Why its time to part company with the past, and Ken, in British politics:
Not so long ago, I posted a criticism online of an extremist, ‘Zionist’ group that had obviously ‘photo-shopped’ a picture of a swastika flying above Hebron, claiming that it had been placed there by Palestinians to incite Israelis. I pointed out, as a historian used to looking at old photographs, that the part of the picture containing the swastika was obviously taken from a picture of a World War II Zeppelin, since the rope connecting to it was coming down from the sky and not up from the tower below. Someone then added an anti-Semitic remark, something about ‘typical Jewish tactics’ to which I reacted by adding the comment that it was possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. My co-commenter retorted that this was impossible, and that I needed to ‘grow some balls’ in the fight against ‘the Jewish state’. Leaving aside the slur on my manhood, I realised he was right – that it was now impossible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, in that people like him were Jew-hating supporters of Jew-killers in the conflict in Israel-Palestine and would not rest until the state of Israel had been destroyed and its people, mainly Jewish, ‘driven back into the Mediterranean’. Since then, I have read, written and published extensively about the growth of Zionism in its historical context, especially in Hungary, where it began, and where I now live, having married into a part-Jewish Hungarian family. Let me be clear. I believe in self-determination for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs in a two-state Israel-Palestine with religious freedom for Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians.
For some time now, and notably since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in Britain, I have felt tired of having to reply to numerous posts on social media (mainly on sites purporting to support the Labour Party) from those using the terms ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zionism’ without knowledge of, or reference to, this historical context, and therefore, in my view, in a way which is either inaccurate or just plain wrong. Then I got the news that the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, ‘left-hand’ man of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (his right-hand man being John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor), had been suspended for claiming publicly that Hitler was a Zionist when he came to power in 1932. So I decided to consult the sources I’ve been working on recently in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust to see what they can reveal about the development of these forces between the wars. I feel bound to state, before venturing further into this historical yet still very contemporary quagmire, that, whatever it reveals, can have only limited relevance to today’s ongoing global arguments about the management and resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, since there is a ‘fault line’ running through the history of the last century which refocuses historical interpretation of the entire century in terms of what actually happened between the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in November 1938 and the setting up of the state of Israel a decade later. The displacements, dispersals, deportations and ultimate destruction of the European Jewish peoples have been fully documented are established facts of the highest order which are protected by law in many countries. Therefore, what politicians like Ken Livingstone try to do is to chip away at the bedrock of these events by seeking to re-contextualise them in order to make outrageous comments like those of Naz Shah seem mainstream, when they are far from it. There is, quite rightly, much debate over the role of Hitler’s ‘Aims’ and ‘Plans’ in determining the outbreak and course of the Second World War, comparative to a whole range of other factors, but what is indisputable is the course of what we have come to know as ‘the Holocaust’ enacted against the Jews, Roma and others whom the Third Reich and its Führer determined to be ‘undesirable’.
Additionally, we need to bear in mind that, correctly defined, both parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict are Semitic peoples in the original linguistic-cultural use of the term, and therefore much of what passes for ‘Islamaphobia’ is actually not directed against Islam, of which it is largely ignorant, but rather anti-Arab and therefore another form of anti-Semitism which also needs to be confronted and extinguished. There is therefore no rank order among the oppressed peoples of the middle east, and upholding the rights of one ethnic group does not mean trampling on the rights of another. Neither is there any need, as Corbyn has done, to conflate anti-Semitism with ‘Islamaphobia’ as a form of racism. The latter may turn into anti-Arab racism, or be confused with it, but it begins, as the term suggests, with an irrational fear of religion, and therefore has different causes to anti-Semitism. It should be treated with different remedies. We do not need an ‘independent’ enquiry to tell us this. Xenophobia is currently, sadly, rampant throughout European society, but it is its deliberate exploitation by racists that makes it so toxic.
Added to this, since former Assyrians and Persians are also Semitic peoples, a general solution to the conflicts inherent or active in the middle east cannot be found without respecting the identities of Kurds, Iraqi minorities and Iranians. At the moment, religion is being used to deny these identities in many cases, but their re-emergence and recognition is part of the secular and inter-faith campaign which is needed to defeat the tyranny and terrorism of ethnic cleansing in the region as a whole. Zionism simply means what the name suggests, Jewish nationalism, which has a right to co-exist with every other nationalism of Europe and the Middle East, including the legitimate demands for Kurdish and Palestinian self-determination in statehood. It’s only when such aspirations go unrecognised and get pushed into corners that they become potentially destructive.
