What a day!
The first day after arrival, we are taken to visit the middle school where the mayor joins us. We meet the headmaster and four teachers who speak English. They show us a student exhibit on three easels where Sandor Vandor's story is proudly displayed. As we arrive, I overhear kids whispering, "That must be Sandor Vandor!" My father's like a rock star! They clearly know who he is. We are treated like honored guests. Apu gives a talk to two 4th grade middle school classes. The students are 14 years old. The students listen attentively and politely and ask good questions. We meet a teacher whose mother is 85 years old. Mrs. Maria Lackner was 25 in 1945 and remembers giving apples and bread to laborers. Her story is also told on one of the easels, alongside my father's. We hope to meet her. After visiting the school, my father proclaims:
We had come to St. Anna to say thank you and we did.
To groups of students, Apu passed on the story of the heroic measures taken by their grandmothers and great aunts. He passed on the story to a new generation so that it would not be forgotten. In just one morning, we have fulfilled the major goal of our trip.
After lunch, with the mayor and his wife (who is doing all the translating), we go exploring. We see what's left of the trenches that were dug during the war. Portions still exist, deep channels running through the woods and fields. We learn that local townsfolk were also forced to help dig the trenches. With the mayor's help, we identify the place where Apu believes he spent the last few days of the war. The locals call it "The Granite Barracks."
During World War Two, Apu was drafted into the Hungarian Army and forced to work in a labor battalion (Jews were not allowed to carry weapons). In late 1944, he was selected to join a group of about 250 Jewish slave laborers who were marched to the Austrian border. There, they were turned over to German command. The laborers were taken to the town of St. Anna am Aigen and housed in barracks. Each day, they were marched by German soldiers to a work site and ordered to dig a massive trench system called a "Panzergräben" (Panzer = tanks, Gräben = trench) -- a ditch for tanks.
The Germans were building defensive fortifications along the Austrian border to slow down or stop the advancement of Russian forces. From late January until early April of 1945, my father lived in a barrack and worked on the trenches.
The work was hard. Food was scarce. Breakfast consisted of a piece of bread and a brown liquid they called "coffee." No lunch. Dinner was a bowl of liquid they called "soup." It quickly became apparent to my father that if he did not find additional food to eat, he would eventually grow weak, get sick and quite possibly starve to death.
The daily regimen was as follows: Get up, breakfast, assemble in the courtyard, be counted, and be escorted by soldiers to the work site. At the work site, in groups of 10, the workers were told how much they had to accomplish each day. They were essentially left unguarded while they worked. When they finished, they could return to the barracks. The quicker they finished, the quicker they could go back to rest. They were allowed to return unsupervised, but had to check in and be counted to make sure all had returned. If the group finished early, once they were checked in, they had some free time before dinner.
You might ask: if they were unguarded during the day and allowed to return to camp by themselves, how come they didn't attempt to escape? My father says that it was safer to stay. As laborers they were given shelter and some minimal amount of food. If they were caught wandering the countryside, they would have been shot on sight. Where would they go? Who would help them? There was too much uncertainty in trying to escape.
One day, while walking to the work site, my father noticed several packages of food left by the roadside. He didn't get one because there were too many laborers and not enough packages. But he took it as a sign that the locals were friendly. So one evening, after arriving back at the barracks and checking in, my father and a buddy found a corner of the compound hidden from the guards, jumped the fence and ran to the nearest village. They knocked on a door and asked for food. And they were given food. They managed to sneak back into camp before dark.
After that, my father and his friend would sneak out of the compound occasionally to get food. Not every day. But every few days. My father and his friend never went to the same place twice. Each time they would go to the next nearest village. Usually, they were given apples (which were abundantly grown in the region and are apparently still grown today). My father would trade the apples with Ukrainian laborers for tobacco (which was easier to keep in his pocket and less likely to be stolen from him at night). Then, each day, my father would trade some of the tobacco with the Ukrainians for extra rations of soup. When he ran out of tobacco, he and his buddy would sneak out again for more apples. The Ukrainians were slave laborers too. But because they were not Jews, they were treated a little bit better by the Germans. The Ukrainians controlled the apportioning the meals to the Jews. The soup, which my father was given as his normal ration, was nothing more than liquid. But the soup he was able to trade for with his apples and tobacco actually contained cabbage and potatoes. It came from the bottom of the pot. The Ukrainians were connected with the kitchen, would eat from the bottom of the pot while Jews were normally given only liquid from the top of the pot.
