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Chapter 6 - 1944 to 1945 - Age 15

I.                   Late 1944

In the autumn of 1944, the Russian advance stopped on the southern side of Lake Balaton. The Russian army set up winter camp and only engaged in small skirmishes, usually involving scouting parties. The same was true for the Hungarians and Germans as well.[1] 



When weather permitted, the German Stukas took off and bombed Russian positions and supply lines, but these military actions were insignificant.


Everyone knew that the Russian advance would resume in the spring, and that it would not stop until they reached Berlin. It had already been determined [by the Allies, not by Germany] that Russia and the other Allied forces (US, English, French, Canadian) could advance to the Elbe River, and also that Russia would occupy Berlin.


On October 15, 1944, the Germans removed Hungarian Regent [Leader] Miklós Horthy and replaced him with Ferenc Szálasi, head of the Arrow Cross Party and Hungarist Movement, who they named as the “Leader of the Nation.” Horty was removed because he prevented the deportation of Jews to labor camps. The Arrow Cross Party was the Hungarian fascist party.[2]



A.     Guard Duty, Tapolca Railroad Station

Let’s return to what happened at Tapolca, and the nearby village of Lesencetomaj, in 1944.[3] 



During the winter, when we lived near Tapolca during the winter, we were given guard duty at the weapons armory (at the edge of the airport) and a storage facility where they kept weapons and airplane parts (at the nearby train station).[4] 



Each week we had two shifts of guard duty, and each shift was 24 hours. That means it robbed us of 48 hours each week. On each shift, we spent eight hours as standing guards, eight hours in the guard room, and eight hours sleeping. Ten soldiers were always at the ready, of which five could quickly run to any location if a shot was fired, while the other five stayed in the guardhouse to protect their sleeping companions. [I interpret this to mean there were 15 soldiers per shift, five sleeping, five in the guardhouse where they slept, and another five on foot.]


One night, sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 AM, next to the armory, someone killed one of the young cadets on guard duty with a knife. We think it was either a partisan, or maybe a Russian soldier who crept by. From that point forward, we were on extremely high alert. They gave us additional training against partisans, who would dress in blankets, animal skins, just so that they could sneak up on guards, and use a knife to injure them enough so that they could not fight in a battle.


We were given a strict rule to never have a round in our rifle’s chamber. That meant we could not shoot without first loading a round. This sounds like it was done quick enough, but then we were given a second rule, that before we could shoot, we had to call out three times. The first two times we had to announced, “Stop, who goes there?” The third time were to yell, “Stop, or I’ll shot.” And at any time after this third warning, we could shoot.


Our orders prohibited loading a round in the chamber before the second announcement. This is because certain sergeants, or sometimes even officers, spent their time trying to sneak up on us guards, to see if they could take our guns from us. If they were successful, they considered it a great accomplishment.


But when this happened, it created a huge tragedy for the poor soldier whose gun was taken. He would be taken immediately to jail, and unless he had a really good excuse, he’d likely be sent to a military prison for months.


A few times, a guard shot down one of these sergeants sneaking around. When that happened, it was best if the victim died. That way, the guard who shot him dead could make up any story he wanted to justify why he shot; the dead person could not dispute it. And with such logic, we learned that if we were going to shoot, make sure it’s a kill shot.


Some soldiers modified this three-part announcement. For example, some just yelled out, “I am saying three times, stop, who are you?” And then, immediately after saying that one sentence, they would shoot. If they killed whoever was sneaking around, they escaped prison. But if they merely wounded a leader, it would become an enormous tragedy for the guard.


One morning, between 4:00 and 6:00 AM, on a pitch black, rainy night, I stood guard near the railroad station. Visibility was at most 10-15 meters in the foggy, rainy pre-dawn mist. I stood near the storage area for airplane parts, where many pallets were stacked atop one another to about one story high. Trying to shelter from the miserable rain, I pulled myself under a wooden post.


Then, all of a sudden, I saw a whitish mass move somewhere before me, lurking close to the pallets.


I immediately pulled the rifle from my shoulder and was very alert for what would happen next.


Again!. Something moved! All I could tell was that it was some white mass.


“Stop, who goes there?” I tried to shout. But I was so scared that the sound barely escaped my throat.


Nobody stopped, nobody answered anything.


Again, I shouted, “Stop, who are you?” Again, there was no answer.


I loaded a round, and waited to see what would move, but I was incredibly tense, nervous and ready to shoot. The rain fell quietly, and then a thought flooded over me: Right here, within a few minutes, someone will be dead; either me or whoever is out there. I desperately hoped it would not be me. And then the memory flashed in my mind of my young comrade who had been stabbed to death not long ago. I was ready to do anything.


I did not need to wait long, maybe just a few minutes. Again, I saw something white move toward me. Without saying anything at all, I shot right into the middle of the whiteness.


The white thing stopped. Within seconds, I heard footsteps of others approaching, with someone shouting out the password. I now knew I would be safe.


Whoever came brought flashlights, and we discovered I had shot to death a large, white dog. I felt sick. That poor doggy could not speak. And oh how I wished it had given even just one little bark to save its life. I never found out who the dog’s owners were.


This episode quickly disappeared from my mind at the time, but not forever. Thirteen years later in Montreal, Canada, I rented a small studio apartment and furnished it. The first night, I was hit with intense anxiety. I was unable to sleep from an overwhelming fear.


My mind went back to shooting the white dog. I realized that from that day on, I had never had to sleep alone. Someone always slept with me in the same room, or the next room of the same house.


Even today, as a 67-year old, I still cannot sleep unless someone is with me, or unless I have a reliable lock on the bedroom door so I can lock myself in. And yet, more than 50 years have passed since then.[5] 



B.     Early 1945, Szombathely

As I previously explained, the Red Army had advanced rapidly.


Leaders of the Hungarian Railway System fled to the city of Szombathely, near the Austrian border. They ordered the removal to that city of all locomotives and passenger cars.


When I got a week of leave for Christmas 1944, I visited my parents in Szombathely, as they too had moved there. [Presumably, his parents moved to Szombathely because his father worked for the railway system, and/or because Debrecen had been bombed.]


