from the book:
From Chapter Four
A surprising proposition
My situation worsened. Food was scarce and getting harder to buy from the local residents. The meals in the military canteens had deteriorated for lack of basic substances, the shortage of salt and fat which made food almost inedible.
Hunger tormented me day and night, all my dreams and daydreams were somehow connected with food. Yet, I survived. I had my hard constitution to thank for it. In spite of all these hardships, I enjoyed my vagabond existence, which had the one rare advantage: I was not anymore locked into a camp under the command of the menacing and cruel Hungarian crew. I got used to my new identity, one without the yellow stripe, and I moved around freely among the population. I believe that my Aryan looks and self-confidence were what enabled me for a while to walk around without raising suspicion. But after a week or so, I gathered that it was very dangerous for me to move about illegally without being registered in a military unit. I was exposed to the peril of being caught, which could have been fatal.
One day, at the beginning of October, 1944, I went out to the village to "organize" (as we called it) food. I visited the local people in the mornings, either working for them or bartering some of my belongings in exchange for food. On that morning, I passed by a German military camp and, because of my hunger, I decided to enter the camp and try to get some food. Until this day, I fail to understand how I dared to enter a German camp. However, it was that event that had a decisive impact on the course of my life.
I knocked at the door, which happened to be the office of the commander of the camp, and faced a tall, very handsome man with dark hair and black eyes, a sergeant major, or, as the Germans called him, Unteroffizier, sub-officer. He asked me what was it that I wanted. I had not lost my poise and gave him my usual story, telling him that I was a Hungarian worker who was brought there to help in the war effort and that we were left without food. He listened to me and said that he was impressed with my command of the German language and that he certainly agreed with me about how people who were called in to work deserved to be fed properly. He called on one of the soldiers and ordered him to supply me with plenty of food.
The private gave me a substantial quantity of food that filled my bag: two loaves of bread, a large can of marmalade and salami. In those times, such a large amount of food was considered a treasure that could not be valued in money, something in the realm of a dream not only to a person like me, but even to the local people, who also suffered from a severe shortage of food.
Afterwards, the sub-officer amazed me with a very unexpected proposition: Would I be prepared to join his unit as a translator? I replied that I needed time to think about it and would return with my answer soon. He urged me to do so as quickly as possible, since they planned to evacuate within three to four hours. When I left his office, I was stunned and bewildered. Only gradually did I start to digest what he had said, and I began to think over and weigh his proposition. Would that mean that I had to join the German army? At first, it sounded like a crazy and abominable idea; they would shoot me without much ado the minute they discovered that I was a Jew, even though that unit was a part of the Wehrmacht and not the S.S. Actually, the unit was not a fighting unit at all, just suppliers of rations and other items to front-line soldiers. In any event, they would not tolerate that a Jew who tricked and outsmarted them. On the other hand, by joining I saw a great opportunity to come near the Russian lines and to escape to the other side, which was considered then the only escape route from that hell.
In terrible confusion, I decided to talk to some Jewish labor campers with whom I lodged. When I told them about such an unthinkable proposition, they laughed at me and took it as a joke. They didn't believe me. Only when I showed them the amount of food I had received did they start to take me seriously. They, of course, could not advise me one way or another, but two boys from that group came to me and offered to join me if they were accepted. Their reaction encouraged me to make a positive decision. I asked them about their line of work: one was a blacksmith and mechanic, and the other was a barber. One of them, the barber, was blonde with blue eyes, the other one dark-haired , with a cut above one of his eyes, but without distinctively Jewish looks. They were typical Hungarian Jewish boys, many of whom looked like Aryans.
I returned to the sub-officer, whose name was Herr Spies, and told him that I had decided to join his unit and asked him if he was prepared to take on two additional boys, a smith and a barber. He said yes, they are welcome.
Only a few days later, did I realize that the Wehrmacht suffered badly from a shortage of manpower; their reputation was at a low ebb, and one would have to be crazy to volunteer to join the German army at that late stage. Only we, having no alternative, were prepared to take on such a dangerous task.
