The Hungarian Jewish Acts (Act no. XIV of 1938 and Act no. IV of 1939) provided for sufficient background to the leaders and departments of the Ministry of Defense to start with the “solution of the Jewish question within the armed forces”.
Those men who had been recruited to labor service were divided into platoons within companies, under military commandants of the Ministry of Defense. They were distinguished from the regular conscripts by their unarmed labor obligations, but otherwise they were subject to all military regulations. Thus, their demobilization, leave and any other certifications were verified with the same documents as for those of regular military service.
Pál Kornis has experienced the “easier” side of the forced labor service, when the excesses by the guards meant mainly profiteering and gaining financial benefits and not physical abuse. His case illustrates how was corruption woven into the everyday life of a labor company. During the first period, between August 1940 and December 1940, Pál served his forced labor service in the 201/5 field company at Nagykáta and Szekelyhíd. He was transferred to the front with the I/5 labor company in the spring of 1943. Instead of ceasing, the extortions took huge proportions on the frontline. By then however, Pál and his comrades feared more for their lives than for their properties.
A Labor Serviceman's Life
in the Carpatian Basin
At Székelyhíd the company was engaged in dismantling the Romanian fortifications and recycled the barbed wire for further military use. (Székelyhíd, October 1940)
In early December, the company returned to Budapest, to be quartered in barracks on the Pest side of the Shipyard Island.
“On 8 December 1940 the 201/5 field company was dissolved, everybody received his demobilization form. At the same time, mobilization tickets were distributed for the next morning to the same place, for the I/2 public utility labor company. So, we became members of the first public utility labor company, based in Budapest. We were dressed in uniforms without rank insignia… Icy floods ended the days spent on the Shipyard Island, one late night we had to flee in knee-high ice-cold water caring our lockers above our heads. We gained temporary shelter at the school in Tímár Street.”
From here they were transferred to load sandbags on the quay at the Technical University, and later to Albertfalva-Budafok, to protect the Franck coffee factory. With the withdrawal of the floods, the company was quartered at the brewery in Budafok, and engaged in work at the Háros island.
“Whose idea was it, I can’t recall, but the company left the barracks on Saturday evening and took two days off for Eastern.” When they returned on Tuesday morning, armed guards manned the gate and announced decimation as punishment. At the end, this didn’t happen; the whole company was sentenced to confinement to barracks instead.”
“… Our belts were taken away and a stripe was cut in everybody’s hair by a haircutting machine to prevent us from going among people. However, as further cutting of the hair was not forbidden, we shaved our heads, so at least this part of the punishment was neutralized.”
Two weeks later the company was deployed in Kiskunfélegyháza, where it was engaged in constructing a shooting range and road reconstructions. They were quartered at private houses, and during the nights had to get up frequently from the straw laid on the floor, as commander Nagybélteky often alerted the company.
They had to move on. In August 1941, the company was based in Budapest, at a depot in Timót Street. A new chapter started in the history of the company with the new commander, lieutenant János Nagy.
“When he had his bottle of rum in the morning, not even the slightest signs of nervousness could have been observed on him. Immediately at the introduction he pointed out that he would accept money for various favors only from the well-off, but regardless the financial situation, everybody will enjoy the benefits.”
A reinforced concrete building was constructed at the depot, and railway carriages brought in the staff looted in Ukraine.
“Icons were arriving in crates, labeled to be delivered to different addresses, as well as furs, and I remember also a concert piano, because it was very heavy, which was sent by a lieutenant to his father, a colonel, in Sopron.”
Soldiers also took part in the business. The worst possible textile from Csepel was offered as a special English fabric. The fake transaction took place between two labor servicemen. One of them borrowed the necessary money from a tobacconist, leaving the fabric as deposit. Of course, the loan has never been repaid. The case was investigated later on.
Some could even go home in the afternoons, only to return the following morning. A retired sergeant major, József Csernai from Pesterzsébet served as the officer on duty.
“Csernai was a genius; very soon he realized how to benefit from the circumstances of the company and the attitude of its commander. He was not creating exceptions, but distributed the permit to leave to everybody, demanding to go home in the afternoon and to return only to the lining up next morning. From Saturday noon until Monday morning everybody was on leave. As a consequence, he appropriated the breakfasts and dinners of the whole company, 214 persons, and had it transferred to his apartment. He had an entire store, supervised by one of my best friends, Feri Pásztor, who didn’t have to turn up for days.
“… the guards started with excesses. Sergeant Sándor Nagy was vicious; he forced dr. Fried to give injections of milk to those he disliked. This caused high fever and pains for days. He claimed that it was healthier than crawling on the ground.”
The company had accomplished its mission and it was transferred to Dömsöd on 1 August. At that time they were already distinguished by a yellow ribbon on their arms.
Over the Borders...
“Sergeant major Csernai arranged to remain in command of the service, although based on his age he could have avoided it. He was proud that he was considered as a voluntary to front service. He didn’t make a secret of the fact that he was attracted to “stuff”, interested mainly in furs “in pictures only if they can be sold.”
“…Csernai left us. Within days he realized that there was nothing left, the Germans had already emptied everything, leaving nothing for the Hungarian military. He just went to one of the field hospital, got himself declared unfit and returned to Budapest. The company commander tried to find him, but then we learned from Budapest that he had returned home. The field post was still functioning those days, and a desperate letter arrived to Ferenc Pásztor from his father, József Pásztor, dental technician in Budapest. He had been visited by Csernai, who tricked up the family gold for a supposed preferential treatment in field hospitals for their allegedly severely wounded son Ferenc. Within days it was clear that he had visited several families with the same story. We were granted an extraordinary right to send letters home to warn our families, but he had looted many families before the warning arrived. He has never been punished.”
Curator — Heléna Huhák, museologist
Curator — András Szécsényi, museologist
Translator — Zoltán Tóth-Heinemann, communication officer