The city is situated in beautiful hilly, forested countryside. It had no military target in it or around it, other than the railway station. Like all major railway junctions, it was an important part of the German Army’s supply lines. The place had never been bombed from the air. But the locals did not think they had to worry about an aerial bombing just because the city had a train station; [after all, almost every city had a railway station, even if not all were as large.]


My parents lived a few streets to the west of the railway station, in the direction of the city.


We had beautiful sunny weather during the first few days I arrived, so my brother-in-law Janos and I decided to climb the large mountain on the outskirts of the city so we could get a good look at the surrounding area.


We left early in the morning and planned to return before dark. The mountain was not far from our home, with the elevation rise starting only about 4-5 km away. Somehow, by 9:00 AM we had already climbed about halfway up the mountain.


That’s when we saw. An enormous American bomber formation approached from Austria. It was not going toward the city but was instead flying to the south of the city,[6] almost as if it were going to pass above the peak of the mountain we were hiking toward.



We got very nervous watching all these bombers coming straight for us, and we wondered if this mountain had some bomb-worthy target, and that we had picked the worst time ever to hike right toward it. So, with a rising sense of panic, we stopped and watched, trying to decide if we should turn and run down the hill, back toward the city.


All of a sudden, the head of the bomber formation turned sharply, right toward the city. Soon the air raid sirens started blaring. We could not believe our eyes. We were well up the side of the mountain, and we could see the entire city spread out about 500 to 600 meters below us. I had never seen a bombing from such a vantage point, and I will never forget what I saw.


About six formations (200 bombers) dropped bombs all over the train station and the city of Szombathely. The last of the bombs landed near the foothills, only about 1 kilometer from where we stood with our feet firmly rooted in the ground.


It is impossible to describe the whistling, smashing and exploding of those bombs, or the fire, smoke, and sulfur smell; and all the screeching. The bombers caught the city completely unexpectedly. I remember the sirens started blaring, but only after two formations had already dropped their bombs.[7] 



Because it was Sunday, most people were still in their homes, and therefore they were protected from flying debris, and from being targeted by the fighter planes’ machine guns, which had killed so many people in Debrecen. The entire attack lasted about half an hour, and then the planes disappeared to the south.


As we went home, there were fires and smoldering piles of rubble everywhere. People were running everywhere. Firemen, police, and ambulances with sirens were all over the streets. The city looked like a destroyed wasp hive.


Even though we lived by the station, there was no damage around our house. But our fear and anxiety was intense until our family members appeared, and fortunately everyone did.


The few days remaining during my break flew by quickly and I had to return. Saying goodbye was very difficult. We had no idea what would become of us, or where our destinies would scatter us.


We were all terrified of the evil Russian army pressing toward us. The bad news had reached us that in every city and village they occupied, they shot the men, raped the women, and stole anything that could be moved.


Every war brings many horrors, but the horrors wrought by the Russian army defy all human understanding. In hospitals, they raped women barely hours after they had given birth, sometimes killing young mothers during the savage attacks. In Szombathely, it was said that every female between 8 and 80 years old was raped, and many died after being gang-raped by 15-20 soldiers.[8] 



These idiots spread toothpaste on bread and ate it, because they thought it was butter. They drank aftershave lotion because they thought it was some kind of whiskey. They had no idea what a wristwatch was, but that’s what they stole from people first. Some Russian soldiers had both arms filled with watches.



These accounts terrified us, especially the women who feared about what their fates would become. These thoughts made it so difficult to say goodbye, and it was awful to separate. We all knew the Russian attack would resume with spring, and that they would pass through us like a steam locomotive on their way to Germany.


II.                March 1945

A.                 Tapolca; Mesteri

Just after returning to Tapolca, they told us we could apply for pilot training. I quickly volunteered, along with half my platoon. We were sent for another intense medical exam, which everyone passed.


The pilot training academy would have been in Tyrol, Austria [near Innsbruck]. But despite how much we wanted to go, they called it off. The Germans had no fuel for planes. And they probably would not have had any fighter planes for us to train in because German factories could not even produce enough to replace those lost in the war.


The lack of fuel was a huge burden for the German military. Tanks had to tow one another and many times they could no longer move for lack of fuel.[9]


Soon after, they informed us that we’d be sent to the front lines because they did not have enough reinforcements to replace the losses.


When we appeared for that duty, it did not bother the German or Hungarian leadership that we were only 15 and 16 year old children, with no business on the front line of a war. My academy was not the only one to send young soldiers; all military schools had to send their cadets to the front because there simply was nobody else to replace the Hungarian casualties. Every flight academy, even the parachuters regiment from the St. László Division,[10] became part of a battalion that had 1,100 soldiers and 300 support staff, such as cooks, medics, administrative staff, and such.



Within a few days, we arrived and set up camp in Mesteri, a village near Celdömölk.[11] 



They immediately started to instruct us in specialized warfare, including the use of anti-tank weapons. They told us we’d have about three months of training, but we did not even get three weeks. But even what little training they gave us helped us a great deal.


At the Academy, our emphasis was not on how to wage war against an opponent that was 20-30 times stronger than us. Instead, at the academy we spent most of our time in the classroom, learning about airplanes, preparing to make something of our lives. Sure, at the academy we had learned how to shoot rifles and pistols, throw hand grenades, crawl, climb over obstacles and such. But all that was just to introduce basic military skills, not to train kids for a real war zone.


B.                 Marching South

During the third week of our training, something extraordinary happened. They gave everyone a new pair of boots and two weeks’ worth of canned food and ammunition. Then they told us we would be leaving for the front that night.


The front was on the north side of Lake Balaton, close to the village of Aszófö [adjacent to the prominent Tihany peninsula.] This was about 110-120 kilometers [~70 miles] from our training area near Mesteri, and we were supposed to get there, by marching, within three days.


This was harder than it sounds. Marching was very difficult because we were dressed in full military gear, with weapons. We had to march on the hard pavement of the highways, while the officers rode their horses on the nice soft dirt next to the roads, so for them it was not tiring.


