George Byfield (born György Beifeld) was one of roughly 50,000 Hungarian Jews forced to work for the Nazi-allied Hungarian army during World War II. Hungarian Jews were forced to repair roads, build fortifications, construct bridges, and bury the dead on the Eastern Front. These Jewish forced laborers were treated with extreme cruelty, and most did not survive. Of the 50,000 Hungarian Jews sent to the Eastern Front, more than 40,000 did not return.1
Byfield brought art supplies to the front with him, which helped him survive. His art not only gave him a way to process his wartime experiences and express himself, but it also earned Byfield exemptions from physical work. He was given a studio to illustrate a company journal, and he traded and sold illustrations for otherwise scarce food and supplies. "Because of my work," he explained, "I always had food, soap, and cigarettes." Byfield's art not only provided him with adequate food, but it also sustained him in other ways. In his wartime diary, he wrote that “I can cope as long as I have enough free time left in the afternoons to make a couple of aquarelles [watercolors]."2
During his time as a forced laborer for the Hungarian army, Byfield created a richly illustrated wartime album of his daily experiences.3 Over 400 watercolor paintings, drawings, and photographs record the horrific conditions he endured and the people he encountered. Appearing on nearly every page of the album, the artist's humorous reflections often refer to the irony of his situation as a Jew contributing to the war effort led by Nazi Germany. Some include captions, such as "Keep Smiling!" underneath a grinning skull or "Peaceful Surroundings...!" to describe a sleepy country scene being bombed by a Soviet plane. Captioned "Mementos from the Russia Campaign," the collage of drawings and paintings featured here plays on traditional travel themes to portray Byfield's time on the Eastern Front as a nightmarish holiday trip to the Soviet Union.
Byfield survived a year on the front and returned to Budapest in 1943. In 1944 he was arrested and interned at Dachau, where he was liberated a year later.4 In 1948, Byfield emigrated from Hungary to Australia, where he would live until his death in 1982.