Nicholas Hammer

Witness to the barbarity of the Nazi concentration camps
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The Independent Online

Miklos Hammer (Nicholas Hammer), concentration-camp survivor and businessman: born Budapest 18 June 1920; married 1947 Sonja Geiger (died 1999; one son, one daughter); died London 23 October 2003.

Almost 20 years ago, a man called to see me with a story. It was the compelling, tragic and terrifying account of the early years of his own life and he wanted me to write it with a view to publication. He was a Holocaust survivor and, like so many others, had sealed up this bitter experience in his own mind from the moment it had ended. But 40 years on, he felt a pressing need to release it. He wanted to tell the world, before he died, about the barbaric, painful injustice inflicted upon him and millions of others.

We worked on the book together for four years. He recalled events with a virtually photographic memory and it was eventually published under the title Sacred Games in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Nicholas Hammer was a man of strong mind and intelligence, widely read and proficient in half a dozen languages. He was born Miklos Hammer in Budapest in 1920. As a boy growing up, he frequently, though often covertly, rebelled against the strict regime of his father, David, a severely traditional rabbi. He read widely, well beyond the exclusively Hebrew literature insisted upon by his father. The young Miklos also taught himself English, by listening to BBC radio broadcasts, another activity of which his father disapproved but which was ultimately to prove more valuable than could possibly have been imagined.

The Jewish population of pre-war Budapest was almost a quarter of a million. Jews occupied crucial and influential positions in the Hungarian capital's professional and cultural life. But, by the time Miklos Hammer was ready to apply to university to study medicine, a numerus clausus law was in operation under which universities and other institutions could allow only 5 per cent of the intake to be Jews. Hammer did, however, manage to gain admission as an affiliated student, allowed to attend lectures but not to do practical work or attend exams.

He became involved with young Zionist groups in Budapest and, in 1938, along with a number of friends, applied to the University of Jerusalem. Though all of his friends gained places, he heard nothing. When he enquired about his application, he discovered that his father had withdrawn his consent. Along with most religious Jews in Hungary, Rabbi David Hammer disapproved of the secular Zionists and, again like his religious brethren, resisted calls to leave Hungary.

In 1941, with Hungary allied to the Germans, Hammer was conscripted into the Jewish Labour battalion - the Arbeitsdienst. The following autumn, he was among a handful of conscripts who managed to avoid a posting to Stalingrad from which nobody returned. In May 1944, he was sent to the ghetto of Nagyvarad, near the Romanian border, and eventually rounded up with hundreds of others and locked into a synagogue for a night which he later described as comparable to a scene from Dante's Inferno - masses of people packed together in darkness, amid panic and abandon; some sobbing, some laughing as if at a party; men and women relieving themselves in corners, others copulating on the floor; some, with ironic incongruity, praying. The following morning they were all taken on board cattle trucks, bound for Birkenau.

From Birkenau, Hammer went to Auschwitz, until, in January 1945 with the Russian army almost at the gates, he was part of the infamous "death march" of prisoners led out of the camp by the SS and taken, through snow and bitter conditions, into the Reich. Many of the "marchers" died through starvation, exhaustion or disease, or were gunned down for failing to keep up.

Hammer continued on a grim tour through a number of concentration camps, including Gross Rosen, Buchenwald and Dachau. He had several dramatic brushes with death, as he had had in Auschwitz, and witnessed scenes of unspeakable cruelty and degradation, including the transformation of his kindly family doctor into a sadistic brute, a son being forced to kill his father, and an act of cannibalism.

Amid a crammed wagon-load of prisoners on a train from Buchenwald to Dachau - the last of a series of bestial, nightmarish train journeys - Hammer encountered a mysterious Englishman, probably a spy who had been captured by the Gestapo. This man gave his name as Peter Howard. Hammer, thanks to those pre-war BBC broadcasts, was the only person in the wagon able to communicate with him. Over the next few days, though starving and weak, Hammer and Howard exchanged stories about their respective families and home towns of Budapest and London.

Along with most of the other prisoners in the truck, Peter Howard died en route. Hammer himself, upon arrival at Dachau, riddled with lice and unable to walk on account of typhoid fever, when asked for his name, on impulse said "Peter Howard". He was thereby excluded from a final round-up and execution of Jewish prisoners. Shortly afterwards, the Americans liberated Dachau and, a few weeks later, "repatriated" the "Englishman" in their care to Britain.

It was transparently obvious that the man calling himself Peter Howard, speaking with a thick Hungarian accent, was not British. He told his story to the authorities and was placed under guard as a foreign internee. In due course, he was placed in Beltane School, in Wimbledon, where his fellow internees included a number of Nazis, among them Otto Dietrich, Hitler's former press chief, with whom Hammer had a number of searching conversations about the ideology and practice of National Socialism.

After representations in Parliament by Sydney Silverman MP, Hammer was freed and, in time, settled in London, where he married Sonja Geiger, the daughter of an immigrant musician from Berlin. They emigrated to South Africa, where Nicholas, as he was by then known, built up an importing business. This, however, collapsed and the family - including a daughter and a son, named Peter after Peter Howard - returned to the UK, where, starting virtually from scratch, the one-time medical student once more created a successful business, importing and exporting textiles.

In 1986, I accompanied Nicholas Hammer on his first and only return to the sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He showed me the block in which he had been housed. It was not part of the camp open for exhibition and, as he stepped over the small barrier around it, a uniformed Polish woman attendant rushed over making stern, windscreen-wiper-like gestures of prohibition with an index finger. Hammer stopped her short with a gesture of his own: he rolled up his shirtsleeve to reveal the number tattooed on his arm.

He was not going to be stopped. Neither was he going to be stopped from recording the events he had witnessed there four decades earlier.

Gerald Jacobs