1. The Gathering Storm
In the spring of 1945, my little village of Pernau, located at the western edge of Hungary, was abuzz with news of the approaching front. The Russians were coming! The people were terrified. They thought of the Russians as a new Asian horde with a reputation to match that of their predecessors. The Huns, the Mongols, and the Turks, who in centuries past had all swarmed over the Pinka valley, were known for their cruelty. Were the villagers destined to be grist in the millstones of history once again or did they have a choice? How did simple, defenseless country folk throughout the ages prepare for the arrival of an invader that hearsay had stripped of all redeeming qualities? Did they hope for a quick and merciful death, or did they run and hide? Did the men sharpen their scythes and axes, or did they grab a pitchfork and die protecting their women and children?
A positive experience with Russians during World War I when prisoners of war worked in our forest was largely ignored or forgotten. In times of crises and fear, rumors grow like mushrooms on a rainy day in June. According to the latest rumors, the Russians raped the women, took whatever they wanted, and came in tanks big enough to roll over trees and even houses. What to do?
My father and Mr. Perlaki, neighbors and young fathers of growing families, weighed their limited options. Wouldn't it be wise to find a hiding place in the forest where the families could wait out the storm? The idea had some merit, but knowing when to make the move was a problem. Other things could be done immediately to prepare for the inevitable. Father dug a deep hole in the vegetable garden to hide some valuable items, including his wedding suit. He could have saved himself the trouble. When the Russians eventually found the hiding place, as they always did, the suit was the only thing they took, slighting the family by dismissing the rest of our valuables as worthless junk.
Signs of the impending doom abounded. For months there had been a constant drone of British and American bombers flying deep into Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Rumania on bombing missions. One summer night, a German fighter plane downed one of these bombers. The villagers were awakened by a deafening noise. A burning airplane was circling above the village at a frighteningly low altitude, as if searching the darkness below for a suitable place to land. For an instant it flew over our house, heading towards the forest. As we watched, an explosion lit up the sky and the plane crashed into the forest below. The quiet of the night returned abruptly. Yet, less than a kilometer from us, men were dying a terrible death. Read More »