I felt reluctant to write much more than this until Ken Livingstone’s remarks made me determined to delve back into the earlier part of the twentieth century. One reason for my initial reluctance was that I was hoping that wiser heads would prevail in the Labour Party, and would, by now, have come up with a framework for constructive discourse on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, providing parameters of acceptable uses of language for its members, many of them new to the party and new to this particular discourse. Jeremy Corbyn’s tendency to refer everything back to the ‘growth of the party at grass-roots level’ is patronising to those who have worked at this level for many decades and are more aware than he is of the challenges posed by the sudden influx of ‘unschooled’ proto-socialists. The fact that there is a concurrent conflict on anti-Semitism among students would suggest to a more pro-active or even reactive leader that this is not a problem which will simply settle down among the ‘grass roots’. His ‘Crisis? What Crisis?!’ response was also a complete abnegation of responsibility. A new fault line has opened up within the Party, and he opened it by making it clear that it was acceptable for party leaders, himself included, to appear on platforms with representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, organisations which have as their stated aim the destruction of the state of Israel which, were they to succeed, would involve another act of genocide against Jewish people.
His election as leader has, as many of us on the mainstream Left predicted, opened a Pandora’s Box of the uglier tropes of ultra-Left ideology, and it may be impossible to get the lid back on it. However, it is not too late for him to express regret over the support implied in his own past actions, and also to distance himself from the ‘Stop the War’ campaign’s ‘Cairo Declaration’ which sought to justify attacks on British service people in Iraq. For the sake of his Party, if for no other reason, he needs to ‘draw a line in the sand’ for his fellow-travellers on its ultra-Left, whether old comrades like Ken, or new militants who have yet to come to political maturity. Unlike the other major political parties, the Labour Party has always had a set of familiar values and discourses which have to be learned by its members, sometimes the hard way. As Ken’s case proves, this is a process of lifelong learning. Just as an ‘old dog’ like Corbyn has shown himself to be capable of learning ‘new tricks’ as leader, so too all of us have gaps in our knowledge as well as our know-how, or ‘political nous’.
Understanding Zionism in its historical context:
So, having re-educated myself on these contemporary-historical issues, partly through living and working in the part of Europe that experienced them, let me attempt to offer a basis for genuine historical understanding. Reading Anna Porter’s book on ‘Kasztner’s Train’, together with more anti-Zionist sources from within the Budapest Jewish leadership of 1944-45, I began to understand that the British Left had failed to understand Zionism as a movement, both contemporaneously and subsequent to the Holocaust. This is because it mirrors the interpretation of ‘European Jewry’ as a monolithic collective culture and ethnicity within European society. Historically, the Left has tended to refer to ‘the Jews’ as if they are somehow a homogeneous group, like other ethnic minorities which exist across national boundaries, when, in reality, they were just as culturally diverse as Slavs or Celts. What made, and still makes them, different, are their religious cultures, which also remain as heterogeneous as those found within Islam or Christianity, the other monotheistic faiths. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was not a foregone conclusion that their faith would continue to mark them out and marginalise them within mainstream European societies. It was their persecution in these host societies which prevented their further integration. Living in Budapest at this time, Theodor Hertzl, regarded as the founding thinker of Zionism, prophesied that what would make the case of Hungarian Jewry so tragic was that of all the Jewish populations of Europe, they were the most integrated. Like him, they tended to live close to the synagogues in the capital, but there were no ghettos to speak of. In the countryside, Jewish families were dispersed throughout villages, and the only difference between Christian and Jewish peasant children was that the first attended church and the second the synagogue. This had been the case for at least two centuries. Similar-looking children would swap places on Saturdays and Sundays, and no-one, not even their parents, noticed the friendly prank!
