YOUNG: 9-24-86 – okay, we’ll continue with this.
ILIES: I had a, I had a decent income. I had no obligations. Of course I was not married. I could dress myself decently, I subscribed to the – I had a subscription to the opera, to the National Theatre of Budapest.
YOUNG: So the entertainment was basically open to everyone; there were no restrictions?
ILIES: No restrictions of any kind. The restrictions began in 1944 when all the Jews were obliged to live in a ghetto and they couldn’t leave the ghetto. But this was in 1944, and by that time I was already in a camp.
YOUNG: I see. What kind of photographer were you, society, wedding pictures?
ILIES: Society, wedding pictures, portraits.
YOUNG: Was it mostly restricted to Jewish clientele?
ILIES: No, no, it had a mixed clientele. It had a huge clientele, as a matter of fact. He was a very wealthy man. And just to give you an idea, he had some 15 salesmen who were working for him – which were – for a photographer – it’s something unusual.
YOUNG: Uh-huh, so was the – the restrictions just weren’t there. People were getting married.
ILIES: Everyone was having a normal social life with certain restrictions. Jews couldn’t go to the universities. Jews were not hired in white collar jobs. If they were already in a white collar job, they couldn’t exceed a certain percentage – I think it was four percent. I mean, a company couldn’t have more than four percent Jewish white collar employees.
ILIES: They were no – Jews were not – couldn’t be, couldn’t be in politics. They couldn’t be in the newspaper field. They couldn’t be in the theatre. So there were restrictions, but Jews managed to have a normal life within the limits of the existing restrictions, you see.
YOUNG: What was the feeling with the war going on? What was the mood of the people during those years?
ILIES: Well, at the beginning, of course, we were very concerned – I mean we were very worried – that would be the right word, because the Germans were victors all over Europe. And we didn’t know what they were doing to the Jews because at that point in time they – the concentration camps were unknown to us. We didn’t know there was such a thing as concentration camps.
YOUNG: There was nothing in the Jewish press that…?
ILIES: There was nothing in the Jewish press because I subscribed to the Budapest Jewish newspaper – I can’t remember the name of the newspaper any more. And – but there was nothing hinting – there were no hints that there are concentration camps and that Jews are being deported. We knew that there are antisemitic laws which resembled more or less to the laws existing in Hungary. We knew that in France – in occupied France, the Jews were in a very bad situation with not too many specific details. We knew that all the Parisienne Jews tend to flee to Southern France which was unoccupied at that time. But this was – it was not something specific. It was not – we didn’t know – as again, we didn’t know the Jews were being deported.
YOUNG: Were there any Jews that came to Budapest, like from Poland or from…
ILIES: Yes, they came – not Jews – I didn’t meet any Jews from Poland. I knew many Jews from Slovakia – Czechoslovakia. But those Jews who were in Budapest were not Czechs. They were Slovakian Jews from around Bratislava, and they came to Budapest, but even they didn’t – they knew that some – that the Slav Jews were taken away, but this was later on. This was already at the end of 1942.
But they didn’t know where they were going and what was happening to them. We – I really can say that I was first aware of the existence of concentration camps when I was in a concentration camp. And I knew that Jews were being deported from Hungary in May of 1944, when I was in a forced labor battalion and when – I didn’t have relatives in Hungary excepting that aunt of mine who was living in Budapest. The Budapest Jews were not deported, but Jews from all the other towns and villages of Hungary were taken away and sent somewhere. We didn’t know where. This was in May of 1944.
YOUNG: Well, let’s backtrack. You were called to the labor battalion…
ILIES: In 1943.
YOUNG: 1943, in October.
ILIES: In October of 1943.
YOUNG: Okay. And did you feel – I mean did they say it would be for a specific period?
ILIES: Oh yes, we knew that we are conscripted for three years.
YOUNG: Three years, okay. So you sort of had – you had to give notice at your job?
ILIES: Oh yes, I gave notice at my job.
YOUNG: So it was like being drafted into an army?
ILIES: Yes, exactly. From this point a few years. But – and then, then we – as from October 1, was in the army, in the battalion, in the work battalions of the army, and there it was very, very difficult. This is the first time that I really knew what rough and a brutal antisemitism means.
YOUNG: Can you, you know, describe a little bit of how large was your group?
