#257595 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

“How Could Anyone with a Reasonable Mind Come up with Something Like This?”

The War and Hungarian Hospital Trains through the Lens of a Photographer at the Don Bend

From the eastern front of World War II, twelve trains operated by the Red Cross brought home hundreds and thousands of wounded Hungarian soldiers, while at constant exposure to attack. The photos of József Reményi, a first lieutenant from Szabolcs County serving at the commissary, provide a rare insight into the little-known world of hospital trains, into the relationship between occupiers and the civilian population, and into the fate of Jews conscripted to forced labor. The war from the perspective of a good-hearted, average man.

Even though the furnace is constantly fed with coal, the bottles of mineral water are freezing and breaking one by one; the wounded Hungarian soldiers lying on bunk beds are waiting for the train to move on. The Hungarian hospital train is standing still somewhere in the middle of seemingly never ending Russian forest; the officers are concerned about being raided by partisans; from up above, the sound of approaching aircraft… No one can tell whether the Red Cross’s train will become a target today or not…

#257979 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

The twelve Hungarian hospital trains operating on the Eastern front were under international protection according to the Geneva convention. However, in day-to-day reality, it did not necessarily provide actual safety. The crosses painted on the side and the top of the carriages were barely visible due to the snow or smut covering it. And even when they were visible, who knew whether these signs would secure that the people on board would be alive the next day.

#257800 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

First Lieutenant Reményi was in charge of the food supply of the train as a mess sergeant. This meant catering for 500 wounded soldiers, as well as for the doctors, nurses, and the staff: canned meals, smoked lard, beans and peas, dried noodles (“tarhonya”), powdered milk, malt coffee, and alcohol—the best remedy for heart issues during bombings. At times, an extra carriage with anti-aircraft missiles was added to the train in order to deter the aircraft from flying low and thus prompt them to miss their target. In the case of air raids at railway stations, people would run out to the fields/meadows where possible, or for lack of better option, would hide in the drainage pipes built into railway embankments. Sometimes there was nothing else to do but listen to the sound of shrapnel landing on the top of the carriage and pray. If the prayers were answered, the card game on board could resume.

#257544 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#257701 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

Few objects and relics survive from Hungarian hospital trains. The carriages had either perished by the end of the war or were sent to the West. Hence the memoir, the diary, and letters József Reményi wrote for his young, barely seventeen-year-old wife, are invaluable sources. He also took more than a thousand photographs on the front and in the hinterlands: in Polish territories, Ukraine, Belarus, the northern part of Russia, and at Hungarian locations on the way. These photos—available to all on Fortepan—hold a specific historical value.

Reményi had been passionate about photography since his childhood. As a schoolboy, he would take photographs of the farm girls on Sundays next to the church for a couple of coins. With the money he made this way, he bought Kodak paper or sometimes more expensive glass plates, and he developed the images in a shed built by himself. He would of course take his camera to the front as well. He took the round trip between Déli railway station in Budapest and the Eastern front seventeen times with hospital train no. 154, and he was lucky enough to return each time safe and sound.

In the foreground, nurses bidding farewell to the crew of the Red Cross’s hospital train no. 154 at Déli Railway Station in Budapest in 1942, with the buildings of Alkotás Street near the intersection with Ráth György Street in the background. #257767 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
Lenin Square in Gomel, Belarus, in 1942; to the left, the fire station and its tower. #258242 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
Demolished buildings on Khreshchatyk street in Kyiv, Ukraine, the view from Maidan Nezalezhnosti (formerly known as Kalinin Square) in 1942. #257824 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

His photographs are not composed like those of a war correspondent; his perspective is rather that of a civilian, even though he was an officer on duty. Apart from pictures of wounded people and landscapes, and the attempts of the Hungarian soldiers at making friends during rest hours, we get to see portraits and group photos of local people, forced laborers with yellow star badges, as well as local Jews lined up next to the train.

#257996 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#257735 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#258218 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
A statue after the painting “Stalin’s Visit at Lenin’s Sickbed” near Gomel, Belarus, in 1942. #258249 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

Photos and texts complement each other to show the almost unknown life on hospital trains: wounded soldiers carried in on stretchers through the train window, gunshot and lacerated wounds, bone tuberculosis, and front-line madness. From Reményi’s accounts, we get to know that in many cases, apart from surgeons, gynecologists recruited to the front helped out in taking care of abdominal gunshot wounds—as properly as it was possible on a train. In the case of life-threatening wounds, the train would stop at the next station in order to carry out a larger-scale surgery or amputation.

