Tuesday 7 August 2007

The smell of humans, by Ernö Szép

The Smell of Humans relates the three-week ordeal of a sixty-year-old Hungarian writer during the final phase of the Second World War, when organized deportations of Jews from Hungary more or less ceased, but a reign of terror was unleashed by Hungarian Fascists who seized power in mid-October of 1944. Along with hundreds of other elderly Jews, the writer was picked up by Arrow Cross thugs and led on a forced march to a village near the capital, where the captives were made to dig trenches—completely senselessly, since everyone knew the war was just about over. Or did they? Ernö Szép's book is at its perceptive best when describing the uncertain state of mind of both victims and aggressors—their despair, their terror, their cruelty, and above all, their delusions. (Ivan Sanders, Hungarian Quarterly, 1995)
“Past Fót, around seven-thirty, we reached a place where the highway split into three branches. Here we were allowed a rest. There was a tavern by the roadside, with some soldiers standing in front. A big, husky, sun-browned lieutenant, about forty-five years old, came out to look at us, and after eyeing us for half a minute, spoke up:
“Is there anything you gentlemen need?”
Hundreds of parched throats answered in unison:
“Water! Water!”
In a minute or two a hefty serving girl came out with two large pitchers of water, followed by the lieutenant carrying eight or ten beer mugs for those who had no cup of their own. That girl had to go back about twenty times to fill those pitchers. Almost everyone gave her a pengö; the poorer ones gave 40 or 60 fillérs.
After glancing around, the lieutenant came up close where the guard could not see him.
“Gentlemen, I feel sorry for you. It is a dirty rotten shame that old men are taken for labor. Believe me, every decent Hungarian is shamefaced at what is being done to the Jews here. It is because of this that Hungary will be wiped off the face of the earth. I am in uniform today because I have a family and I cannot run away from these swine. I happen to know the military commander at Veresegyház, and he is a decent man; I hope he will be able to help you gentlemen. Don’t worry this farce will be over in a few weeks.”
He looked around, and added with a little laugh: “I don’t dare to hang around any longer. Rest up, God bless.” He saluted us. “May the future be better!”
Suddenly he screamed fiercely:
“I want quiet and orderly behaviour here!” (This was for the benefit of an approaching Arrow Cross guard.)”
“We were proceeding in good marching order, at least we were trying to, but our slave-drivers soon began to scream out from either side:
“Stay in step, excellencies!”
“Step lively back there, your mother’s …” (This voice belonged to the youngest guard.)
“Chin up, old Moses!”
“Keep in step, you’re lagging behind!”

“What’s going on, straggling back there!”
“What a herd of pigs!”
“Straighten that line!”
“Let’s go, Abe, stop dragging your feet!”
“Close your ranks, you goddam dirty Jew, or I’ll show you!”

The policeman stepped up to one of the soldiers escorting us.
“Look, this man over here is surely over sixty years old. I saw the orders this morning, it said you are supposed to take men under sixty. There are several here older than that, how come you are taking them too?”
The Smell of Humans : A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary (1945)
by Ernö Szép (1884—1953)
Publisher: Corvina in association with A Central European University Press Book

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