As part of the exclusive ASG “Werk Kamps Project”, I had the privilege of interviewing Sandor Vandor, a Hungarian native who was interned at one of the lesser known labour camps in Austria during the Holocaust. As often neglected in circles of Holocaust memory, Sandor’s extraordinary testimony raises awareness of the individual experiences of those placed in forced labour camps across Europe. Yet, his placement in Sankt Anna directly contributed to his survival, and his will to live grew stronger due to the humanity, courage and kindness of the local residents. Now, Sandor works to educate others, and regularly visits the town in which he was imprisoned to teach future generations about their history.
Hannah Wilson: Sandor, I understand that you were 19 years of age at the time that the Nazis invaded Hungary. Can you tell us about the first stages of that, and what happened to you and your family at the beginning?
Sandor Vandor: On 19th of March, 1944 Germany occupied Hungary. Check points were set up immediately at public transportation stops in order to leave or enter Budapest officially. Jews were arrested and interned. Before the end of the month, those Jews were sent to Auschwitz. My wife, Anna was among them. An ordinance proclaimed that the Jews were to affix a Yellow Star of David on their outer garments and wear it all the time. Many other restrictions of Jewish life were enacted also. Jewish males, ages 19-45 were called up by the military for forced labour. My father and I were ordered to appear at the requested recruiting centre by May 20. My company was assigned to work in a bombed oil refinery at the village of Szöny. The company commander, a Captain of the army, was a decent man, so the guards behaved accordingly. Food was the regular army issue, supplied in the same quality and quantity as the rest of the Hungarian army. Adequate personal hygiene was provided. Work was heavy manual labour with only primitive implements provided. It lasted until a day after Christmas, when we were evacuated from Szöny. Our commander and guards were changed, and we began a death march from Szöny, west toward Germany. The last Hungarian stop was the brick factory in Sopron: a way station. People were reshuffled, and new groups were created. My childhood friend, Gyuri (a nick name for George) and I were kept together in the same group. Our group was ordered to go St Anna/Aigen, Austria. Immediately upon entering Austria, we passed through a delousing station. From there via train and foot, we reached the village of St Anna.
Hannah: When you began working in the German labour camps in Sankt Anna am Aigen, what were the living conditions like, and what kind of labour jobs were you forced to do?
Sandor: In St Anna, we were accommodated in a warehouse, which had been converted into a barrack. The warehouse compound was surrounded with 2-meter-high chain link fences, with a double swing gate opening into the street. Inside the warehouse, there were wall-to-wall wooden bunk beds in two levels. Shoulder-to-shoulder personal space was allocated. Gyuri and I, we slept next to each other; we were together in St Anna. The work was heavy, and we began building a trench for a tank-trap. Every day a group of ten labourers had to create a 5m wide, 5m deep, 1m length of trench space, and the hauled out dirt was then landscaped. It was winter time, February and March. The earth was wet, snowy and frozen. Our simple implements were spades, and shovels. We were forced to create a 2.5m3 of trench space daily, per person. Our incentive was, when the group of ten had finished the quota of 1m length of trench space, we were allowed to go back to the barrack unescorted. My group of ten regularly finished the quota early and went often back to the barrack.
Hannah: Was there adequate food and water?
Sandor: No, not at all. The people were worked to death. The total amount required to live for a healthy man at that age is 3000 or more calories per day. We had a very, very low calorie intake. There was a daily food ration, given in two servings: 1 litre of liquid, and about 100 grams of bread. We had a total 200-250 calories per day. In 2 ½ month time, I lost 1/3 of my body weight. No water – zero – not 1 drop – was available. Any form of personal hygiene was denied! No chances to wash up, no change of clothing. This very frequently resulted in lice infections, and I caught Fleck Typhus, a deadly disease.
Hannah: Did you have any communication with your friends and family whilst being there?
Sandor: None at all; we had no communication with the outside world. We were totally isolated. In St Anna, on Main street there were three separate compounds all within 100 metres of each other, and filled with Hungarian Jewish force labourers. This included the warehouse, across the street a parish house served as a barrack, and a few houses down the street there was the local school building, which had also been converted. Each group existed without knowing the existence of the others.
Hannah: How did the German officers treat you and your fellow inmates?
Sandor: Our contact with German officers was very limited. At the barrack compound, I actually didn’t see any officers. In the mornings, going to the workplace, we were escorted by SS troops with basically no interactions. The local people – they knew that we were hungry – they were depositing daily small food packages along the roadside we were escorted for the workplace. If the SS guard saw that some of us picked up a package, then with the aid of the riffle-butt, they convinced the person to drop the package uneaten. Also uniformed Germans were at the work site. They were members of the military construction group, supervising the trench digging progress. In a room of the same warehouse where we the Jews were living, a small group of Ukrainian quasi-prisoners of war were housed also. They had more freedom of movement, and a less restricted life than the Jews had. They brought our “meals” from the kitchen and ladled it out. I bartered apples with the Ukrainians for vegetable soup and tobacco. We ate the soup and kept the tobacco for bartering other days for soup. Besides the apples, the tobacco also became my currency to keep bartering between begging excursion days.
Hannah: What particular events or memories from this experience stick out in your memory from this time?
