Dear Spira Students,
On this Memorial Day weekend, I would like to share with you a very personal story. A few weeks ago, my stepfather Ivan Berend shared with me a memory of WWII that he first written in 1946 when he was sixteen. He has since written over thirty books on European history some of them translated into thirteen languages. He has been the Chancellor of Budapest University of Economics, and later enjoyed a very long career as Professor of History at UCLA. Because of his contribution to historical scholarship, he has earned membership in the Hungarian Academy, the British Academy, the European Academy and in 2015 became the member of the American Academy of Art and Sciences.
What I am trying to say is that my stepdad has written all his life, but this story that he shared with me a few days ago was different. It was not academic research, it was deeply personal. He sent Strawberry Jam as an attachment to an email to family and a few friends, it was written on Hungarian, and his email just said; “I first wrote this memory down in 1946, I picked it back up today and expended it a bit.” I instantly fell in love with the message of the story. I right away asked permission to translate the essay to English. Though I am no major publishing house, I feel it is important to share this memory, and I hope many of you will read it and share it.
I grew up with stories about the war. My grandmother, great-aunts, Ivan papa, mom, and dad always told stories of the war and post-war era. These stories taught me to guard human relationships, to nourish peace, and to be grateful for shelter and food. Ivan papa often mentioned that if not for the American Soldiers and Nurses, he would not be alive today. After his liberation from the concentration camp, he was malnourished from starvation and was nursed back to health by the American military.
Ivan papa has an infectious smile, an unstoppable optimism, and enthusiasm for life. His zest for finding joy in life, finding and holding onto the good even during the hardest most painful moments, and his ability to form friendships and community has been my teacher and is very much reflected in the spirit of Spira. In gratitude for American Military for helping to liberate Europe, I share this personal story, for the exact reason why Ivan papa has been writing about history for the past 70 years; in hope that we learn, so we don’t make the same mistakes…
Ivan bacsi Dorival
by Ivan T. Berend translated by Dora Gyarmati
I would like to tell you a Christmas story, a story of my life’s most memorable night. It was bitter cold, the kind of cold that shoots down to your bones. I was in Dachau at the foot of the German Alps, a small town near Munich. We were standing in front of the bathhouse, outside in the snow where they ordered us to strip naked. We stood there for a long time, shivering, as we watched our clothes growing into a vast heap in the middle of the square. I lost track of time, half an hour, an hour, time ceased to have meaning. My journey to the bathhouse on Christmas day was preceded by a long train ride, not the kind of train ride that I used to enjoy as a small kid, this ride was on locked cattle-cars over packed with humans. The train took off from Komárom, Hungary, where I ‘celebrated’ my 14th birthday in the prison fortress of “Csillag Erőd” just a few weeks before, and it took six days to reach Hitler’s concentration camp that was opened in 1933. For the whole trip, I received only a small round loaf of bread with a little marmalade. By the time my train arrived, I was ferociously hungry and worn down from fatigue beyond imagination.
Though I was surrounded by people, I was utterly alone, I didn’t know anybody; I was drowning in solitude among a sea of people.
At the time of my story, the year was 1944, so the Dachau facility had plenty of practice years in ‘operational excellence’. After some time of waiting naked in the cold, we were allowed into the bathhouse. I still remember the mild euphoria from the warm water beading down my body, washing away the grime of my travels. The follow-up procedures were less pleasant: they shaved our heads and smeared a stinging disinfectant liquid on our private parts. I received my new designation on my new prison uniform; a six-digit number to replace my name. From our former life we were allowed to keep our shoes. Truth be told, this carried no sentimental attachments in my case since the pair of shoe on my feet were not mine. My shoes were taken from me in Komárom in the local Hungarian Nazi headquarter when an “Arrow Cross” man, after a thorough beating, decided to exchange his old used-up shoes for my pristine new pair. This beat up pair of shoes, I was directed to leave outside during my shower. As I was leaving the facility, freshly shaved, freshly washed, disinfected and labeled, I could not find my shoes. Somebody stole this miserable memory, thus left me barefoot for the rest of the winter. Months later when spring came, at barrack campground #30, I did recognize my old shoe on somebody else’s feet, and with the help of the German ’room chief’, I reclaimed the article, and the barefoot winter misery ended.
But back to my Christmas story. We were made to wait and gather, again, after our shower; by now day had turned into night. We stood there in the darkness. It did not take long to lose the warmth of the shower and feel the Alpine winter descend upon our flesh. They organized us into rows of six and marched us down the camp’s main road. I started walking in formation with the many, walking down the main road lined by poplar trees– barren, missing their summer leaves, gray and desolate. I walked among these trees in my new grey cloths, shaven, hungry and lost, crying loudly and uncontrollably.
