Who are you? Your shadow invades my dreamless night.
I never learned your name; only guessed your gender.
That night I first saw you I was struck, stiff with fright…
You looked so fragile, so lifeless, oh, so slender…
You never uttered a single word; your silence
Was full of pain, agony and accusation.
If heard, it would have shaken human conscience
To the utmost despair and mortification.
That night gave me a lesson I cannot forget.
For the first time in my life I glimpsed into hell;
I saw your suffering; wanted to scream and yet
Much as wanted I couldn't release the angry yell.
Horror struck and helpless I watched your last breath leave
Your distorted pale lips as you heaved a last sigh.
Not one of us around you had strength left to grieve,
Having seen already too many people die.
We were all numb, senseless; the pain of survival
Was more acute than pain of death could ever be.
We could not see a way ahead for revival,
Death felt like escape and life an absurdity.
We buried you in shallow grave, without prayer…
In life's ensuing battles your shadow faded;
Silent subdued pain replaced the acute anger
And in time even the pain slightly abated.
Who were you? Your shadow invades my dreamless night.
A question and exclamation mark rolled in one…
Dark shadows never lifted, wrongs never turned right;
Nothing much ever changed, no battle had been won.
We failed you… I can see your accusing finger
Raised from your shallow grave pointing at this World.
I see your eyes filled with hopeless tears, not anger…
Your silence speaks again louder than any word.
Let me wake your shadow…back where it all began…
To your unmarked grave… Then let me make an amend…
Let me scream, let me cry into the heart of Man
The silent message your lifeless lips failed to send.
© P. J. Oszmann (2003) (Illustration: original pencil sketch 1966.
Reworked in Photoshop 2003) All rights reserved.
At the end of March 1945 - as the last acts of hostilities of World War II on Hungarian soil were dying out - having spent nearly a year on the run as fugitives from the Nazis, we were on our way home to Budapest.
The whole country lay in ruins, devastated and in total chaos.
Civilian transport was virtually non existent. Only very few trains - containing cattle wagons loaded to the brim with humans - were rolling at snail pace on badly damaged lines.
My aunt Magda, my cousin Évi, another fugitive lady, Juliska, and I were on one of those trains, which came to a halt for the night on open railway lines. I was eleven years of age…
Below is the description of what happened taken from Chapter 6 of my book: Jew Be or Not Jew Be; The Story of a Perpetual Alien:
The train remained motionless on the siding for the rest of the day and night. I cannot say the same for the people on it, for they were squirming and pushing and shoving and swearing all through the afternoon and the night. It was an extremely uncomfortable and unwelcome experience. If I could have had my way, we would have walked the rest of the route. But Magda was in charge and was determined to fight it through. Eventually we moved on and made relatively good - if uncomfortable - progress to Székesfehervár, where once again we were shunted around for hours, going backwards and forwards and standing still. Mercifully here the train became less crowded. Another day’s journey took us to Martonvásár, where we stopped on open track just outside the station for the night. Magda got off in search of drinking water, giving us strict instructions to stay put. It was pitch dark and a lot of people climbed off the wagons just to stretch their legs. Some small fires were lit by the side of the track and people congregated around waiting for a sign for the train to move on. I was getting anxious about Magda missing the train and was about to disobey her instruction and wanting to get off to go and look for her, when she finally arrived back and handed up a flask with water in it. As I grabbed the flask, she whispered to me:
- ‘Come down for a minute and give me a hand.’
I climbed down and noticed that she was supporting another person with one hand, and another was just lying at her feet. It was too dark to see their faces or establish whether they were males or females.
- ‘Lets try to get them up.’ - she instructed me.
It was quite a struggle, for they seemed to be lacking strength to co-operate and Magda and I had to heave and push to get them up into the wagon. When they were up, we followed on. The two of them lay helplessly on the floor.
In the dimly lit wagon the shadows were stark and the light could play tricks on your eye... but those faces... they were...