Herr Spies said that he had to receive permission from the officer in charge before taking us on. That request put me in an instant panic. How would I manage that? I did not even have a proper officer in charge, as I was moving about freely like a vagabond. However, as in all such deadlocked situations, some solution always seems to come along.
I had taken notice of a Hungarian lieutenant in charge of some minority groups that were stationed not far from the German camp. He was a plump, elderly person, on whom the uniform seemed not to fit. He was a teacher, I learned, and had probably recently been recruited for lack of personnel in the Hungarian army. I decided to turn to him for the "permission" requested by Herr Spies. I presumed that in such chaotic circumstances, the Hungarian officer would not know if I belonged to his unit or not, nor would he care. I approached him, saluted, and asked permission to join the German unit. The officer gave me a very strange look and said: "As far as I am concerned, you can even go to hell." His angry reaction about the Germans had to do with the strained relations existing at that particular time between the Hungarian and German soldiers, which in some cases had come to an exchange of fire between them. The German soldiers behaved harshly to the Hungarian population, confiscating from the villagers some of their most essential belongings, such as horses and carts, under the pretext of the "war effort."
I came back to the sub-officer with that "permission;" he urged us to get ready and to come back quickly, as his unit was leaving shortly. When we returned with our belongings, a sergeant was waiting for us and ordered one of the soldiers to give us a meal and supply us with uniforms and other personal gear, but no weapons. We were only taken in as "aushilf"- auxiliary soldiers.
I will never forget that moment, when in a half-dark store I put on the uniform of the German army. I remember that scene down to its most minute details. When I looked at the swastika which was stitched above the left upper pocket of my jacket, above my heart, I felt perplexed and was overwhelmed. In a very strange and traumatized state of mind, I thought to myself: Here I am, the son of Reb Shie, a disciple of the religious heders and Yeshivas. How did I get here?
Link to the past
I discarded my civilian clothing, already badly worn, and started to transfer some of my personal items from my tattered haversack into the German rucksack. It suddenly dawned on me that I had in my possession some items that could betray me: like a set of photos of my entire family - one of my mother, and father with his beard and side locks, and of my two brothers in Palestine. On the back of one of them was a dedication, written in Hebrew. I also had a set letters, which I had received from my family and my girlfriend durring my service in the labor camp, and the letters I received from the ghetto. In the latter ones, ironically, my father had written to me in German. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, I had that velvet tefillin (philacteries) bag from Palestine, with Hebrew words on it, which I had saved from confiscation at the labor camp by wrapping it in a piece of cloth and hiding it inside my haversack.
I was aware of the incriminating nature of these items, they could prove fatal if I were to keep them, but still I decided to hold on to them. I put the pictures into my left-hand jacket pocket, beneath the swastika, and I rolled the tefillin-bag and the letters into a shirt and put into the rucksack. I threw away the old one, which had accompanied me in the past through tortuous and dangerous roads, and which was now as worn out as I was. The pictures and letters are still with me to this day, having miraculously survived against all odds.
Quite often I wonder why I endangered myself by hanging on to those things. I could have paid with my life had they been discovered. I have no clear-cut reason except to assume that they were a kind of bridge to my past and to those who were dear to me, and a reminder of my real identity. I was not prepared to part with them at any price.
After we changed clothing we got lunch. The quartermaster, who had supplied us with the uniforms, explained the rules of behavior in the German army: One was not allowed to go out without a cap, one was to salute every soldier one chanced on the way, even privates, by raising one's right hand and calling out "Heil Hitler."
We were assigned to three different groups. As I went with another soldier to my group, I passed a number of soldiers and had many chances to practice the required salutes to greet the Fuehrer. I do not remember now if they amused or angered me. I recollect the first night I spent with that unit. It consisted of soldiers mainly from Austria; the commanders, officers, and sergeant majors were from Germany. As I found out later, at that advanced stage of the war that the Germans were suspicious of the Austrians, whom they considered untrustworthy. The chief commander, a captain, (Hauptman in German) was in charge of the whole battalion, and I was to be his interpreter when he was dealing with the Hungarian populace. He was a short, stocky man and on his sleeve was stitched "Ost Afrika," an emblem given to those who had fought under the command of Rommel in Africa.
