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The Budapest Ghetto

Elderly Jews move into the newly formed Budapest ghetto.We had friends and relatives in the Budapest ghetto, whom we hadn’t heard from since spring. I put together a small parcel of food, took out my Christian certificates and headed for the ghetto to visit them.

The designated area was about 6 or 7 city blocks, surrounded by a high fence, with only a handful of openings to the outside world. These were guarded by young hoodlums to prevent the smuggling of food into the ghetto and of Jews out. I walked up to the gate, waved my paper nonchalantly, and was let through by a policeman. A young boy yelled at me: “Bringing food for the kikes? You dirty Jew-lover!” I just shrugged my shoulders and walked on.

I knew this part of the city well. The ghetto was the old Jewish quarter, and included the Great Synagogue of the city. Now, after only a few short months, the ghetto had deteriorated so drastically that I felt like I was seeing the area for the first time. The full horror of the living conditions hit me hard.

What I saw was beyond my worst expectations. I had heard about the Polish ghettos, but this was Budapest, not some primitive city!

Food supplies had run out, garbage was no longer collected and diseases such as typhoid were rampant. Thousands of people were homeless: some had been forced to leave the crowded rooms assigned to them and some had never been assigned accommodation in the first place. Dirty water ran along the gutters, carrying with it garbage, dead rats, faeces and urine. The schools were closed so children roamed the streets. All the misery, poverty and suffering were out in the open, without shame or mercy.

The sidewalks were lined with people selling all kinds of useless merchandise, remnants from a distant “normal” life: books, pillows, clothing, even typewriters and record players. Among the crowds filling the street, there were people on old bicycles or with pushcarts, carrying old people who were unable to walk or sick people who were too weak to visit the nearest “doctor’s office.” In every corner and doorway, there were people lying prostrated or curled up in the foetal position: some were homeless; others were dead, simply left to be picked up later by the collection brigades and buried in large pits in one of the parks.

Bodies were buried quickly, without any attempt at identification. Minimum ritual was observed: someone said the El Male Rachamim at the graveside and there were no burials on shabbat and holidays. Later, with the arrival of fall, when the air was cooler and the shortage of manpower was more serious, bodies were left at one of the dumping places: either one of the public parks inside the ghetto or the garden of the Great Synagogue. As winter came early this miserable year of 1944, the bodies soon froze together, forming solid, inseparable blocks of ice. The cold at least eliminated the very real danger of a cholera or typhoid outbreak and reduced the urgency for quick burial.

Someone took pity on me, and guided me through the throngs towards a building that I barely recognized–the building where my relatives lived. The courtyard was dark, but filled with children playing, jumping, and running around. They all looked at me with suspicion. Someone whisked me up the stairs and called out for our relatives. The whole visit took place in a furtive atmosphere. I quickly entered their apartment, every inch of which was being used. It was difficult to move around; people were sitting or standing everywhere. After exchanging news about family members–who was dead and who was still alive–I handed over my small parcel and quickly left.

The air was putrid with the smell of rotting garbage, perspiration and other odours which hung oppressively in the air. I became panic-stricken, pushing my way through the crowds like a drowning man trying to come up for air. I was afraid that the gates of the ghetto would close, that I would be trapped inside and become one of the living dead, wandering aimlessly on the street. Suddenly, I stood in front of the gates to the outside.

I walked outside, waving “goodday” to the policeman standing there. He muttered a lazy goodbye, not bothering to look at my identification papers.

I entered the ghetto several more times, under even worse conditions. The piles of dead bodies grew higher. The barely alive bodies of women, children and old men, too weak from hunger to move, covered much of the sidewalks. But my first visit had been the most memorable, frightening and depressing. These were educated, middle-class Jews who after only three or four months of ghetto confinement were living in conditions which, we had always thought, existed only in the most primitive villages and shtetls. Stripped of all civility, all that remained was the struggle for the most basic daily existence.

My resolve to stay free became firm: I would never be forced to enter the ghetto or be locked up in one of the cattle cars and taken to the camps.

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