Title: The Army Cap Boy
Author: Zoltan Schwartz
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1983
Location of Book: Makor Jewish Community Library, Melbourne Jewish Community Library, Melbourne
Cities/town/camps: Hungary: Budapest, Nyircsaholy, Germany: Bergen-Belsen, France: Paris
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative
The Army-Cap Boy is the story of Zoltan Schwarz, a Hungarian Jew. The Book covers the period from 1935, when Zoltan was six years old, to 1948 when he arrived in Australia. The first 23 pages deal with his life in Nyircsaholy in the years prior to the war; 40 pages with survival in Budapest during German occupation; pages 64-76 with the nightmare cattle train journey to Bergen-Belsen; pages 77-98 with the struggle for survival in the camp; and pages 99-150 with his life in Europe, predominantly Paris, following his liberation. The final part of the book, pages 151-183, describe Zoltan’s journey to, and experiences in, his new homeland of Australia. Schwartz’s autobiography was written in his fifties, with the help of his wife, who shared similar experiences. The memoir was first published in 1983 by The Macmillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd. Note: Zoltan and Edi Schwartz are pen names.
The first section of the book deals with Zoltan’s life in Nyircsaholy, a small village in the North East corner of Hungary. Born in 1929, Zoltan describes the life of his village and his family, who operated a small shop attached to their home. The family had deep roots in the village, and Zoltan’s father had served in the Hungarian Army. Zoltan provides a brief account of his six years of schooling and the antisemitism he experienced. In 1943 he moved to Budapest to pursue a trade as an apprentice tailor. This proved to be short lived and Schwarz ended up switching between odd jobs. He was able to move about the city with relative ease, despite the threat of the Hungarian Fascist party, the Arrow-Cross, and its gang of thugs.
When the Germans entered Hungary in 1944, a number of antisemitic measures were imposed. Amidst the chaos, Zoltan heard rumours of atrocities occurring in the east. He simply could not believe that such a civilised people as the Germans could act so barbarously. Zoltan soon learnt first-hand when in December 1944 he was marched into a cattle train bound for Bergen-Belsen. Zoltan describes the terrible conditions of the journey, the intense hunger and thirst, and the humiliation of being told where and when they could go to the toilet. In Bergen-Belsen, Zoltan is again bewildered by the savagery of the ‘cultured’ German guards. He descibes the daily battle for survival in the camp, and fondly recalls those who helped him live another day. As the German retreat hastened, Zoltan and his fellow prisoners were packed back in to trains headed for another camp. The train was liberated by American soldiers on April 13 1945.
After liberation, Zoltan was taken to Paris where he reveled in the return to freedom and humane conditions. In 1948 he emigrated to Sydney to begin a new life.
Zoltan Schwarts employs a sophisticated lexicon to portray the senseless horror of his experiences. Nonetheless, black humour finds its way into the narrative wherever possible. Schwartz’s story is both intimate and honest. No detail, however personal or unflattering, is spared from this tale of one man’s battle against the callousness of humanity.