|Tibor Cseres: Serbian Vendetta in Bacska|
On a May afternoon, while I was dedicating copies of my newly published book for interested readers in front of a major theatre in Budapest, a man in rural clothes approached me after having gazed at me for a long time. He held a seemingly brand new copy of "Cold Days" in his hand and, answering my inquiring glance, he quietly said:
"Are the Bezdan people in it?"
I did not reach for his copy, the simply dressed man obviously did not want my signature, he was only interested in the fate of the people of Bezdan. I knew that news of their fate had not reached my book.
I was sitting in front of the theatre, a couple of metres away from the traffic, sheltered from the hot sun by a tent. The bookseller girls had already mentioned that somebody from Bezdan had been looking for me in the morning, but they had no idea where Bezdan was. So this curious question, whispered in a low voice, did not take me by surprise.
"Should they be in it?"
"Of course they should," answered the Bezdan man, "because it belongs to it, we must not forget that."
"Why do you think such a thin book should contain Bezdan?"
"For the things that happened there."
I could have asked what of importance happened there, but instead, I was curious of the date, when. I knew that the recollection of a date, of an exact day and hour is the weakest point: not only of most simple men, but of most educated men as well: if one wants to prove the incorrectness of an assertion. The Bezdan man was not embarrassed by this unexpected question, the date was on the tip of his tongue as it must have been in his mind during the previous twenty years:
"November the third, nineteen hundred and forty four, from morning till late afternoon."
There were more and more people gathering around us with books in their hands. I asked him twice to tell me about that event twenty years before, but my man could not say more than:
"The soccer field...", and again, "the soccer field..."
I had to realize that he was not willing to say anything more in
Some minutes later I was already reading the menu, offering several good meals for lunch but he said he was not hungry and accepted nothing more than a glass of red wine. Then I reminded him of the third of November for the third time.
"My only luck was that I had left for Baja on horseback on the evening of November the second," began the man at last, "because my brother-in-law had sent word that my sister Julis might give birth to her child any hour and he was still in service, and he didn't know if he could stay with her. My mother didn't dare go, my father couldn't, because he was a deserter from the army and he spent most of his time in the attic behind the chimney. My little brother was not yet over sixteen, so he was too small to help our expectant sister. So the duty, and the luck, fell on me."
"Well, it must have been quite dangerous to ride on horseback in those days", I said sympathetically.
"I was not stopped by anyone on the way, although even the ditches were full of refugees, especially near the crossings where the traffic was very heavy."
"How can you remember the events of that day then, if you had to go to Baja?"
"My mother preserved each hour of that day and the previous evening in her memory and she passed it on to me."
He fell silent, this time I did not say anything to encourage him, I just filled his glass.
"My mother said that hardly had I left, when at dusk, the armed partisans began to cross the Danube on barges. She also heard some shots but no cries: they must have shot into the air. Early in the morning, the village drummer announced that everybody, for his own good, must gather on the soccer field. Under penalty of death, no one was allowed to remain at home, not even the sick. My father also climbed down from behind the chimney, he thought that the crime of desertion was over anyway, since the death penalty announced by the Hungarians on deserters was no longer in force. He decided not to go back to the attic: he washed and shaved, and obeying the order, walked to the soccer field together with my mother and my little brother. A gramophone was playing there. It played Serbian partisan marches, but sometimes they put on the record "You are so beautiful Hungary" and "I am a soldier of Horthy Miklos", perhaps as an
encouragement. The partisans, who had machine guns, were not more than twenty, a partisan woman was the loudest among them. With the help of interpreters, they ordered that the men between sixteen and fifty to remain on the soccer field and the rest, elderly people, women, children, leave the village and go to the farms. No one was allowed to go home, until they had gotten permission. Shoving them with their guns, the partisans began to drive the people in the direction of the farms. The women started to cry at that point, they were worried because the people had been divided into two groups. Fear fell on those who left, but also on those who remained on the field.
My brother, who was not yet sixteen, and my father, who was well over fifty and belonged only to the army reserve, wanted to join the majority, but the more they protested the stronger they were pushed back among the group of men staying on the field. The partisan woman I mentioned before, hit them brutally with her rifle butt. There were one hundred and eighteen men chosen to die, but the partisans couldn't agree how to kill them. First they drove them to the bank of the Danube, where some of them were shot into the river by machine guns. My father and my brother were among these. Maybe they didn't find the current of the water strong enough, since some of the bodies were caught by some hidden whirlpools. Therefore, after some quarrel and debate, they began to drive the rest towards Zombor.
