Conversation with contemporary witnesses János Forgács
December 13, 2016 at the Dachau memorial site.
I am honored that, as a Jewish, Hungarian citizen and a survivor of the Holocaust, at the request of the management of the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, I may be present at this memorial conversation and report to you that in the summer of 1944, within 56 days, in 149 trains, 465,000 people of Jewish faith or of Jewish origin were deported from Hungary, the majority of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps, and those left alive to other concentration camps.
My name is János Forgács, and I was born in 1928 in the municipality of Gödöllő near Budapest. When I was sixteen I spent about a year, about four months in each of the Birkenau, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.
My family (my father, my mother and my three brothers) and most of the relatives lived in Gödöllő or in other rural communities, while one related family lived in Budapest. In total we were 42 people who - unfortunately - were all victims of persecution or deportation. In the following I will talk about our further fate, which began to be unbearable for us and continued in terrible tragedies. Gödöllő wasn't an antisemitic community, at least it wasn't felt. Among all my child friends there were hardly any with a Jewish faith. But on March 19, 1944, the German army marched - as an ally - into Hungary, including Gödöllő. As a result, the activities of the Arrow Cross, a pre-existing Hungarian party with antisemitism, which now held loud parades on the main street of the community, revived. Towards the end of April, it was prescribed that the yellow, hexagonal Star of David be sewn onto outer clothing, without it it was forbidden to go out on the streets. This labeling was very humiliating.
On June 10, two gendarmes appeared at our house with a written order according to which we had to gather in the yard of a certain family with some food and clothing after two days, since we were obliged to go to Germany to work. We did not understand this, but we had to take note of it.
This order was given to all Jewish families in the community, according to precise lists. And indeed, after two days, two gendarmes appeared in the morning. We had to leave the house, the main entrance was locked, the keys were taken by the two of them. Then they accompanied us to the aforementioned collection point. Around noon, when all the families of the community had been gathered, we set off for the community train station, accompanied by gendarmes. Hundreds of people who had been gathered from the surrounding communities were already waiting to be loaded into the wagon, which then happened. The train drove off and stopped at the freight station of the sugar factory in the destination town, called Hatvan.
This happened in the evening, we were asked to find everyone a place where they can to spend the night, of course in the open air. So in truth this was a ghetto. And then the deportation began for us. We were driven to Hatvan train station in the company of gendarmes, several thousand people, all of whom were gathered there, of all ages. There was already a train of about fifty cattle wagons and there were also the officials who directed the deportation, gendarmes, police officers, representatives of the Hungarian administration and a German soldier. We were crammed in with at least fifty people by stairs leaning against the wagons, so narrow that we could no longer move.
Four or five buckets of drinking water and just as many toilet buckets were given. This in itself contradicted what we had been promised. And now the first shocking incident occurred: An old man who had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage a few weeks ago was brought to the train on a stretcher and was now completely paralyzed. After a brief thought, the German soldier was called in to decide what to do with the old man. He did not think long, took out his pistol and shot the sick man. All of this before our eyes, which shocked us terribly. At the end of every car on the train sat an armed gendarme, the train set off to a place and destination unknown to us.
The first stop followed around midnight, at the station in the city of Kosice. Here we were allowed to fill the buckets with drinking water and empty the toilet buckets after the doors were opened. The commander of the gendarmes finally asked us that anyone who still had jewelry or valuables with them should give them to him because we would not need them later. After that, the whole group of Hungarian escorts was replaced by armed German soldiers, including the railway staff, and the train drivers were replaced by Germans. This was done so that the few staff who returned to Hungary from their destination every day could not spread the news of what was happening.
The train went on and the next day, again at dawn, it stopped; we only found out later that this place was the ramp where the trains were received in the Birkenau extermination camp. When the doors of the wagons were opened, we saw prisoners in striped clothes standing and asking us to get out of the wagons quickly. Then they started tossing the luggage and suitcases from the wagons in a big pile. There were also some Hungarians among them who, when we asked, said that everyone in the camp would get their luggage back. We didn't understand what the camp was all about, we saw high, burning chimneys not far away, according to those questioned, bread factories were in operation there. We later learned that these were the chimneys of the crematoria next to the gas chambers. And then the first “selection” began. At the edge of the 500-meter-long and 20-30-meter-wide ramp, a track ran along its entire length to the right and left. We were asked that the men and older boys line up next to the platform on the left, and that the women, the smaller children, girls and boys line up next to the platform on the right.
