The below text is excerpted and condensed from the introduction and editorial note of In Dreams Together. The letters are excerpted from Leslie Fazekas’s In Dreams Together.
The destruction of the Hungarian Jewish communities in the last phase of World War II was one of the most efficient genocidal campaigns in history. In March 1944, some 750,000 Jews living in Hungary represented by far the largest surviving community in Hitler’s Europe. With the imminent defeat of the Nazis approaching, they had good reason to believe their sufferings would be over soon. However, following the German occupation of Hungary that very month, the Nazis and their local accomplices completed the disenfranchisement, plunder and isolation of the Jews in a period of a mere eight weeks. Then, mostly between mid-May and early July 1944, the Nazi and Hungarian authorities deported about 450,000 people from the Hungarian provinces. Their destination was the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex, where three-fourths of them were gassed upon arrival, killing more than 300,000 people: mainly women, children and the elderly. It was due to the Hungarian campaign — Ungarnaktion, as the Nazi jargon put it — that Auschwitz ultimately became the universally known symbol of human genocide. In the words of the towering Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, “Hungary was going to lift Auschwitz to the top” among other Nazi camps.
It is a less well-known fact, however, that some 3 percent of the deported Hungarian Jews actually escaped being sent to Birkenau. At the end of June 1944, more than 15,000 people were transported to the Vienna region (Gau Groß-Wien), in Nazi-annexed Austria, rather than to the death camp. Moreover, they were indeed taken there primarily for work purposes. Arriving at the distribution camp (Durchgangslager) in Strasshof, the Jews were transferred to various districts of Vienna and settlements in the vicinity, where they worked in different branches of war industry and in agriculture, as well as at rubble clean-up and construction sites. Those unable to work were not murdered, and families were mostly allowed to stay together. Living conditions, workload and treatment varied, but at large, the situation of Hungarian Jewish slave labourers in and around Vienna was relatively bearable, if compared to the extreme sufferings in other corners in the web of Nazi concentration and labour camps. Many of the deportees in Austria fell victim to bomb raids, accidents, illnesses, hardships and arbitrary executions, but eventually the majority of this group, an estimated ten to twelve thousand people, survived the war. The author of these outstanding wartime diaries and postwar memoir, László Frenkel, today Leslie Fazekas, was among them
While in captivity as a forced labourer in Austria during World War II, Leslie Fazekas (then László Frenkel, also referred to as Laci) wrote a diary in Hungarian from August 1944 to April 1945. He addressed almost all of his diary entries to his girlfriend, Judit Felbermann (also known as Judith, or Judy, Felberman), whom he was separated from. By September 1944, Leslie and Judy had found a way to write letters and postcards to each other. Leslie was able to hold onto his diary throughout the war years and after, and when he and Judy reunited, and later married, they held dear all the letters they had been able to keep as well.
Sunday, January 14, 1945, at 16:00 [4:00 p.m.]
My dear Judit,
We are well into the new year now as I revisit my diary for the first time. Not much has happened here in the meantime, but I believe all the more with you over there. I hear you have been transferred to Floridsdorf [District xxi of Vienna] but nothing further about the nature of your work or circumstances. I don’t even know your exact address. In any event, I was elated to learn you stayed in Vienna. I haven’t given up the hope that, God willing, we may meet while both of us are still in the city. Oh, if only you could come and see me once, my Judit! People from other Lagers are allowed to go on a leave. Last Sunday we had 6 visitors from other Lagers, among them a vivacious, animated girl of 18 by the name of Éva Krausz. (When she was told I was courting you, she complimented me on my good taste. I was terribly proud!) They came around 10:00 in the morning and left around 3:00. We spent a very nice time with them.
Whenever I find myself in a slightly better frame of mind, when for a moment I snap out of this seven-month delirium, I am horrified to think of dying, of being deprived of so many wonderful moments of life to come, if I were hit by a stray bomb. I may have lived long enough to experience a great deal, from joy to intense suffering, from hard-won victories to bitter defeat, perhaps more than many people’s share in a lifetime, but I am still young with a life ahead of me — the real life, the greatest battle of all. But all of this now seems so vague, so distant, as never before. I seldom fret about living or dying anymore. Let come what may. Compared to not having been born at all, my life so far is a pure gain. Dying is just a return to Nirvana. Simple as that, isn’t it? The war has devoured millions of lives, why should I be the exception? In any case, we haven’t had a single air raid this year. It would not be nice to have to rush to the cellar in this cold. It would be particularly hard on poor Father, who is seriously ill. He is suffering all the time, moaning, or rather, wailing in pain, through the night. If only he could feel better! It is terrible to see him so helpless in his torment, without any medication or diet, as if we were still cavemen! When is this all going to end?
Tuesday, January 23 at 18:00 [6:00 p.m.]
My dear Judit,
The reason I am writing on this unusual day of the week is that I received a letter from you in the afternoon [Judit’s letter dated December 30, 1944], and I want to record my impressions while they are still fresh. Finally, Father was admitted to the hospital for tests and possibly in-patient care. Those who went in with him and came back brought your letter to me. I find it wonderful and very sad at the same time. I admit that I positively liked it. I thought there was not a single unnecessary sentence in it. You are telling me of having lived in relative freedom (under the circumstances, that is), 21 of you in a well-heated three-room apartment and with decent food, so overall you had a good life in Aspern. Now that you have been transferred, it is hard to get used to the strangers around you and the new circumstances, and you are struggling to overcome the initial difficulties. I know how you feel. When we first came here, I felt so forlorn and bereft in this barrack for 120 that often I just wanted to cry. The only consolation and the only poison I had consisted of my memories. And the most wonderful, most intensely burning memories of all were of the two of us who share them. I was still so ardently in love with you that I almost died of it. I have been hardened and gotten used to this life since then — to the solitude, the silence, the abandonment. Even my memories have stopped harassing me.
The machine I operate at the factory has taught me many things: how to bear it all and wait one’s time without stirring, how to shake off the slings of fate, everything that hurts. What we have turned into during the past seven months is not animals but machines, numb organisms. It is hard at first, isn’t it, my Judit? Man can be transformed into anything, as easily to an animal as to a mechanism, but this metamorphosis is difficult and takes some time. Eventually, you will become jaded, too. As the initial physical discomforts slowly recede and you manage to get a bed and a warmer place to sleep, your feelings, drives and desires will become less intense. Slowly, step by step — but before long, as we measure time here — you will become like me, like the rubble you clear. And I do want you to be like me in this one thing: No matter how desensitized I am now, I have never forgotten nor could ever forget you. My love for you is just as persevering, perhaps a lot more persevering, if less ardent and painful, than when our tribulations began.
 Raul Hilberg, “Auschwitz and the ‘Final Solution,’” in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, eds. Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum (Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the ushmm, 1998), 88.
 Although not a verbatim quote, this is most likely an allusion to the well-known soliloquy that starts with the phrase “To be, or not to be,” from Act iii, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The exact line is, “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Leslie Fazekas was born in Debrecen, Hungary, in 1925. In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, Leslie and his family fled Hungary and immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where he still lives.