Daimon Publishers

Prison on Wheels
Eva Langley-Dános


This is an English translation of the Hungarian-language 'diary' written in 1945 describing a 16-day rail journey (in cattle-cars) of women prisoners transferred from the concentration camp of Ravensbrück to the one in Dachau. Over the past few years, I have increasingly realized that this glimpse into the depths of inhumanity - and the heights of human greatness - needs to be more widely focused and shed light not only on that fatal journey, but also on our way of life - or way to death - in the camps. A brief examination of the prevailing political and social background in Hungary, Budapest in particular, could further understanding of the general mentality of the time and place, whilst a look at those heroes who actively resisted the trend by offering help, should restore our faith in humankind.

In Hungary, endemic anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the 'assimilated' Jewish population considered themselves to be Hungarians of Jewish faith. A few realists apart who viewed Hitler's rise to power as a grave threat, it was generally believed that "this could not happen here," even after the Anschluß of Austria by Germany in 1938. The denial continued in the face of increasingly restrictive 'Jewish Laws' (the first one in May, 1938, the second (which also covered Jewish converts baptized into or reared in the Christian faiths) in April, 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Finally, the third, the so-called 'Race Protection Act,' in the middle of 1941, forbids marriage between Jew and gentile. Neither Hungary's entry into the war (on the side of the Axis powers) nor the horror stories brought back from the routed Eastern Front by survivors of the Second Hungarian Army and of (Jewish) 'work battalions' (in existence since 1941) could shake this blind faith. By mid-1944, the 'transfer' to Auschwitz and other camps in Germany of those in long-established 'detaining camps' in Hungary (mostly eminent persons in industry, commerce and the arts, many, but by no means all of them, Jews), as well as the mass deportation of Jews living in country towns and villages, had been 'successfully' carried out. Hungarian language broadcasts by the BBC from London (forbidden, but listened to in great secrecy, in view of severe punishment if caught) repeatedly confirmed their fate. For those who did not want to bury their heads in the sand, it was clear that the increasingly pro-German Hungarian Government was contemplating similar measures by taking away the livelihood of this pariah population, whether in the professions, employment or small business, by making it obligatory for them to wear the Star of David (April, 1944), by restricting the hours they could appear in public, and finally, by removing them from their houses or flats into designated 'Star Houses,' where they had to be accommodated in the cramped spaces occupied by existing tenants: an obviously preparatory step to the deportation procedure previously followed in country districts.

Incredible as it may sound, and practically up to the 'beginning of the end,' the majority of those so targeted continued with their 'ostrich policy' (as it was called) and ignored the writing on the wall. Certainly, many went into hiding, seeking refuge or accepting the help offered by 'Aryan' [[Hungarians are not Aryans: they descend from a tribe originating south of the Ural mountains in Asia. ]] friends or, sometimes, by strangers brave enough to defy the prevailing system, amongst them Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and religious organizations (of the latter, the Catholic Order of Social Sisters headed by Margit Schlachta is a prime example). Through the same channels, others acquired new identity papers (those of Transylvanian refugees were thought to be harder to detect) and lived an outwardly unremarkable but, of course, precarious existence.

Like my family, I was too law-abiding to try and defy or elude the seemingly inevitable. What is more, up to mid-1944, I was moderately happy with my lot. Having graduated at the Royal Hungarian University of Technology and gained a Ph.D. in Economics there in 1943, I instantly enrolled in their post-graduate Education course whilst - oh, what a miracle! - being an unofficial but de facto teacher at the prestigious, post-Leaving Certificate, two-year Executive Secretary School run by the Catholic Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion. On March 19, 1944, German troops occupied Hungary. The School was dissolved, lay teachers and students dispersed. But the Sisters did not stop caring. In June, 1944, Mere Jolan, the one most involved with the course, came to our home and suggested that I seek admission (already arranged by the Sisters) to a 'war effort plant' [['War effort plant'- an official designation of those factories which manufactured goods deemed necessary to sustain or enhance the country's fighting capability. Jews or those of Jewish origin could be 'lawfully' employed in those plants and were exempt of strictures which would impede their work. ]] established in Buda (the hilly part of Budapest) by a Father Klinda. My parents concurred and in the shortest of time, I became a 'resident worker' at the St. Catherine Girls' College (Boldog Katalin Nagyleányotthon). It was an odd place. The overcrowded, noisy, panicky and panic-inducing dormitory in the attic was as alien a territory to me as the big hall filled with rows of sewing machines (each one of us had to contribute one as a condition of admission) not to mention the fact that, although we duly delivered my mother's 'Singer,' I was utterly ignorant of even the basics of the skill which, alas, was not part of the University's Economics curriculum ... I felt lonely, or more exactly, an alien, but for one person: Father Klinda, whose goodness and lived and living Christianity seemed to validate both my own religiousness and my faith in the Christian ideals.

