Paths to fatelessness

Gyorgy Csepeli-Gergo Prazsak-Zoltán Vági


The majority died in the hardships which is not surprising as the aim was the total destruction of the Jewish. There were, however, who remained alive and returned.

Prior to any scientific or literary narrative attempt a unique source of material was generated in the summer of 1945 in Hungary, which includes the memoirs of deportees having returned to Hungary from the early summer of 1945. The source material currently includes 3,492 records [1]  in which 4,907 survivors tell what happened to them in 1944 to 1945. With a few exceptions the reports were recorded by the staff of the National Committee for the Care of Deportees (DEGOB)  established in 1945. The record of the earliest text took place on 12 December 1944. This was not recorded by the staff of DEGOB as the organization did not yet exist. The memoir was incorporated among the other texts later under the number 3,659. In the year of the liberation the Rural Department of the Organization of Hungarian Jews created similar reports which were also incorporated into the corpus of the DEGOB reports later on. In Budapest reports containing memoirs were recorded only from the early summer of 1945. The record of the latest memoir took place on 13 April 1946.


The work of the rapporteurs (27 persons) was conducted in a coordinated manner.The questions were askedfrom the survivorsdivided into 12 blocks but it was rare that a respondent was asked all the questions.The 12 blocks were these:

  1. Personal information.
  2. The situation of Jews in the place of residence of the deportee.
  3. Compression into ghettos and its antecedents.
  4. Deportation.
  5. Arrival.
  6. The first deportation station.
  7. Arbeitslager. Organisation and lager life.
  8. Evacuation.
  9. Stations following the evacuation.
  10. Liberation.
  11. Lager life after liberation.
  12. The way home.

During the interview the interviewers were attentive that the respondents tell personally experienced, actual events.In the last stage of the data collection the staff of the DEGOB sought to record the memoirs of people who had a deeper insight into the whole process of the deportation due to their position (Stern Samu, Mose Pill, Török Sándor, Weiss Artúrné, Hahn István, Benedek László, Müller Rezső, Pap Róbert, Lévy Lajos). The reports were recorded in shorthand, then typewrited.

Sociological data

Sociological examination of the reports shows that those reached by the Holocaust in Transcarpathia and Budapest are over-represented among the respondents.The average age of the interviewees is 27 years. With the increase of age there are fewer and fewer survivors, which is not surprising knowing the cruel circumstances created by the Holocaust.The gender distribution is uneven. Two thirds of those who were reached by the Holocaust in Transcarpathia and escaped are women.Two thirds of those who survived this period in Budapest are men. Looking at the occupation of the survivors undertaking the recollection we see that the majority (38%) worked in industry, mainly as artisans, 12% traded, 6% worked in the public sector, a little more than 3% worked in agriculture and as day laborers. The remaining 40% were inactive (students, housewives, unemployed).

This timewe analyze the text of  the recorded testimoniesduring which we present the dramatic spaces of the Holocaust, the paths to fatelessness, certain sections of the journey, typical behaviors of victims, perpetrators and bystanders. The whole era later referred to as the‘Holocaust’ended on 9 May 1945. But the existential situation called as ‘Fatelessness’by Imre Kertesz was not over, which has left a terrible gap behind in the collective memory of the Hungarian society. There were not even words for the experiences lived through in the ‘Holocaust’ era for a long time. The first reports appeared slowly, many times decades after the events, which tried to give a form to what is inherently formless and inductile.

Content analysis

There are a number of options for the analysis of the documents. First, the documents themselves can be observed and analyzed. In this case the observation and the analytical units are identical in the statistical sense. On the other hand, the documents can be observed and the interviewees can be analyzed. In this case, the observation unit may be different from the analytical unit. Our analysis was primarily aimed at understanding (if understanding of the covered period is possible at all) and typization of the life courses. Therefore, we would like to read out individual fates from the documents.This is not just statistical niggling. For example, the report that can be read under the number 2,118 includes the names of 66 women who gave their statements. That is, the names and memoirs of almost the female population of a smaller settlement can be read in the ten-page typed document. Beside this, there are numerous documents in which several people gave declarations. In the case of multiple declarations it was not always possible to separate exactly which person went which path.We tried to analyze the paths of life of the interviewees all the time, but at the same time it was not always possible to perfectly realize this. Thus, in the following, it will often happen that we will refer either to the number of reports (the group) or to the persons themselves giving the declarations.

Types of fatelessness

The bitter experiences of the three paths leading to fatelessnessappear in different proportions in the reports. The testimonies of those who went through the hell of Auschwitz and were able to come back from there can be read in the largest proportion. We encounter the confessions of forced laborers in smaller proportions and those from Budapest in even smaller a ratio.