The Hungarian Jewish population had begun to increase significantly in the eighteenth century, after the end of the Ottoman occupation of a large part of Hungary’s crown lands, and by the mid-nineteenth century they accounted for 3.5 percent of the total population. They were mainly farmers and traders who were spread out very unevenly around the country. In Budapest twenty percent of the population was of Jewish faith and there were similar proportions in larger cities in eastern Hungary, which then included Transylvania. In the western cities of Transdanubia their number was much lower, while in the villages there it was insignificant. Unlike Jews elsewhere in eastern Europe, Hungarian Jews had had equal rights since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and by 1900 they seemed to have successfully integrated into wider society. Leading figures in the industrialisation and modernisation of Hungary were of Jewish faith. For decades Hungarian GDP grew at a faster pace than the European average as metropolitan Budapest grew at the same rate as Chicago or Detroit. Its Jewish people became assimilated within a growing bourgeoisie and were generally welcomed by the Hungarian political élite. The growing competition between the traditional noble hierarchy and the newer capitalist classes had not yet become a major threat to political stability, so that anti-Semitic movements were unable to attract significant support either in the capital or the provincial towns and villages. However, when the economic boom ended and capitalism began to go into crisis in the early years of the twentieth century, both Jewish and Schwabian (German-Hungarian) ‘alien’ elements began to be made scapegoats for its failures and shortcomings.
The growth of anti-Semitism and Zionism in Hungary in the 1920s:
Anti-modernity movements in Hungary first appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century and were closely associated with a gradual growth of anti-Semitism. However, as in Germany, it was the social fractures of 1918, 1919 and 1920 which brought it closer to the central focus of Hungarian national life. In 1919, a ‘Bolshevik’ Republic was proclaimed, led by Béla Kun. Unfortunately for all the Jews of Hungary, Kun and many of his associates were Jews. For the commanders who beat down the Republic of Councils (Soviets), Jews and Bolsheviks were the same thing. Traditional anti-Semites saw the whole Kun interregnum as a failed Jewish plot, ignoring the fact that Jews were also over-represented among its victims, many of whom were wealthy Jews, and that communism posed a deadly threat to the Jewish aristocrats who held 20 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This made no difference to those seeking someone to blame for the Communists’ few months in power.
As Anna Porter has pointed out, this began to change in the early 1920s when both peasants and factory workers in Hungary suffered extreme hardships, and Horthy’s new government hit on the perfect scapegoat for the country’s ills – the Jews. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, they became a natural target in every country, including Hungary. In Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine there were already pogroms, murderous rampages, against the Jews. In Germany, Juilius Streicher launched the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in 1923 with the ominous headline, “The Jews are Our Misfortune”. The first anti-Jewish law, the Numerus Clausus Act, was introduced in Hungary as early as 1920, the first anti-Semitic legislation in twentieth-century Europe, long before Hitler came to power in Germany. It is a frequent mistake on the Left to equate anti-Semitism with Nazism in Germany or ‘Hitler going mad’ as Ken Livingstone has, and can be viewed as a grotesque reduction of the entire Holocaust as the responsibility of Hitler and his henchmen. Of course, many Hungarians have also tried to promote this distortion of events.
The 1920 Hungarian anti-Jewish Law limited the number of Jews at universities, teachers and students, to the same small proportion, 6%, that they represented in the population at large. The cream of Hungarian intellectuals, including almost all of those who later won the Nobel Prize, were forced to study at western European universities. A similar law also existed in Poland, and in Romania Jews were granted equal rights due to the intervention of the western allies. The Hungarian Numerus Clausus was allowed to lapse eight years later, but many contemporaries saw it as a harbinger of tougher laws to come, and they were proved right. The Regent, Miklós Horthy, declared himself anti-Semitic, but his regime moderated its virulent growth and violent eruption throughout the inter-war period in Hungary. Although it was widespread and ever-present among the ruling aristocratic classes, the élite reached a compromise with the wealthy Jews, whose industrial capital they needed. Ferenc Chorin exemplifies those industrialists of Jewish origin who became part of the political élite themselves.
