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The Episode in Putnok

Our troop was stranded. We were at the Slovakian border a few kilometres from Sajolénártfalva (now known as Lenartovce in Slovakia) railroad station. We could not move on as there were so many unit ahead of us because of the retreat. The trains were packed and at a standstill. It was evening. A train pulled in on the adjoining track. There was quite a commotion - lively conversation. Some fellows from our car went over to return much later. They were very noisy - probably drinking. I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, Károly Varga, the corporal in charge of one of the divisions begged me to help him. He had become almost blind. "What happened, corporal? You were fine yesterday."

Last night's train had a container car. The soldiers from the trains nearby jumped aboard to sample the booze. Varga .joined in and filled up his pals' flasks. They were drinking somewhat watered down alcohol. Varga was even drinking it in his coffee and now...I tried to check his vision with my fingers stretched out. He did not see them. Then it struck me. The corporal had been drinking wood alcohol - methyl alcohol. Considering the quantity consumed, he was now in a very critical state.

I immediately consulted my Muller prescriptions. The recommended treatment was natrium hydrocorum. I sent him on his way to the company commander for sodium bicarbonate and had him drink a concoction I prepared. I asked permission to accompany Varga to Sajólénártfalva to have him seen by the village doctor. Varga's life could be in danger!

Luckily, Varga was a favourite of the usually very tough commander. I was told to go with Varga and we set out in the direction of the Sajólénártfalva station. Before we reached the building, I noticed the Red Cross Rail Car and guided Varga to it. Fortunately, the train had to stop and I pushed Varga on. The officer on duty directed me to his commanding officer. The officer rioting my outfit, presumed that I was a medic. "You cannot be serious" he said. "This hospital train has just come from the battle front and I am in charge. He is obviously dying. This would certainly effect my rating. I forbid him to come on board. We will pump his stomach and that's all". He called his assistant. "We three will attend to it." I was included in this threesome. We made Varga lay down, stuck a tube in his mouth. We kept turning him back and forth, but with little success.

"He has absorbed it! Take him to the closest railroad station to the officer in charge and have him transferred to the hospital."

"Yes sir!" I must be polite and I don't want to spoil his rating. Its only a matter of the life of a human being! I had to go back and report to the officer in charge. He issued a permit allowing us to leave. Then we were directed to a corporal, who used to be the office boy in the ornithology department at the Debrecen University. We tried to hitch a ride on the highway. I have my little pack, which is always ready for departure. Varga is lifted on to the back of a truck. The corporal and I plunk ourselves down beside him - direction Bánréve, the local railway station. The corporal stands up - starts retching. We put him against the wall of the truck and hold his head.

The Girls' Academy at Putnok is now a hospital for emergency and that is where we are heading. Apparently it is already full with patients being treated for methyl alcohol poisoning. We given a form, which the corporal takes and off we go. A bit further on there is a fork in the road. There is a tough-looking soldier directing traffic - "Gendarmerie" according to the metal tag shirt. I address him in German.

"Lebensgefährlich"..."Please help us". Well, he did stop the very first vehicle - a little DKW. There are three already inside. The empty seat is piled high with all sorts of stuff. It looks like "mission impossible." They notice Varga's desperate condition and indicate that they will take one passenger. They make room for him. The corporal says. "There is no saving Varga, but go with him Let him sit on your lap" - and hands over the papers. The corporal is to return to his regiment and report the situation to the second lieutenant and we part.

After six uncomfortable kilometres with Varga on my lap, the driver suddenly brakes. "Hier sind wir, also schnell, schnell heraus wir mussen weiter gehn" (We are here. Hurry up, get out fast, we have to keep going.) It was not easy getting out with Varga. He stretches out his hands groping. But it was just a few steps to the famous girls' institute before we are inside the gate. We are directed to the basement of the two storied building. The entrance is in the shape of a tower...Down below are the hot showers for disinfecting. We had to wait a bit and we see the poor souls standing like until they fall - blacked out. Their bodies are hauled away on stretchers...Amazingly, Varga could take it - he was solid. The papers were taken from me and they were ready to send me back to my unit. I see a familiar face - Dr. András Sáró, the young doctor from the hospital in Csaba. He had been transferred. He remembered me and was ready to help. I asked that I be allowed to stay. Actually I had plans.

"Well, there is not much hope for that" said Dr. Sáró. "The hospital is absolutely packed with the methyl alcohol patients and there is no many are dying. That container car passed through the countryside and passengers, artillery and privates fell prey to the substance..."

Seeing my worried look, Dr. Sáró obtained permission for me. I spent the night in the surgical ward. He even managed to get a bed for me. Varga was transferred to the wing of the hospital on the first floor His bed was by a window. Originally it had been a classroom. The floor was covered with straw. Methyl-alcoholics everywhere in convulsions, screaming with pain - their intestines burning from the poison - their mouths foaming. They were all blind.