The irony was that the German brigades had been defeated and driven out of Africa more than a year earlier, and their chief commander, General Rommel, had been executed on the charge of taking part in a plot against Hitler. In spite of this, the German officers who served under him were still wearing that emblem. The captain was most unpleasant and rude to the soldiers serving under him, as well as to the local residents. He mercilessly confiscated the residents' horses, carts, anything he thought would be useful to his unit. For the most part, he did so out of pure malice rather than need. The people begged him not to take their best horse, but to no avail; he left them a slip of paper documenting the confiscation for "military" purposes, for which the Hungarian government paid them some ridiculously as amount
In my crew, there were about ten Austrians, under the command of an Austrian sergeant. Most of them were simple people originating mainly from Steyerland, a mountainous region close to the Italian border. One of them was a butcher, several were cooks and others engaged in a variety of other jobs. My duties were to serve as a helping hand for all odd jobs, but most of the time I had to translate from Hungarian into German and vice versa, and to function as a liaison with the local population.
It was a colorful unit with some ethnic minorities. Among the characters in the unit, there was that elderly sergeant major, a professional soldier from Germany, a very crude and stupid person who was hated and ridiculed behind his back by the soldiers. I met some Croatian and Ukrainians who had joined the German army and fought bitterly against the Red Army. I spoke to some of them, and they explained to me that they had no choice but to continue fighting on the German side, for if they were caught by the Russians, they would be shot on the spot. Justly so, Nazis who, in addition to fighting against the Red Army, had also committed crimes against their own civilian population. Hence, the German army was a haven for them. Among those, I remember one despicable character who, when he found out that I understood some Russian, spread the word amongst the soldiers that I was a Bolshevik. Such an accusation was quite risky for anyone, even if it came from as someone untrustworthy as he.
Herr Spies was a pleasant, good-looking and well-mannered person. The Austrians hated the Germans and called them Piffkuhs which, in their local dialect, means a buffalo. It was a way to ridicule their stiffness and rudeness. The Austrians were more lighthearted. Nevertheless, Hitler was of Austrian origin and had a very enthusiastic reception in Vienna in 1938, when he annexed Austria., They were of course disheartened when they realized that Germany was losing the war. These Austrians in our unit were country people from a region near Alps, who spoke a very strange Steyerlandy dialect, and it took me some time to understand them, though to me they mostly spoke ordinary German, or Hochdeutsch.
The continuous retreat of the German army had a demoralizing effect of the soldiers in our unit, especially the lower ranks. In spite of that, I never heard anyone speaking openly against the war or the Fuhrer Rigorous discipline was maintained, and anyone who dared to protest was severely punished; some were even shot as traitors. Gestapo agents were secretly dispersed through all army units, and were a constant threat to every soldier.
In the evenings, within the confinement of our closed circle, the soldiers talked a great deal about the hopeless situation. They lost all hopes of winning the war or even of returning to their homes. They knew that sooner or later, if they would be lucky enough to survive, they would become prisoners, and they dreaded the thought of becoming prisoners of the Russians.
At the beginning, they did not talk openly in my presence; they feared that I may be "planted" there, but very soon they opened up and talked freely. Once someone recited a verse against Hitler and Nazism which was a relief after a frightening day of heavy attacks by the Russian army.
To recapture my impression on the first days after I joined the German army, I refer to my diary, which consists of two lines: "The place Felsozsolca," and " Today I made the strangest decision of my life." I cannot interrogate my diary, but it is apparent that I strongly hesitated about taking that astounding step. The restrained sentence in my diary seems to indicate that I was cautious in case the diary might fall into undesirable hands. It is also conceivable that I had no time to write.
An "elevated" position
After a few days, I wrote at greater length in my diary: "We are stationed at Hernadnemeti. The Hungarian population is friendly towards me and receives me nicely. They invite me to their homes and treat me with delicious pastries and drinks. I also got on friendly terms with the kamerads, the sub-officer is benign and treats me well. The food is good and plenty. I haven't had so much foodfor a long time."
