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Leaving Holland - 1948
By Andrew Dettre firstname.lastname@example.org
I know it sounds somewhat incredible but it's true: it was Friday the 13th of December, when I was politely deported from Holland.
Two plain clothes detectives travelled with me from The Hague to the border town of Venlo; we went second class and chatted all the way quite amicably in German as though we were tourists. When we reached Venlo, a car was waiting for us at the station which took us to a huge Dutch army base. The detectives handed me over to the soldiers, exchanged some documents with them then shook hands with me and went back to the station to catch a train to The Hague.
I was not locked up but was allowed to roam in the recreation hall and even played some table tennis with a few soldiers. In the evening I was asked to go to the dining hall where I had a fairly nice dinner, then was given a bunk in a large dorm and left on my own, unguarded, almost ignored.
Next morning, after breakfast, a sergeant came for me and escorted me to a waiting vehicle: it was a steel-plated armoured car. He placed my luggage on a back seat, we climbed in next to the driver and slowly rolled out of the camp, towards Germany. The border was about a mile away and once we reached it, first the Dutch soldiers and then on the other side German police raised the barrier. They all saluted and, like Eisenhower a few years earlier, I rolled into Germany.
It was a small German village where we stopped; I forgot its name. The vehicle came to a halt outside a police station and I was told to get out and walk through the door. There were three or four young German border policemen huddled around a small stove and they were surprised to see me. The policeman who accompanied me right from the border told them that I would spend the night there and would then be taken in the morning to the nearest large city, Krefeld.I was offered some terrible German coffee and black bread; I opened my suitcase and produced from there a piece of excellent Dutch cheese and sausage Mrs C. had packed for me before my departure. Soon we were deep in discussion about football; the Germans knew all about the very good Hungarian team of the day, raving about stars such as Puskas, Bozsik, Szusza and others. When night came, I was escorted into my small cell which had a comfortable bunk with blankets and central oil heating through some pipes. Then I was left alone, with the door wide open.
"Aren't you locking the door?" I asked the Germans.
"No," one said, "are you planning to go anywhere?"
"Of course not," I said, "but isn't this a prison?"
"In a way," one said. "Have a good sleep," and with that walked back to join the others while I tried to settle in for the night. Next morning one of the policeman escorted me to a car.
"We are driving to Krefeld now," he said. "You have to appear in court."
"Court? What for?"
"For illegal border crossing."
"I didn't cross," I said, "I was thrown across the border.""Not now," he explained, "when you went from Germany to Holland." Around 10 am we walked into a court room; it was empty except for a middle-aged judge sitting high up on the bench. He studied a piece of paper, then turned to me.
"Can you speak German?" he said. "Do you understand me?""Yes," I said.
"Good. Now listen to me. You are charged with having crossed into Holland in August, without documents, illegally. Is that correct?"
"Fine. You are sentenced to five days of detention in the Krefeld Prison or one hundred marks fine, whichever you prefer."
"I will pay the one hundred marks."
"But I won't let you," the judge said. "You will need every penny in Germany, unless you're a millionaire. Are you?"
"Not quite," I said.
"Good. You spent, I believe, one day in the Dutch army camp in Venlo and one with our border police. I take these into account and you you will spend only three days in our prison. After that you're free. Do you understand?"
"I do," I said, "but couldn't I just pay the fine?""I won't let you," the judge said. "You may go now."
And I did. The policeman drove me to the large Krefeld Gaol. At the reception room an official took down my particulars, then took away my belt, shoelaces and every item in my pockets including my packet of cigarettes. As I was to spend only three days in the prison, I was not issued a prison uniform. I was led into the main prison hall: it looked exactly like all the big prisons in the movies, with cells opening to corridors and wire netting stretched between the sides. They opened a cell door and I walked in.
There were two men there; they stared at me but didn't move. I walked to the one empty bunk and sat down. After a short while we started some kind of a stilted conversation and I found out who my cellmates were - both in prison uniform.
One, the older - about 45 or 50 - was involved in a brawl in a hotel and cracked the skull of a man with a chair; the man died and he got 15 years. The other, younger man was a post office employee serving a six-year sentence for having stolen cheques and pilfering railway parcels. The younger one asked me if I had any cigarettes and I told them that the officials had taken them away. "What about the tobacco in your pocket?" he asked.
"I don't have any," I said."Let me see."
I turned my pocket inside out and the two men, with the deft hand of a neuro-surgeon, emptied bits of tobacco from the lining of my pocket: piece by tiny piece, they assembled it like some precious mosaic. When they finished, there was enough for one thin hand rolled cigarette.
I slept well: the busy events of the day made sure of that. Next morning we were ushered into a huge communal bathroom and toilet: the seats were side by side, the showers at the other wall. Not much privacy, here.
For breakfast (we walked to a mess hall): a bread roll, a piece of cheese and some terrible coffee. Some 20 minutes of walk followed in the large courtyard: we had to walk in an Indian file, in a circle, with our hands behind our backs and without talking to anyone at all. The second day I was asked if I wanted to have a haircut. I said I did, just to kill time and my 'reward' was a terrible, army-style haircut. At least it was free.
The prison was more boring than terrifying--maybe it would have been different had I been there for three years instead of three days. As it was, I found it mildly amusing and even the long conversations with my cellmates during the afternoons and evenings entertained me. Then, after three days, I was walked to the prison office, handed my possessions back and led to a desk where a civilian was sitting.
