We had first met two weeks earlier when he had given me a lift on the back of his motor-bicycle; he was a German captain, young and very good looking, an architect in private life. The Russians as usual were not far behind us, I was tired of walking and very grateful for this exceptional offer. We passed relatively a very pleasant day together, driving slowly down the congested roads, discussing many things but never politics or food. In the company food had become almost our only topic, we could not help it, we were obsessed by the memory of it. All the way back from Russia I had a daydream about a piece of chocolate cake, it was mostly the determination to eat it that got me back to Budapest alive.
His second appearance was extremely providential , it was after we had made our disastrous attempt at desertion. The S.S. major who had arrested us had behaved very correctly and instead of shooting us on the spot which was usual at that time, he sent us under escort to our own military police. We were marched back through the retreating armies to the nearest Hungarian post. We made such a strange sight, four men under arrest returning in the direction of the enemy for the purpose of being shot by their own people, that the soldiers found time to stop and stare at us.
The Hungarian military policeman to whom we were turned over was not impressed with our story of having been cut off from our company. He gave the order for us to be shot, and then presented us each with a cigarette.
We came out into the hot morning sunshine and stood waiting for long minutes while a German motorized unit came through the village. I was not consciously very moved by my forthcoming execution, and I do not remember thinking of feeling anything in particular. I noticed the sun’s heat and the noise the German machines made, and I thought vaguely what a waste it was to lose my beautiful boots and the gabadine breeches that once belonged to a Rumanian officer. Perhaps if we had been about to be hung I would have felt differently. It was not exceptional bravery that made me so calm and almost indifferent, but a case of delayed reaction, shooting sounded so secondary after all we had seen and been through, so quick and comparatively unimportant.
I have seen many executions, and beforehand the majority of the men are numbed with fear and shock and appear to be unable to comprehend what is about to happen to them. A small percentage collapse completely. The exceptions are those who remain fully conscious and behave with extreme bravery, they curse their executioners and whoever has brought them to the gallows and they continue to curse as they hang dying.
We stood close to each other not speaking, a small desolate group watching the Germans roar by. We had all gone very white in the face, and one man had started to shake uncontrollably. A motor-bicyclist drew away from the column, he got off his machine and came over and spoke to our guard. It was my architect friend, he had recognized me and immediately comprehended the situation. He ordered the guard to take him to his officer, and we all followed him back into the house occupied by the military police.
The captain told the military policeman that we had been working for him loading ammunition and had therefore got cut off from our company. The Hungarian army by that time was completely subordinate to the Germans, there was nothing he could do except release us; he even shook each one of us by the hand.
We came out into the sun again, and the German got on to his motor-bicycle and tore off down the road to rejoin his column.
Two days later we passed each other in the road for the last time.
Succeeding finally in deserting, I hid for several weeks with a peasant family about forty kilometres from Debrecen. Fighting was still very confused, Russian troops, mainly partisans, were moving through the village day and night.
There is no doubt that the Russian soldier is a fantastic fighter but he is not inspired by any ideal – patriotism – propaganda or political faith, he goes forward simply with three objects in view – women, wine and food.
The area I was in is wine producing country and there was a lot of wine, but as soon as the Russians started coming through it was finished in three days. Night and day soldiers came to the house asking for wine and women. Like most primitive people, if you can speak a few words of their language they become friendly, and I was able to help the peasants I was staying with. Only old men, women and children were left in the village, so whenever the soldiers came to the house I posed as the husband. Most Russians will respect a woman if her husband is with her, or if she has a baby in her arms, they are very sentimental over children. We had luck and nothing disagreeable happened to anyone in the house. The news of our success spread through the village and within a few days I was besieged with women asking for protection. It became a comic situation, forty women of all ages imploring me to pretend to be their husband. In the end we organised a rota system and I had a very busy two weeks.
One morning a high-ranking Cossack officer came to the farm and ordered me to get him ten litres of wine. I explained to him that for the last two weeks there had not been a drop left in this part of the country. He did not bother to listen.
You must find it, my General wants it. I will return for it in one hour and if you haven’t found it I will shoot you!”
It was serious. The country was flat and there was no hope of escaping. If I hid in some house he would only find me and shoot not only me, but half the village as well.
The peasants were very good, they all rushed round trying to find wine. But it was hopeless, there really was not a drop left.
After an hour many of my wives gathered round and some even started to weep. We waited for the Cossack.
We saw him coming from a long way off, there was a powdering of snow on the ground and it flew up all around him as he rode over the flat countryside. He looked very romantic.
He rode up at a wild gallop reining in his horse as only a Cossack can. He wore an astrakhan hat and a black cape, the cape was so full and long that it practically covered his horse as well. His horse, fast and very strong, was tiny, a white Siberian with a huge head out of all proportion to the short legs and small body.
He did not bother to speak. He saw my face and the faces of my friends.
I closed my eyes for what seemed a long time. Nothing happened. When I opened them the Cossack was smiling. A little girl was stretching out her hand with a perfect rosy apple on it. He bent down took the apple, laughed, spurred his horse and galloped off as suddenly as he had arrived.
The child began to howl; she had intended the apple for the horse.