ILIES: Yes, we were 120 boys in a battalion. We were sent to Transylvania, which was then part of Hungary, and we worked in – we worked in a camp where we were digging tunnels in a mountain where the Germans were installing gasoline tanks.
YOUNG: Were the German troops there too?
ILIES: Not at the beginning. At the beginning it was strictly a Hungarian operation but for the German army.
YOUNG: It was the Hungarian Fascist army that was controlling…?
ILIES: They were controlling, they were guarding us; they were brutalizing us. I mean, we were beaten, we were overworked. We worked – how many hours – we worked from six o’clock in the morning until six in the evening.
YOUNG: Were you in barracks or what was your…?
ILIES: We were in barracks. The barracks were clean, the food was decent, but we were – people were beaten and insulted. And we were all the time guarded by soldiers with guns – with armed soldiers with guns and bayonets. And the work was very, very hard, especially on somebody like me who was not a weight lifter.
YOUNG: So, physically you – what happened if one of the men got sick? Was there medical treatment?
ILIES: There was, yes. We had a doctor, a Jewish doctor and we had a sick – they called it – it wasn’t a hospital – it was a barrack where you could go if you were very sick. But, very few people were very sick. We were very young. We were healthy. We were well fed. We were overworked but we were working all the time out in the fresh air in the mountains. And, I was very healthy, I was never sick. And very few people were sick, so…
YOUNG: There was no – like contagious diseases.
ILIES: No contagious diseases…no, no, nothing of that kind except for the fact that we were insulted and every once in a while beaten – not in a very severe way.
ILIES: I mean, it wasn’t a question of, “Am I going to survive the beating?” There were only a few slaps and nothing of a Nazi, German Nazi type. We thought it’s terrible but we didn’t know how good we had it because this was in 1941, when Dachau and Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and all the other camps were in full gear but we had no idea that they existed.
YOUNG: Were you able to communicate to your family at that time? Were you able to receive letters from home and…?
YOUNG: …and write letters?
ILIES: Yes, yes, not to Romania, just to my aunt in Budapest.
YOUNG: You couldn’t communicate to Romania at all?
YOUNG: So at that time you didn’t know what was happening with your mother?
ILIES: No, I didn’t know anything farther between 1941 and 1945. I had no news about my family. They had no news about me. So we were completely separated.
YOUNG: Was the Red Cross at all involved in your…?
ILIES: No, not, not at all.
YOUNG: If you had any – there was no one to complain to if…?
ILIES: There was no one to complain to. We were on our own.
YOUNG: I see. Were there any men that decided to leave – I mean to escape from the forced battalion?
ILIES: Yes, in 1944, yes, when we were taken to Budapest and when it was obvious that we were going to be deported to Germany. Then some boys escaped. I don’t know what happened to them. I lost track of them.
YOUNG: So you don’t know whether they succeeded in…
ILIES: I have no idea.
YOUNG: Okay. When were you informed that you were going to be deported to Germany?
ILIES: We were not told, but the rumor had it in 1944. The Russian armies occupied Transylvania and they were already surrounding Budapest. And then we Jews, we were packed on trains…
YOUNG: Wait, let’s backtrack. You’re – in the forced battalion you were in Transylvania.
ILIES: Yes, in Transylvania.
YOUNG: And how did you get back to Budapest?
ILIES: I believe we were loaded in trains and just shipped back to Hungary.
YOUNG: Were you given any information that this was you, your labor was no longer needed?
ILIES: No, no – no. We were told that we are going to work in another spot in the work battalions. We knew that we were going to go to Germany or Austria. It was unclear at that time. Nobody told us but we knew in October, 1944, when we were in Budapest, we are not working, we are just loafing around in a big Hungarian kaserne, that something is happening and that they are going to ship us out of Hungary.
YOUNG: At that time, since you were back in Budapest, were you able to get in touch with your aunt?
ILIES: No, no. She was already in a ghetto. She was in hiding in the – I didn’t know that she was in hiding but I couldn’t get in touch with her because I couldn’t get out from the kaserne, which was guarded.
YOUNG: So the Jewish civilian population at the time was already in the ghetto and they were starting to be deported?