"Where do you go from here?" he asked. I had no clue. Certainly had no plans to go anywhere.
"I'm asking you because we can provide you with a free railway voucher wherever you want to go."
"I don't know anyone in Germany," I said.
"Fine, then why don't you go to the nearest refugee camp? It's at Munster, not far at all."
"I'll do that," I agreed. They wrote out a travel pass, passed me my luggage, opened the door leading to the gate and let me go on my uncertain way. I was back in Germany.
The country was totally devastated: cities, towns, railway stations, everything were in ruins; bridges were hanging limply into the rivers; the main streets were cleared of rubble, with stones and brickes swept on the side of what was once the footpath so that at least traffic could somehow move. But it was eerie: in cities like Krefeld, Koln, Munster and others you could see hundreds if not thousands of buildings either demolished by the Allied bombings or to see them sliced in half, opened up like doll's houses or scale models in theatrical productions.
The German population - and this was December 1948, barely three years after the end of the war - was equally devastated: subdued, numb and decimated in body and spirit.
I arrived at Munster railway station and made some inquiries about the refugee camp, finding it about a mile or so from the city centre. It was a cluster of large brick buildings, clearly some sort of a former army camp in the Third Reich, a series of massive brick buildings, two and three storeys high. I walked to the gate and a guardhouse and showed my pass to a British soldier. "Go to Block B over there," he said, pointing to a three-storey building," he said "and report at reception." I did just that. Another young British soldier checked my travel document. "What nationality are you?" he asked.
"Hungarian." "Fine," he said, "go to Block K at the other end of the park, it's full of them." At the gate they gave me a piece of paper. "This will admit you as a homeless refugee on a temporary basis," a man told me at reception. "In about a week or so we will make more permanent arrangements. Go to the second floor, Room 6, there is a spare bunk there." Room 6, at the end of a long, poorly lit corridor, had about 30 or 40 bunks in it. I entered and noticed an unoccipied bunk, so I went there and put my suitcase on it.
Soon a young man approached me. "I am Bela Bodi," he said. "Welcome to the Munster Hilton."
Another two young fellows joined us: Karoly Boday and Imre Horvath. Little did I know that the four of us would form a firm friendship which would last many months, in one case, many years.
The routine in the camp was simple enough. There was a large common bathroom with showers at the end of the corridor and there were also some toilets. Of course, there were no lockers or wardrobes so you kept your suitcase, locked under your bunk.
Three times a day we trooped down to the ground floor messhall for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was adequate, consisting mainly of soups, pasta and sauce and some vegetables, occasionally a piece of unidentifiable meat. But I still had some food reserves which I had brought with me from Holland: cheeses and a couple of tins of rolled ham. My three new friends and I supplemented our camp meals with this Dutch treat.
Soon it was Christmas. I was kicked out of Holland on December 13, spent three days in the Krefeld jail and reached Munster on December 17. Much to our surprise, the British camp authorities gave us some very fine Christmas lunches and dinners as well as some apples and oranges. Oranges? These hadn't been seen in Germany since pre-war.
So with Bela (nicknamed Hapsi), Karoly (Karesz) and Imre (Hori) we decided to trade off the oranges for some more solid food. We walked into the Munster city centre, carrying our treasures in a bag and walked into a grocery store. As the only fluent German speaker in our group, I was appointed spokesman. "Gruss Gott," I said to the grocer. "Are you interested in oranges?"
"Oranges?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes," I said. "Do you want some?"
"Of course, where are they?" We put eight lovely Californian Sunkist oranges on his counter. He stared at them as if they had been ghosts. "How much?" he asked.
"We don't want money, just food, like sausages and salamis." The deal was soon struck and, on top of the smallgoods, we also received from the man a couple of Marks. With that we immedately proceeded to an elegant little cafe and ordered four espressos. Then, in a pre-arranged order, we retreated to the toilet and had the first pleasant, relaxed shit for weeks, using real toilet paper.
Later, whenever we could scrape together a few pennies, we would return to the same cafe, for the same reason. We duly renamed it our "Shithouse Cafe."
After Christmas, my first away from home, our food rations returnerd to normal and my supply of Dutch goodies had also vanished. Soon we adopted a life of petty crime.The four of us would walk at dusk towards the fields, half an hour or so away and when it became dark we invaded the various vegetable patches, feverishly digging up whatever we could find: carrots, potatoes, onions. We stuffed all into a bag and our pockets and took them back to the camp; we then borrowed a dish and made some sort of a concoction in our room.
On one occasion we ventured further than usual and came upon a neat little cottage. From the yard we could hear crowing sounds. "Who wants paprika chicken," Hori whispered. In total silence, we approached the chicken yard, opened the wooden gate and were about to snatch a chick or two when all the chickens burst into a frenzied crowing. Hapsi and Hori managed to grab a chicken and we all started to sprint. The light came on inside the cottage and, when we looked back from a 100 metres or so, we saw a man in a cassock at the doorway, waving his fist at us. I don't suppose it was a sign of benediction. We robbed the chicken yard of the local priest.
Early January our Munster days came to an end. We were told that a group of some 30 or 40 Hungarian refugees would have to travel to another camp, Brauweiler, near Cologne. We were given travel passes, a day's food rations and sent on our way, only a couple of hours from Munster. Just when we were getting to like the place...