The selection began. Opposite the rows stood a German officer, as we later found out, this was Dr. Mengele, surgeon, with several other soldiers behind him. First we, the row of men, had to pass in front of him one by one. With stick in hand, he waved whether the person should join the group on the left or on the right. My father and I got into the group on the left, as it turned out, this was the group that Dr. Mengele classified as fit for work. The other group included those judged to be unable to work. As we learned later, the selection of women and children was done in the same way, even if we could no longer see it for ourselves. Except for my father, almost all of my relatives who were abducted were elderly women or children, so they probably perished in the gas chamber, and their corpses were burned in the crematorium.
Now I come to how the fate of the able-bodied men continued: We were led to a building called the sauna. In the first, large room of the building we had to strip naked, we were only allowed to keep our shoes and glasses. Then the prisoners from the Sonderkommando came in with hair clippers in hand and shaved off all the hair on our bodies. Then we went to the next room, had to wash under the shower heads there, and then were given a striped linen jacket, a pair of trousers and a hat through a window in one of the next rooms. There were no underwear or socks.
When this was over, the whole group, in which only we Hungarians were, was escorted to the nearby camp "E", also known as the gypsy camp. We had to line up in the first barracks of the camp, where a prisoner asked us in Hungarian to give him precious stones or other valuables, in case someone should have hidden them in the heel of his shoes, for example, because everyone would find something like that , will be executed immediately. He also explained that everyone under the age of 16 should put themselves in a separate group, they would come to the so-called children's block and would get easier work. My father had to march away after two minutes, and I never heard from him again. He perished somewhere, perhaps in another concentration camp, but did not survive the suffering.
When I was 14 years old, I was left alone among several hundred unknown children. Something similar happened to the younger women who were classified as fit for work. We learned from the secretly passed on camp news, what the fate of the groups of men, children and women who were found unable to work was. They were led (women and men groups never together) to the gas chamber and crematorium unit, which was currently free. (There were four such units, numbered two, three, four, and five). The gas chambers were halls built underground, right next to the crematorium. The group led there was driven to the area in front of the gas chamber; on orders, they had to strip naked, regardless of age and gender. They were driven almost at a run into the gas chamber, where shower heads were hung from the ceiling as camouflage, but water never ran out of them.
Several years after the war I had the opportunity to watch the events on original film recordings: When the gas chamber was packed, the airtight doors were closed and the interior lighting of the room was switched off. On the ceiling of the gas chamber there were small chimneys above ground that were connected to the shower heads by pipes. Soldiers ran to these with tin cans in their hands, from which they filled the chimneys with the crystalline poison gas "Cyklon B". From the crystals in the shower heads, mixed with the oxygen-in-the-air, the cyan gas developed, which caused death by suffocation, so that everyone died in agony in terrible agony. When everything was quiet, the doors of the gas chamber were opened and the gas was pumped out by fans. The bodies dragged the members of the special command into the area in front of the chamber, other command members shaved off their hair, still others broke teeth or prostheses made of precious metal from the mouths of the bodies with pliers. The corpses were then dragged to the neighboring crematorium, where they were cremated. After a few weeks Dr. Mengele carried out further selections in Birkenau, where he selected the short or very emaciated people and had them brought to the gas chamber on the same day.
After about four months in Birkenau, I was taken to the main camp in Auschwitz with a few hundred other prisoners in mid-October 1944. We walked through the main gate with the inscription “Arbeit macht frei”, stopped in front of the first stone building, where we had to go in one by one and we all got a prisoner number tattooed on our left forearm. Mine was B-14514, (B-fourteen-five-fourteen) which can still be seen today. The work we had to do was almost the same in all camps, road construction or auxiliary work in factories.
