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Brush With Death

I wasn’t alone. A group of shadowy figures, who had been captured earlier, huddled around the walls. They didn’t react to my unceremonious arrival. Nobody stood up to lend me a helping hand, no one greeted me. They just stared in front of them, blind and deaf to their surroundings.

For a long time the silence continued. My senses slowly recovered. I touched my swollen face and felt a burning pain. “If I live, no one will slap me again,” I mumbled into the silence. I felt feverish, weak, and faint.

I looked around the dark cellar to see who my fellow captives were. Altogether we were about a dozen people, standing around listlessly, almost lifelessly. There were a few old, religious Jews, one of them mumbling prayers into his beard. There were a few younger men, possibly soldiers on AWOL. One of them had blood all over his face and swollen eyes from the beating he had received. Two old women were weeping silently. I realized that I had become a victim of the next death squad. My hours were numbered, my destiny sealed.

Some of the people started to whisper, discussing what would happen next. They had been captured a day or two earlier and had been kept in the damp, cold cellar, without any food or water. Weak from thirst, hunger and cold, they were already like living dead. They guessed that we would all be deported, marched on foot towards the west, perhaps forced to enter the ghetto. But I knew what was awaiting us. Jews collected from the protected buildings or the yellow star buildings were taken to the ghetto, but another fate awaited escaping soldiers and those of us who had been hiding out as non-Jews.

I knew it, but should I tell these people how hopeless our situation was? how, come dawn, we would be ordered outside, marched to the river and shot into the icy waters? I decided to tell them the truth. Most of them didn’t listen, but just continued to pray or stare into space. Some of the younger ones said that I was crazy, that those killings were only rumours. I fell silent and retreated into myself. So did the others. Silently, we lay on the cold, dirty floor.

Strangely, I almost felt relieved. It was all over now: no more hiding, no more hunger and cold, no more role-playing. I was tired of the daily struggle. Now, I was captured and that was that. This was the end. It had all lasted far too long and had become too hopeless as our liberation seemed more and more distant. We were surrounded by the nazi hordes who ran the city and everyone in it. It was hopeless to believe that any of us stood a chance of surviving.

I thought: ‘There should be a God watching over me. But he’s certainly not here.’ What kind of God could I turn to from inside this dark cellar, among people who were condemned to die? To the God of my father, once my God too, who had abandoned us all? There was no use in praying.

Knowing about the execution routine gave me a feeling of finality. I had no tears to shed, no one to say final goodbyes to. I thought of my family and hoped that they would all survive. They would cry over me when they realized I wasn’t coming back. My body would disappear under the floating ice as if it had never lived, never existed. That was that.

Sometime late that night, I fell asleep. In the morning, we heard the door burst open and heavy boots coming down the stairs. It happened exactly as I had imagined it would. It was still dark when we were marched outside to the street. The young Arrow Cross members were dressed, shouldering their rifles. We were tied together in twos and ordered to start marching. I had a feeling that this was not happening to me, that I was watching a film I had seen a long time ago…as if I was outside of my body, a silent observer of a strange ritual.

It was a repeat performance of the execution scene that had been described to me. The streets were empty, shrouded in the darkness of early winter morning. No light escaped from behind the shuttered windows as we made our way silently, in almost total darkness. There was a lull in the bombing and shelling and the only sound was the echo of marching Nazi boots. My good boots were gone now and I was limping with my wet, frozen feet, wrapped in the rags I had worn inside my boots. But the cold didn’t bother me. I felt nothing. We were marching towards our death and I wanted to live my last minutes on this earth at peace with myself, without being bothered by small inconveniences. I felt something deeply spiritual, a warm closeness to the man whose hand I was tied to, and to the other captives. We were fellows in suffering and in death.

Then, a miracle happened. Suddenly, we saw a group of Nazis and soldiers marching towards us. Leading them was a tall, well-fed SS man who was heavily armed and imposing-looking in his clean uniform. In fluent German, he started yelling at the leader of our group. The Hungarian Nazis didn’t understand German, so one of the soldiers from the other group translated. The leader of our group explained that they were taking a bunch of Jews and other scum to the Danube to be executed. Hearing that, the man behind me let out a muffled cry.

There ensued a sharp exchange of words. The SS man called the Hungarians a bunch of idiots for wasting bullets instead of preparing to defend the city against the Russian onslaught. Our Nazi responded that they were doing what they did almost every day, eliminating the traitors before the final battle. But the SS man and his comrades slowly gained the upper hand. One of them grabbed the beard of one of the older Jews and began pulling him away. Another delivered a few hard blows to two of the captives and ordered them to move over to where they stood. The SS man said with a grin:

“We know how to handle this scum without wasting a single bullet. Leave them to us and return to your place.” With that, they began marching us in the direction they had come from.

The Hungarian Nazis marched away. We didn’t utter a word. The SS man and his cohorts looked even more frightening than the other Nazis. I couldn’t even guess what would happen to us now. We stumbled along, receiving an occasional blow on the back to speed up our march. Eventually, we found ourselves in an empty lot where all the houses had been bombed.

The SS man stopped, turned towards us and said in fluent Hungarian: “You are saved. We are not fascists, we are rescuers. At the end of this lot there’s a passageway to another street. Move fast and disappear before the Nazis return or the shelling begins.” They quickly pulled out knives, cut our ropes with a few swift movements, and began moving away.

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