Who was this Father Klinda with the stooped frame and angelic smile? Dr. Pál (Paul) Klinda, a Roman Catholic priest, was born in 1903 in the historic town of Esztergom on the shores of the Danube, north of the capital, where his father was head of the Teachers College. Paul, too, devoted his life to teaching and education. At 30 years of age, he became the Roman Catholic religious teacher at the Budapest Ranolder Institute of Teacher Training. His pioneering work included translation of the text of the mass from Latin into Hungarian and its publication in both booklet format and as a complete missal so that everybody may understand it. By making these Hungarian texts available to his pupils and to parishioners in general, Father Klinda was decades ahead of the Second Vatican Synod, which authorized world-wide the use of local languages in replacement of the Latin mass. Most importantly - as it turned out later - he was also a pioneer of teaching 'practical' subjects like sewing and cutting, cookery, arts, commerce, etc., in 'industry-oriented' schools. Within the Ranolder Institute, he founded the Klara Industrial High-school, where the output of the students was marketed by their own co-operative. Through his endeavors, the school became official supplier to the Central Military Outfitting Authority in 1938 - a position of advantage well used by him in 1944 to give shelter and to try and save those increasingly threatened with persecution. Katalin, the College of the Ranolder Institute, became a 'war effort plant,' making military shirts and trousers as well as 'bathing trunks' using the off-cuts. My first job there was to make strings of cast-off material, miles and miles of them, and it transformed me into an expert machinist, nay, a 'Jolly Joker': in the assembly line operation, whenever the material started bunching up, I stepped into the breach to ensure a smooth flow-on.

The commandant of the war plant was Gitta Mallász, whose double reputation as a sportswoman and as a graphic artist earned her general admiration. She was a strict disciplinarian - or so her military demeanor proclaimed - and she imposed discipline on the motley crowd of middle-class families. Gitta was held in awe by all and her little house on the grounds of the Katalin was given a wide berth. Little did we know that she accepted the position in order to shelter her two friends, Hanna and Lili, from the dangers of Nazi excesses.

In the chaos of the overcrowded dormitory in the attic, Hanna's smiling blue eyes sent me a message of warm friendship, of encouragement and hope. There was a special aura about her and her friend Lili which I sensed and to which I felt attracted, but I was too shy to approach them. I followed Lili from afar as she taught relaxation to the youngsters. Elizabeth Rusznyák and Agi Péter became my close friends. We were soon called the 'little trio' in contrast to the 'big trio' formed by Gitta, Hanna and Lili. Emboldened by our friendship, we timidly expressed our admiration for the 'big trio' - and behold: they took us to their hearts! Thus, I was led into a world of unheard-of wonders by getting into touch with angelic beings through the intermediary of Hanna, who brought down their messages [[These messages, or dialogues, have been published in the book, Talking with Angels, transcribed by Gitta Mallász, Daimon, Einsiedeln, 3rd Ed., 1998. ]] week after week. At first doubtful about it, I asked the opinion of a young Jesuit in the privacy of the confessional. He assured me that the Church did not deny the existence of other spiritual beings. But, just as a good parent does not let children play with high-tension wires, so does the Church wish to shelter us from dangerous encounters in the spiritual world, lest the contact is made with harmful spirits. I accepted his explanation, yet could not help being entranced by the messages. Perhaps our senses were made more refined by the insecurities, nigh, dangers, surrounding us, but I did and do believe that the words uttered by Hanna or received by myself had been inspired by superior and benevolent spiritual beings. The Angels strengthened us, not with tepid consolations and empty phrases, but by their lashing words and the promise of the unimaginable and luminous New...

After Elizabeth and Agi both moved from the "Katalin" to other hiding places, I was the only one of the 'little trio' to go through several episodes of harassment by 'arrow-cross' hooligans ending in the deportation to Germany of sixteen of us, including Hanna and Lili, on December 1st, 1944.

In Hitler's Germany, the concentration camps were suppliers of manpower for a vast array of industries and the dwindling energy of the captives was exploited to the last drop. Wages were paid not to the workers, but to the camps supplying them. Those who could not work any more were 'disposed of' in a number of ways and the crematoria were kept busy.

The hundreds of camps all over the country were arranged in hierarchies, not unlike business concerns: several efficiently supervised 'subsidiary' camps were grouped under one main enterprise, the 'mother camp,' such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Dora, Flossenburg, Gross-Rosen, Lichtenburg, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Treblinka - and this is far from being an exhaustive list. Thanks to the meticulously kept statistics, we now have data on all aspects of the prison population: age, gender, the reason for arrest, length of stay in various camps, number of those transported from one camp to another, etc., not to mention copies of correspondence exchanged between authorities and many photographs. I have in my possession some post-war publications of the Dachau camp - daunting records of a, by now, almost incredible era.

Eva Langley-Dános

Belrose, NSW, Australia, 1999


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