Personal Reflections - In Camps

JUDIT FENAKEL - "To Steal or not to Steal" ("Sefule Sefarka")

Thou shall not steal! It is one of The Ten Commandments.

In our circle, these Commandments were adhered to in earnest.

In the Catholic public school, where I learned reading and writing, it would occur, from time to time, that an underprivileged child would crave to have a school-bench classmate’s eraser, sandwich or coloured pencils. If caught, each time the full power of the prevailing morality descended upon the poor culprit.

In the home of my Grandma, strict about her ‘old-fashioned’ moral convictions: “Thou Shall Not Steal” was on equal footing with the “Thou Shall Not Kill”. Therefore, till 1944, I couldn’t imagine any situation whereby I would procure another person’s possession, may that be a pencil, a slice of bread with jam. Or, help myself to a fruit from a tree branch, cascading above the street.

However, in 1944, (after the German Nazis occupied Hungary: trans.) everything changed - seemingly, even the Ten Commandments. Because to seize other people’s houses, stores, jewelry and even coffee mugs, by previously considered decent citizens, was not necessarily considered a sin.

(Of course, I am not privy to how these daily, brazen thieveries were accounted for on Sundays at the confessional?)

It is also true, that by then, Thou Shall Not Kill also lost its moral constraint. In wars, to kill is praiseworthy, rewarded by medals. Special attention was devoted to carving-up unarmed civilians, burying alive, starving to death, or murdering people by gassing. Topsy-turvy went the entire Ten Commandments: sin became virtue, virtue morphed into treason.

I envy not the Confessional priests whose task it was to meet out penitence to the faithful, in these confusing, turbulent situations.

The relativity of moral behaviour didn’t spare the victims either. Stealing in the concentration camps for example wasn’t just a daredevil act but a life-saving one. For example, if one didn’t manage to steal sterile bandages from the medical lab, the gaping wound on one’s back, caused by the guard’s whipping, would get infected and death would result from blood poisoning.

However, even if one managed to avert blood poisoning, the ‘only’ other possibilities one had to be wary of were: being hanged; starvation and/or freezing to death; typhus epidemic; being whipped; shot to death; medical experiments; forced marching; the minefields; and to be gassed – best to stop here.

In other words, stealing was a necessity, a must.

This was true even in our more tolerable salve labour camp where there was no gas chamber or forced march. In addition, here, indeed, there was what to steal.

On the Estate of the Dreher Beer Manufacturer the main vegetable crop was sugar beetroot. This clearly explains that our main food source, beside the officially requisitioned yellow pea, was sugar beetroot. We ate it baked, as molasses, as fake ‘chestnut puree’ and even as dessert. The adults, were stealing them mainly in the evenings, and hiding them in the pockets of Juliska’s leather coat. Juliska was my mother’s close girlfriend. They had a strong bond in good and adverse times, even in thievery. They both used, alternatively, that leather coat which Juliska loaned even to strangers, meaning to hose who didn’t hail from Endrod. This particular coat was different from all the other coats because of its very deep pockets with great capacity and in which one could hide effectively the stolen goods without anybody noticing them. To remain undetected while stealing a great number of sugar beets, was a virtue – being the best thief was both envied and revered by the camp’s inmates.

We, the children, tried to emulate the grown-ups in thieving, but of course without wearing that leather coat. Adult-size garments wouldn’t protect us - we would be all the more conspicuous. Even among us children, there were those with great talent to walk by the manager with full pockets of stolen goods and the most innocent look on their faces. Sadly, I wasn’t one of those. Each time I went stealing, I had overwhelming pangs of conscience and fear of being discovered, while the meager end result didn’t make up for the anxiety I experienced.

On this ‘nothing-to-rave-about’ day we went to steal tomatoes. Tomato was a rare delicacy. They reared their pretty red heads in a special, fenced off, vegetable garden. To get hold of some of them was no mean task but we pulled it off. We put them in our pockets, that is, those who had any.

I gathered these rare treasures in my skirt, which I managed to gather up as a deep pocket – then we ran like hell.

There were five of us children running toward the stables. Four managed to reach our compound without any mishap. I, on the other hand, exactly in front of the castle, stumbled, and let go of my gathered-up skirt holding the tomatoes – those small, firm tomatoes rolling all over the place in front of the cow-hand and the Hollander who was a large, very light-blond, young man, whose service rank we couldn’t ascertain at the Drehers. We looked upon him as the assistant manager. Add to this, that even today I have this adverse reaction when I am frightened – I don’t run as most people would but rather, I freeze, I am numb, unable to move – just like at that time. I stood there, in a circle of tomatoes, motionless, afraid even to breath. I felt a knot in my stomach – my end is here! For this, beating, confinement and death will be waiting for me. One of those punishments was just as possible as the other. I knew by then, that to us, anything could happen.

The Hollander, on the other hand, this blond athlete with a loud laughter, didn’t pay any attention to me or to the rolling tomatoes. He absentmindedly turned around, continued to speak to the cow hand without interrupting what he was talking about - and I, with my empty skirt, hanging my head low, quietly snuck away.

Because this was possible, I am here.

This is published here with the permission of the author and Dr. Katalin Pecsi, editor of the Esztertaska blog where it also appeared in Hungarian.

English editing: Judy Weiszenberg Cohen.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.