In early January of 2005, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and the City Council of Sankt Anna am Aigen, expressing my thanks for the food the villagers gave to me and to my fellow inmates.
Mayor Josef Weinhandl sent me a warm answer. From that I found out that on the 30th of January 2005, a new traveling, mobile memorial statue was to be unveiled on the village main square. The statue and the unveiling service were to commemorate the slain Hungarian–Jewish Forced Laborers, who were killed by the SS Forces in and around their community close to the end of WW ll. What coincidence! My letter arrived 10 days before that memorial service. That letter became the beginning of a chain of correspondence culminating in a revisit to Sankt Anna am Aigen, to personally express my thanks to the citizenry of the villages of the Marktgemeinde Sankt Anna am Aigen for the brave, heroic, humanitarian acts of aiding and abetting Hungarian–Jewish Forced Laborers including myself.
In 1945, St. Anna/Aigen and the neighboring small villages – Aigen, Klapping, Plesch, Risola, Jamm, Waltra – were independent, little villages ranging in population from 80 – 450. Now they are incorporated into the Marktgemeinde Sankt Anna am Aigen and the population is about 2000 people. The church, the municipal offices, police and volunteer fire fighters, the elementary and middle schools, the bank, post office, general store/department store combination, regional doctor’s office and other shops and stores are located in St. Anna am Aigen. The church is on the south end while the school campus is located at the north end of the village. The distance between the two places (less than 2 km) can be covered with an easy stroll of ten minutes.
Mayor Josef Weinhandl is efficiently and successfully leading his municipality in the right direction. The people like him and rewarded him with reelection. He grows elderberries and blueberries. He is about the same age as my son Ron. That puts his birth year into the mid 1950’s. In other words, he was born about ten years after theend of World War II. He is passionate about unearthing the truth about the circumstances of the wartime involvement of his village sixty years ago.
The Nazi high command dreamt of building reinforced fortifications to stop the advancement of the Red Army. A segment of that fortification was designated for the south–east corner of Austria, between St. Anna and Bad Radkersburg, at a length about 12 – 13 kilometers. On that stretch they put 2500 – 3000 Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers to work. I was one of them. The local citizens were also ordered to pitch in with manual labor, the young and not so young had their work assignments. In that area there were 800 to 1000 especially brutal SS troupes let loose to kill Jews. They killed my comrades by the hundreds. Children from the villages in their preteens witnessed some of the atrocities.
The Mayor is passionate about bringing those events into the open. He organized the memorial service of January 30th. About 250 people, a sizable crowd based on the total population, attended the service, held on the Church Plaza. The “Remembrance Mobile” a traveling memorial sculpture dedicated to the memory of the slain Hungarian Jewish Slave Laborers and created by the artist Christian Gmeiner, had it’s first showing in St. Anna am Aigen in Styria. Dignitaries and witnesses made speeches. The Memorial Service caused consternation, and awakened old memories.
1. Remembrance Mobile.
The Nazis commanded the Jews to wear a six pointed yellow star with one point directed upwards (the Star of David) affixed to their outer garment at all times. The artist Christian Gmeiner created the statue of “Remembrance Mobile” communicated his views by way of symbols, objects. In briefly: steel plate base carries two yellow triangles representing the original six-pointed star being torn apart into two pieces. Also rotated the star 90 degrees, such that the upward pointing corner now pointing side-ways. Interpreting the symbols gives the impression that the artist is showing the partially destroyed Jewish people in an upside-down world, or at least a side-ways turned world.
Mayor Weinhandl delivered the keynote speech emphasizing that history should be seen the way it was.
During the service some of the witnesses also made comments. Freely translated from archival data, brief, samplings of those comments are:
"The poor emaciated Jews were accommodated in the schoolhouse. In the morning, they had to go to work on the trenches, where for a short period of time, as an onlooker, I was also present. One would be beaten with the riffle butt, just for the sheer virtue. There were men and women. The population was not allowed to give them anything to eat. We were threatened that we would be taken to the concentration camp if we give something to the Jews to eat."
Alois Ulrich, former mayor of St. Anna.
"I saw many dead Jews lying behind the barracks in the (Höllgraben) Hell Valley. Also among the dead ones, were people that still moved. We heard the shots when Jews were shot. Lucky were those who were shot well and were dead. The earth was still moving over the people half dead, sometimes for days."
"The Jews used the ground outside the schoolhouse as a toilet with a plank facilitated. No one was allowed to go into the toilet inside the house."
"We were all boys, around 12 years of age and approached the area of the ditch to observe the works on the tank trench. Several children were looking - we were curious. We saw a lot of people worked there - certainly a few hundred."
The Mayor introduced my letter to a local historian, Franz Josef Schober. He already published scholarly papers of the maltreatment of Hungarian–Jewish Forced Laborers by the Nazis. We started e-mail correspondence with each other in the middle of February. Through those e-mails I communicated in vivid minute details of my slave labor experiences in St. Anna of the year 1945. We have established times and places of historical relevance.
Travel plans were coordinated and set for mid June of 2005. Since my son, Ron and I traveled together and he recorded the daily happenings, I will let his voice (using different font) also be heard. Therefore I will intertwine this story with his narration. Hopefully that will add some extra texture and color to this complex work.
In June of 2005, my father, Sandor Vandor (I call him "Apu"), and I embarked on a remarkable journey to a place where an amazing piece of Vandor family history was made: St. Anna am Aigen -- a small, peaceful town in Austria, near the border with Slovenia. Had it not been for the remarkable kindness and generosity of the people of St. Anna, Apu would probably not have survived World War Two. This is my recollection of this incredible journey.