: places, dates, names, numbers, geography, extermination camps, work camps, slave labour, defences, trains, railway stations, roads. They spent a lot of time together and much information was relayed. Uncle was very frustrated, helpless. Locked away in a prison, there was nothing he could do. He just absorbed as much detail as he could, with which to warn his contemporaries.
Towards the end of the year, he was released. He returned home, to his wife and to his children. He related what he now knew with absolute certainty. He told them in the synagogue, he told them at work. He told his fellow Jews wherever he went, of the impending disaster coming to Hungary. Already most of European Jewry had perished to the Nazi killing machine.
No-one believed him. No-one wanted to believe him. They all said he was crazy. He was deranged due to his long incarceration. He had had bad dreams — nightmares — there. He had now convinced himself of their reality. He was unwarily trusting his hallucinations.
After all, the newspapers and the radio were daily reporting that everything was calm, that life was normal. That the war was under control. That it was far away. That victory was ensured. How could he be so gullible as to believe a bunch of silly, imprisoned Poles? It was far easier for people to ignore that the media were government mandated, controlled by a slick propaganda machine, than to ponder alternatives.
But now he could see straight through the lies. He did understand the truth, the awful reality, the horrifying prospects for Hungarian Jewry. He had received too much information, he knew too many details. He was the only normal person in a society that was living an illusion, a society that had, in his mind, gone totally mad, that was now completely unhinged. The situation, the world, were far from normal.
Was he the only sane person in a community of lunatics? He could bear it no longer. He decided to terminate his life. He overdosed. He was on his way out. Perhaps the only sensible escape from the horror, from the impending murder, from the upcoming end of all Europe’s Jews.
But his wife found him. My aunt discovered him in the nick of time. He was still clinging to that last thread of life, moments before the soul may depart its earthly body. She rushed him to hospital. They pumped his stomach. They brought him back to hell from paradise. Back from the very entrance to the next world, of peace and tranquility, to a frightful world of horror and savagery. Back to a society, to a civilisation crumbling, disintegrating, collapsing before his very eyes. To a reality which no-one — not his family, friends, neighbours nor fellow Jews — was willing to acknowledge. My aunt had saved her husband's life. For now, he was alive, he was breathing. He walked out of there, he returned home. To another new day — another new day of what?
A few months after my uncle’s miraculous rehabilitation from near demise, the Jews of Košice were rounded up, in tandem with the entire Jewish population of Hungary proper, of which Košice was now legally a part. They were placed on a train at the local railway station, where trains were passing through from all over Hungary. Košice, near the former international frontier, was the point at which the Nyilas, the Arrow Cross Hungarian brown-shirts, handed over the incoming trains which they were guarding, to the black-shirted SS. On these trains Hungary’s Jews were delivered to an unknown destination. As part of Nazi dehumanisation, they travelled aboard cattle cars, transported to Auschwitz, not far away in Poland.
It was three days before Shavuoth, Pentecost, the festival commemorating haShem’s proffering of His Tora, His wonderful gift to the Jewish people, at Mount Sinai. Immediately on arrival at the last station on the line, my aunt, uncle and their three year old son, Robbie, were gassed, their bodies cooked, burnt to cinders, in ovens, in crematoria. My youngest aunt, eleven years old, was travelling with them. She met the identical fate.
Premeditated murder by people who had no idea nor notion who my family members were, from whence they came, where they worked, what they thought, what they had achieved in their short years on earth. Not even relating to them at all as human. Heartless, callous, barbarous monsters. They did not care — they just did not give a damn.
From then on, many trains passed through Košice everyday, for weeks, for months.
Four months after this premeditated malice, a week after Sukoth, two weeks after Yom Kipur, the ultimate day of Heavenly judgement, Zsuzsie, my aunt and uncle's five year old daughter, arrived to the same destination, by the same means of transport. Journeying with her grandparents. My grandparents.
The three of them meeting an identical fate to my uncle, my aunts and my cousin — and six million of my nation.
Yes, I once had an uncle.
2nd September, 2008
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