Excerpt

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.

Almost immediately after the explosion, people from the village were running past our house into the forest, to the crash site. Franz, my oldest brother, joined them. He came back with the shocking news that in the still burning wreckage they found three bodies. Two crewmembers had managed to jump out of the plane but landed almost on top of the burning crash site. One suffered severe burns; the parachute of the other became tangled in tree branches close to the wreckage. By the time the villagers arrived, his body dangled lifelessly from the tree. The dead men and one seriously burned crewmember were all brought to the barracks located directly across the street from our house. The local doctor did what he could to help the injured man, covering him with bandages from head to toe.

My oldest sister Anna also wanted to go to the crash site, but Mother, completely traumatized by the crash, needed her by her side. The next morning, however, Anna and a number of other children and adults crowded around the unfortunate man lying on the stretcher, wondering if he were dead or alive. Mr. Schneider, one of our neighbors, pinched his toe to find out. An ever so slight reaction convinced everyone that the man was still alive. By mid-morning a military truck arrived to transport the injured survivor from the B-24 Liberator bomber to Szombathely, a city just fifteen kilometers from Pernau. The dead were buried in the local cemetery. The rest of the crew had disappeared by the time the villagers had arrived at the crash site. They were probably heading south, towards Yugoslavia, where they could expect help from Marshal Tito's anti-fascist partisans.

On March 4, 1945, came Szombathely's turn. An American bomber dropped four bombs on the Baroque cathedral, causing extensive damage. Of course, this cultural treasure, like so many others destroyed by Allied bombs, had absolutely no strategic importance. The massive destruction and the accompanying "collateral" damage were meant to punish and demoralize the population. The "total war" that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, called for in 1943 after the stunning defeat of the German army at Stalingrad, was now descending on the Third Reich and its allies. News of the massive bombing of German cities had also reached Pernau. It was reported that on February 13 Dresden had been firebombed and not much was left of the city. We heard that tens of thousands of innocent people had been incinerated.

Pernau would also have been bombed had the Allies known that in October of the previous year the Germans had set up an important radio relay station in the village. A hospital supply company was also working out of Pernau. Several German officers in charge of these operations were quartered in Grandpa Schrammel's house. Aunt Resi, still a teenager then, recalls how proudly they strutted around in their black uniforms and shiny boots. They still hadn't lost their swagger and superior attitude, though they were in obvious retreat.

However, by and large the Germans remained in the background, letting their Hungarian helpers do most of the dirty work, such as guarding prisoners and organizing work details. Under their supervision the men of the village were forced to dig tank traps by the border between the two Austrian villages of Höll and Deutsch-Schützen, less than a kilometer from the western edge of Pernau and very close to where the Cistercian monastery had stood centuries ago. Hungarian soldiers also marched Rumanian prisoners of war past our house every morning to dig bunkers in the forest nearby. In the evening as they dragged themselves back to the barracks, exhausted from a long day's work, Grandmother would wait by our gate with a bucket of boiled potatoes normally meant for the pigs. The starving prisoners would reach into the bucket, help themselves to a handful of those potatoes, and march on.

About two weeks before Easter, people sensed that the end was near. Our Rumanian prisoners had suddenly disappeared, and there was a lot of traffic on the main road heading toward Austria. Contingents of the German army and hundreds of ethnic Germans were heading west, fleeing from the advancing Russians. An endless caravan of trucks, horse drawn wagons, motorcycles, panzers, and other war machinery jammed the road around the clock. Since the Kollers lived off the main road, they didn't see most of this massive retreat. We were concerned with our own safety and were now making preparations to save ourselves by moving to a forest hideout.

On Thursday before Easter, the Kollers and the Perlakis loaded up the hay wagons with kids, blankets, pillows, some cooking utensils and food supplies, hitched the cows to the wagons and left home. We moved to a "secure" location deep in the forest. Once there, we cleared an area and set up a temporary camp near a brook with fresh, clean water and enough wood for a thousand campfires. Oh, but how could we have forgotten to bring the only remaining ham from last fall, slated to be eaten on Easter Sunday? Grandmother hurried back home to fetch the ham from the smoke chamber. Even in our hiding place, Easter had to be celebrated properly.

While we were in the forest on Thursday and Friday, a terrible thing happened that wasn't discovered until after the Russians had arrived. Unlike the earlier part of the week, Friday was a fairly quiet day in Pernau. The big retreat had dwindled to a trickle. In the afternoon one last contingent was different. Four soldiers with fixed bayonets, dressed in SA (Sturmabteilung) uniforms, herded a group of about eighty men through the village. They were dressed in rags and looked emaciated and exhausted. The men staggered and stumbled as they made their way toward Austria.

Two days later when the Russians took the area, they found these poor men, all Jewish slave laborers, massacred and dumped into the same ditches that the local men had dug as tank traps. The Russians brought the Bürgermeister (mayor) and two local Nazi leaders from Deutsch-Schützen to the site to witness the carnage. They asked them if what they were looking at represented their "kultura." The three men were roughed up but not killed.

