By 1941, Jews no longer served in the army but worked in forced labour camps. All 16- to 48-year-old Jewish men became slave labourers, forced to do meaningless menial work. Father had to report to his camp just south of the old Hungarian/Yugoslav border, wearing civilian clothes, workboots and a semi-long, brown leather coat.
He sent a photo of himself and three fellow inmates: all Salamons, all serving in the same unit, all wearing leather coats. They look quite cheerful in the picture. Of the four, only Father survived. One was beaten to death in the camp by soldiers. The other two froze to death at the Russian front.
On one occasion, Mother and I visited the camp. David stayed behind because he looked old enough to be conscripted to the labour units, even though he was only 13 or 14.
Mother hired a small truck and loaded it up with packages from the wives of the other Salamons and other inmates of the camp. After driving many hours, we arrived a large empty lot, surrounded by endless rows of barracks for the “inmates.” A number of bare trees stood at the edges, adding a look of singular sadness to the desolate picture. I had expected the worst: gallows or whipping posts, but fortunately, we saw no signs of physical abuse.
A few soldiers came out and examined our paper. “You want to visit a Jew?! Get out of here!!” After a not-so-discreet handing over of money, they raised the barrier and directed us to a Hungarian sergeant, sporting a large moustache. “What are you doing here? Which Jew do you want to see?” he demanded aggressively.
“We received permission to visit my husband, Herman Salamon,” answered Mother.
“Salamon? He is unavailable. He is on latrine duty all day,” responded the sergeant in a mocking voice. My mother grabbed his hand, and pleaded: “Dear Sergeant! We came such a long way for this short visit. Couldn’t you just release my husband for a few minutes?” while slipping a twenty pengo note (worth about $10) into his hand.
After shamelessly examining the money, he said, “Well, those stinking latrines can wait a few minutes. Let’s see what can I do.“
In a moment, we were joined by Father. Very subdued and thinner than when we had seen him last, Father’s hesitant behaviour belied the cheerful letters he had sent us. He hugged Mother awkwardly, then kissed me on the forehead. I wanted to hug him and tell him stories about how we were getting along, but I realized that there was no time, so I just stood aside, listening to my parents’ subdued exchange of words. Then the parcels were quickly unloaded, kisses were exchanged, and we were on our way once again.
Father and I had never been demonstrative with our emotions but before leaving, I grabbed his hand and squeezed it to my face. “Don’t worry, Apuka (Father),” I whispered, “we manage all right. Just look after yourself!“
“Be a good boy and help your Mother as much as you can,” he answered, hugging me to his thin chest, and kissing me on the forehead. Then he slowly turned away and walked back toward the barracks.
During the slow, miserable drive home, Mother wavered between sobs and sighs. We brought back with us many slips of paper with the names and phone numbers of families to call and tell that their husbands and fathers were still alive and reasonably well.
Back home, we heard horror stories from Hungarian soldiers on leave who came to visit our store. They told us about the abuse and beatings that went on in the camps. Of course it was never they who did it; it was always the other soldiers. They told us about Jews being stripped naked in the winter cold, doused with icy water and forced to stand at attention and freeze to death. They told us of Jews being beaten to death with shovels. And of sick men being put in a barn or some building which was then set on fire, and the men inside would burn alive. We were learning how dangerous it was to be Jewish.