The first type includes those memoirs whose narrators were taken to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. 2,012 records were included in this group which, as stated earlier, forms the greatest number of memories. The majority of these were recorded in Hungarian language (1,524), 484 in German, 3 in English and 1 in French. In the second type there are 1,082 reports (1,017 in Hungarian, 64 in German and 1in English). Those people’s testimonies were included in this group who were enlisted for forced labor between 1941 and 1944.In the third group there are 349 reports (323 in Hungarian, 24 in German and 2 in English). These reports come from those survivors who experienced the German occupation and the subsequent chase after the persons qualified as Jewsin Budapest. Finally, we must mention thefourth group,with those added whose lives twisted here and there in the year of Holocaust.In this groupthere are only 49 reports, most in Hungarian (37) while a smaller part were recorded in German (12) language.

Table 1 shows the number of people remembering by type of fatelessness, as well as how their numbersform in the different types according to the language of the declaration.


The number of interviewees by type of fate

The number of interviewees and the language of records by type of fate











Forced laborers


















In total






Table 1 The number of interviewees by type of fate and language of memoirs

The table clearly shows that the majority of recollections came from those who had suffered in Auschwitz. Table 2 shows the breakdown of the number of only Hungarian memoirs  bytype of fate.

Type of fatelessness

Number of records

Number of interviewees




Forced laborers









In total



Table 2 Breakdown of the Hungarian records by type of fatelessness

The phases of persecution

As we have seen, the interviewers sought already during the interviews that the stories follow the chronology of events.We followed this logic during the encoding. The narratives unfolding on the basis of memoirs were broken into the following  phases:

Deportation to Auschwitz-Birkeneau

1. Antisemitism and anti-Jewish laws (prior to 19 March 1944)

2. Antisemitic legislation and exclusion (March-April 1944)

3. Ghettoization (April-June 1944)

4. Deportation (April-June 1944)

5. Auschwitz-Birkenau

6. Other concentration camps and labor camps

7. Liberation and return

Forced labor service

1. Antisemitism and anti-Jewish laws prior to 19 March 1944

2. Forced labor in Hungary until 15 October 1944

3. Forced labor in the front lines(Poland, USSR, Romania, Serbia)

4. Arrow Cross era (15 Oct 1944 to 4April 1945) in Nazi hands (fortification works, death march) in the hands of Germans (concentration or labor camps)

5. Liberation, return

Budapest Jews

1. Antisemitism and anti-Jewish laws prior to 19 March 1944

2. Antisemitic legislation and exclusion from March to June 1944

3. Yellow-star houses, from June to November 1944

4. Between 15 October 1944 and 12 February 1945 -Arrow Cross Terror, ghettos in Pest, protected buildings, siege

5. Liberation

The code instructions sensitively followed the sequence of the historical events (Jewish laws in 1938, 1939, 1941, 1942, German occupation on 19 March 1944, the initiation then the stop of deportations, the Arrow Cross coup on 15 October 1944, liberation on 4 April 1945 the latest).

During the research we indexed the memoirs based on code instructions. Then the indexed (quantified) memoirs were analyzed using a statistical software (SPSS). It is essential to note that the generalizability  of the study results is limited as there is no such database that would contain the data of all the survivors, consequently the sample cannot be representative.

Due to the fact that DEGOB was based in Budapest the questionnaires were filled in smaller numbers by those from rural or remote parts of the country returned to the neighborung states in the meantime (Transylvania, Upper Hungary, Backa, Transcarpathia) since they would have had to travel to the capital. Consequently, the number of Budapest inhabitants is higher (not in terms of the type of fatelessness but in terms of residence).The low ratio of children is not only due to the nature of the operation of Auschwitz but also because of the fact that they were obviously less likely to go to the interview site (alone or even with their parents). The ratio of elderly people is not high either, which is not only due to the functioning of the Auschwitz camp. For the elderly it could have meant a larger physical burden to get to the DEGOB office- especially after what they had gone through. At the same time, it is also true that it was the the elderly who were more dependent on the aids of the organization, so it could have motivated them more to participate in the survey.

In this article we deal with the reports of persons who went along the path to Auschwitz. We are focusing the period ending with the deportation of the actual persons.

The path to the death camps

Based on the final decision that took shape on April 22, 1944 during the consultations between the leadership of the German SS and police in Hungary and the Hungarian Ministry of Interior, between 15 May and 7 July 1944 430,000 citizens classified as Jews from ghettos established in provincial towns were carried to Auschwitz-Birkenau in trains assembled from cattle cars.