Our march ended at barrack number 23. At that point we did not know yet that soon barrack #23 was going to fall under quarantine due to dysentery, typhoid fever, and typhus that I also contracted after a few weeks and watched as it raged through the prison population taking a huge death toll. Our barrack was divided into a few huge rooms, with wooden triple-story bunkbeds. As my tears subsided, I looked around me, and for the first time, I started seeing individuals among the masses. I could not find anyone who had been with me in the train. My childhood friend from the house where we lived, and then the 15 year old Józsi and his elderly father, were not around. I have never seen them again, and do not know when and where they died. All of us had been taken by German soldiers who had entered our building in Budapest. Miki Tóth, the son of the janitor and my former playground friend, guided them. He had enlisted as a fascist guard and turned us over to the German authorities who removed me from my home back in October. I thought of him. I thought of all my comrades back in the forced labor camp in Lepsény, Hungary, where we had to empty and pack German Military Trucks, a back-breaking work, day after day. I wondered what happened to my friends.
As I later learned, our group in barrack #23 was a rather mixed group. Several of the newly arrived people were political prisoners from Hungary’s Margitkörút Prison, mostly communists, among them György Goldman, sculptor. Only years later as an adult did I discover Mr. Goldman’s work and realize his amazing talent and gift to humanity. My last memory of Mr. Goldman haunts me to this very day. It was two months after Christmas day; he was in the open toilet room, sitting on a seatless toilet, halfway fallen into the bowl with his mouth and eyes open, dead.
Among us was also Tibor Varga, a teacher from Kapuvár, who ended up being my bunkmate and taught me about social inequality and injustice until his dying day. Unfortunately, Mr. Varga lost his mind toward the last few weeks of his life, became unpredictable and wild, and died under miserable circumstances in front of my eyes.
There were also military deserters, even a colonel of the notoriously brutal Hungarian gendarme forces. I never learned how or why the colonel ended up in the concentration camp, even though later he always preached me the importance of non-avengement to sustain peace.
And there were a lot of Jews from all over — it was an enormous room. Besides Hungarians there were also other nationalities: Russians, French, Poles, Italians, most of them prisoners of war, and even one Norwegian. It was only the Norwegian that managed to be released from the camp after a few months due to some red-cross exchange.
All in all, we must have been a few hundred in the room. Our ‘room-chief’ was a prisoner from Vienna; his crime was communism and he had been at the camp for many years before this Christmas day. He consoled my solitude in the days to come and ensured that I received a somewhat thicker, more nutritious portion of the watered-down soup. He kept me with the hopeful dream that the two of us will make the trip back home to Vienna and Budapest together, once this ordeal was over. His dream never did come true because our communist ‘room-chief’, as well as the German prisoner and communist ‘barrack-chief’ who had been in Dachau since 1933, were shot to death just a few days before liberation.
In Dachau, among the hunger, suffering, death, indignity ,and illness, human solidarity was a rare gem. During these years not only the persecutors but also the persecuted lost their humanity; many once-civilized souls roamed like ravaged beasts. Many months down the road, I had to share my bed with a French prisoner of war. He would from time to time receive a package from the French Red-Cross that he guarded like a dog with rabies. He never shared, not one crumb from his aid-packet. Just once, I succumbed to stealing a piece of marmalade out of his bag that was a satisfying moment of justice and survival.
But on that first Christmas night, I had a different bunkmate. There were so many of us that even these narrow wooden beds had to be shared by two, sometimes even by three prisoners. Each bunk received only one blanket. The room was unheated in the cold winter night. We all went to bed with our clothes on and snuggled up next to our bedmate under the same blanket. I ended up sharing the bed with a stranger who was 10-12 years my senior. He was a Hungarian communist brought from that very same Margitkörút Prison as Mr. Varga and Mr. Goldman. As we tried to gather some warmth between us, he tried his best to relax and comfort my shaken mind. As Christmas Eve approached, he magically brought up a small bottle of jam from his pocket. How he managed to smuggle this miracle into the barrack is beyond comprehension. Hiding under the blankets, he opened the jam and offered me the first scoop. We used our fingers as spoons and took turns dipping into the sweet nectar. It was strawberry jam that used to be a far second if not third or fourth on my list. My memories of grandma’s summer canning session carried the apricot, sour-cherry, and gooseberry as all-time favorites. But on this Christmas Eve, this strawberry jam lifted me above all the pain and suffering into summer meadows with ambrosia and perfume. But what was more important than the caloric intake after many days of starvation was the restoration of hope and faith in human solidarity. Here, an equally hungry stranger shared his invaluable jam with a teenager he had never met before. All of a sudden, I was no longer alone; this memory of solidarity has stayed with me through my life as the torch, the symbol of hope for humanity. Our ‘room-chief’ with better soup portions, the young Hungarian bunkmate with strawberry jam, and later the group of Yugoslav prisoners of war who took care of me, they will never leave my memory and will always have my deep gratitude.
To this very day, the flavor of strawberry jam represents hope, solidarity, and the best of humanity. Ever since Christmas Eve of 1944, strawberry jam is my favorite jam.
Egy langyos Seattle-i este csaladommal.