Next morning bright and early, I look in on Varga. The chap in the bed next to him had died. They were just taking away the corpse. Varga was prepared for the worse. He wanted to give me his wallet with some papers a final message for Jucika his wife and his family in Békés. I was not to mention wood alcohol...It was hard to see Károly Varga in this state, but I tried to convince him that he would surely make it - his strong constitution and the medical care would restore his health. I refused to take his things, assuring him that he will tell his wife what he had gone through. Well this seemed to have a positive effect on him. I offered to go to the market and get him whatever he wanted. With great difficulty he muttered "lots of cucumbers". I brought him the cucumbers and dropped in on him several times during the day. The hospital was not equipped for the large deluge of methyl alcoholic patients. I understood that they were working on an antitoxin (copper sulfate) to neutralize the poison.

I had to look for lodgings. This was not all that easy with my semi-legitimate status and the Nazi Party in operation in this district plus not having any contacts. As I went along the highway to town, I see an artillery officer coming out of a house with all his belongings. I approach him and learn that he is moving out and his room would be available, especially as I am associated with the hospital. The Baris would be honoured to have a doctor living in their house, especially as Mrs. Bari is in poor health.

The old couple welcomed me and I was directed to a little bedroom crammed with furniture. There was a small couch between two beds. "This is where the artillery officer slept." Mrs. Bari said, "We heard that there is no room in the hospital. Perhaps for a while this could be convenient for the doctor and maybe you could give me a check-up. I don't feel too good". We discuss the war and old Mr. Bari claims that Hitler will now come up with some incredible weapons. He knows. His son has a restaurant in Sajóecseg and is a member of the Nazi Party...

In the meanwhile the hospital succeeded in producing the anti-toxin. After much suffering, the survivors slowly recover and regain their eyesight. They escaped death. The joy amongst the patients was overwhelming. Within a few days the toxin was absorbed thanks to the injections. The hospital was to be transferred. They had to relocate. All the equipment must be moved. Only the critically ill would be taken. The others would have to return to their regiments in a burst of happiness, Varga says that he can see again and would be able to leave the hospital.

Listening to the news on the radio, I concluded that the battle front was approaching and this was the reason that the hospital would relocate. The Soviet troops cannot be too far. To learn more, I went to the market square to the bookstore where I bought a map. One side had a topographical map of Hungary - the other side showed the counties. Actually it must have been a school map. Only the larger towns were shown. It was not all that helpful. On the sixth day at Putnok, we were told to report to the office at the hospital, and to be prepared to leave. We had our papers with instructions to return to the regiment. Now I understand why they were inquiring about the location of our unit...

Six days - what a long time it seemed...The regiment must have crossed the border. Their destination was no secret. They were heading toward Germany. They could already be prisoners of war in one of the local camps. So my reply as to the location of the unit had to be rather vague. "As far as we know, probably at the Budapest - Kőbánya railroad station." The clerk told us to return for our passes at noon.

Varga went back to the ward, getting ready for the journey. I said goodbye to Dr. Sáró with the hope of meeting again in Csaba, where I would be able to show my great appreciation. On this basis, I requested medicine for Mrs. Bari which I gave to her along with helpful instructions regarding her medical problem.

It must have been about noon when I reached the hospital. I noticed a company of engineers marching and on the left side, an older so1dier, the lieutenant their commanding officer. We recognized each other - Ferenc Székely. At one time he was the manager of Csaba's commercial bank. He was an old acquaintance.

"Well, what are you doing here?" he asks as we embrace. This created quite a disruption in the procession as well as on the sidewalk. I quickly explained my situation. He told me to take my place at the rear and guaranteed my safety. We would return home to Csaba together. "Yes, yes, absolutely."

"I cannot abandon the chap at the hospital."

"He'll make it together with his troop. The doctors are back in Csaba! Our heroic mayor, Gyula Jánossy, who grovelled for the Germans has been shipped to Arad. Your uncle Oszi Szamek, is at the hotel Panonia, physician, for the Romanian Embassy. He is known as Dr. Szamekiu. The whole family is there too.

There was no question, Feri was ready to sneak me through, but I could not abandon Varga.

How wonderful it was to learn that my relatives had not been deported! Oscar, the dentist, was the Romanian Embassy's physician! Incredible! Feri presented a new perspective.

I thanked him for his kindness and we parted with the hope of being reunited once again in Csaba.

Varga took a long time in coming...He must have missed the way.

"I am so grateful to you for all you have done for me. Had you left me with the regiment, I would certainly not be in this world." We headed toward the railroad station and plunked ourselves in the third class waiting room. It was pouring outside. I told him that according to our pass, we were to head toward Pest. However, should "Our Father Joseph" decide to change sides it would be our best bet to make a detour and say that we are going to Pest. He would not be able to take the jolting of a train and certainly not a horse-drawn wagon. We would walk - very very slowly. With a bit of luck, we would walk into the Soviet lines. Varga understood the strategy. The ram stopped by early afternoon and we set out along the railroad tracks.

next up previous contents
Next: A Day in the Up: The eye witness - Previous: Introduction - Preamble   Contents
Kiss Tamas 2003-04-23