Rezső Kasztner declared himself a Zionist at the age of fifteen. For him, it was a romantic rather than a political notion. “Zion” was the biblical name of ancient Jerusalem, where King David had built the fortified temple that was later destroyed by the Romans. The fifteenth-century poet Yehuda Halevi was the first to apply the term to the people of the Diaspora. The idea that the Jews would one day return to their ancient lands in Palestine attracted Rezső even before he discovered Theodor Herzl’s writings. Herzl wrote of the ingrained, centuries-old anti-Semitism among Europeans and declared that he understood the reasons for it. Although Jews had endeavoured to blend themselves into their surrounding communities while preserving their faith, they had not, he wrote, been permitted to do so. They had continued to be viewed as ‘aliens’. Yet, he observed:
My happier co-religionists will not believe me till Jew-baiting teaches them the truth.
As early as 1896, Herzl foretold the disasters of National Socialism under Adolf Hitler and warned his fellow Jews to found their own homeland before it was too late. In 1919, Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to administer and control Palestine. In 1920, following another resolution of the League, the British government agreed to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish People” in the mandate territory, as spelled out by the Balfour Declaration. The Yishuv, the Jews already living in Palestine would now be represented to both the British and the rest of the world by a new organisation, the Jewish Agency, which was composed of various Zionist factions present in the pre-1930s World Zionist Organisation.
Rezső Kasztner had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in its first German edition, which German newspapers hailed as the brilliant work of a young genius who had a clear-eyed view of how best to solve Germany’s postwar problems. Kasztner found it to be the incoherent ranting of a poorly educated man, full of hate and ambition. Hitler’s one consistent thought was his identification of “the Jew” as the chief enemy of his herrenvolk, the Aryan master race. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Kasztner realized that if Hitler came to power, he would begin a war which the Jewish people would bear the brunt of. As a Hungarian journalist, Kasztner wrote about the likely effects of the era of Béla Kun’s short-lived Communist government on Hungarian politics. Kun was from Kolozsvár, then in Romania, the same Transylvanian city as Kasztner.
Porter has written that given his quick rise in society, it was surprising that Kasztner did not leave behind his Zionism. For a Kalozsvár (Cluj) Jewish intellectual in the 1920s, Zionism was unfashionable. The idea of emigrating to Palestine to live on communal farms, barely retrieved from the desert, did not appeal to urbane, integrated European citizens. Jews enjoyed public life, commerce, banking, the arts and sciences; some of them were noted scientists, writers, humorists and historians. Nor was Zionism popular among religious Jews, most of whom did not believe that Jews should return to their homeland before the advent of the Messiah. True, Rezső’s elder brother, Gyula, had emigrated to Palestine in 1924 to work on a kibbutz, but at that time the younger brother had still been in high school, and any ideas he had of joining his brother were subsequently put on hold by his father’s death in 1928, when he was still only twenty-two. Even after having joined the Ihud, one of the main Zionist organisations, and having reading Mein Kampf, when Hitler became German Chancellor, the worst that Kasztner could predict was that he would demand was that all Jews leave the German territories.
Racism, anti-Semitism & Jewish emigration in Germany between the wars:
In Germany between 1919 and 1923 the state had been faced with coup attempts from right and left, of which the most serious, the army-backed Kapp Putsch of 1920, was only overturned by a General Strike in Berlin. German society was bitterly divided with the nationalist right completely irreconcilable to the parliamentary Weimar Republic. They blamed Jews and Marxists both for Germany’s defeat and the problems of democracy. Anti-Semitism became the hallmark of the radical right and led to regular attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish graveyards. The Nazi movement, in the form of the German Workers’ Party, had its origins in Bavaria. Hitler joined the party in September 1919 and the following February co-authored a 25-point programme which was both anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic. In April 1920 the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and Hitler became its leader in July 1921. Two years later, at the height of the inflation crisis in November 1923, Hitler launched an armed coup in Munich which was crushed by the local police.
During his nine months in Landsberg prison he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf which became the ‘bible’ of the movement re-founded in Bamberg in February 1926. This new movement adopted a programme of ‘biological politics’ to create a ‘healthy German race’ and to stamp out ‘alien elements’. The Nazi movement viewed the new Germany predominantly in racial terms, using the concept of biological purity which was present in the theories of racial hygiene (eugenics) popular in sections of the medical establishment throughout Europe and America. Eugenic theory suggested that human populations, like those in the animal kingdom, were subject to the laws of natural selection that Darwin had outlined in the previous century. A ‘healthy race’ required the elimination of those who had physical or mental defects, or who introduced ‘alien blood’ into the traditional ‘racial stock’. This pseudo-scientific view of racial policy was expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf. Once in power, Hitler established an apparatus of laws and offices whose task was to cleanse the race.