Soon after they had arrived on the Austrian side of the border, the SA guards escaped, leaving the prisoners unguarded. Members of the Hitler Youth in Deutsch-Schützen took over the guard duty on orders from their unit commander. These teenagers then turned the prisoners over to their murderers: three members of the Waffen-SS Wiking division and five military policemen.

The eighty murdered Hungarian Jews were among tens of thousands of Jews who were marched from Hungary to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in the waning days of the war. During these death marches, no less than 23,000 Jews were murdered along the way. All prisoners unable to walk were shot and dumped into ditches by the roadside. Trucks picked up the dead bodies later. It is known that Hitler Youth members, many of them no older than sixteen, participated in these murders. Ten years later, following a trial, the former Hitler Youth members from Deutsch-Schützen received sentences of fifteen months to three years in jail, a mere slap on the wrist for complicity in multiple murders. The SS-men and the military policemen could not be identified (Lappin 25, 37).

People didn't talk much about the massacre near Deutsch-Schützen. In fact, a publication from 1971 that celebrates 750 years of that village makes no mention of it. The only thing I ever heard as a child was a false rumor that some gypsies were herded through the village and killed on the Austrian side of the border. The sad truth is that the place, once home to pious monks of a very strict religious order representing the best in western civilization, had become the scene of an atrocity by men of an evil regime representing the worst in that same civilization. While I was truly elated at the outset of my research into Pernau's history when I discovered a Cistercian monastery in its past, my shock was all the more profound when I learned that in its past evil had found a home there as well.

The people of Pernau knew nothing of the death marches and the mass murder occurring immediately to the west of them. They were absorbed with their own worries. Saturday was very quiet. Like animals that flee an impending natural disaster, all who had a lot to fear from the Russians had by now fled across the border into safer Austria. Everybody in the village sensed that the relative quiet on this day was just the lull before the imminent storm.

The Kollers' and Perlakis' ill-conceived and ill-planned exodus lasted only until Saturday morning. Reason had prevailed over fear. Soon the foolishness of the adventure had dawned on the adults. Wouldn't the Russians find us there too? And even if they didn't, how long could two families with seven small children stay in the woods? At the crack of dawn on Saturday, the wagons were hitched up again. Two hours later the two families had arrived back home from their little escapade into the forest. Now they were just waiting for the inevitable, like sheep for the slaughter. They didn't have to wait long.

We had barely finished unloading the wagon after our return from our hiding place, when two German soldiers came running out of the forest, heading straight for our house. Our visitors were desperate men running for their lives. They looked pitiful: clothes filthy and ragged, bodies smelly and emaciated, lips cracked and dry. They seemed to have run non-stop all the way from Russia, thousands of kilometers to the east of us. They spoke our language and demanded food and water and a change of clothes. They needed to get out of their rags, barely still recognizable as the uniform of the once mighty German Wehrmacht, not only because it marked them now as the hunted prey but also because fleas and lice made their otherwise intolerable condition even worse.

They were just a few hours ahead of the advancing Red Army, bent on victory and revenge. Grandma Koller fed the two soldiers from the meager supplies of our rapidly growing family. Water was brought from the well, and they quickly washed themselves in the small pantry next to our kitchen. Their filthy clothes were left on the floor in an untidy pile. They had no time to rest. They had to move out as soon as possible to catch up with their unit on the other side of the nearby border.

Hospitality notwithstanding, our visitors then demanded that they be shown the safest way across the border. After some shouting and angry words, Father let brothers Franz, who was eight, and Seppl, who was only five, go with them to the river from where they could find their own way. Grandma Koller's acts of kindness were rewarded with the first of several infestations of fleas and lice during this war. Each subsequent wave of soldiers brought a new crop. Each time, clothes and bedding had to be washed. This was a real hardship because every drop of water had to be drawn from our well, located in the yard of the old house, and heated on top of our small wood-burning stove.

A bright and sunny spring morning ushered in the next day, Easter Sunday. April 1, 1945, our day of "liberation" had arrived. Grandma Koller and Mother had already discovered our miniature pesky houseguests and were busy washing and scrubbing. At one point Mother looked out the bedroom window and saw a Russian soldier, machine gun ready, cautiously and silently inching his way along the fence directly across from our house. Others followed close behind. Suddenly, the deceptive tranquility of the morning was interrupted by the noisy rumbling of a speeding horse-drawn wagon. The gate to our yard was thrown open, and the wagon pulled in. The driver parked his wagon between the old house and a big old apple tree that had stood there for at least a hundred years. The spot was selected for a very good reason, as we came to see shortly.

More and more soldiers were moving past our house. At first Mother gathered us children around her as a hen might gather her chicks under her wings. Silently we watched the soldiers pour out of the forest and move into the village. After a while Mother deemed it safe to let us children go out into the yard again to explore. There were five of us by then. Soon we were climbing all over the Russian wagon and petting the horse. Mother resumed her scrubbing and washing. She was just coming with a bucket of water from the well, when, all of a sudden, we heard incoming rounds from the west, followed by explosions throughout the . . . .