But the real problem was that within the first kilometer after leaving, our feet were bloody from breaking in our brand new boots. And within 2-3 hours the entire formation was limping painfully. We could barely even stand because our feet hurt so badly.


They arranged for us to march for fifty minutes, then rest for ten. That sounded fine in theory, but you can’t get 1,400 people to sit down and then get back into line within 10 minutes. In reality, what happened is that by the time the back of the battalion sat down, the front was already moving again. Somehow they believed we could march 50 km per day, which would take about 10 hours [that’s about 3.1 miles per hour x 10 hours], and that the remaining 14 hours would be enough to do everything else. But limping on our bloodied feet, we could barely go 30 km per day.


 [Victor: By now, it must have been mid-March, by which time the Red Army had stopped the German’s Operation Spring Awakening, and resumed their march toward Vienna (off the map toward the northwest). Many Red Army forces joined the fight from Budapest (off the map toward the northwest) as the Siege of Budapest had ended about a month earlier, freeing up many soldiers that had been involved with that. Another large group of Red Army came from the south, wrapped around the eastern side of Lake Balaton, and then moved west. A smaller force came up on the western side of the lake.]


As we neared the front lines, a new problem arose to slow us down. Russian fighter planes would appear in groups of 35-40, and whenever they saw the slightest movement on the ground, they slapped down on it like a hungry eagle. These Soviet “Ilyushin Il-2” ground-attack planes were the Russian’s most successful warplanes due to their exceptional weaponry and maneuverability. And because they only flew in large groups, they destroyed everything they found within minutes.


Another effective machine the Soviets had for nighttime air raids was their Polikarpov Po-2 fighter plane. This was an old-style biplane, kind of like the Italian CR-42 [Falco] – the most exceptional military plane of the 1930s – only the Po-2 had larger wings and the motor could be turned off, allowing it to glide in and attack silently at low altitude.



As they approached, they would drop 1-2 “light bombs” attached to parachutes, which took a few minutes to float to the ground. We called these “Stalin’s Candles.” But it would have been more accurate to call them Stalin’s Floodlights because they were so bright that they completely illuminated a large area to full daytime brightness for many minutes. This allowed enough time for the pilots to assess the area, and decide where to drop their two 250 kg bombs, and to pick out the best place to cause destruction by shooting their machine guns for 1-2 minutes. After they finished, they turned on their engines and puttered away into the darkness.


This went on all night long. From the tell-tale puttering sound of these motors, we called these planes the “sewing machines.” But unfortunately, these were mainly used for military destruction, and they did not permit much rest at night for exhausted soldiers.[12]  [You can hear what this plane sounds like in this video:]



By the third night, we were close to the village of Aszófö, near Lake Balaton, which had been our end goal. After another painful day of marching, we sat down to rest on a hillside in complete darkness. Within a few minutes we fell asleep.



C.                 The Hilltop

That’s when the sewing machines attacked us. We shot awake to the intense brightness of Stalin Candles that had been dropped. But by then, the 250 kg [550 lbs.] bombs were already whistling through the air. And only seconds later, machine gun fire was raining down on us.


On the ridge of the hill, there was a large tree with many soldiers huddled behind it. But when the machine guns started firing onto that location, everyone scattered, running in all directions. But that just increased the commotion, which attracted more attention from the machine gunners to focus on, and an enormous number of our soldiers were shot died or got badly injured there.


Every tenth or twentieth bullet from the machine guns was a tracer bullet that lit up in the darkness. This allowed the gunner to better aim at their target. And it also allowed us, as the targets, to see when a line of fire was coming toward us.


After scattering from the large tree, I could see a line of machine gun fire coming straight for me, and I knew that it would pass right through me, I just didn’t know where it would hit. It was so terrifying to hear the approaching line of gunfire tearing into the ground, and to hear soldiers scream in agony when they got hit. I heard someone to my left get hit. But there was not time to contemplate these things, because just a few seconds later a line of fire was coming toward me.


At dawn, as it started to get light, some of my companions told me my helmet had a bullet hole in it. I took off my helmet, and saw a bullet had gone in the front and passed out the back. It could not have passed more than a few millimeters above my skull. I had never before been so close to death.


After this attack, we immediately went to hide in a nearby forested area. Soon enough, it got bright and we went to some fields near the edge of the woods, where they were serving hot coffee. We all stood in line, anticipating the pleasure of hot coffee in our bellies. But while we stood there, the Soviets had discovered our breakfast area, and they started to rain artillery fire down on us. Our wonderful breakfast turned into nothing but a sprint back into the trees.


D.                The Front Lines

We then continued to march, and before noon we reached the front lines, where they immediately sent us in as reinforcements.


We got to the top of a hill, where we could look down into a valley. A group of T-34 tanks was shooting toward us. Soon afterward, they also started shelling with artillery rounds. As the shells hit the tree branches – we were in a forested area – they exploded in the air above us. We were showered with shrapnel and wood splinters, against which we had no protection because it was coming from above.



We pressed ourselves against tree trunks and trembled, hoping some large piece of shrapnel would not fall on us.


I don’t how long I was there when I heard the order: “We are surrounded. You must break out of the encirclement and go north. Everyone must do whatever they can to escape. If anyone survives, we will gather to the north in about 3-4 hours, if possible.”


Well, this order didn’t exactly reassure me of any good outcome. But what could we do? To stay meant certain death. We mostly crawled and scampered on the ground from tree to tree, sometimes scattering dry leaves on ourselves as we continued heading north.


In every direction I heard sometimes bigger and sometimes smaller bursts of gunfire. I also heard different groups of people yelling. Sometimes I went from crawling on the ground to getting up and running as fast as I could. I did this until the forest started to thin out.


And then I saw a large group of soldiers laying down and resting on the ground. We had successfully escaped the first ring of encirclement, but of course, not everyone.


