An exceptional document in the Muzeon archive: the Camp Newspaper and conditions in the Hungarian forced labour camps
In the archive of our museum there is a newspaper called Camp Newspaper (Táborihiradó). This newspaper is a rare document. Published on 4 December 1943, it contains short stories, anecdotes, parodies and caricatures of the life of the camp workers, as well as tributes to Hungarian leaders and writers, and hygiene advice. It was written by the Jewish inmates of the Szentkirályszabadja labour camp in Hungary. It is interesting to follow the topics discussed in the context in which it was written. One article that piqued our attention and we wanted to share with you is the one about health. Here are explained basic things that every man should pay attention to: the importance and benefits of a nightgown, the fact that it would be necessary for everyone to own at least two pieces to wear them alternately, so that the duration of the piece of clothing is extended. Another important topic discussed is the indisputable need for every individual to own two pairs of shoes, so that you have spare footwear in case one gets wet. At the same time, it is made clear that it is more important that the shoes are the right size than the appearance of the shoe.
© Copyright Muzeon - Front page of the Camp Newspaper (Táborihiradó) written by Jewish inmates of the Szentkirályszabadja labour camp, Hungary.
These things still apply today. It is not at all an unusual subject. But, looking at the context and the cynical language in which these things are described, the article becomes unique. Those sent to the forced labour camps had no proper equipment for either the type of work being done or the season. They had only the clothes on their backs. If you’ve walked through our museum and listened to the life story of Paul, one of our audio guides, you’ve learned about the working conditions in the labour camps. Paul says he worked barefoot for almost half a year. He had no spare clothes, just the ones he came from home with. When his shoes became damaged, he requested a new pair, but they didn’t arrive until winter.
© Copyright Muzeon - Paul Lusztig's military book from the Muzeon Archive.
“A year ago they transferred me to Szentkirályszabadja, where we are building an airport, a hospital and administrative buildings. I find it strange to build for a war that only destroys. As hard as it is, I’m glad I’m still one of the people building the airport. Others were sent to the front to dig trenches. We build imposing buildings, but we sit in mud huts. Better, though, than the ones we used to build from the branches of bushes. We are near Lake Balaton, a wet and muddy area. We sleep with our shoes in our arms or under our heads, lest someone steal them. It’s been two years and we’re still wearing the clothes we came to camp with.”
These are some of Paul’s recollections as an audio guide at Muzeon.
© Copyright Muzeon - Letter sent in 1944 by Erzsébet Mann, Paul's fiancée, to him.
In Northern Transylvania, once it was re-annexed to Hungary by the Vienna Arbitration of 30 August 1940, some 15,000 Jewish men aged 14-48 were forcibly recruited. The enrolment of Jewish men from Northern Transylvania into auxiliary labour detachments began in the summer of 1942. The men in these detachments were sent first to labour camps in Hungary and then to the front line in Ukraine, and most of them perished on the Eastern Front. Jewish-owned factories and plants were turned over to the state and the employment of “non-Jewish proxies” in Jewish enterprises was instituted, and they subsequently became “owners”. Jewish civil servants were dismissed from state and communal services. State schools closed their doors to thousands of Jewish pupils.
Map of Hungary 1919-1945. Image source: Braham 1977, p. 4.
Forced labour by Jews is a distinct chapter in the Holocaust in Romania as well. The Antonescu government followed the policy of the Legionary nation-state regarding the forced labour regime, where Jews were forced to perform work for the benefit of the community and then forced labour under the supervision of the army. Thus, 80,042 Jews between the ages of 18 and 50 were forced to perform forced labour, either in their home towns or in labour camps (agriculture and construction sites) under military jurisdiction, for the duration of the Second World War. Jewish labour detachments were used to build additional railway lines between distant places such as Bucharest-Craiova, Bucharest-Urziceni, Bumbești-Livezeni-Petroșani. The precarious living and working conditions in these camps, insufficient medical care, poor hygiene, lack of food and clothing, including mobilisation of the sick and disabled, poor and corrupt administration, corporal punishment, etc. contributed to the formation of the labour camps.
Forced labour in the Holocaust was one of the forms of ostracism of Jews in the Old Kingdom and southern Transylvania. It meant the removal from active and paid work of 47,345 Jews by 1943, most of them breadwinners. Remuneration for work was minimal or non-existent; clothing, food, work tools and health care had to be provided by the Jewish community. In 1943, 44,234 Jewish men did compulsory labour and 21,078 were requisitioned in industry and commerce.
© Copyright Muzeon - Postcard from the Szentkirályszabadja labour camp, Hungary.