In Zombor they didn't get anything to eat for weeks, every day dozens of people starved to death were pulled from the barracks. Those people who were forbidden to return to the village dispersed in the countryside in the nearby farms.
My mother got back to the battered house only after more than a week, left utterly alone. While hiding, she had thought of walking over to our Julis in Baja, who gave birth to a healthy boy the next week. My mother didn't want to leave because she was worried about the livestock in the stable and the sties: she was the only one there to feed them. After several days, she returned to find the cow was gone: somebody had driven her away. Perhaps it was fortunate too, otherwise it would have perished in front of the empty manger. The pigs were gone too, just a couple of frightened hens came forward at my mother's call.
Those who had hidden at home and hadn't gone out to the soccer field had met their fate according to the threat. Some bodies were found in the wells: others had to be dug out of the dungheap, only their arms or legs stuck out of the muck as if they were trying to ask for help: "I am here, help me."
"Nothing. After my mother had come back from the farm no one harmed her. Later it was even announced that they should report if they were molested or if anything was missing from the house. Everybody knew that they had found all the stables and the pantries looted and my mother had nobody to accuse of stealing the cow and the pigs. Those who had come to the village by barge on the second of November were by that time replaced by others. The murderers simply disappeared.
A man called Bosnyak who lived in Bezdan and had been a lieutenant in the Yugoslavian army seemed to know some of them and tried to protest. He went up to the commander of the gunmen, already on the bank of the Danube, and tried to explain in Serbian that they must not do that, they could easily get their fingers burnt for it later, since these people were all innocent and faithful citizens of the future Yugoslavian state. At this, the partisans began to beat the former lieutenant, screaming that nobody could talk about faithfulness here: nobody was innocent here but they were all murderers and traitors and the whole village should be exterminated without trace. This lieutenant called Bosnyak was executed among the very first people together with my father.
"Wasn't there any further resistance?"
"No, nothing. Although there were not more than twenty of them facing several hundred, they had an awful lot of weapons, guns and hand grenades hung on them everywhere. That's what I don't understand till this very day. There were still a lot of rifles and hand grenades lying around in the houses, which had been brought home or left behind by deserters once they had changed clothes. The Bezdan people who had hidden all this military equipment never thought of taking these weapons out to defend themselves against the partisans. They were planning instead that the grenades would serve well for river fishing and the rifles for hunting once the world quieted down again.
"Do you demand revenge for the things that happened to the Bezdan people?"
"Oh no! I wouldn't even know who to take revenge on. I am not sure if anyone could find the people who committed these murders. I can only think of my little brother, who couldn't be guilty at his age, and my father, who also wasn't guilty of anything, my mother swore upon that.
"Then what do you want, what do you expect?", I asked in a low voice. In response, his voice rose sharply.
"What do I want? I want everybody to know, we were innocent! We were all innocent! I want somebody to announce
that those people all fell victim to murder innocently."
"Nothing more? Don't you want to search for the murderers, to catch them?"
"The murderers can't be found anyway, they have hidden and those who could have remembered, who could have testified were all killed by them. I have never heard and never read about anybody who knows how many people perished in each place, because people are afraid to talk: they are all frightened even to remember those days. The authorities in Bacska strictly forbid anybody to recall it and those who try to speak about these events are arrested. We are allowed to remember and to speak only about what happened in Novi Sad." At this point he put his hand on my book, "and you can write only about that, too, although..."
"Yes, you're right, "I admitted. "Even here in our country we are allowed to remember only those crimes we committed or which were committed in our name in January 1942. According to the Hungarian government, the rest should be forgotten since, it was considered just retaliation and therefore not mentioned even at the peace negotiations."
"But it was not just because lots of innocent people were slaughtered!"
My Bezdan man drank up his wine with one gulp and grew extremely agitated.
"This silence which was ordered on us afflicts us Hungarians the most! Can you imagine anybody who can forget everything that is good about his own people and everything that is evil about other nations? Anybody who is willing to remember his crimes only and forgets all good deeds, all excuses but regards the enemy as pure, innocent and faultless almost to the extent of glorification. Even if he remembers an evil deed he declares it an inevitable, brave, heroic act, although he is well aware that such bloodshed is far from being brave heroism."
I was surprised and became suspicious that he was aiming at accusing me for my book. All I said, however, was that I felt the danger and the absurdity of the orders requiring silence, but I hoped that there would be a brave Serbian writer, who would write the story of the deeds the Serb partisans committed in the name of his nation in Bacska during the autumn of 1944.