We were near some small village, but we did not know where. Many were missing from the battalion, which was noticeably smaller after this episode, and each similar episode that followed. Our leaders were very clear-eyed about our military situation, and they saw that with our very basic gear, we were no match for an opponent that was at least 30-40 times more powerful. They did everything they could to avoid having us dig ourselves in for some vain effort to try to stop the Red Army, which continued to advance like a steam locomotive. Doing so would have just meant certain death for all of us.


So instead, in this way, we kept moving. We moved in every direction. I think the military purpose of this was to “show ourselves” all over the place. Perhaps this was to distract the enemy by making them think there were soldiers everywhere, and that we were getting constant reinforcements. So, we just kept moving all the time. By doing this, I think the Soviet military leaders had no ability to properly assess the strength of the opposing front line. If they saw us in ten different places each day, then the planes flying above might think there were ten times more of us than there really were.


E.                  The Village Barn

A few days later, we rested at the edge of a small village. One house had a barn with some horses stabled inside, along with some soldiers guarding them. Behind the barn was an area where they stored feed, and we decided to sleep there.


The barn and this storage area were separated by a plaster wall, and that rested on a rock wall foundation, held together with cement. The rock foundation was about ½ meter tall and ½ meter wide. We had a roof over our heads and the animal feed surrounding us provided some protection from the winter cold. For added protection, we huddled and tucked ourselves into the base of the rock wall. This is what saved our lives.


We had barely been sleeping for an hour or two when we were awakened by the extremely loud shrieking of a bomb. We immediately knew from its sound that it would land very close to us.


Indeed, it slammed directly into the barn, only three or four meters on the other side of the small rock wall from us. It is impossible to write down in words what that explosion was like. All the horses and soldiers inside the barn died immediately from the blast, but because we were tucked into the base of the rock wall on the other side, we survived. It is true that for days afterward we were deaf, and our noses were bleeding, but otherwise nothing else was wrong with us. This was my second near death experience, to which would be added a few more.


One of the most awful things to see was that no matter how many people died, or in what circumstances, nobody made a big deal out of it. Everyone mostly worried about themselves, to make sure they could still breathe, could still move, that they were not bleeding anywhere. When and how and who gathered all those dead people I have no idea, but we could not concern ourselves with such things. We received the order to leave, and that is what we had to pay attention to, so that we would not fall behind.


We were very fortunate that the winter in 1944-45 was not very cold. Little snow fell and the few months we spent at the front lines had mild weather, so from that respect it was tolerable. Due to our officers’ skills, we never spent much time in any one place. We were constantly on the move, sometimes east, sometimes north, sometimes west. It seemed our only assignment was to create the appearance for the Russian scouts that we had endless reinforcements, which would confuse them and slow their movements.


We moved through the regions of Örvényes, Zánka, Köveskál, Révfülöp, Nemesgulács, and Kisapáti. [That is generally travelling westward along the north side of Lake Balaton.] sometimes we dug ourselves in for one or two days, building a defensive line, but in the middle of the night we left the whole thing there and traveled further.


With such a never-ending motion, we nicely and slowly made our way toward the West, which is the direction the Soviet army advanced too, as they were rushing on toward Berlin. Three times they encircled us, and three times we broke out, suffering painful losses each time.


As it was the beginning of March [Victor: Actually, this would have been late March. He saw the Szombathely bombing on March 4, spent another few days there after that, and then had about 2 weeks of training before marching out to the front.], the weather become springlike and we started to feel our leaders did not want to see us sacrificed to this onrushing Russian steam locomotive, and doing so would not have accomplished any military purpose anyway. As the weeks passed we still suffered losses, in part from the aerial attacks, and in part from artillery shelling. We did not often see or face Russian soldiers directly in front of us, but losses along a front line are unavoidable.


By the time we reached the city of Tapolca at the end of March, only about 400 soldiers remained for our battalion which had started with 1,400. We had no idea what had happened to all the others, whether they were dead, wounded, or captured.


F.   March 28, Lesencetomaj

One day, early in the evening, we found ourselves on the west side of the Tapolca Airport. This did not mean much to anyone other than the few of us who had been stationed there with me the preceding autumn, including Meskó Pista and Bárdi Antal, who had been in my troop at the village of Lesencetomaj.


This village sits on the side of a hill. We struck camp in a large pasture at the foot of that hill. Orders were given that we would leave in the morning. But until then, we could rest or go into the village store and try to get soap, toothpaste, or some other items we were permitted to buy.


The three of us knew exactly where we’d go, after all, all three of us had become good friends with families in this village. With the Russian front advancing, all families had escaped into the hills, where everyone had a vineyard of some size or another, and each vineyard had a building with a winepress that would have included furniture, so it could be used for a family to live in. These press houses usually had an upstairs with bedrooms, and the floor underneath was a wine cellar, fruit storage area, and workplace. There were even some three-level buildings, where the lower level had stables for horses and could be used to store coaches.


My friends, the Sipos family, had already moved out to their mountain house. So the three of us went up into the vineyard hills to look for them. Since they did not know what had happened to us in the months since we’d last seen them, there was great joy when we appeared and announced that we could stay until morning.


The truth is, our weapons were truly frightening, and well above average, so it gave them a sense of security. At this time, many runaway soldiers wandering through the hills and forests, and they often used violence to get food, clothing, or a place to sleep. These runaways often thought there were easy targets when they saw families without any men present.


The Siposes immediately prepared a large dinner, and we stuffed ourselves well, something we had been unable to do in the military since autumn. Both during and after dinner, the world-famous Badacsony wine lifted our spirits, and by the time midnight rolled around, we could really feel the toll that had been taken on us by our service on front lines, with its lack of sleep and freezing in the cold.


We decided the three of us would stay together, because together we created a strong show of military force, if there might be a need for such a thing. We laid down in the nice warmth, and fell asleep that very moment.


Early in the morning, loud knocking awakened us.  It was two men in badly worn civilian clothing, almost certainly two runaway soldiers. They demanded food from the family.  The three of us quickly appeared with our weapons.  You should have seen the complete shocked looks on their faces when they saw us. We suggested they move on quickly or we would escort them to the regional authorities as suspicious elements. We did not need to repeat ourselves, they quickly disappeared.