Based on the experiences recorded it is easy to follow the process that had begun long before 1944. Many people mention the poisonous antisemitism in their everyday lives, the repeatedly occurring anti-Jewish laws following one after the other (Phase I). This was followed by the anti-Jewish measures of the Hungarian government and administration slavishly serving the will of the German occupiers, which are reported by those concerned (Phase II). Plenty is said in the records about the terrible experiences of ghettoization (Phase III).

The contents of testimonies were encoded according to phases in an attempt to reconstruct the scope of experience specific to each phase. We were interested to see how the survivors interpreted their situtation in terms of options and decisions to be passive or to be active. We wanted to know what kind of solidary or exclusionary experiences were reported by the survivors on behalf  of the social environment not affected by the Jewish laws and we were interested to see what they could do themselves in order to escape.

The code instructions rating the content of each report leftus opportunity to record the observed suicides, deaths. The phase of release opens the space for ambivalent experiences characterized by the co-occurrence of positive and negative feelings.

Phase 1:Antisemitism and anti-Jewish legislation prior to 19 March 1944

Solidarity shown on behalf of non-Jewish persons was reported by only 14 persons. The helpers were partly civilians and partly officials. There were somewhat more (57) who reported that they were actively trying to do something for their own or their fellows’ survival or they reported that others had done so. The most common recollections mentioned were of escaping and hiding (19), whereby they tried to escape on their own and this was the most remembered (15) form of activity seen among others as well. 5 persons reported minor violations committed in their own interest and the same number of persons reported active resistance or major violations attempted by themselves and roughly the same number of persons (4) observed similar actions commited by others.

Helplessness was inherent to the system depriving of rights. As one of the survivors recounts ‘the officials did all they could to prevent Transcarpathian Jews from obtaining documents proving their citizenship,’ so he didn’t manage either. Another report mentions travel restrictions affecting Jews, which made help impossible. The travel out could have been organized illegally but the lack of money made it impossible. Jews deprived of their jobs had noone to turn to for protection.

Phase 2: Antisemitic legislation and exclusion (March and April 1944)

37 persons mentioned solidarity showed by non-Jews in this phase. Most of the helpers were Hungarians (29), who helped partly as civilians (12) and partly as officials (20). There were only 70 cases of self-rescue action. 69 recalled self-rescue attempts of others. Self-rescue attempts, however, did not go beyond the boundaries of minor violation.

Active defense was prevented by fear. As one survivor said, ‘After 19 March 1944 German soldiers sought out the houses inhabited by Jews and it happened very often that they beat them up. We were terribly afraid, did not know what would happen to us. Of course, it was impossible to even think about doing something against the anti-Jewish measures.’ There were some who thought of escape but they were held back from escaping by the fears of parents who did not allow them. Others did not want to leave their parents alone and therefore did not obtain Christian papers for themselves, in possession of which they could have travelled to Budapest, although they would have been able to do this. The testimonies also tell us about gendarmes who, slavishly following the instructions of the chief notary, ensured the enforcement of the measures against Jews in a rough manner. Those who were poor deluded themselves that‘they will take away the house, land and jewelry of the rich at most, and they will not hurt the poor.’

Phase 3: Ghettoization (April-June 1944)

Compared to the two previous pasesthe number of cases of solidarity experienced from non-Jews increases in the third phase. 128 people mentioned such cases. The number of civilian and official helpers is in turn reversed compared to the previous phases as more help comes from civilians (68) than from official persons (45). The helpers are mostly Hungarians (106).

The number of self-rescue attempts continues to increase in this section (137). From the self-rescue attempts minor violation commited in self-interest was the most common in this phases as well (47), the number of those mentioning escape and hiding increased (40). 13 people reported major violation in their own interest and there were slightly fewer people who recalled other conflicts undertaken in their own interest (11).

7 interviewees mentioned minor violations in the interest of others, 6 mentionedundertaking conflicts, while two mentioned major violences undertaken in the interest of others.Several people spoke about self-rescue attempts of others (306). The majority of them reported others’ escape and hiding most frequently (153), which was followed by minor violating actions of others commited in their own interest (92). 28 persons remembered major violations commited by others and 24 recalled others undertaking conflicts in their own interest. 49 interviewees indicated that they had witnessed others helping each other during this period. Most of them recalled minor violations commited for each other (43) and 5 of them remembered conflicts undertaken for each other as well. There were some who said they had witnessed major violationsdone for others, too. 160 interviewees remembered the helping role of the Jewish councils.