Sandor: Well, both Gyuri and I were very hungry; we had numerous conversations about hunger. Contemplating our future, I said: we are going to die of starvation. Which would be a very painful process. I argued that the hidden messages that were sometimes with the food packages from the villagers “were invitations”. Before the crowd came back from the workplace, we had free time in the afternoons to leave the compound, beg for food and come back. But we were risking our life if we got caught outside the camp. I further argued: in that case we will be shot dead on the spot, and I would choose a bullet to cause my death versus starvation.
We came to an agreement: We climbed over the fence, and visited the neighbouring villages. We knocked on doors and begged for food. In the time frame of the beginning of February to mid-March, we did the begging excursions a few times. The total food supplement each we obtained with begging was equivalent to 600 calories per day. It was remarkable. The best part of it is that the food was given us in broad daylight: it was risky, and openly visible to anybody. Everybody silently approved it, and nobody got hurt. Of course, at that time by the law, feeding a Jew was a capital crime, punishable by death or concentration camp. So was talking to a Jew, or inviting a Jew inside the home. The most remarkable excursion took place in mid-March. We visited the village of Aigen. We knocked on a door. A young woman appeared, and she pulled me inside the house by my arm and did the same with Gyuri, and closed the door behind us. And said: wait right here. She left, and a short time later, she returned with 2 egg sandwiches, one for Gyuri and one for me. Also, 2 tall glasses of apple juice, one each. We had to consume the food inside, and after we ate, she let us go. During the whole process, she committed three “capital offences”. But, her magical food saved my life.
Hannah: Your testimony certainly emphasises the geographical and historical stretch of the Holocaust, and truly how many people it affected. There were so many small towns across Europe that have their own, traumatic Holocaust narratives, beyond the better known concentration camp sites. When you were liberated, and what did it feel like to know you had made it through?
Sandor: The date was: April 15, 1945. I didn’t feel euphoria. I didn’t feel. I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of the event, at that time. I was totally dehumanised. Of course, I made it through. But that didn’t sink in yet. 7 decades have passed and I can’t tell you that it has sunk in completely. Would it ever sink in? I lived 57 very happy years with my wife, Anna. We raised 2 children and we both enjoyed their successes, also enjoyed their five children, our grandchildren. But I am on continuous re-humanising “therapy”. As we are talking now, that “therapy” is still ongoing. And Hannah, I thank you for it!
Hannah: Do you believe that you had a better chance of living because of your labour position in Anna am Aigen?
Sandor: Yes, because of the inhabitants of St Anna/Aigen, who enhanced my survival. I read holocaust stories. Many – tens of thousands – of individuals helped, and saved Jews. Individuals, small groups, but not in a concentrated form, like the people of St Anna.
Hannah: Did many of your inmates survive with you?
Sandor: Since I became infected with Fleck Typhus, I was isolated in a barrack with 45-50 other sick inmates. From that group of the sick, only 5 of us walked away alive. The healthy comrades were taken in a death march to Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where most – including my friend Gyuri – were liberated.
Hannah: From then on, how did life go on for you? What happened in the immediate period after your liberation, and did you return to Hungary?
Sandor: I spent 9 sick days in that “infirmary” barrack, without food and with no liquid intake. That defied all medical estimates of a man’s survival without fluid intake. I got off my bed every day and went outside. I did the same routine on the morning of 5th of April. Being outside, I observed that Russian soldiers were walking on the site, and I realised that we were liberated. I went back to the barrack and told the inmates that we are liberated, and I am going back home to Hungary. I suggested that we should not waste time and start going immediately, and 5 of us started walking towards Hungary. I did reconnect some of the surviving members of my family. I met my sister in Budapest. She came home from Auschwitz. She brought the news that our mother was killed in Auschwitz. After that, we reconnected with our father and some cousins in the city of Oradea in Romania. I recuperated in Oradea. And about 2 months later, I did travel back to Budapest to start my new life, after liberation.
Hannah: Lastly, tell me about the connection you have with the lady who saved you, Mrs. Lackner, and the town of Anna am Aigen. It is an inspiring outcome of an unimaginable situation.
Sandor: 60 years after being in a slave labour camp in St. Anna, I realised that my life was saved in St Anna and I didn’t say thank you for that effort. In 2005, I made contact with Mayor Josef Weinhandl of St Anna and travelled to St Anna to say thank you for saving my life. On that occasion, I found that one inhabitant had been saying for 60 years that she suffered from having a bad conscience: she helped Jews in 1944-45, but non came back. To her, it meant that her help wasn’t sufficient and that she should have had helped more. The Mayor’s wife, Mrs. Elisabeth Weihhandl, brought me to the house of that individual. We were rehashing our history and we realised – with forensic evidence – that she was the young woman who gave me the egg-sandwich, and I was the recipient. Her name was Mrs. Maria Lackner. Our reunion changed both of our lives. She unloaded a heavy burden off her shoulders. Her helping effort in 1945 bore fruit, and I appeared all those years later with my thank you. I revisited her regularly for 5 consecutive years, before she passed away. Her life was fulfilled. I am still revisiting St Anna periodically. The Weinhandl’s adopted me to be an extended member of their family, and I adopted them to be my extended family. Now, I find different venues to tell my story. Mostly, I meet school children in their classes. Many of my listeners found something in my story, which points to a new sight in their life. They can learn from it. This is very important because the Nazis perpetrated the greatest genocide in the human history. They killed 6 million Jewish people. And this has to be told, so it can be learned from.
For more information, visit Sandor’s website: www.stanna2005.com
Interview by Hannah Wilson