With this, we felt we had repaid the kind treatment we had received. It was well known that at every peasant home near the front, the families slaughtered their poultry and hogs, cooked everything down, and put up lard in storage for the lean times. For the same reason, they buried seeds and vegetables in the sand to ensure they could be used in the future. But they did not know what to do with the barrels holding thousands of liters of wine, because they could not easily hide those underground. And these could create terrible trouble when the Russian soldiers appeared, because they took every opportunity to get drunk and rape the women, a situation the Siposes prepared for in advance.


Next to the house, a 10,000-liter concrete tank had been built in the ground to collect rain water. They arranged this to hide the females, hoping they could thereby escape harm from the Russians.


We ate breakfast. And while it was still dark, we left for the campsite where we had left our battalion the night before. But when we arrived, to our great surprise, nobody was there.


G.  March 29, Toward Keszthely

We decided to walk on the mountain road leading west, which was really the only direction we could go. We did not know when the battalion had left the pasture.


As we walked, we came up with a story that we were the battalion’s rear guard. We thought this would be believable because two of us carried MG-34 lightning machine guns on our shoulders, and the third had a grenade launcher used to destroy tanks. Our machine guns were frightening weapons, capable of firing 900 rounds per minute, earning it the slang name, Hitler’s Saw. Other than that, we were in uniforms, on which our unit’s insignia, the shield of St. Laszlo Infantry Division, was quite visible.






[Picture of soldier is from internet just to show size of MG-34.]


We came up with this story in advance so we would have something to say if we got interrogated by the military police (MP), who traveled in cars and horseback, always on the lookout for runaway soldiers. These MPs would appear suddenly, and if they found someone who could not giving a convincing reason for what they were doing, or why they belonged there  – regardless of whether they wore a uniform or civilian clothing – the MPs could shoot them dead on the spot. So, it was no coincidence that we spent our time rehearsing a story to tell them.


We had barely been on the road for an hour when two horse-mounted MPs jumped out of the forest and stopped on the road, right before us. They saw that we did not show fear, and that we had walked on the side of the road, just as a real scouting patrol would. They asked, “Who are you? What are you doing?” Because of my school rank, which was the equivalent of a sergeant, I answered. I explained to them which division we belonged to and that we were its rear guard.


They said they accepted this explanation because the battalion had passed by only a few hours earlier. They suggested we hurry and catch up with them because the Russians had already arrived at the City of Keszthely, and it was likely the battalion would alter their course before reaching the city. If we missed them, the Russians might cut us off and we might get separated. With that, they stood aside and we passed. When we looked back a few seconds later, we saw they had ridden back into the forest.


We continued to walk calmly on the narrow mountain road. Not a soul was present. We could not believe we were smack in the middle of a horrifying world war. It was perfectly quiet and peaceful, but despite that, an absolutely hellish destruction could break loose on us at any moment, either from the forest or from the sky.


A spring rain started to drizzle, and soon it turned into a quiet but steady rain. Our helmets did not get soaked, but our uniforms sure did, and they got heavier and heavier. We had not eaten since breakfast, and it was now late afternoon. In the evening twilight, we turned a corner and saw an anti-tank gun pointing right at us.


We heard the customary, “Stop, who are you?” yelled out in our language. We stopped and yelled back, saying who we were. They allowed us to approach, and after a few minutes they accepted our story that we had recently been with the battalion and that we were its rear guard. Our uniforms made this believable, even though we had no paperwork to support it.


We received a hot supper – bean soup, commissary bread, and black coffee – that warmed our drenched bodies. Because it would be very dark quickly, the commander suggested we go to a house in the forest where his division was resting, on the right side of the road about 2 km further. He said we could rest there for the night and get breakfast before we continued forward.


[Victor: They were still in the forest, which means they walked less than 8 miles from Lesencetomaj, so not exactly a brisk pace. This suggests they walked calmly indeed, perhaps enjoying the peace and in no big hurry at all to rejoin the battalion.]


That offer sounded great to us. We soon found the house, and we tucked ourselves into the nice, dry stacks of hay and slept until morning.


H.                March 30, Cserszegtomaj

For breakfast, we got hot black coffee with bread, including some extra for the road. We gave our thanks and continued forward on this forest road toward Keszthely.


Around noon, we reached a fork in the road. One branch continued toward Keszthely; the other turned north toward the village of Cserszegtomaj.  


Just past this fork there was a row of houses. We went to the first house and asked for some water. They were happy to give us some, seeing how young we were. We asked them about the conditions in the area, and they told us the Russians had occupied the city of Keszthely overnight, and that we should definitely avoid that direction, and we should instead head north because the Russians had not arrived there yet.[13] 


 This was probably around 2 pm. [Again, kind of a slow pace.  They could not have gone more than a few miles from where they had slept.] The empty coffee we had for breakfast was long out of our systems, and we were hungry. The young woman asked if she could offer us some bread spread with pork lard, which we gratefully accepted. In exchange, we left her three loaves of the brown bread that we had received that morning. The woman was very happy to have those because military commissary bread could last for weeks and would not get moldy because it is 100% rye bread.


After half an hour of rest and chatting, we left toward Cserszegtomaj, which was maybe 3 km ahead. About halfway there, we saw a horse and cart coming toward us, about 200 meters away down the road.


All of a sudden, about 35 Russian Stormavik fighter planes appeared. (We called these “flying tanks” because their undersides were outfitted with armor to protect against ground fire.) We quickly jumped into a nearby ditch to watch what would happen.


We knew from experience that a Stormavik could not be shot down from the ground with a gun, or even a machine gun, because of its heavy armor. Therefore, we just stayed quiet, hoping we would escape this attack, which is indeed what happened.




We then saw some of the planes fly down in a tight row toward the approaching peasant cart, and they shot the thing to pieces. The peasant man and his 2 horses were dead, but there was nothing we could do about that.