The food was of minimal nutritional value. We were always hungry. When we were called in from work in the evening, we had to stand on roll call. Then they checked whether the number of inmates in the block was complete. Once we were waiting for the soldier to count us at a roll call like this. I was so hungry that I put a spoon in my mouth with the soup that had been distributed to us in the kitchen. I was in the front row so that the soldier who was just turning the corner of the building saw me at that very moment. It must have been a very big sin because he came to me, verbally abused me, then unbuttoned his holster and tried to shoot me. I waited for the shot with my eyes closed - we couldn't hope that our suffering would end at some point. The soldier showed mercy, took the bowl from my hand and hit it on the left side of my face. These were the little things that made up our lives.
On January 18, 1945, the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps were evacuated as the Soviet troops were relatively close. This was done as follows: We all received a whole standard bread and a tinned meat from the grocery store; any coat from the clothes store. About twenty thousand marching prisoners were assembled from the two prison camps; all those who would not have been able to do so - because they were very weak or sick - were left behind. Around noon the march started on foot, again we didn't know where to go. The march lasted until the next morning, we stopped again and again until we reached the Gross-Rosen camp, which had already been cleared. The number of those arriving was no more than eighty percent of the prisoners who had marched off. Because anyone who fell over on the way and was unable to get up at the request of the accompanying soldiers was shot on the spot.
In Groß-Rosen we had to cram into open freight wagons at the town's train station and arrived in Dachau around noon the next day. Leaving those who had died during the journey, we went to the camp. After a disinfecting shower, we were given a different, clean prisoner’s clothing for the first time in eight months. There were only wooden barracks in the Dachau camp. We had to move out for more normal work, in Dachau there were no Mengele-like selections either, but the natural mortality rate among the prisoners was high. The numerous lice and fleas on the beds and in the blankets have reproduced themselves and have taken over the selection. The contagious, deadly epidemic was called typhoid fever. Anyone who was bitten by a louse that spread the disease died within a few days of severe diarrhea and a high fever.
I worked in a work detachment that had to bring the dead from the barracks on a cart to the small crematorium in the morning, where the corpses were cremated, which can still be seen today. About four months later, in the last week of April 1945, I was put on a passenger train with a few hundred other prisoners - I don't know with what purpose - and we drove off, leaving the camp behind us for good. After a few hours of driving, the train stopped. The military commander on the train was going somewhere on a forest path and when he came back he said audibly that we were going back because the prisoners could not be accommodated here in such large numbers. Later it turned out that the place was the Swiss border guard. After another half a day, the train stopped on the bank of a smaller river, this area was a clearing on the bank of the nearby river "Isar". We settled down, the guarding soldiers set up machine guns on the other, higher bank of the river.
This was normal for us, we were prisoners. Suddenly a military ambulance of the Red Cross appeared, a woman with a Red Cross armband got out. As it turned out later, she was our commander's wife. She confronted her husband as to why he wanted to have the group of inmates shot when the American army was around the town of Mittenwald. The commander took the good advice and they left. After five to ten minutes, all the guards were gone, they threw everything away except for the guns. We remained seated for a few hours, but then it became clear to us that we should do something with this new situation that we could actually move around freely. I set off with some of the younger ones in the direction of the city, which was a few kilometers away. Soldiers who were in retreat came towards us on the road. They could see who we were, but didn't even notice us. In the late afternoon we reached the city, where there were no more soldiers, only Volkssturm men with white armbands, who kept order. They accompanied us to the central gym in the city, where food was already being cooked, and we were also served. In the evening, however, they asked us to leave the city and wait outside the city limits until the American army entered the city without a fight.
We got reserve food and complied with their request. We found a hilly place and spent the night in a wooden hut, where animals find shelter in summer. The next morning there was deep snow, we could hardly open the door of the hut. We looked down at the highway and saw that it was full of various military vehicles. We understood, however, that in the center of the flags on the front of the vehicles there was a white five-pointed star and not a swastika. We slid down the hill on our belly and came across a military unit of the American Army made up of blacks. That was the day of my liberation, the first of May 1945. I consider this day to be my second birthday.
A few words about how my family survived the “Holocaust”: 14 of the 42 people mentioned at the beginning came back, they stayed alive, 8 of them who survived these unfortunate times in the Budapest ghetto. After these relatively few sufferings and tragedies that have been presented and the much more that are not mentioned, I hope that the majority of people in good spirits in the world agree with the hopeful thought:
"Holocaust never again!"
Translation by Jörg Watzinger.