That was the situation, as I recollect, in the first week of my stay with the Germans. The scanty words in my diary gave an allusion of a very radical and sudden transition that I was going through in just one week. Only a short while ago I was deep in the bottom of an inferno, like dust on the ground, open to anyone to step on meand with little chance to survive. Then, seemingly, I had managed to maneuver myself into a position of strength. My diary states that the Hungarians received me nicely; if they had known my real identity, they would have sent their dogs on me before I had even reached their doors.
When I was escorting the captain on his visits to the Hungarian population, the civilians received me with respect. My well-spoken Hungarian was also a great help and opened doors at the dignitaries of the town. It made me feel that I had some authority, when some people asked me to talk to the captain about some allowances they needed from him. I also gained esteem from the kamerads through the talks I had with them on various subjects, including German poets. The kamerads were simple village people, who looked at me as a kind of learned person. When I got to know them a bit better, I found that there was, at least among the lower ranks, a correct and amicable relationship, which did not derive from affection or love for each other, but from discipline and order.
On one particular day, a sergeant in charge of cultural affairs, presumably a member of the Gestapo, came to see me. He said that he had heard that I read German and offered me books to read and gave me a news bulletin called "Ost front." In that bulletin, I found nothing about the eastern front, as there was nothing worthwhile to write about their "glorious" defeats. But I was most astounded to find there several pictures with a venomous text about Jews with beards and side-locks, as they were photographed on markets and the dirty surroundings of the ghettos in Poland. That was familiar to me, I saw those pictures in the early forties when they were distributed all over Nazi-occupied Europe. What was the reason to publish those pictures now, in the fall of 1944, when all those Jews were long ago annihilated? That sergeant must have noticed my interest and astonishment, though he interpreted it in a different way, and said to me: "You see Emerich (my real name), So siehen die Juden aus !- that is how the Jews look!" This comment has stayed ingrained in my memory for my entire life.
On the matter of my Jewish identity, I remember a few other occasions when that issue surfaced. I should mention that with the sergeant and paymaster in my unit, I was registered in my real name; Emerich Glaser, and was paid as due to a private. The disclosure of my own name was the silly act, of a naive young person, and could have had disastrous consequences. There were always interactions with the Hungarian army and they could have easily tracked me, as they did at a later stage. Emerich was my first name until the Hungarian occupation, when it was changed to Imre. My first and second name were common German names, and most of them believed that I was a German from Transylvania. They also knew well Cluj, which in German was called Klausenburg. They spoke fondly about the beauty of the town, which they got to know after spending a few months there until August 1944, when they were shamefully outsmarted and driven out by the Rumanians.
On one certain occasion, I ran into a very special problem. I got sores on my penis and without giving much thought to it I went to see a doctor. It was another act of haste insofar as showing my organ to a German doctor could have been a fatal error. During the whole period of my stay with the Germans, I was lucky enough to avoid undressing in front of the kamerads. The surgery was at the headquarters building. The doctor was a dark- haired, tall officer, about forty years old. He looked at my sores and commented something which I did not fully understand, but I had a feeling that he said something in connection with "Abraham's covenant (circumcision)," even though he did not raise the issue or voice any suspicion about me being a Jew. I must have realized the danger and kept cool. He gave me an ointment and smiled at me. It was not customary for a German officer to smile at a simple soldier, unless he had some intentions. I concluded that he was probably gay, which was common among the officers.
Another curious incident occurred one evening when I sat in the company of a few soldiers, telling little stories and jokes. I too told them a story, which I thought to be amusing. It was described by none other than the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in his book " Motel Peisse, the son of the cantor," which I had read in its original Yiddish version. I thought that telling the story was appropriate due to its play of words synonymous in both German and English. The story is about a Jewish immigrant, who only knew Yiddish, traveling by tram in New York. The conductor asked him for five cents to buy a ticket. The immigrant did not understand him, so the conductor shows him his five fingers and hollers f i v e. The immigrant shouted angrily back: "Pfeiff du!", which in Yiddish and German means whistle yourself! Of course, my story was grossly Germanized. without mentioning my sources. When I finished, one of the soldiers surprised me by saying; "this is a Jewish joke!" I tried to play cool, but I was very stunned. From where did he know that? It was a lesson to me that some Germans had a wide knowledge about Jews, for good or for bad.