ILIES: Not the Hungarian – the Budapest Jews were not deported until – let’s see – this was in October of 1944. I think in December of 1944, a group of 20,000 Budapest Jews were marched in the direction of Mauthausen where I was in the camp. Very few of them made it because it was winter and most of them died of exposure or couldn’t walk anymore and they were shot. I knew this because I met them, the ones who survived, I met them in Mauthausen, and this was, I think in December of 1944, but this was just 20,000 of them and in Budapest there were well over 200,000 Jews.
YOUNG: So, October, ’44, you were in Budapest in the…?
ILIES: In Budapest and we were shipped to Austria in October of 1944. And my first place where I worked was on the Hungarian-Austrian border at Drukendalatah which is a small village right on the border, I mean a few minutes away from the border. And we worked for several weeks digging anti-tank trenches.
YOUNG: Were you still being supervised by Hungarian troops?
ILIES: No, I was supervised by SS troops.
YOUNG: Was your treatment then…?
ILIES: It was very bad, it was very bad then, but it was…(INTERRUPTION) it was, it was what they call an arbeitskommando. It was not a concentration camp.
YOUNG: So where were you housed?
ILIES: We were housed in stables in this village – huge stables – no heating, no beds, no nothing.
YOUNG: And this was already – well, October would have been cold by –
ILIES: It was very cold and we stayed there for – until late November, so it was a very, very cold winter. No heating. We slept on straw which was warehoused in those stables. It was not stables for animals. They were stables for warehousing straw – huge stables and we couldn’t – we could barely wash ourselves. There was no water until the very end when there was some water facilities, but people were already dying of typhus. Yes, and we were dirty, and it was – we were not fed or we were fed very badly, so many people – when I say “many,” it was not hundreds, but dozens – were dying of exposure and typhus and diarrhea, but not on a very large scale. It still was an event when somebody died, not like later on in Mauthausen, when nobody gave a damn if somebody died because everywhere, everyday there were hundreds of people who were dying. You couldn’t just get upset for everybody unless it was something very close to you.
YOUNG: Did you have the same group of…?
ILIES: No, well we had the same group of people, but then we were already mixed with others because there were, I guess – I just can guess because I’ve never seen figures printed – there were thousands of people working in the same area. It was on the field outside the village where we were working on those trenches and as far as we could see there were people digging those trenches. So I imagine that there were thousands working. And after the war I knew that there were thousands working because they were digging those trenches all along the Austrian border in order to prevent invasion by the Russians.
YOUNG: At that time were you getting any news about the front where the Russians were – what the situation was?
ILIES: Yes, yes. We managed to get hold of German newspapers, not on a regular basis, but every once in a while. Either – there were some people who were taking great risks. They, they would – we, we were – all clothes were civilian clothes, so it was kind of risky but it was possible to enter the village after dark. We had – the stables were not guarded. So a few people took risks on going into the village, begging for food and they would lay their hands on newspapers, and from the German newspapers we knew where the front was. We even had discussion groups late in the evening when we came back from work. Somebody would give us a synopsis of, of, of the war – of the way the war was going on. I mean, we knew at that time that the invasion of Normandy had already taken place. We knew that the Allies, the Americans are in Europe and they were somewhere – they were already in Germany or very near to the German border. We knew that the Russians have liberated Russian and they were at the German borders. So we knew that the end was nearing. We didn’t – we were not sure, but we were hoping that we might survive.
YOUNG: The mood was optimistic?
ILIES: The mood was optimistic but it was a long range. In the long range we were optimistic but in the short range we were freezing; we were starving. People were beaten to death at that time already for the slightest item. For instance, we were working in a forest, cutting trees and transporting them in certain places where they were assembled and you had 10 people carrying a big tree. We were not fed, we were freezing; we were not washed. I mean, we were exhausted. Sometimes you couldn’t carry that tree and somebody would fall during carrying that tree. The SA would beat them to death under the pretense that they were sabotaging the German war effort.
YOUNG: Were these SA people Austrian?
ILIES: Austrians and Germans, mostly Austrians, and they were fierceful. The Austrians were more dangerous than the Germans.
YOUNG: But they didn’t guard the stables at night?
ILIES: They didn’t guard the stables at night.
YOUNG: That seems kind of unusual.
ILIES: Nevertheless, it was – this was a fact. We didn’t dare go out because the whole village was filled with German troops, SA and SS. So it was a great risk to go out because they would shoot you, no questions asked. They would recognize that you were a Jew because you were dressed in a different way. You were bearded; you were dirty. I mean it was obvious from where you were coming.