Background to the operation of forced labour camps in Hungary
Initially, all citizens over the age of 21, classified as unfit for military service, could be called up for public service in special labour camps for a period not exceeding three months. On the surface, the legal framework was not discriminatory in nature; those recruited for such service were to receive the same pay, clothing and food rations as those in the armed forces.
People considered “untrustworthy”, such as communists or Jews, were systematically excluded from military service and gradually eliminated from the socio-economic life of the country.
Organisation of the forced labour service system in Hungary
The general objectives laid down in Hungarian Decree 5070/1939, signed by Prime Minister Pál Teleki, were as follows: training or retraining of young men recruited for the labour service according to their aptitude; employment of those in the service to meet the needs of the armed forces and their use for any work in the service of the community with the approval of the Ministry. Those recruited were identified as ‘organised military work units’. The number, character, internal organisation and equipment of the camps were to be determined by the Ministry of Defence. This included jurisdiction over matters of command, discipline, training and other organisational details. It exercised supreme command over the labour camps through the National Supervisor of the Public Labour Service System (KMOF – A Közérdekű Munkaszolgálat Országos Felügyelője). Recruits were given shovels and pickaxes instead of machine guns as “standard armament” and had to address officers traditionally by title.
According to Ministry of Defence estimates, about 20,000 of the 90,000 recruits were to be classified for service annually. Of these, only 6,000 were expected to be fit for industrial work, the rest being fit only for “mass work” in the fields and forests or for road construction.
In 1939, the character of the camps was not based solely on antisemitic or outright discriminatory policy. During this period, recruits from both military and labour service received the same pay and discipline. They had access to family assistance and those with disabilities received welfare benefits. Until April 1941, the status of Jews in both camps remained essentially the same. With Hungary’s involvement in the war against Yugoslavia, the status of the Jews was radically changed by Decree 2870/1941.
In the external camps, working hours could be as long as 14-18 hours a day. By contrast, by law, those in compulsory labour detachments inside the country generally worked only 9 hours.
Conditions in Hungarian forced labour camps: clothing issuesie
© Copyright Muzeon - Postcard from the Szentkirályszabadja labour camp, Hungary.
The general implementation of the recruitment of Jews for labour took place on 23 August 1940 through the Ministry of Defence, with all Jews, not just veterans, being called to work. The youngest and fittest were placed in “Jewish Field Labor Companies”; those fit only for auxiliary service, the elderly and the weak were placed in “Jewish Domestic Labor Companies”.
At this point, working conditions were tolerable. However, with the reannexation of Northern Transylvania to Hungary through the Vienna Dictate of 30 August 1940, the situation changed drastically. Although this discriminatory nature of the Jewish labour service system was not formalised and there was no legal basis until April 1941, there were many clear signs by the end of the 1940s that things were moving in this direction.
© Copyright Muzeon - The Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation) newspaper of August 31, 1940, announcing on its front page the re-annexation of Northern Transylvania to Hungary.
Many of the Jews in the forced labour detachments were “illegally” deprived of their uniforms and forced to perform their duties in their own civilian clothes. Under Ordinance 27/300, Jews in labour service could still wear their military uniforms, but without badges and decorations, and were entitled to receive military boots.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, especially after December 1941, there were several complaints from officials about Jews wearing military uniforms. As a result, the uniform deprivation programme began, with Jews being forced to wear civilian clothes. They were told that the reason for this deprivation was a shortage of uniforms.
n 17 March 1941, the Ministry of Defence ordered that the “uniform” of Jews in field units should consist of civilian clothes, a yellow bandana tied to the arm and a military cap without insignia. In theory, Jews without good civilian clothes were to be supplied with uniforms captured from the Czechoslovaks and Yugoslavs. Also in theory, in the early stages, Jews were entitled to military boots and basic utensils but boots quickly became the exception rather than the rule. Many work detachments, as a result of long marches and hard work, ended up with damaged and destroyed clothing.
Because of the savage environment imposed by the Eastern Front, the treatment of those in labour detachments also became increasingly brutal, despite pragmatic principles. Some commanders of Hungarian military units tried to spare exhausted draught horses on the potholed roads, harnessing workers from labour battalions instead. The nickname of the Jews, who were often sent to certain death without training or specialist knowledge, with the task of deactivating unexploded mines, also became popular among German soldiers calling them “1942-type deminers”.
In general, Jewish workers procured their own food, receiving food parcels from home. Food was provided in the out-camps, but it only covered a small part of their daily energy needs; as a result, those in the work camps suffered from acute hunger and thirst all the time. All this was aggravated by the unbearable conditions of hygiene in which they lived, and the untidy and dilapidated accommodation.
