Listen to the audio cast: The Fight For Survival – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Three)
What do people really need to survive? That stark question was foremost in the minds of the citizens of Budapest for a fifty-one day period beginning on Christmas Eve of 1944. At the beginning of that period, approximately one million people were living in the city. By the end of the siege over 200,000 soldiers and civilians were dead. Those figures do not include the tens of thousands who were wounded, taken as prisoners of war and then deported eastward to Soviet labor camps. For those that were able to survive the siege they needed the three basic necessities of life: 1) food, 2) water and 3) shelter. In addition, they also needed luck, to avoid the enemy – that is, if they could tell who the enemy was.
Horse Meat & Carrots
As far as necessities go, food was probably the most in demand since very little had been stockpiled before the siege. And why should it have been? After all the newspaper Magyaorsag had stated in mid-November that, “Nobody needs to worry that the Hungarian capital will become the scene of street fighting.” It is hard to fathom such a line of thinking when the Soviet Army at that time stood just 20 km from the city center.
Almost all the available stocks of food were stored in the outer eastern suburbs of the city and fell into Soviet hands almost immediately. The worst was definitely yet to come. The Hungarian and German armies were hardly better off. They had enough food to last five days. That supply would only last about one-tenth the entire length of the siege. For soldiers, one option became to steal from other soldiers. If you were Hungarian, that might mean taking from the Germans. For instance, Company Sergeant Major Gero of the Hungarian 12th Reserve Division risked his life to feed his men. Years later, Gero recalled, “the most dangerous and most successful undertaking of my life was when one night, to feed my hungry soldiers better, I stole a pig from the Germans with a few of my lads.” It could have cost Gero his life, but so could starvation. By the end of the siege no pigs were left. Soldiers were reduced to relying on carrots that had once been animal feed.
Speaking of animals, the civilian populace relied mostly on horses as a source of food. Over 30,000 had been brought to the city by the Hungarian and German armies. By the end of the siege almost none of these animals were left alive. A common sight in the streets, squares and broad boulevards were citizens hacking off what meat they could find on half-starved, newly dead horses.
But the starving city was also a place of otherworldly contradictions, where a German soldier such as Reinhard Noll had, “barely enough water for a soup a day, but the best spirits were available in huge quantities.” He got, “only one slice of army bread a day, but were fully supplied with lard, jam, and the like.” Noll took up chain smoking since the “most expensive Hungarian cigars” were available “in the cellars by the case.” He relied on the habit to calm his ever taut nerves.
The Search For Water
The second basic necessity for survival was water. Flowing right through Budapest was the Danube, one of Europe’s great rivers. This should have been the place where the populace lined the banks to gather water. Yet this was the dead of winter, the Danube was froze solid. The winter of 1944-45 was much colder than normal for Central Europe. Even if someone could break through the thick ice, there was an ever increasing chance of being shot by a sniper. Outlined against an icy white sheen, civilians were easy targets. As for the Hungarian Parliament Building on the banks of the river, citizens of Pest were drawn to these very grounds. The area surrounding Parliament was one of the few places to find good water from a well. There were dangerous dashes to procure enough water to drink, cook or wash with. The threat of getting shot down by a sniper or cross fire was ever present. But the choice was either to risk your life for water or lose your life without it. These choices had to be made daily by thousands of citizens.
In The Cellars Of Parliament
The third aspect of survival was shelter. Ironically, unlike food and water which could sustain life, shelter might be a savior or a death trap. Tens of thousands lost their homes and then searched to find the sturdiest structure: a building that hopefully, would not be blown apart. The parliament building became a gigantic shelter. It had been constructed at the turn of the twentieth century with the best materials available, built to stand the test of time. As Pest exploded, crumbled and was laid waste around it, the building took its hits as well, but nonetheless stood. Citizens fled into the building’s cellars. Many of these were the sick and wounded who slowly succumbed to disease or horrific wounds, even those left alive would lay half stripped for days on end, with little or no medical care. Above them, loomed the chambers where parliament had once debated the very policies that had brought the nation to the brink of destruction. As bad as conditions at the Parliament building were, it was still a relatively sturdy structure. Outside its stone walls, apartment buildings were being blown to bits by heavy artillery and tank shells. Below these ruins thousands huddled in basements as their last refuge.
The final element needed for survival was something few had control over, luck. This was the luck to avoid the enemy. Enemies could change from day to day, depending on one’s situation, nationality or most alarmingly for one group of citizens their ethnicity. The fate of the Hungarian people was caught in the crossfire between the armed forces of their own side, the occupying German forces and the looming menace of the Soviet Army. For the citizens of Budapest, there were no good choices, only strategies of survival.
Place to visit: Hungarian Parliament Building (walk from Margit Bridge to Hungarian Parliament grounds on Kossuth Lajos ter where open ground faces the Ethnographic Museum)
Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006