On another occasion, a soldier who served in Poland and Russia mentioned to me,:; "if you only knew what we did there!" He did not enter into further details, nor did I dare to ask. But I had a clear notion that he was referring to the atrocities committed in these countries against the Jews and the local population. And he was with the Wehrmacht and not the SS !.
Another quote from my diary:
"We are now in Buga (a little town in central Hungary). I feel good amongst them (the Germans). They tell me that the uniform suits me well. It is impossible to describe my feelings when I think about my present condition as compared with that I had before. I have reached a position of some importance; they (the Hungarians) greet me when I pass them by in the street and are agape when I reply in Hungarian"
In that note is an expression of self-content and bragging, and the impression can be formed that I had a very pleasurable time with the Germans. But the reality was far from it, though I had clothing and food, which enabled me to survive. It must have been that sudden change from long periods of famine and harsh conditions that gave me the elated feeling of well-being.
I had an abysmal hatred towards the Hungarian population and did all I could to make it hard for them. Our unit provided rations and items of ammunition for the fighting soldiers on the front, and so we were always stationed at a short distance, not more than 2-3 kilometers from the Russian lines, which kept us most of the time under the shelling of the katyushas. These attacks were very scary, coming with a very frightening din and their hit caused considerable damage and destruction. With time, we learned, by the sound of its firing, to measure the distance of the katyusha and the time needed to enter a shelter and wait for the next salvo.
From the very beginning I always planned escape routes, which were only possible to carry out at a close proximity to the Russian lines. Hence, the noise of the katyushas were for me like a sound of redemption.
At the same time, I was always tormented and scared by the thought that I could be killed whilst in the uniform of a German soldier. I quote my diary:
"We are again on the move. I was told that we are at a distance of 2100 meters from the Russians. All around us is burning, I feel the heat of the fire. Hell broke loose; the gunfire is deafening and bullets are passing around us in all directions, some of them have a fiery glow."
It amazes me how the Germans calculated a distance of exactly 2100 meters? We received updated reports every day on the situation at the front from the soldier who went to the front line to supply the food rations, and from him I knew how far away the Russians were positioned. The medical orderly, who was stationed at the front lines to attend the wounded, told me once that when he had to treat pwho were severely wounded, he just did not bother; he injected them with a lethal gasoline injection. The soldiers in our unit were in permanent fear about being sent to the front. I remember one morning when one of the soldiers, I had befriended, called me to come quickly to his room. To my astonishment, he dragged me with him to hide under the bed. I heard someone coming in, staying for a while and leaving. I was told that it was a sergeant major from the front lines, who came occasionally to take soldiers to the front. He had the authority to take anyone who happened to come his way. As soon as the news spread that he was around, everyone did his utmost to disappear. I was told later that one of the soldiers he took with him was killed in the front the very same day.
I knew that I was living on borrowed time. The minute that my "game" would come to an end, I would face the dire consequences. Meanwhile, I had no choice but to keep the show going.
After my hunger and urge for food has eased, I suddenly realized that I had not advanced in my escape plans for which, first and foremost, I needed a place to hide until the Russian army would enter and take over the area. The worries and tension started to torment me.
After a few weeks, I had to rearrange my rucksack and was terrified to discover that my tefillin-bag was missing. What would that mean? Under the given circumstances, I was certain that only the kamerads could have stolen it. What about the pictures? I immediately checked my left hand pocket and took out the pictures, which to my great relief, I found wrapped in the same paper and, according to my pencil mark, were untouched.