Anti-semitism intensified. Jews were hounded from office or imprisoned in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933. In September 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were announced. The subsequent Reich Citizenship Law of 14 November defined ‘Jewishness’. The same day, The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour forbad inter-marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans, also those between Germans and blacks, Sinti and Roma (gypsies). These laws linked the eugenic programme with the regime’s anti-Semitism. Over the following four years, the Jewish community was gradually excluded from business and the professions, through the programme known as aryanisation. It lost citizenship and its entitlement to welfare provisions.
There can therefore be little doubt that, in its own terms, the regime embarked upon a programme of ethnic cleansing from the day it took power. In this ‘peacetime’ context, Jewish emigration helped to serve this purpose, and was therefore encouraged by the Nazi state. This cannot, however, be interpreted as ‘support for Zionism’ as Ken Livingstone has attempted to suggest. About half of Germany’s Jews emigrated between 1933 and 1939, but only 41,000 of these ‘refugees’ from Nazism went to Palestine under the terms of the Ha’avarah Agreement made with Zionist organisations in Palestine on the transport of emigrants and their property from Germany. Twice this number, 102,200, found their own way to the USA, 63,500 went to Argentina and 52,000 to the United Kingdom. There was one unlikely ‘collaboration’ with the SS when training camps were set up in Germany for emigrants to acquire the skills needed in their new life in Palestine. However, by 1937 the whole process of emigration had slowed down as receiver states began to limit further Jewish immigration. The British in particular restricted the official influx into Palestine which they governed as a mandate under the League of Nations (I have written about this elsewhere on this site).
As Jewish emigration slowed, those left in Germany suffered an intensification of anti-Semitism sponsored by the Nazi state and movement. On 9 November 1938, at the instigation of leading racists, a nationwide pogrom destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses. In all 177 synagogues were destroyed and 7,500 shops. Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) did indeed signal a more violent phase in racial policy, but it was not a departure from previous practice orchestrated by the regime with the aim of driving Jewish people from their homes and out of Germany. Neither Hitler nor his henchmen cared much where they went, though if they could accelerate the exodus by encouraging Zionist emigration to Palestine, some of those henchmen saw it as a means to achieve their own ends. In ‘peacetime’, other means were not yet available.
The Racial War & ‘the Jewish Question’:
The conquest of continental Europe provided the circumstances for a sharp change in direction in German race policy away from discrimination and terror to the active pursuit of genocide. Whilst it is true that Hitler and the radical racists had no master plan for the annihilation of the Jews in 1939, their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemy of German imperialism. When the Third Reich found itself ruling very large populations after the conquest of the east, it began to explore more extreme solutions to ‘the Jewish question’. The German New Order was viewed from Berlin in terms of a hierarchy of races: at the apex were the Germanic peoples, followed by subordinate Latin and Slavic populations, and at the foot of were the Jews, Sinti and Roma, ‘races’ deemed to be unworthy of existence. The policy towards them began with a programme of ghetto-building or imprisonment in camps, but in the summer of 1941 it became more violent, with Barbarossa including orders for the mass murder of Soviet Jews. In the Baltic States and Ukraine native anti-Semitism was whipped up by the German occupiers, leading to widespread massacres. There is strong evidence from the trial of Adolf Eichmann that in July 1941 Hitler himself ordered the ‘physical extermination of the Jews’, six months before the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), which is often referred to as the meeting at which The Final Solution was agreed. The record from that meeting reveals that Heydrich’s plan was for the extermination of the entire Jewish population of the whole of Europe, from Ireland to European Turkey.
