These are a series of impressions and experiments as seen through the eyes of an Hungarian painter. These things really happened. There is no expression of any political opinion, racial or religious prejudices, simply people behaving in their different ways under exceptional circumstances.
The stories are not chronological but are tied together by some chance visual recollections, they cover the years from 1940 to 1947.
In the spring of 1940 the painter had to return to Budapest. He had been out of the country for several years and he had refused to do his military service. He was also on a political black list for anti-Horthy cartoons in foreign newspapers.
He spent a long time in labour and punishment camps, and was with the first punishment company to be sent to Prussia. He was in the January 1943 retreat and subsequently deserted and went over and fought with the Russians.
In 1945 he returned to Budapest from Debrecen with the new government. He worked in the propaganda department making posters, decorations and official portraits. After six months he resigned and was allowed to re-open his private art school. In 1947 he decided it was time to leave Hungary and he came to Paris as a refugee.
The labour and punishment camps need some explanation as they are very confusing.
Hungary had been under German influence since the rise to power of Hitler. From 1940 on Hitler started giving back to Hungary certain territories in Czecho-Slovakia and Transylvania which had Hungarian minorities and which, before the Treaty of Versailles, had belonged to Hungary. Under German pressure (Hungary was not at war) there was an army call-up and many men were sent to occupy these territories. Ten per cent of the Hungarian population at that time was Jewish, but to have Jewish soldiers occupying these areas granted to Hungary by Hitler, would have been politically embarrassing. The Jews could not be left as civilians so the labour companies were formed. Much later all half Jews, political prisoners and ordinary criminals were put in these companies. At first the men only did three monthly stretches and then were released for a short period, later these camps became very bad, particularly the punishment ones. There was always confusion over the ‘uniform’ worn, sometimes it was a sort of military one without any insignia of rank, sometimes civilian clothes with a military cap, a yellow armband was worn for a full Jew, white for a half or a political prisoner.
The officers in charge of the companies were sometimes Jewish or half Jewish or with Jewish wives, sometimes a man who had spoiled his military career and could not advance, or else a man with some criminal record in civilian life. Many of the Jewish officers were highly decorated from the Great War and had been reduced to the rank of lieutenant, some were even deprived of their commissions altogether.
In Nuremberg laws were brought in (a man must prove four Gentile grandparents). This resulted in a terrible wave of suicides, so many families were compromised, including the aristocracy.
The winter after Hungary declared war the first punishment company was sent to Russia. The men were unarmed, they were used for loading and unloading ammunition, and for going ahead of the regular army to blow up the minefields simply by walking across them.