#257863 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#257919 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

On the hospital train, a Roman Catholic priest and a Protestant chaplain served as well: an operating table was converted into a makeshift altar, and the mass was performed on a white, snow-covered field in the bright sunshine. It was a common task for them to give the last rites: the hospital train was a special place where the baggage car often contained corpses as well as bandages, hand grenades, and Mannlicher rifles.

#257917 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#257999 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

The 10–15-day trip to the front included many short stops—along the tracks, on the telephone poles, the Wehrmacht advertised its never completed mission: “Rader müssen rollen für den Sieg!” (The wheels must roll for victory!). However, Reményi could relate less to such propagandistic lines, than to the local people trying to obtain some food, salt, or baking soda from the trains. His accounts give us a view of the constant swapping that was general among Hungarian soldiers. At one point, he also tells how he swapped his pistol for a golden clock. His descendents still keep in high esteem a small silver icon—called “the bread icon” in the family—that he took home from the front. According to the family legend, Reményi, who had a heart of gold, once gave a loaf of freshly baked bread to a Ukrainian lady, who took the icon off and gave it to the officer without a word, to express her gratitude.

#257856 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

“The poor Russian people have been through so much suffering,” he wrote about the Russians, whose faces he found shy and friendly, while he was writing about the Germans taking revenge on partisan attacks by setting entire villages on fire.

#257916 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

This is the point of view of a good and helpful average man who ended up at the front unwillingly—one that reflects the horrors of war, his empathy for Ukrainians, Russians, and forced laborers, as well as his distaste for German officers. The latter he found to be fanatic, merciless, and condescending towards Hungarians, and ready to do anything for victory.

#257660 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#257885 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

“I always watched closely how their tasksmasters shouted and how their leather whips moved,” he wrote to his wife about the Germans’ treatment of Jewish forced laborers. He felt that it was pointless, “in vain to openly criticize this system, and would only lead to arguments and personal attacks,” but on his own level, he tried to help the oppressed ones. When he sees an old acquaintance among the forced laborers, he calls him to his booth to give him some money, food, cigarettes, and a few comforting words, which makes his German first lieutenant really indignant—something Reményi laconically comments on when writing to his wife: “I will never understand the soul of these people; I will always remain the same and be like this.”

#258202 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
#258294 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

In Reményi’s accounts, we cannot find any trace of the atrocities carried out by the Hungarian invader units documented in several other sources—he probably did not even learn about these while serving on a hospital train. However, he risked helping in several instances. He would hide packages under the kindling and take them out for forced laborers who were not allowed to receive them. He also helped his former boss’s wife to obtain a position as a nurse with forged papers in order to save her from entering a forced labor camp.

#258060 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

His unvarnished anger against the Hungarian military leadership is becoming especially clear in his writings after the disaster at the Don River. “The guns froze, the horses died, the horse feed was misadministered,” he wrote to his family in March 1943, after the Hungarian Second Army was totally defeated, leaving behind 42 thousand dead and 26 thousand prisoners of war, while Reményi’s crew had somehow to take home about 28 thousand wounded soldiers on overcrowded trains.

#257590 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi
The Red Cross’s hospital train no. 154 upon its arrival at Szombathely in 1942. #257902 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

At this point, Reményi does not hold back his thoughts on the pointlessness of the war: “My zeal and trust in the ideology has been shaken, and I find each and every loss of Hungarian blood and precious materials aimless, needless, and even wasteful. The leaders, who are people of no conscience, sacrificed on the altar of the homeland the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of people and many mothers in vain, out of selfishness, petty-mindedness, and I would say, evilness. I know this is a bold statement, but it is sincere,” he writes in one of his letters.

#258303 Photo: Fortepan / József Reményi

The Hungarian hospital trains kept running until the end of the war. At the end of 1944, many of the trains were sent to Imperial Germany through the city of Sopron. József Reményi shared the same fate: he went to Bavaria taking with himself his pregnant wife and their little daughter. There he became a prisoner of war captured by US soldiers. His second child was born there. Upon his return home, he left the army and returned to his former job at the Egyesült Izzó (United Incandescent Lamp and Electricity Company) until he retired. He kept on taking photos fervently throughout all these years. His memoirs written at the end of his life are accounts of his visceral hatred for war. In 2021, an exhibition of his photos titled “The Photographer at the Don” opened; his wartime diary, memoirs, and photographs were published in a volume edited by Bálint Mezei. As his epitaph states: he was “a soldier of love.”

The quoted excerpts in this article were taken (and translated) from the book A doni fotós: Reményi József főhadnagy életútja, háborús naplója és fényképei [The photographer at the Don: The life, wartime diary, and photographs of First Lieutenant József Reményi], edited by Bálint Mezei (Győr, 2016).

Text: Ádám Kolozsi | Photo editor: Virágvölgyi István | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]

The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/korhazvonat

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

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