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A Wartime Story with Joseph Margel (Hungarian refugee)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

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Christmas in Budapest 1944

As the morning fog rose on that cold January morning of 1945, a few Soviet soldiers with their machine guns, were slowly walking along the perimeter of the new fence that surrounded the old mill. Inside this compound were many prisoners- of-war quietly chatting. I, along with four village friends, all in our late teens, sat dazed, thinking of the events of the last ten days.

It all began when the announcer on the radio gave strict instructions that all exemptions from military service were cancelled immediately. Everyone had to report to a military unit for service. All teenage boys had completed pre military training. We went to Budapest to enjoy a few days of the free life before joining the military establishment after the New Year. We soon learned that the Soviet Army was about a hundred kilometers east of Budapest. The whistling of bullets and near-by explosions of mortar shells cut short our“vacation”. It was December 24, 1944–a lovely and unusually warm afternoon in Buda. We had no time to waste and quickly ran to the nearby military barracks where there was chaos, blood and wounded soldiers all around. A mortar shell had just exploded within the walls. No one cared or questioned us.“Get uniforms and guns and fight!” A sergeant barked as he pointed to the storeroom. Quickly we got equipped, but I left my civilian clothes on. I took a military coat and a cap.

That night we slept in a military warehouse. The next morning we tried to escape to the west of Budapest hoping to avoid the Russians before they circled the city. We moved along the hilly wilderness outside of Budapest. That second night we slept on a mound of snow huddled one on top of the other just to get some warmth --- but very little sleep.

The next day we found a hunters cabin. The caretaker invited us inside to warm up and gave us some warm food. We slept on the straw in the barn and felt secure.

Very early the next morning we heard gunfire outside. The Russian soldiers shouted for us to come out with our hands up. They marched us to a nearby village and locked our group up in a cold attic in a very large house. It was New Years Eve. Downstairs the Soviet Soldiers were celebrating. Twice during that night they chased us downstairs to the big kitchen, told us to strip looking for hidden weapons. Those drunken soldiers threatened us with their guns.

Next morning they marched us to this camp at this old mill. Here were many unfortunate hungry, dirty, lice- infested people. This was the second day of having no food. But none of us complained, for our biggest problem was trying to distance ourselves from the lice that were all over the straw. We had been sleeping in the straw and the beast had us! The lice infested the straw that we slept on and we suffered all night.

The next morning the soldiers opened the gate and truck dumped a load of bread on the ground. The soldiers told us to line up, pick up a loaf then stand in line on the outside of the camp gate. There were about 600 of us. I returned to fill up my canteen with water and picked up another bread on the way out. No one noticed, no one cared in the chaos. So now I now had two loaves. My friends did the same.

An armed guard of about twelve soldiers started marching us along a road that ran parallel to the Danube. The cannons and the guns thundered as they bombarded the large industrial island on the Danube River. Our march was slow and painful. The prisoners consisted of soldiers, civilians and occasionally a wife of a soldier. We spread out staying mostly in small groups. When evening came we were herded inside of a corral, stable or whatever was found. By the third day the bread was gone and people were very hungry. As we ambled through a small village a woman came out with a large basket of sliced bread. When she saw the people rush for the bread, she hid behind her gate and watched as the people fought over her gift.

Later as I sat on the mound of snow munching on the last morsel on my two breads the snow gave way under me. Suddenly I was facing a snow covered dead man with a grin of death frozen on his face. It shook me up. So I stared at the road of trampled snow. Lo behold I saw a slab of bacon flattened into the snow by the passing truck, tanks and walking prisoners. The casual observer would not have discovered what I saw. Frantically I started scrapping with my fingers and nails and stuffing it into my mouth before the others joined me in the feast. Gravel, dirt and all. In a minute, it was all gone.

It was this food that brought me to my senses. I knew I had to escape before we crossed the Danube into Yugoslavia and on to Siberia. That afternoon as we were slowly walking, I was looking for a way out. Suddenly, from the opposite direction I saw a horse drawn wagon. It was a local peasant driving a wagon with no sides --- which was used to haul lumber. He was moving fast while the tired hungry marchers separated to let him pass. But behind him was another wagon on the way home. That gave me an idea. As quickly as I could I removed my military coat and gave it to one of my coatless friends.“ I’m escaping.” I whispered.“You’re crazy, you might get shot.”“So what! Starving or freezing to death is not better.” Quickly I moved to the center of the road where the wagon would have to pass by me, I looked around and saw that the guards were spaced and tired, not very alert. As the horses and the front wheel passed by me I jumped sideways on the wagon sitting behind the driver.“I’m escaping; please help me”, I called near his ear. I realized that my civilian coat disguised me as a local peasant boy. Causally the peasant took a big puff on his old pipe. Whipped the horses and looked nonchalantly ahead. In a few minutes I looked back. No one was looking for me. However, I was in the Soviet occupied territory, with guard, road blocks frequently. Civilians, local people did not dare to leave their home. But for the moment, I was free. Hungry, flimsy clothing in the cold winter and afraid to get caught again. The farmer and wife gave me what they had, a simple beans soup, hot and watery, but it was the best and most welcome food I had for long long time. I came to life! I decided I am going to the west, far away from wars, hunger and fear, but how? It was naïve of me to even hope to get home or anywhere far in the Soviet occupied territory. I was young and willing to take chances. About 4 weeks later I was at home, near the Austrian border. How? It is a long story. It is in the book I wrote as requested from my four children.

As the Soviet forces were getting closer to my Village (Szőny) , I left and never stopped until I was in Western Austria occupied by the British troops. I was FREE and Safe.