Living conditions were abysmal in the labor service, and the Jewish conscripts were often brutally mistreated by their officers and guards. The abuses against them included withholding or stealing their meager rations, denying them adequate clothing or footwear to perform their duties, quartering them for long periods outside without shelter, and dousing them with water and leaving them to freeze in the bitter cold of the Russian winter. During the retreat of the Hungarian army and its auxiliary labor units in the winter of 1943 after their defeat by the Soviets, Hungarian soldiers often plundered and even killed many of the Jewish labor servicemen. In all, more than 40,000 Jewish labor servicemen lost their lives.
Beifeld was inducted into the 109/13 labor company in April 1942. The Jewish conscript took with him an ample supply of paper, paint, and pencils to keep him occupied in whatever spare time he could find. As it turned out, not only did these art supplies give him something to do in that spare time, they actually helped to spare his life during his year in the Soviet Union.
Beifeld began painting immediately after his induction, creating watercolors of the base camp in Hungary where the company was initially stationed. On April 20, 1942, Beifeld's company departed by train for the Russian front. Just before their departure the members of the company received a superficial medical checkup and readiness review. As Beifeld writes in his memoir,
On April 19, Lieutenant Colonel Domonkos, Commander of the Replacement Center, reviewed the Company's readiness to march. The only things he was concerned about were the yellow armbands [the Jewish labor serviceman's only uniform] and the dog tags. Were the yellow armbands properly sewn to the jackets and overcoats, and did we have dog tags around our necks? Apart from that, he was concerned only with the horses. He looked at us with deep disgust. Later it came to our attention that he said goodbye to Banovich [the company commander] with the hope that not a single Jew would be among those whom he would bring back home.
Examine pages from the album by clicking on See artifacts and using the zoom tool to select and magnify areas of the image.
Beifeld's company arrived at Orel in Russia on April 26. He describes the countryside as seen from the train, noting not only the absence of young men, but also the absence of dogs, which increasingly had been used as a source of food in this time of privation.
From Orel members of the company marched on foot for several days to their first destination, a construction site on the Orel-Kursk highway. Their task was to do maintenance work on the roadway. Beifeld describes the work as arduous and unproductive, and no sooner had they completed one task, they would receive another order to do just the opposite. Fortunately for Beifeld, after only 4–5 days of this hard labor his commander issued an order for the creation of a company diary, and Beifeld was asked to provide the illustrations. As a result he was exempt for a time from construction work.
Drawing and painting turned out to be a lucrative business for Beifeld. His portraits, landscapes, and caricatures became sought-after commodities, and many of the soldiers were ready to barter food or cigarettes for his pictures.