We soon reached the edge of Cserszegtomaj, where we were hit with the delicious smell of cooking meat. We went to the house where the smell came from to ask for water, which they happily provided. An old man and his two young granddaughters were cooking a slaughtered pig and placing it in large trays of grease. [This is not a common time of year to slaughter pigs, but perhaps they did so because it is easier to hide a slaughtered pig than one that is alive, and that the approaching Red Army would take.]


Our little water break soon turned into a great feast of grilled pork, complete with home-produced wine. From this, our eyelids soon became truly heavy, and we decided this entire miserable war could sink straight to the deepest depths of hell.


The man escorted us out to the fodder barn, where we snuggled into the nice, dry hay stacks and we did not wake until the morning.


But by then, we realized there was no way we could catch up to our battalion. We talked to the old man, and then he and his granddaughters pleaded for us to stay with them. He said they could give us civilian clothing, and we could bury our uniforms and weapons in the barn. It didn’t take much to convince us, and we accomplished this in less than an hour. We became civilian peasant boys in no time at all.


But we had made a big mistake. We had buried our uniforms underground, but we kept wearing our miliary-issue undershirts, sweaters, and boots, which was probably quite noticeable and a tell-tale type of clothing for three young men. In fact, this mistake almost cost us our lives.


As civilians would do, that same day we went out to the fields to spread manure. We finished this job around noon. The old man was very happy to have three young workers. He gave us a fine lunch and we sat around the table talking.


All of a sudden, a German soldier stepped into the house to ask for water. After drinking, he looked closely at us and asked who we were.


I spoke German well, so I explained we had come with our sisters to help fertilize our grandfather’s field and to hide things from the Russians. Perhaps this story might have been believable, but he noticed our three matching pairs of military-issue boots, undershirts, and sweaters.


He quickly grabbed his machine gun, aimed it at us, and ordered us out of the house. Outside, we saw another two German soldiers with whom he started to talk, pointing out our clothing, and explaining we were runaway soldiers. He ordered the other soldiers to immediately take us behind the house and shoot us.


The two soldiers did not show much desire to shoot three young kids just for wearing matching shirts. But the first German had given and order, so within seconds we were being dragged toward the back of the house. At that moment, our future appeared bleak indeed. We knew we would be dead within a minute.


But right at that moment, some nearby Russian troops started shooting at us.[14] The Russians probably saw the Germans pushing us behind the house. At that time, when Germans escorted civilians to the back of a house at gunpoint, it usually meant the civilian was either innocent or a captured Russian partisan. Either way, the Russians were probably trying to save an enemy of their German enemies from death, which was our great fortune.



Other nearby German troops yelled out an ordered for everyone to immediately return to the group.  At this order, and with the shooting, the three Germans taking leading us to our execution quickly ran away back to their group, and left us to our fates.


This is how we escaped certain death that was no more than 1-2 minutes away. This was my third rendezvous with death on the front lines.


I.                    The Red Army

The fighting was now happening very near us. We ran back into the house and hid the two girls in the attic. Then we waited in the dark, just waiting for the Russians to appear in the kitchen. Fortunately, no additional Germans came.


Late that night, probably around midnight, a Russian soldier came in the door. His first words were, “Germanski? Germanski?” We guessed he was asking if we were Germans. We quickly told him, “No, No, not Germans.” We quickly pulled him to the kitchen table and poured him a cup of wine. He sat down. He wasn’t nervous or unkind at all.


Motioning with our hands and legs, we tried to explain we were only 15-16 years old, that we lived here with our dad, and that we were not soldiers. He believed us, but he showed that he wanted to see our documents. So, we pulled some documents from our pockets. I found a postcard, which had my name, address, and a postmarked stamp. He looked at it for a while, looking up at me, and he then gave it back. I can’t remember what the others gave him, but he accepted those too.


Then, he too pointed to us with his machine gun and directed us out of the house, to lead us somewhere.


About a 100 meters away, we arrived at a house that had about 100 Russian soldiers laying on the ground. This was literally the Russian front line. Fortunately, they were not shooting at the that very moment.


Then, from somewhere, a Russian officer appeared who spoke Hungarian. Our Russian soldier handed us off to him.


The Hungarian-speaking officer listened to us and saw we were young boys. He took us out of the house, pointed back down the road, and told us which way we could go that the Russians had already occupied. He let us leave. And with this, our involvement in the war came to an end.


We fell asleep in a nearby barn, and the next morning we woke to a great silence. The Russians were nowhere to be seen. The front had continued to press forward with such speed that we could not even hear it.


We were free, but all of a sudden, we had no idea what to do with our freedom.


III.             April 1945

We returned to the house where the old man was waiting for us. After a wonderful breakfast, we decided we would return to Lesencetomaj to see what had happened there. Within a day, we snuck back through the forest trees and arrived at the Sipos vineyard, where they again received us with great joy. We felt at home immediately.


My two companions found their “adopted” families, and for days we delighted ourselves with fine food and rest. For two days we entertained ourselves with a shot up German truck that we found on the said of the road with a bunch of anti-tank weapons inside. We took those and had a huge shooting match, with the target being the German truck that we had taken the weapons from.


Around this time, there was another aerial attack by an American P-51 Mustang. I could not see it because it was blocked by the trees. But I could tell it was only about 500 meters away from me, and its 6 machine guns sprayed a line of fire coming toward me. It would have shredded me to pieces, but just in time I was able to jump into a doorway that was right next to me. That was the 4rd near-death experience I’d had during the past month.


Meanwhile, we also discussed that we should do something serious and meaningful during the few days before the occupying Russian troops arrived.


A.                 Travel to Szombathely

Pista Mesko’s mother was in Szombathely, where she was managed the household of a minister who had gone there to escape the Russians. My parents had also been in Szombathely since Christmas, and I did not know what had happened to them after the bombing.


With Pista, we decided to go to Szombathely to find our parents. We were given some food for the road, and early in the morning we left. Three days later we reached Szombathely, which was only about 90 km (54 miles) from Lesencetomaj.


On the road, we saw many dead horses, shot up military vehicles, and an endless number of shot out, burned out homes. It was hard to believe how many families had lived there not long before. We went very carefully.


