November 14, 2019

At last, in 1945, the Allied forces had the Germans on the run.

Knowing the end was near, the Nazis forced the men from Ernie’s camp to make an arduous march toward the Austrian border. Many were given Russian uniforms to confuse the Allies. Others trudged on without shoes, their numbed feet wrapped in ripped-up shirts.

Ernie recalled that the men tried to march slowly, not wanting to reach Austria, sensing Allied liberation was near.

At one point, a German SS officer jumped down from his tank and began striking prisoners with a long iron stick. One Jew — as it turned out, Ernie’s uncle — had half his ear sliced off. 

Men were screaming, Ernie recalled.

Finally, a Hungarian officer stepped forward.

“Leave them alone,” he told the German officer.

The Nazi ignored him, continuing to hack away at any Jew within his reach.

The Hungarian officer drew his service revolver. But he was not acting as any protector, merely protecting what he considered his, like property.

“If you don’t stop, I’ll shoot you,” he said. “Those Jews were given to me. I kill them. Not you.”

In time, the retreat became mired in confusion. Prisoners peeled away from the ranks. Amid the madness, Ernie recalled, a Hungarian soldier approached him.

“Let’s run away,” he said.

Where? Ernie asked.

“Just come with me.”

The Hungarian had a gun – and a plan.

“I know a place,” he said. “I met a woman in the village. Her husband is not home. She is pretty cute. That’s mine. You just come along with me. I will save you.”

The two found the right moment to break off and headed into the forest, but quickly encountered a party of Hungarian military police looking for deserters.

An officer yelled for them to stop.

“And we thought: that’s it,” Ernie later told interviewers. “They’re going to shoot us because we ran away from the brigade.”

The Hungarian traveling with Ernie told the officers that the two had been separated in the confusion of the retreat and were trying to find their brigade.

To their surprise, the ruse worked.

“Leave them alone,” the officer told his men.

And then to the escapees: “You guys; go and find your brigade.”

Ernie and the Hungarian spent hours hiding in the bomb shelter of a house in a nearby village, waiting out the night, laying low from the constant sound of gunfire in the woods.

They wondered: Were those Germans shooting out there, or the oncoming Russians?

At daylight, they had their answer.

The men lifted the lid off their earthen sanctuary. 

It was quiet.

Then the horror: Everyone in the village was dead, slaughtered by retreating Germans.

“Let’s go,” the Hungarian told Ernie. “It’s a big forest. Maybe we’ll find somebody.”

The men stumbled through the trees, finally running into some Russian soldiers.

They waved their arms, hailing them in both Russian and Czech. 

They’d been saved, or had they?

The Russians brought them to a nearby camp, where they’d begun inventorying the various stragglers they’d encountered in the woods: 

Russians, Czechs and Yugoslavs were fed and encouraged to go home.

The Hungarians, however, were punished for siding with the Nazis.

“All the Hungarians, they got them together,” Ernie recalled of the scene. “It didn’t matter, Jew or no Jew, a Hungarian was a Hungarian. And they took them all to Siberia.” 

The Hungarians were lined up. Many were beaten. 

“It was like Mengele, the German doctor: You go left. You go right.” Ernie recalled.

Ernie then repaid the Hungarian soldier who saved his life. 

He stood up to the Russian officers, taking a risk out there in the middle of nowhere. He told them that he would not be alive without the assistance of that Hungarian soldier.

He appealed for clemency.

And to his surprise, the Russians let the Hungarian soldier go.

Ernie never saw the man again. 

For this enterprising baker, taken from the arms of his family, forced to cook for men he despised, the long war was finally over. 

Yet another battle was about to begin. 

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