Hidden Beneath a Cowshed
It is dark and damp, and oppressive, always very oppressive. And the smell, the stench, never leaves us.
We have been living here now for six weeks, or no, perhaps it's seven. Here in the mostly dark, it is hard to know which day it is, which week it is. Hard to keep track of the forward movement of time. But it really doesn't matter. No-one cares.
Everyday is the same, the same as yesterday, the same as the day before . . . and the same as last week.
There's nothing to do down here. Each morning you wait for the evening, each night you await another new day, a new day of nothingness, emptinss, another meaningless day, in this meaningless existence.
Ferenc and I were married last April. We knew times were bad, but we just didn't understand the severity of the situation. Else I don't know we would had have done it, if we'd gotten married. But we had great hopes for our future together.
Ours was always a politically volatile region. Bratislava was once the capital of Hungary. Then seat of government moved to Budapest. After the Great War, our capital moved to Prague, following the formation of a new country, Czechoslovakia. Now, for the last six years, Budapest is again our capital city, since our part of Czechoslovakia was seceded, by Hitler and heroic British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, to Hungary in the name of world peace. We speak Slovak, we speak Hungarian and we speak German, each as regional politics require. It can sometimes be dangerous to speak the wrong language to the wrong people.
Some Polish Jews came through our region, begging for help from local Jews. They told the most ridiculous stories. The Germans were rounding up Jews, they were being to taken to camps and murdered, in large numbers, their bodies burnt in ovens, in crematoria. We all know the Germans dislike the Jewish people, all the goyim here, the European gentiles, hate us Jews. It's always been like that, for hundreds of years it's been like that. They never loved us, but they mostly tolerated us, left us to get on with our lives.
But for the last century there has been emancipation. Jews are taking parts in all parts of industry, of community, even in government, especially in our very liberal nation. The situation for the Jews in Europe has taken great strides forward.
How can one even start to believe these silly Poles, dumb Pollacks? Don't they know? The Germans are a cultured nation. They brought science, music, philosophy, intellectualism to all of Europe. These Jews from Poland have an imagination; where do they think they are? They just want our sympathy for their pathetic situation. They're all a bunch of peasants, really; they want our money. They call it charity, but it isn't charity to give to people who are too lazy to work, too pathetic to take care of themselves and of their families. What do they think we are?
But now we know that they were telling the whole truth. If anything they were holding back part of the story because they knew that we would be unable to digest the full truth, the reality was more than one could accept.
First came the brown shirts, the local Hungarian militia, members of the Nyilaskeresztes, the Arrow Cross, the pro-German, anti-Semitic, national socialist party. That's how Ferenc got his pistol. One night, after some terrible anti-semitic assaults, he and a group of friends went out, late at night and beat some of them up. They were very drunk, and they deserved our beatings. The Jews in our town were full of pride over this act of Jewish bravery.
That's how Ferenc got his revolver. He "borrowed" the pistol from a militiamen, lying on the road that night, face down in his blood, urine and vomit.
But retribution for this Jewish defiance came quickly. They didn't know who was involved, so in the end we all paid the price.
The black shirts arrived. They didn't speak Hungarian. We later found out that these were the dreaded Waffen-S.S., the armed units of the Schutzstaffel, Hitler's Protective Squadron. They were now the "troops" carrying out the expulsion and extermination of all the Jews of Europe. The Poles had told us about them, precisely describing these monsters, but we were too indoctrinated by the press and Nazi propoganda to believe them.
How stupid we had been, how self-centered. How they had managed to lull us into believing that nothing was happening to the Jews in neighbouring countries. The Poles had told us the truth, not just the truth, a 1,000% of the truth.
The black shirts didn't take long to act. They started to move all the Jews into an overcrowded ghetto. It was now June, just two months since our wedding. How the world had gone from white to black in a few short weeks.
My husband knew a goy from work. They had gotten on OK. The Jews in our town did not socialise too much with the gentiles. This goy had a brother who lived a few kilometres out of town, on a farm. Maybe Ferenc can convince them to hide us. Time was short because the S.S. worked quickly. They knew once the Jews understood what was happening to them it would be much harder to lead them to the slaughter.
We had some money. Ferenc went to negotiate. His bargaining position was not very strong, but he made a cash offer and then promised to equal it in a few weeks time when everything blew over. He closed a deal. We buried our valuables in the yard and off we went into the country. Izhak, Ferenc's youngest brother, came with us. He was only sixteen at the time.