After a brief period of thought, the man said the following:
"No Serb will ever confess to what happened in Bezdan and in Bacska."
"So you want a kind of revenge after all!"
"No! Not revenge! There's no one to revenge and no one to take revenge on. I will not go to court nor will I take up arms. I just feel sorrow for my little brother who died in the river without knowing a man's life at all. Had I known beforehand what would happen to him, I would rather have gone with my father and sent him away to our sister in Baja."
"Is that all?"
"And don't forget to mention that the other one hundred and sixteen people were all innocent as well."
I decided to satisfy his wish and, as a first step, to make public what I had learned from him about the vengeance of the partisans and about the innocent people of Bezdan. I asked him where I could find him if I wanted to know something more about that autumn.
"It's better not to find me, or if they happened to learn that it was me who gave the information and broke the order of silence, I could go home no more and if I tried, they would kill me."
We bade farewell with a strong handshake. Although he had learned in front of the tent that a dedication is a "gift" of honour from the writer to the reader, he did not wish to obtain it even after our conversation. Only later did I understand that he was afraid of telling me his name. He felt that even this could be dangerous for him.
I put down the story of my meeting with the Man of Bezdan on the same day. A couple of days later, I told the audience of the University Theatre all I knew about the murder of the 118 people. My audience was shocked by this unknown tragedy.
I hoped that I could publish the account of this experience soon after the appearance of "Cold Days". Unfortunately, only years later could I find a periodical, "Kortars" which dared to publish the story the Man of Bezdan told me. Our mutual boldness was followed by an international diplomatic conflict, Tito's impending visit to Budapest was postponed because of us and the association of Yugoslav partisans declared me persona non grata. That was the reaction to breaking the obligatory silence.
Dr. Andras Varga, an engineer by profession and head of the department at the University of Heidelberg, came to Germany from Bacska. Fortunately, he does not have to worry about the vengeful retaliation and, as a "foreigner", he was able to gather a lot of information about the events of that horrible autumn including the massacre in Bezdan. He also managed to identify
the bloodthirsty and murderous Serbian partisan squad. He shared his knowledge and the results of his research with Miklos Zelei, who published the still dangerous historical data in the Sept. 15, 1990 issue of the weekly "Kepes 7".
According to the Hungarian professor, the Hungarian armed forces, the police and the gendarmerie abandoned the city of Subotica (Szabadka) in northern Bacska on Oct. 8, 1944, and the Soviet troops marched in from the direction of Szeged on Oct. 14. They reached Zombor on Oct. 20, and Novi Sad two days later, on Oct. 22. The Serbian troops, the partisan squads of Tito, infiltrated Bacska only after the fight ended in the region.
The report pays special attention to Bezdan, this Hungarian village on the left bank of the Danube. To the best of Dr. Varga's knowledge, the villagers, men, women and children alike, were summoned to the soccer field at 9 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1944, under the pretext that important public works should be carried out and therefore everybody must show up under penalty of death. The partisans separated all 18 and 19 year-old young men from the crowd, including the players of the well-known soccer team, the BFC. By this cynical move, the partisan commander wanted to mislead the remaining population and make it possible to drive the group away without disturbance.
Equipped with spades and hoes, 122 men were led along the road to Zombor to the edge of the Isterbac woods. Armed with machine guns, only 15 partisans escorted the obedient and slightly worried group. Once there, they were forced to dig two large, wide pits, each 2 meters deep. At that point, some of them may have begun to suspect the purpose of the work. Their apprehension could have been reinforced by the fact that a kind-hearted partisan tried to send back a 13 year-old boy to the soccer field who came with the group, holding his father's hand. The little boy proved to be very affectionate: he could not be separated from his father. Their "job" being urgent, the partisans no longer cared for him. They forced the men to pile their spades and hoes and shot first the soccer team, then the rest of the group together with the child into the pits. It seems that no one thought of taking up his spade and fighting against the handful of gunmen. After the last man had been executed, they sent a messenger on horseback to the soccer field with the message that "the job is done". On receiving the news, the partisans who had so far guarded the unsuspecting crowd let the new widows and orphans go home.
After a few days, a division of Bulgarian soldiers arrived in
Dr. Varga found out the name of the murder squad. The horrible crimes were committed by the 12th Udarna Brigade of the 51st Partisan Division, under the orders of the commander and the political officer (commissar).
