The shelling continued for some time, then suddenly stopped. The only explosions we could hear now came from farther away. An ominous silence descended over the yard and the street next to us. Then we heard machine gun fire and a cry in a strange language: “Igyi Suda!” The voice came from just outside the door. The Polish boy stood up, and with a huge smile on his face, said: “A Russian soldier!” The door flew open and a wild and scary-looking, submachine gun-toting creature appeared.
We all climbed out of our beds and stood, glued to the floor, frightened and hopeful at the same time. He yelled and motioned for us to move to the middle of the room. It looked like he was ready to turn his weapon on us at any moment. We tried to explain that we were Jewish, but he interrupted us with a bloodcurdling yell and a menacing wave of his gun. We shut up and moved, crowded, to the middle of the room. The day was January 5, 1945. Our liberators had arrived.
Our liberation did not happen Hollywood-style. There were no hugs and kisses for the liberators, no feast spread out to celebrate the end of the war, at least not for us. The band didn’t play, nor did the blue and white flag of Zion wave in the spring air.
The Soviet units entering our area were fierce fighters, mad as hell for the great losses they had suffered in the battle for Budapest. They hadn’t come to party. They knew that they were in enemy territory, among people who had destroyed their homes, murdered their families and left total destruction in their once beautiful country. They were here to defeat the fascist enemy and get revenge. To these soldiers, who had gone through living hell in the last four years, we were the Hungarian enemy. And that was that.
To make matters worse, all our attempts to communicate with them failed. The Russian soldiers left to continue their battle with the retreating Hungarians, while one soldier stayed behind to guard us as prisoners. We sat close to each other in a corner and chewed on what tasted to us like some of the finest cake, but in retrospect were hard and gummy chunks of bread.
We spent our first night of freedom in the corridor, lying on the cold floor, without cover, shivering. We had no food, no place to sleep…What kind of liberation was this? It certainly was not the liberation we had dreamt of.
The next day things started to get sorted out. One of the soldiers must have understood the word Yevrei (Jew), because suddenly a well dressed young captain appeared and spoke in broken Yiddish to us. It was amazing: here was a Russian Jew who also spoke Yiddish! He was sympathetic to our plight but explained that as far as the Russian occupying forces were concerned, we were Hungarian enemies, Jewish or not. They didn’t discriminate between victims and victimizers. In any case, he said, Jews were not great favourites with the Red Armythere were many anti-semites among the soldiers.
Our Jewish captain gave us a document which he said would perhaps provide some protection from the army units to follow. He also brought us food, bread and a few other basic staples.
The document he gave us did not provide much protection. Although nobody threatened to shoot us anymore, the next night, soldiers came and tried to drag one of the women away with them to entertain the officers. Only our hysterical cries and shouts managed to change their minds.
The next day, a German-speaking Russian officer, who appreciated the fact that we were Jewish refugees, directed us to the army kitchen where there was a pail of bean stew and whole loaves of bread. Finally, after more than a week, we had our first filling, warm meal! In return, the men and boys among us went to the kitchen and cut wood for their fire. We managed to develop an almost cordial relationship with the soldiers.
The officer helped us in many ways. He even arranged a ride into the city for Father and David, so they could visit our apartment. They found it standing, undamaged but empty; all the furniture, clothing, dishes, everything had been taken. They came back empty-handed.
With nothing to rush home to, we were better off staying in the village a few days longer. So we continued to work around the kitchen, in exchange for food. Once large parts of the city core were liberated, the rest of the group decided to get going. Our family stayed behind. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers, just like in normal peace time, and hugged each other goodbye. We had survived together and we knew that we would never forget each other or what we had endured.