Each time my father and his buddy snuck out of camp they risked their lives and the lives of the good Samaritans that helped them. Had German soldiers caught Apu, he likely would have been shot. It was illegal to help Jews, so if the villagers who helped them had been caught, they likely would also be killed. Amazingly, not only did the residents of St. Anna give my father food, but also no one ever "tattled" on them. No one turned them in. There was a conspiracy of silence to help the Jews. Apu believes he owes his life to these kind people. And 60 years later, he has decided that it is time he said thank you.
Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, as we arrived in St. Anna, our first stop was to visit the Old Schoolhouse. I had doubts and I didn’t know what to do or what to think about it. After a good night sleep and a satisfying breakfast, Ron and I went back to the schoolyard for a second look.
The essence of our visit to Sankt Anna am Aigen was to express my thanks to the local citizens that their mothers and aunts had defied the German laws against providing food to the starving Hungarian–Jewish Forced Laborers including my friend and comrade Gyuri and me. With those brave acts, they saved my life by giving enough food sustenance for me to survive until the day of liberation.
So, when Ron and I went back to the old schoolyard for a second look, I observed every piece of stone with critical eyes. I had vivid memories. My life was spared in St Anna. It is plausible that one will remember in minute detail a once in a lifetime event: surviving. So, I looked and nothing clicked. The two stories were definitely out of place. The building was not “L” shaped as I remembered. The geography of the surrounding landscape was entirely different. After spending a fairly short time, I was able to declare confidently that I was not housed in that place; I had never been there.
The village of St. Anna is built on a small flat mesa on the top of the hill. The hill at the backside of our fenced campus – looking east – continued sloping down to the lower level. Once I considered climbing the backside part of the chain-link fence of our yard because it was well out of the general view. But we pulled this out of consideration because we felt that the slope of the ground was a bit steep. Here in the old School’s back yard, instead of the slope there was a foot and a half to two feet thick stone retaining wall holding the mountainside and dropping down approximately 8 feet to the next level. That wall was not a recent addition. Looking at that wall one would estimate that was constructed at least 100, may be 200 years ago. It didn’t add up. For sixty years, I was to believe that we were quartered in the School Campus, in converted classrooms.
I was never in that building! Then, where was the building in which we have resided, our “home”, in St. Anna?
The parsonage, the adjacent building on the south side of the old schoolyard was another two-story building. Between the schoolyard and the parsonage there was not enough room to put the chain link fence in place. But the chain-link fence was the most important element in the story. If the fence was missing, than what did we climbed over? So, I never lived in that building.
The Mayor set the agenda for the day. Knowing his turf he set our schedule very cleverly. The first item was to visit the local elementary and middle schools. Originally I was thinking of appearing before the City Council and during the Council Meeting I will address the elected officials as representatives of the people and thank them for the goodness of the inhabitants toward my comrades and me in 1945. But the Mayor set this excellent venue for me: visit classes of student’s in the middle school and tell my story to them, in their classroom, during their history classes. What an effective, brilliant idea!
So, we went to the School, to the “new” School. A sprawling campus, seem much larger than the needs of a small village. The entrance is in the center between two wings. The administrative offices are in the middle. To the right are the corridors and classrooms for the 1 through 4 elementary grades. The corridors and classrooms for the middle school – 4 to 8 grades by our USA designations, but their description is 1 to 4 Middle, – are in the left wing of the building. Cleanliness and orderliness are evident in the campus. It must be a pleasure to study in such an environment.
For introduction we have met the Principals and teachers. By the way, there are two Principals or Headmasters with two faculties. One set of faculty for the Elementary and another set for the Middle School. They knew about our presence in the village and the reasons for being there. Students with their teacher’s help made preparation to greet us. On the corridor of the Middle School wing, leading to classrooms, they set up an exhibition of three large easels chronicling my intended visit with related historical facts. We reviewed this exhibition with teachers and with students in intimate small groups. Shortly after I presented my “thank you” speech to two separate classes of 8 graders (14 year olds) in their history classes. Approximately 20 pupils attended in each of the two classes. I thanked the newest generation for their grandmother’s, great grandmothers and great aunt’s good deeds. For the students, it was a learning experience within a very rare moment. And for me it was a very special, indescribable happening. With the City Council meeting it would have been a carefully choreographed formal event, period. Facing young adults in their formative years, it was anything but formal. It was very encompassing, intimate meeting between a group of youngsters and me. They made an indelible impression on me and I believe that I made great impression on the students. From sixty years back, from a difficult era of the history of their villages, somebody suddenly appeared in their school, in living color and made oral testimony of the bravery and moral standing of their foremothers. MY LIFE WAS SPARED IN SANKT ANNA AM AIGEN. The students were listening very attentively and followed up with excellent, lively questions.