To begin, I am attempting to give a factual account of the bloody autumn of one single village, but the mercilessly enforced silence had different effects on different memories. Those who dare to speak are still frightened by the threat of revenge, because no Hungarian in Yugoslavia is allowed to speak about that autumn of 1944 when the Serb partisans returned. They are afraid even to tell their children what they preserved in their memories about those brutal days of slaughter.
It is not easy, perhaps not even possible to understand how hundreds of thousands of people can be forced into silence by the ice-cold, remorseless terror for almost half a century. Although we are not able to lift the ban of silence ordered by the state (perhaps secretly enacted under penalty of death), yet we may perhaps be able to reconstruct the events of the past from several uncertain memories.
I managed to get hold of certain parts of the memoirs of Gy.L. from Bezdan, which were written in 1944. F.R., T.K. and Gy. M. told me their memories in 1974. None of them, however, wishes his name to appear here. Those who lived through the era of fear
"Saturday, October 21, 1944. At 11 P.M.. the Hungarian army and the gendarmerie abandoned the village. Some people say that the Russians have already taken Zombor. "I am watching the street from the corner of the window", Gy.L. writes.
October 22. At dawn I saw some armed men on the other side near Marci Doka's house, there were about twenty or twenty-five of them: they were Royalist chetniks. They had been hiding in the Korcza woods and came out when the front arrived. In the morning they went to the council house, hoisted the Yugoslavian flag and appointed the new village principals.
October 30. We dug a pit at the end of the garden and hid our best cutlery, clothes and bedding in it. Like others, we also had to take the radio and the bicycle to the council house. Besides the chetniks, one or two Russian soldiers could be seen on the streets. The people, visited the church and the cemetery. The tension of the first days have slowly subsided.
November 2. In the morning a row of horse drawn wagons arrived from Zombor. When the first wagon stopped at the council house, the last in the line reached back further than the Stein house. After the wagons, the soldiers of the Twelfth Brigade came. The headquarters was established in the Drimoczi restaurant. In the evening we heard shots. After ten or fifteen minutes of gunfire, the partisans occupied the council house. People say the communist partisans have killed all the Royalist chetniks .
November 3. There are a lot of Russian soldiers and partisans on the streets. Trucks full of weapons and ammunition are coming along the main road. The Russians have turned the house of lumber-merchant Kiss into a slaughterhouse. They occupied the restaurants and the schools and moved field hospitals in some big houses.
Around 9 a.m., I was in front of Pali Frank's house when I saw five or six partisans going into a house on the other side. I suspected something dangerous, so I quickened my steps to get away before they came out. They took the young men away to forced labor. I noticed with surprise that none of them had any tools.
The town crier announced on every street corner that everybody must gather on the soccer field at 1 P.M., because the commander of the Twelfth Brigade was giving a speech.
It was gloomy, overcast and light rain was drizzling. There
were big puddles on the soccer field. We stopped at a drier place far from the grandstand. We were surrounded by soldiers: there was a partisan with a machine gun at every fifteen or twenty steps.
The tension was unbearable: it was obvious that they wanted to massacre all the villagers. Seven thousand of us were waiting for the moment, holding our breathe, when the machine guns would open fire.
I couldn't see what happened on the stand, I just saw three Russian officers coming on horseback. Those who stood near the stand later told me that the partisans wanted to kill us all . Janos Juszt, who was the vice chairman of the people's committee at the council house, knelt down and begged the commander to have mercy on the village. Some people heard as the Russian officers cursed and told the partisans, "There was enough bloodshed, let these people go home!"
We were ordered from the stand that everyone must leave the village by 6 P.M.. and go at least six kilometers away. Women and children were allowed to go, but the men between eighteen and forty had to remain.
I have never seen such a mess as followed that order. Everybody ran like hell, but the soldiers chased them back to the field. There was only one free road towards the engine-house, but there was a deep ditch there full of water and you could cross it over a little wooden bridge three or four steps wide. The whole crowd was pushing that way, crying, screaming, yelling, shoving and treading on one another as if some lunatics had been let loose from a madhouse. Two armed partisans stood on guard on each side of the bridge and chased back each man who wanted to cross the ditch. When I was whirled onto the bridge by the crowd, I walked almost crouching so that even my hat couldn't be seen. I was drifting with the throng and we got past the bridge at last. Everyone ran towards the embankment and then home.