YOUNG: But if a few of the men were able to get newspapers and food, then there were some civilians who were supportive?
ILIES: Yes, there were some civilians – I don’t know, I didn’t go out, so I don’t know. But obviously there were some civilians who were supportive. I would say very few of them because it was – I couldn’t say that somebody was going out every night and came back with food. Every once in a while, somebody would get food and newspapers.
YOUNG: And you stayed in this village until December?
ILIES: Until November.
ILIES: End of November, something like that – end of November, and then we were shipped to Mauthausen.
YOUNG: By railroad?
ILIES: No, on that we marched from Bruck-an-der-Leitha to the Danube. Here, I will show you on the map.
ILIES: So you were marched from Bruck-an-der-Leitha to Deutschaltemburg, which was a small town on the Danube near Vienna and we were…
YOUNG: How many miles or kilometers would you say that was that you were marched? Was it like two days?
ILIES: Well, it was, it was a two days march. It was a two day march, day and night.
YOUNG: Day and night.
ILIES: Day and night. And then we were – it’s not here. We were – oh, here it is. It’s Mauthausen, it’s not on the map but it’s on the Danube near Linz. So from Deutschaltemburg we were shipped on barges to Mauthausen which was near Linz, less than two miles near Linz. It was a six day trip with no food, no water, no nothing. It was…
YOUNG: How many people were on a barge?
ILIES: Hundreds. I didn’t count them but there were hundreds and there were two barges. Hundreds of people starving and sick because people were already – some people were already very, very sick, because everybody was coming from the area where we were digging trenches for two months, and we were already undernourished and we were working in the rain and in freezing temperatures. And, as I say, it was a very – it was a very cold winter; we had snow already in November. And we received – we were – the food we were receiving was, was – I mean it was a starvation diet. We were receiving a black soup in the morning, another soup with sugar beets at lunch, and another black soup in the evening which was so-called coffee, but it didn’t have any taste and we received in the evening a piece of bread. Sometimes, sometimes it was a great feast when you received a little piece of sausage. And we worked from four o’clock in the morning until six in the evening, sometimes even later. And after the two day march from Bruck-an-der-Leitha to Deutschaltemburg, people were absolutely exhausted, absolutely exhausted, and there was no food distribution those six days, so we were purely and simply starving.
YOUNG: Did people actually die on the barges?
ILIES: Yes, very many people died on the barge, people who were already sick of typhus and dysentery, and there were corpses all over.
YOUNG: When you were on the river did you see civilian population?
ILIES: Yes, we saw civilian population because we stopped during the night, we stopped, and we saw civilian population, and some German, Austrian Jews who were on the barge with us managed to escape.
YOUNG: How did they do that?
ILIES: They just – it was – I mean, if you would see it in a film you would say it is not – it doesn’t happen in real life. The way they were dressed, with yellow stars on their breasts, they just left the barge, hid in a bombed out house. This I know from stories that I heard after the war. And they marched from that particular place to the outskirts of Vienna, 20 or 25 of them, led by a perfect German speaking Jew who presented himself at various military stations, reporting that it’s a Jewish work formation who has been ordered to go to Vienna to help with the cleaning of the rubble around Vienna as a result of bombing in Vienna. It was already – I mean, this was happening in November, December, Vienna with Russian troops were very near, so it was a state of chaos.
YOUNG: So it was possible for people…
ILIES: It was possible. It was possible. It’s a miracle that these people escaped and then they hid for several days in a bombed out house in Vienna, and waited until the Russian troops entered Vienna. And they escaped, all of them, 20 or 25. So they escaped.
YOUNG: But you didn’t actually know these people?
ILIES: I knew them, I knew them, but of course it was done in great secret. I didn’t know – I mean we knew that somebody – that they had left the next day when they were already not on the barge.
YOUNG: Were the SA troops counting people and…?
ILIES: They were counting when we entered the barges. They didn’t count us during the six days when we were on the Danube – they didn’t count us.
YOUNG: So you arrived at Mauthausen.
ILIES: In Mauthausen in the early part of December. I don’t remember the day anymore. And we thought everything was very confusing. That part is – it’s a blur in my mind.
YOUNG: Well, you were hungry and exhausted…
ILIES: I was hungry, I was exhausted, but I was healthy. I was not sick. I, I even had a very good friend…