We did not want to run into any Russian soldiers. Or former Hungarian soldiers, who were probably even more dangerous because if many of them did not have food, and they would kill for it.


Every once in a while, some Russian unit came down the road. We could usually hear them coming from far away, and when we did, we hid ourselves somewhere. We did not dare carry weapons with us, because if the Russians discovered us with any weapons, they would immediately treat us as partisans.


And so during this trip, we were afraid of absolutely everyone. We did not know whom we might meet, or when, or under what circumstances.


Russian, British, and American planes buzzed over our heads and it was very important to watch them. Within seconds they could descend on us from the sky, and if we were unable to hide, it would mean certain death.


All the near-death experiences taught us to always be alert and to pay attention. The American air superiority was absolute at this time. Fighter planes bombed and shot everything that moved. It didn’t matter if it was a locomotive engine or a single man who was not lucky enough to find a hiding place in time.


With today’s modern forms of transportation it is very difficult to imagine the primitive, tiring, and deathly-dangerous travel situations that the average person had to face if they had to travel. This will become apparent in the following explanations of my travels from Szombathely to Budapest, and then from Budapest to Debrecen.


B.                 April 1945, Szombathely

We finally arrived in Szombathely early in the evening, very tired, very hungry, but happy that we had finally arrived.


I could not find my parents, but I learned from the person living there that they had escaped by train to somewhere in Germany. They did not know anything else.


So we went to the address where Mesko Pista’s mother lived. We found her there and she was so thrilled to see us that she did not know what to do with us. She said we had arrived at the best possible time because the Russians had just taken away the minister for whom she worked. They knew that he was some high-ranking government official.


With the minister gone, Meskó’s mother did not know what to do alone in the apartment. She did not know when the Russians would release her employer, if ever. Her son’s appearance was a great help because it meant she was no longer alone and she now had something to plan for the future.


The next day we went to the railroad station to apply for work. The station was hiring workers to repair the tracks and buildings. They provided us photo IDs, which confirmed in both Russian and Hungarian languages that we were railroad workers performing the important job of restoring the country and its infrastructure. These official ID cards proved to be very useful at checkpoints. With IDs, the Hungarians, and most importantly Russian soldiers, immediately let us pass. At the time, many people without proper ID were abducted and taken to forced labor camps. Many people never returned from those camps, and those who did usually came back very sick.


While we worked for the railroads, we talked and prepared to return journeys to our home cities. Ms. Meskó told us that long ago she had worked at the counselor’s office, at a very nice house at Budafok, a wealthy suburb of Budapest, where wealthy state officials had magnificent homes. In fact, that is where Pista grew up.


I was from Debrecen, so my journey home would pass through Budapest. They asked me to help them pack their many heavy packages to Budafok, which I agreed to do.


At that time, there was no passenger train service. Only Red Army troops could use passenger trains, and the only other trains were freight trains that Russians were using to take stolen factory equipment back to Russia.  But all of these trains passed east through Budapest.


We could only ride a train if we risked our lives by sneaking onto a Russian freight trains, and to then try to hide and hope that the Russian soldiers – who escorted these trains – did not discover us. We had no idea what the consequence would be if they did.


C.                 To Budafok

 Fortunately, because we worked at the train station, we learned when the freight trains left, where they were going, and what they carried. We thought it would be safer to ride a train with stolen factory equipment instead of military equipment. So, within a few days, we found such a train going toward Budapest. Under the cover of darkness, we snuck onto a car with large machines covered by tarps. Then we snuck under the tarps, where there was enough space fit the three of us and our packages.




We felt lucky to be on that car because it was in the middle of the train, and the soldiers usually rode in the front and back cars.


Every so often, the train pulled onto a side track to let a military train pass. When we stopped like this, Russian soldiers walked by the train to make an inspection and ensure the machinery and tarps looked fine, and to make sure nobody was riding on it. We stayed very quiet under the tarps, and so we escaped detection.


It took two days for us to get to Budafok. It seemed like it was raining constantly, but we stayed dry under the tarps. We finally arrived at Budafok, and not much later it started to get dark.


We used the rain and darkening night to our advantage. We snuck off the train into the station, and then walked to the city.


All around us, there was commotion, yelling and partying, but nobody paid any attention to us. It took us about half an hour to arrive at the house, which was quiet and in good condition. It had only been about a few weeks since the minister and Ms. Mesko had left the home, and during that time nobody had been there.


We washed up, had dinner, and then we learned from the radio that May 1 would be a work holiday. In Hungary, this had always been a holiday, but not a work holiday. Now, people were singing all over the place because they knew this meant the end of the war. From that day forward, the national government would recognize May 1 as a national holiday for the workers.


D.                To Debrecen

The next morning, I left on foot for Budapest’s Nyugati (Western) Train Station, which is where trains left for Debrecen. I arrived around noon, and in the early afternoon a train of only box cars was leaving. When I tried to get on, every boxcar was already filled with people. The only place I could find space was on the top of a boxcar. It wasn’t raining, but at night it sure was cold to travel on top.


The train arrived in Debrecen around midnight. I spent the night inside the train station. My grandfather’s little gardener’s house was on the other side of the city, and it was so late that I did not want to start out. The station was cold with rubble all around, but there was no better option.


In the morning, I started off for Debrecen’s northern edge, where I hoped to find my grandfather in the vineyard.


I arrived about an hour later, and it was with great joy that I found my grandpa. We talked all morning about the war and about my parents. He knew nothing about them since they had left the village of Jozsa for Szombathely when they took the trains away.


In the summer of 1944, my grandfather had also gone to Jozsa to live with my parents, but when they left for Szombathely, the little old man returned to Debrecen to his gardener’s house.


I asked about Jozsa, which is where I had visited my parents during a break, where I had smoked my first pipe, and where I had been when I received the telegram ordering me to return because the Russians invaded. My grandfather knew nothing about what might be there now.


After lunch, I walked to Jozsa, which was about 9 km from Debrecen. I arrived around 2:00 PM at the village to the home where my parents lived.