In the afternoon we also left for the farm of my brother-in-law. From the corner we saw that the men who had remained on the soccer field were escorted in columns four abreast towards Zombor. The road was full of refugees. There were wagons loaded with bedding, others were pushing wheelbarrows, almost breaking their backs in the effort. It was very difficult to get ahead, since the road was flooded by all kinds of military vehicles, tanks, trucks, batteries pulled by horses."
The recollections of F.R.:
"It was announced by the town crier that everyone must come
to the soccer field. They want to find nobody at home, except the ill or the elderly people unable to walk.
Then on the soccer field they surrounded us with machine guns. The whole village stood there, awaiting their fate. In the meantime, the Russians were working on the telephone line by the Danube and their commander saw the big crowd and the machine guns all around. He asked the soldiers:
"What's happening here?"
One of them answered:
"Our commander wants to give a speech."
"Where your headquarters are?"
"The third building from here: that big house over there."
The Russian jumped on his horse and came back with the partisan commander within ten minutes. All we saw was that when he got to the place where the machine guns were, he took out his blackjack and bang! He beat the partisans within inches of their life. He said:
"Go home, everybody!"
Then the partisans, to hide their shame, ordered that all men under forty must stay there for work. They gathered some five hundred of them and began to drive them toward Zombor in rows of four. When we got to the Kozora woods, one of the partisans shouted:
"Three steps to right and left and load guns".
You know, there was the forest stretching four kilometers long in front of us. My friend Andras told me:
"Don't worry, this one in front of me can shoot only one."
For there was a partisan marching in front of Andras. After we left the woods, we realized that it was they that were afraid of us.
"Shoulder arms and step back to the group!
Well, we got to Zombor. They counted us: six were missing. Of course, Miska Pazmany, Joca Hordosi and those who had a farm near Kozora sneaked away in the dark for it was pouring rain, thunder and lightning. They suddenly lay down and when the group left, away to the farms!
Then we were taken into the military barracks next to the railway. More than five hundred of us from Bezdan, packed into three rooms. They gave us nothing to eat for four days. A partisan woman came in each day and beat us with her rifle butt. They wanted somebody to strike back and then they'd'have had a reason to execute us all.
In the first days of December, they began to let us go home. Fifty people left on December 6. Our turn came the next day. Toncsi Tomasics, Gyuszi Horvath and Toro
were not set free: they held them there as hostages.
November 4, right after dawn, I got up and went out to the yard. I drew a bucketful of water from the well and, half naked, I washed myself. It was prickly cold outside, but I didn't feel it at all and the cold water drove sleep out of my eyes.
I was just towelling myself, when I heard sobbing coming from the yard. I quickly put on my shirt and ran to the entrance door to ask what happened? Someone said that Pista Libis had been shot dead.
"By who and where?"
"By the partisans at Isterbac where he was led yesterday after 1 o'clock."
Pista Libis was coming to the soccer field yesterday with his wife when two partisans stopped him and carried him away.
It seems that the worst I feared has come true. The partisans massacred the men at Isterbac. They drove them there to execute them, not to work. It is too horrible to think about: one hundred and twenty-one innocent people were murdered!"
The recollections of F. R.:
"My nephew, Lajos Kiss, was also visited by two partisans.
"Get dressed: you come with us to work!"
His two children ran out of the house and hugged both legs of Lajos. One of the partisans asked him in Hungarian:
"Are these your children?"
"God damn it!", he said. "Go inside, you can stay here!"
An hour later two other partisans came, and these two took him away. Poor guy, he didn't think about hiding somewhere. So he was taken away and he was the third to be shot.
Jani was set free for he had been a lieutenant in the Yugoslavian army, but he demanded that the others must be set free as well. When this partisan woman called Julka started to shoot, Jani flung himself at her and almost twisted the machine gun out of her hands. The partisans then got very frightened and started to shoot at anybody in sight. Jani got twenty bullets: the woman got none. He was the first man who died at Isterbac.
The father-in-law of Toni Limburger was the last. When the partisans came in, the commander asked Toni:
"Is it you whose house was smeared with shit by the Germans because you didn't join the SS?"
They gave him an ID.
"You can come and go freely. Do you have anybody at Isterbac?"
"Yes, my father-in-law was taken away."
"Then, he said, get your bike and follow me!"
They rushed off, the partisans on horseback and he on bike. But when they got there, some hundred meters away from the meadow, it seemed to smoulder, the dead bodies lay there in rows. All the partisan said was:
"Antal, we're too late, let's turn back."
So Toni was the first to know that everyone had been shot dead at Isterbac."
|Tibor Cseres: Serbian Vendetta in Bacska|