Many companies reduced their food rations, which were initially not even sufficient for the physical effort they had to make. So, in order to survive, many Jews resorted to actions such as selling their clothes to “luckier” comrades who had some money or to the local population to buy food. Rations “stolen” from working Jews by officers were often sold to wealthier Jews on the basis of coupons or statements about the value of the goods received, which were then redeemed by the families of these Jews in service.
© Copyright Muzeon - The last page of the Camp Newspaper (Táborihiradó) in which appears the text about health written by Jewish prisoners of the Szentkirályszabadja labour camp, Hungary.
The nightgown is a very important accessory for your outfit. Unfortunately, there are many people who still think that a nightgown is only for gentlemen. But maybe gentlemen don’t need nightgowns as much as those who do hard physical work. Work makes you sweat, and the day shirt absorbs sweat. If you sleep at night in the same shirt you wear during the day, the sweat-soaked shirt sticks to your body, blocking pores, not to mention the fact that if you turn to one side, the stuck shirt can tear. Just try to see how much longer two shirts last when worn alternately day and night than when one is worn day and night and the other is worn until it tears. Many people are pyjama advocates, but a loose nightgown is better for your health than pyjamas that are tight around the neck, arms, waist and legs and are often elasticated tight. In any case, it is important to make sure that neither the neck nor any other part of the nightdress or pyjamas is tight, as this can be dangerous for proper circulation.
Again, a delicate question! Does everyone have two pairs of shoes? Because it would be desirable, from a health point of view, for everyone to have at least two pairs of shoes, so that if one pair gets wet, they can replace it with a dry pair. This advice is for those who have two pairs of shoes. I’ve heard that captains have welfare institutions. Wouldn’t it be possible for poor people who cannot buy two pairs of shoes themselves to get a second pair from welfare institutions? And, since men no longer indulge in fashion fads, it would not be unnecessary to point out that no one should wear shoes smaller than their foot size. The important thing is not that the shoes look good, but that they are good.
The above lines come from the Camp Newspaper. This subtle sarcasm and the well-chosen topics selected by the detainees for the Camp Newspaper was most likely a way for them to survive mentally. Health, literature, humour, all presented with a dose of cynicism towards those who deprived them of their freedom and humanity.
Approximately 35-40,000 people survived the Holocaust in Northern Transylvania. Of this total, about 25-30,000 people belong to the group of Jews deported to concentration camps. The other part of the survivors had been released from forced labour detachments or managed to avoid death in other ways (hiding, fleeing to Romania, being rescued by the “Kastner train”, receiving false papers, etc.). The number of Jews from Northern Transylvania who took refuge in Romania was about 4,000.
Marching column of Jewish forced labourers. Sárospatak, Hungary, 1941. Photo source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Muzeon Archive – documents, letters
Achim 2015 – Achim Viorel, Munca forțată în Transnistria. „Organizarea Muncii” evreilor și romilor, Decembrie 1942 – Martie 1944, Ed. Cetatea de Scaun, Târgoviște, 2015.
Braham 1977 – Braham Randolph L, The HungarianLabor Service System 1939-1945, Ed. Columbia University, New York, 1977.
Bunescu 1971 – Bunescu Traian, Lupta poporului român împotriva Dictatului Fascist de la Viena (august 1940), Ed. Politică, București, 1971.
Carmilly-Weinberger 1994 – Carmilly-Weinberger Moshe, Istoria evreilor din Transilvania (1623 – 1944), Ed. Enciclopedică, București, 1994.
Chioveanu 2012 – Chioveanu Mihai, Munca forțată în Holocaustul din România, în Sfera Politicii, XX, 2012, p. 82-92.
Csősz, Gidó 2013 – Csősz László, Gidó Attila, Excluși și Exploatați. Munca obligatorie a evreilor din România și Ungaria în timpul celui de-al Doilea Război Mondial, Cluj-Napoca, 2013.
Gidó 2020 – Gidó Attila, 20.000 de nume. Evidența deportaților din Transilvania de Nord rămași în viață, Ed. Institutului pentru Studierea Problemelor Minorităților Naționale, Cluj-Napoca, 2020.
Tibori 2005 – Tibori Szabó Zoltán, Frontiera dintre viață și moarte. Refugiul și salvarea evreilor la granița româno-maghiară (1940-1944), Ed. Compania, București, 2005.
Tibori 2015 – Tibori Szabó Zoltán, Holocaust în Transilvania, în File din istoria evreimii clujene, III, Valentin Ghiță (ed.). Editura MEGA, Cluj-Napoca, 2015, pp. 129-161.