...The skin and whatever little flesh was left over those faces were so tightly drawn over the bones, that it was almost as if you were looking at bare skulls. The eye sockets seemed enormous, dark and bottomless, with just a hint of the outline of the eyeballs bulging forward under the wafer thin lids. They were both bald, with just a trace of hair on the skulls... it was impossible to tell from the features whether they were men or women. Their bodies were wrapped in thick, coarse, black and white striped clothing that seemed at least three sizes to big for them, making them look like scare-crows, almost without any substance under the rags... The hands were the only other exposed parts of their bodies, which looked almost like bare bones... I had never seen people emaciated before... and never wished to see the like of them again... It felt as if hell had heaved these two miserable creatures up to the surface of this earth to frighten would be sinners into praying for salvation...
I could not bear looking at them and yet was unable to lift my eyes from their faces...
If I live for a thousand years, this vision of hell will haunt me all the way... and beyond. For make no mistake it was as close as a living human could get to looking straight into hell, without actually going through the gates... There was no question or doubt recognising the agony and suffering of torture of the damned... this was a lesson I could never forget... In the following ten seconds all that I had experienced before faded into total insignificance as the realisation hit me in the pit of my stomach and reverberated right through my very soul about the unimaginable suffering that these two visitors from hell must have been through... Little did I realise at that stage, that it was only the beginning of my education into the darkest recesses of human hell... I thought I had reached the very limit... I certainly wished for no more...
As if to emphasise and enlarge upon the visual impact, we were also subjected by the presence of these two to a stench that I could not even begin to describe. It certainly given an extra dimension to the horror of the experience for the onlookers and stirred even those in the far corner of the wagon to sit up and take notice.
- ‘Good grief’ - exclaimed a voice from the dark interior – ‘throw those two carcasses out of here.’
- ‘Disgusting,’ - another voice joined in condemnation – ‘we cannot allow these kinds of animals to contaminate our air... off with them!’
- ‘Yes get them off.’ - other voices joined the chorus.
- ‘Shut up you God damned lot!’ - Magda yelled back at them – ‘The first one touching these two other than to help, I will personally kill and tear apart. What kind of animals are you? Isn’t there any decent person amongst you here to help?’
Apparently there wasn’t... Not one would offer the slightest help and the grumbling and moaning from most of them went on all night. Magda, like a soul possessed, stood her ground against the lot and nursed and protected the miserable creatures to the best of her ability. There was little enough food left with us and it could have been fatal to try to feed bacon to these starved two, so the last couple of slices of dry bread, soaked in a little water was fed to them.
In spite of all Magda’s effort one of the women - as it turned out they were both women fighting their way back from one of the extermination camps - quietly passed away before dawn. The other one - semi-conscious and at death’s door - was too weak to react. Magda ordered a man to go forward to the locomotive and bring the driver back with a shovel. The body was gently lifted off and without any ceremony or even a prayer was buried by the side of the railway-track in a shallow, unmarked grave. Even then there were groans and moans from the others in the wagon about the other woman, only just hanging on to life by the skin of her teeth. Magda contemptuously ignored them. I was stunned and in shock from witnessing the death of the unfortunate stranger, about the state of the other woman and also about the reaction of the passengers. I offered to help Magda, but she kept me at arm's length. Juliska sat the whole night through in stunned silence. She was little help. Évi - hungry and exhausted - slept restlessly in a corner.
I dared not close my eyes... I was afraid of nightmares... The searing heat of the crematoria I had not yet heard of had reached out that night and touched my very soul, together with the beginning of an almost incomprehensible sense of guilt for being alive. It would be impossible to attempt even to explain why, but a little bit of me was buried that night in that unmarked grave with that pitiful stranger.
Later we learned from the surviving woman that they were trying to make their way home after having been liberated from one of the "death marches." Originally they were deported to Auschwitz and had been subjected to the indignities of the crowded cattle wagons taking them to the death camp.
It is the utmost irony and a cruel joke of fate that the ill-fated woman had to die in a crowded cattle wagon, after liberation, on her way home.
The original sketch from memory was made in 1966 and was intended to be an impression only, rather than a life like drawing of that unfortunate woman.
The events described above and the vision of that woman had been haunting me ever since.