I felt jittery, but consoled myself that the one who stole it must have done so for its value as a pretty velvet bag and nothing more. On another occasion when we stopped in one of the villages, a Jewish boy came to our unit, probably from a nearby labor camp. I looked at the Jewish boy and, for obvious reasons, I avoided talking to him. He turned to the sergeant in German and asked for food. The sergeant gave him a loaf of bread and asked him who he was. He said: "I am a Jew!" To which the sergeant replied: "If so, there is another loaf for you!" It was a most astonishing gesture, which I watched without any comment. The incident prompted many thoughts in my mind, and though I was quite friendly with the sergeant, I did not dare to raise this matter with him any further. In the end, this proved to be a sensible decision.
By and large, we were stationed in one place for anytime from three days to two weeks, depending on the advance of the Russian troops. Once we put up our headquarters in a nice comfortable villa, which belonged to a Jewish family. From the letters I found, I gathered that the man of the house was an engineer. Their fate was like that of most Jews after the Germans entered Hungary, namely, they were deported to Auschwitz. After staying there for two or three days, I heard the sound of loud laughter coming from the soldiers in the next room. When I entered I saw that the soldiers had discovered a square opening in the parquet floor, which was nailed and covered with a carpet.
They removed the floor cover and beneath it was an entry to the cellar, where they found a large wooden box full of lady's clothing, bed linen and some very fine tapestries; the usual kinds of items to be found in a well-to-do family, and as I came near to the open box it still had the lavender smell of an old fashioned trousseau. Most probably, they hid their precious dowry, so as to retrieve it when that they would return someday. The kamerads turned to me: "Emerich, you come with us to the village and we will trade these linens with the villagers for booze."
We loaded the box on a cart and drove out to the village. At that moment, the wretched and desperate situation of the Jews became painfully apparent to me; turning my thoughts about the fate of my own family. Where were they and what happened to them? Is it not a cruel irony of destiny that I should be the one to give away such endeared belongings to those hateful villagers? These items were collected and treasured during a lifetime? But I had no choice. The villagers were extremely joyous to receive the linen. They were already used to looting and plundering the Jewish homes, as just a few months ago all the Jews had been driven out of the village, leaving behind their well-equipped houses. But they were greedy for more, especially such nice and refined articles.
It seems that my unwillingness to give the goods away raised the attention of one of the soldiers, who hollered out to me: "Emerich, you behave like a Jew! They are your own people." That saying also belongs to the collection of my unforgettable memories from that period. From that box I kept for myself a very nice, leather-bound notebook with the title "Poesie" (poetry), printed on its cover in golden letters. Inside were greetings and verses written by friends and members of the family for a girl leaving home or is getting married.
The verses were written in rhymes with gothic letters, dated 1929. It follows that the owner of the book was from Germany and that 1929 was probably the date of her marriage, most likely to the engineer. That book is precious to me, which I guard until today. On the unused, empty pages, I wrote my impressions during my visit to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, where I was sent as a member of a delegation in June 1945, several weeks after the end of the war. I saw in my added notes a symbolical sign and the closure of a circle, under the circumstances and the places they were written.
About the Author:
Ephraim Glasers hometown was Cluj, capital city of Transylvania
He subsequently moved to Haifa where he commenced studies at the Technion, and served as a Signaller (in Battalion 22).during the Independence War . After graduating , he worked as a chemical engineer on planning and erection of chemical plants.
In 1958 he left for England where for seven years he was managing director of an engineering company in London. On his return to Israel in 1969, he established a factory for the production of animal feeds in northern Israel.
Currently, he gives most of time to sculpting and carving in wood, apart from attending his professional and public activities, He is married to Shoshana, and they have three children, Leah, Osnat and Ehud, an five grandchildren.
I started writing when I could no longer stem the flow of memories and experiences locked up in me, admits the author. His book recounts experiences of a young boy in a Transylvanian Jewish community who, during the second world war, was enlisted in a Labor Battalion of the Hungarian army- and escaped. Due to a chance event and by using an assumed identity he joined the German army, close to the Russian front. On the eve of the defeat of the Germans he escaped yet again, when the Russians occupied the area.Contact Ephraim Glaser at: email@example.com
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