The three of us left the town in the dark of that very night, heading out to the farm house. We were shown our new quarters. In the far corner of the barn was a trapdoor, under the hay and the cow dung. The smell, oh the smell. I never got accustomed to it.
The "room" was about two meters by two and a half metres. There were two buckets, one with smelly drinking water, and one for our personal waste. There was some straw on the bare, cold ground. That was it. This now home.
I sobbed all night and I cried all the next day. Ferenc just kept on telling me that this was better than extermination. He had negotiated a good deal he repeated.
At times during this prolonged ordeal, I really wasn't sure any more which was better. How much can a human being take? Day after day of nothing; nothing to do, nothing to read, nothing to see. Only the three of us. Just this small, dark, confined space. In the daytime a ray of light may enter via the cracks in the trap door. At night, darkness, total darkness.
A cow may walk over the door; the door would creak -- can it hold the beast's massive weight? And sometimes it excreted or defecated, its waste falling onto the trapdoor. This would drip, drip down into our "home".
We were supposed to get fed twice a day. Fed, just the animals above. That was the agreement, that was our contract, that was what we were paying for. If we got one meal a day were happy. Sometimes a couple of days would pass until we received the next meal, or a bucket of fresh water.
The meals almost invariably consisted of potatoes and some very watery soup. Sometimes a bit of meat, probably pork, or pig lard, was an added delicacy.
Izhak was going crazy in this confinement. The restriction, the darkness, the hunger was more than he could take. He wanted to go out. He wanted to go up, just for a short time, to breathe the fresh night air, to see the stars, to make sure the world, gone crazy, still existed outside of our prison.
Ferenc always succeeded in talking him out of it, of explaining to his little brother that there was a white future. The craziness would return to normality. But it's hard to convince a teenager; it was hard for me to come to grips with it, but Ferenc was always the optimist.
One night it was just too much for Izhak. He was going totally insane. Ferenc couldn't stop him. He left our secure environment, the safety of our sanctuary. He climbed out of our hole, he walked across the barn towards the doorway.
Suddenly we hear shouting. The voices were in Hungarian. Izhak was surrounded by a group of Hungarian loyalists. Nyilas brown shirts! They would kill him for sure. They didn't care. They had blood all over their hands and were ready to add him to their booty. It was entertainment for them. To find a lone Jew.
They started to beat him. He screamed a scream so terrifying that I continue to hear nightly. His sharp shrill broke through the night. Were there four of them? Or five, or more. It was hard to differentiate the joyful voices.
Suddenly the gaiety was broken by German speech. The Hungarians stopped their beatings. A German was barking orders. The Hungarian fell silent. They seemed to be leaving, no they were actually running away. Maybe after all they were just some drunk Hungarians having "fun". We heard their voices disappearing into the night. But they would have killed poor Izhak, whoever they were, they would have pulverised him.
Then we heard more German, may three of four of them speaking. They picked up Izhak's broken body. They spoke to him in German. He could only groan. I froze. I couldn't even breathe. Was Izhak going to compromise us? The Nazis asked him where he was from, where he's been, what's he doing?. But he held out. He told them nothing.
They took him off. We heard them marching him away into the night. I am sure he could barely stand up straight. He didn't come back. He was gone . . . and we knew to where.
Ferenc was now beside himself. He already didn't know where his parents were, nor the fate of his other nine siblings. He had taken responsibility for his little brother and now he too was gone. He had failed to discharge his responsibility to his brother, to his parents, to his family. "Ferenc, you did everything you could for Izhak. You talked to him, you tried to physically stop him, but he didn't listen. There was nothing more you could have done." Silence, deadly silence.
Then I heard Ferenc go over to the corner of the room. I heard him slowly pull out his pistol, and cock it. I wanted to scream, but they, someone, whoever, might hear me. I calmly walked over in his direction and in the dark I said, "Izhak is gone . . . and now you want to leave me here on my own, by myself, at the mercy of the goyim? Ferenc, please, please think . . . please think.
Fernec was frozen, he didn't move, he didn't speak, not a sound came from him. Was he still breathing? What was going through his mind on this awful night? What will he do?
I pleaded with him; I was in tears, I was terrified. "Ferenc, please . . . think of me. You can't take the easy way out. You can't leave me here, alone."
It seemed like an eternity, but then I hear him remove the bullet from its chamber. I hear him replace his weapon. I hug him -- there were tears flowing down his cheeks.
How much longer can this hell continue?
Please continue to Chapter II of Hidden Beneath a Cowshed.
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