The housekeeper and his wife received me with great joy. I found everything in the front room just as my parents had arranged it, exactly as I had seen it during my break about nine months earlier.


I took possession of the stuff that my parents had left behind, and I lived there for a few months.


By then, the military academy had shut down for good. A new world had started, and with it, a new life for me. I had left home for the air force  academy in September 1943, and I returned to my birthplace in May 1945. I was 16 years old. I had no idea if my parents were even alive, and if they were, where they were in this great big messed up world. I had no idea if they would ever come back home, or if that was even possible.



[1] It might have felt calm in Elek’s corner of the country, but elsewhere some of the most intense suffering of war happened at this time during what is known as the Siege of Budapest. As explained by Wikipedia, this was “the 50-day-long encirclement by Soviet and Romanian forces of the Hungarian capital of Budapest…. [T]he siege began when Budapest, defended by Hungarian and German troops, was encircled on 26 December 1944 by the Red Army and the Romanian Army. During the siege, about 38,000 civilians died through starvation, military action, and mass executions of Jews by the far-right Hungarian nationalist Arrow Cross Party. The city unconditionally surrendered on 13 February 1945.”


[2] [Elek here describes his understanding of the Hungarian political situation. His accounts are historically inaccurate, revisionist, and formed later. More accurate history of Hungarian politics during this time is available elsewhere.]


[3] This story was elsewhere, out of context. I moved it here to fit in correct chronological order.


[4] In 2020s, the Tapolca train station is more than a mile from the airport, but the train tracks pass right next to the airport. I do not know if either was at the same location in 1944.

[5] Victor: In 1984, everyone in my family – other than Elek – went to Hungary for a summer vacation. Elek stayed home alone. After we returned, I notice that he had installed 2-3 heavy duty locks on master bedroom door. It looked so strange, out of place, and a completely overkill. I asked him why, and he told me the story of shooting this white dog. He explained that while we were gone, his routine was to come home, eat, and then go up to his bedroom, where he would lock the door and sit on his bed with a loaded gun until he fell asleep. He did this every night for several weeks. This was during the summer, when the sun goes down late, meaning he spent many hours each night alone in that room. I’m not therapist, but this sounds like an PTSD. At the time, he was 55 years old, about 40 years after the episode with the white dog. It is hard to imagine the life-long psychological terror that stays with child soldiers who are imprinted with the fear of life and death situations when they are so young.


[6] Victor: He almost certainly meant north of the city. There is no mountain to the south, but there is one that is only about 8 miles to the NNW, near the mountain village of Velem, which otherwise fits his description.

[7] As written, it sounds like this happened during his Christmas break. But the Americans bombed Szombathely on Sunday, March 4, 1945, and that was the first massive bombing of the city. The attack involved about 120-130 B-24 bombers that flew from Africa, likely Libya, escorted by P-51 fighters. Elsewhere, he writes that he did not visit Debrecen for Christmas 1944, so it is reasonable that he was in Szombathely for Christmas, as he states, and then again during the bombing. This is reasonable to believe he visited multiple times because he was stationed only 50-60 miles away in Lesencetomaj. Also, it is highly unlikely that they tried to hike any mountain in Hungary near Christmas, it is far too dark and cold for that. He is correct that the bombing happened on a Sunday.

[8] These were not just rumors. According to a Swiss embassy report discussing the Siege of Budapest, "The worst suffering of the Hungarian population is due to the rape of women. Rapes—affecting all age groups from ten to seventy are so common that very few women in Hungary have been spared." Ungváry, Krisztián (2005). The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II. The siege ended with thousands of Germans and residents breaking through the Red Army encirclement and moving west, which would have likely taken many suffering escapees through Szombathely. See also, 

[9] Perhaps he was unaware, but this is precisely when the Germans launched their last major offensive of World War II, called Operation Spring Awakening. According to Wikipedia, “It took place in Western Hungary on the Eastern Front and lasted from 6 March until 15 March, 1945. The objective was to secure the last significant oil reserves still available to the European Axis powers and prevent the Red Army from advancing towards Vienna. It was a failure for Nazi Germany.” The Germans “moved in great secrecy to the Lake Balaton area.” From there, they attacked in three prongs, two coming around the west and east of Lake Balaton, and a third coming north from Croatia. “The advance stalled on 15 March, and on 16 March the Red Army and allied units began their delayed Vienna offensive.”


[10] Minister of National Defense Lajos Csatay 1944 . according to the decree issued on October 12 On October 17, 1944, the Hungarians government created this division, with the minister of defense explaining, “In the life-and-death struggle for our country with the danger from the East: Soviet Bolshevism, I am setting up a new elite division, the Szent László Division, from the best of the human resources we still have at our disposal.”


[11] The timing here gets fuzzy. He was in Szombathely during bombing, which definitely happened on March 5. But he then refers to so many things taking days or weeks that it could easily describe 6-8 weeks. But later he describes an event that happened on March 30, 1945. Thus, everything between here and there happened within 25 days from witnessing the Szombathely bombing.

[12] It’s interesting that he mentions they caused lack of sleep. This is from a Wikipedia article about the use of the Po-2 during WWII: “The unit was notorious for daring low-altitude night raids on German rear-area positions. … The material effects of these missions may be regarded as minor, but the psychological effect on German troops was noticeable. They typically attacked by surprise in the middle of the night, denying German troops sleep and keeping them on their guard, contributing to the already high stress of combat on the Eastern front. The usual tactic involved flying only a few meters above the ground, climbing for the final approach, throttling back the engine and making a gliding bombing run, leaving the targeted troops with only the eerie whistling of the wind in the wings’ bracing-wires as an indication of the impending attack.”

[13] According to this website, “The war ended in the [Keszthely] on 30 March 1945, when the Soviets marched in.” Dates in the prior headings are based on this single entry. It might be off by a day or two.

[14] He wrote that the Russians shot “akna,” which means a mine. It doesn’t make much sense that they “shot mines,” which are not really projectiles, so I assume he meant something like a grenade launcher, artillery, or something like that.

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