More than five hundred people remembered the period right before deportation as to what they had expected, what they had thought about the actual purpose of deportation. Only two of them said that they had no idea what was going to happen to them. Most inteviewees reported that they had witnessed some event of the Final Solution. But the majority of the rest of the interviewees had also met people who had experienced some kind of atrocity (21) and 16 of them specifically said that they essentially knew already at that time what awaited them. 13 people mentioned rumors.

However, many interviewees said that the misleading and lies of the authorities worked nonetheless.’ The police said that they wanted to secure us because the Russians were coming and they would bring us to the inside of the country. Nobody would be hurt. We did not know what would happen to us, so even the last transport was not sure which way we were going.’

The fundamental experience of getting into the ghetto was the feeling of being completely left alone. ’We could not help ourselves, whoever we turned to, they were ruthless.’

According to the memoirs, gendarmes misled the residents forced into ghettos. As one of them says, ’the gendarmes encouraged us and once it was even drummed out that they would not take us away but we would stay there in Técső and we would work. Therefore it did not make sense to attempt to escape because I was hoping that we could stay together with my wife and my small child.’ But the main reason for helplessness was organizational violence. According to a report surveillance in the Sárvár internment camp was so strict that it was impossible to escape. According to another report, ’the ghetto was in the middle of the city, enclosed by planks and guarded by the gendarmerie from outsideand the order inside was maintained by men selected from the Jews.Thus escape was almost completely impossible.’ There were some who said that they did not dare to do anythingdue to the strict surveillance. Others remembered that the machine guns set up deterred them from the idea of escaping.’We did not try to escape because whoever reached the fence was shot because it was allowed to stand only 3 meters away.’

There were people who hid in the fort for a few days after the imposition of the ghetto regulation but, because it was cold and they were afraid of what would happen to them if they were caught, they came forward by themselves. According to the testimony of an interviewee, ’the authorities said that we were going to Kisvárda to work in the agriculture. We believed this then but still, 50 young boys escaped from the ghetto. I did not go because I did not want to leave my family.’ Others recall successful escapes as well. ’I wanted to run away but my family wanted us to stay together so I gave up my plans.’ Another interviewee reports that ’I wanted to hide with Christian papers but my father said that the family should be together.’

One of the interviewees escaped and was hiding for two weeks. As he says, ’but when I saw that life in the ghetto was going on relatively normally, they got food too, I came forward and they let me in to the ghetto without any problem. I did this mainly because we were told that a proper ghetto would be built and we would stay there in Ungvár and we would be working. So I thought that I'd rather stay together with my parents and my siblings in such circumstances.’

The idea of escaping came to many people. Somebody would have been let by his mother but the neighbors discouraged him saying ’who knows what will happen to us and if we see each oher again, let’s stay together as long as possible.’ Somebody received an offer from a Christian in Munkács to hide him and his family with fake documents but they did not accept the offer,they were afraid of getting caught.

The risk of escaping was big. In the memoirs they talk about runaways who attempted to escape but were captured and the gendarmes beat them up brutally. After this ’nobody had the courage to try to escape.’ ’A man named Emil Blaustein tried to escape, for which he paid terribly, he was beaten up.’


Commitment to solidarity was as well what prevented opting out.’At first, it was that we were not even required to move into the ghetto as a doctor family.But my husband said that what was happenning to the others should happen to us too, therefore we voluntarily went to the ghetto. I tried to persuade him to go and escape, but he did not even want to hear about it.’

’There were also Christians who wanted to hide me and promised to feed me as long as this situation does not end. But I wanted to share the fate of my parents and my sister, whose two beautiful little children I could not detach from.’

There were some who later saw that it was a mistake not to have escaped. ’Maybe I could have escaped, but I did not consider it an honest thing to leave my wife and my six young children in such horrible circumstances. Of course, if I had known in advance that they would separate us anyway, I would have done otherwise. ’Another interviewee speaks similarly, ’No one thought even for a moment that we would be taken to Germany, otherwise we would have escaped. Unfortunately I was separated from my parents anyway, and if I have suspected this, I would have run away to Budapest.’


It can even be considered symbolic that the records taken by the staff of the DEGOB have disappeared for decades. The memory of deportation was glowing like embers under ashes in the Hungarian society. Victims were reluctant to remember but the perpetrators and witnesses who remained silent equally tried to forget what hadhappened. By giving voice to the DEGOB records a living museum is being created where visitors can come from all parts of the world without physically moving out of their actual places of stay.

[1] According to various sources the number of records is around 4,000. The number of persons included in the reports exceeds 5,000.