On June 6, 1944, I was an inmate in a Nazi slave labor camp. My assignment was to help build a railroad over the rugged Carpathian Mountains for the German Army. It was hard work on a starvation diet. I was 18, slightly built, and the dawn-to-dusk heavy work would have killed me.
I talked myself into a job as a groom for the camp commandant’s horses. He was a Hungarian Army officer, taking orders from the Todt Organization, an engineering corps attached to the German Army.
Watching the multi-hour documentary about D-Day on the National Geographic Channel brought back all those memories.
I got the job of the groom because of the 215 other slave laborers in our group, all of them Jewish and former college professors, doctors, lawyers and businessmen, no one knew how to handle horses. As a child, I had my own pony and had to take care of him.
Among my duties was to serve as the commandant’s driver, to take him in his carriage to the close-by villages inhabited by Rumanian and ethnic Hungarian residents. I made some friends there, particularly with an elementary school teacher. He gave me some extra food to take back to the camp and old civilian clothes that later helped me escape from the camp.
At the camp we were isolated, mostly unaware of what was going on in the outside world. But it was the school teacher, who listened to the Hungarian language short-wave radio broadcast from London, who kept me informed in a rudimentary way about developments in the war.
It must have been a day or two after D-Day when he saw me during the commandant’s visit to the village. He gestured for me to follow him to a secluded place where he described in great detail what he learned from the London radio broadcast about D-Day.
“It is the beginning of the end of the Nazi empire,” he said.
I brought all the information I learned back to camp. It spread like wildfire and lifted the spirit of every slave laborer. There was also a slight change in the attitude of our guards. They became less threatening, but we never were sure whether it was our imagination or reality.
At each of the commandant’s visits to the village, the teacher informed me of the latest developments on the Western and the Easter fronts. He mentioned the names of cities that were liberated by the Allies in France and by the Red Army in the east.
We didn’t have a map in the camp, but one of the laborers used to be a professor of geography at the Pazmany Peter University in Budapest. He had maps of most of the world in his head. He made sketches of the front lines and we followed as the Allied forces and the Red Army advanced.
After half a year in the slave labor camp spent building the railroad track, in the face of the Red Army advancing through the Balkans, the Nazis abandoned the project. We were driven day and night toward Budapest. When we arrived, we were put to work repairing railroad-tracks damaged by Allied bombing
During one of those bombing raids, while hiding in the cornfields adjoining the tracks, using the civilian clothes given to me by the teacher, I escaped.
I joined the Zionist-led anti-Nazi underground in Budapest, and survived the Holocaust and the war.
On Wednesday, I gave a talk at a gathering of members of the Kiwanis Club of the Colonial Capital in Williamsburg. I shared my story of survival and how I have rebuilt my life in America.
What a change 75 years can make.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,”the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.