The systematic murder of Jews began in late 1941, and was extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942. In 1943 Germany put pressure on Italy to release its Jewish population in 1943 and Hungary in 1944. When both states were occupied by German forces, any remaining resistance to The Final Solution was quashed and hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported and slaughtered in the death camps even after it became clear that the Reich could not win the war. Hitler was determined to achieve what he had always seen as his own chief legacy for Europe, a ‘Jew-free’ continent. This had always been his aim, as well as that of the NSDAP from its re-founding in 1926, if not sooner. There was no point at which he ‘went mad and decided to kill six million Jews’ as Ken Livingstone suggested. What he needed in order to achieve it were war-time conditions, and especially the subjugation of occupied Europe.
The dilemma for the leaderships of the European Jewish populations in general and the Zionist movements in particular, is clearly illustrated in the case of war-time Hungary. From 1938, one law after another had been passed limiting the rights and wealth of Hungarian Jews. The most important of these were Act XV (1938), the First Jewish Law, which restricted the proportion of Jewish workers to 20 percent in some professions, the Second Jewish Law (IV, 1939), that lowered this to 6 percent and redefined ‘Jewishness’ on racial rather than religious grounds, and the Third Jewish Law (XV, 1941), the law for “protection of the race” which banned marriage between Jews and non-Jews. A fourth law followed in war-time, which confiscated land owned by Jews (XV, 1942). These laws were not a copy of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, but were ‘tailored’ to Hungarian social conditions. To political leaders it might have seemed that the growing economic and political tensions could most easily be relieved by legal discrimination against the Jews, but those politicians whose declared aim, as in Germany, was to segregate and expel Jews from the country gained more and more room closer to the apex of power.
Hungary as an Axis Ally:
In 1941, in spite of all the laws passed and the measures taken against the Jews, Hungary still seemed to be a peaceful island among the stormy seas to its east and north. While the Jews of eastern Europe were deported to death camps or executed on the spot, in Hungary only those without Hungarian citizenship could be expelled. Most of these who were rounded up were executed by SS officers near Kamenc-Podolsky in Slovakia. In the early spring of 1941, Kasztner left Kolozsvár, now once more part of Hungary, as a result of Hungary’s alliance with Germany. Whatever was going on in the German territories, and despite the new Hungarian Jewish laws affecting Transylvanian Jews, the Jewish community was relieved to be outside the jurisdiction of the Romanian mobs. In January 1941, members of the Iron Guard had launched a rebellion to overthrow Antonescu’s Romanian government. The fascist guards hunted for Jews in villages and small towns, herded them into boxcars and left them there on the sidings for days without food and water. In Bucharest, bodies of Jews were hung on meat hooks and displayed in the windows of Butcher shops. In March, German troops arrived in Romania, preparing to invade the Soviet Union.
The Hungarian government had closed down all the Jewish newspapers in Kolozsvár, including Új Kelet (New East), the paper that the thirty-six-year-old Kasztner had been writing for. He decided to go to Budapest, a cosmopolitan city, which he was sure would provide the assistance he sought for the Jewish refugees who were streaming over Hungary’s borders from the countries already occupied by the Third Reich. By now Kasztner had a broad-ranging knowledge of Hitler’s record on which he based his pessimistic predictions for the future of European Jewry. Budapest, he believed, would remain the safest place in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he argued, the Reich, as a dictatorship of the Right, would not permit a dictatorship of the Left to continue as an ally, or even to continue at all. He had a letter of introduction to Ottó Komoly, the president of the Budapest Zionist Association and an author of two books about the future of the Jews. He was socially well-connected and a committed Hungarian patriot, despite his support for a Jewish homeland. “It is not a contradiction,” he insisted. “There must be a Jewish homeland, but I am not likely to live there myself.” Komoly had been introduced to Zionism by his father, a close friend of Theodor Herzl, bu he had not applied for an entry visa to Palestine. He felt comfortable in Budapest, though he warned Kasztner that the time would come when no Jew would find comfort in the city:
Too many of us have been in the window of social life. We have attracted the attention of other, less fortunate segments of the population. A person is inclined to believe in the in the permanence of favourable conditions and is reluctant to pay attention to warning signs.
That group, he thought, included himself. As in Kolozsvár, the Zionist movement divided along the same lines as in Palestine and, eventually, as it would in Israel. On the left were the Ihud (later the Mapai), the Israeli Labour Party that had been running the Jewish Agency, in effect the government in Palestine. This was the group that Kasztner had joined: the socialist Hashomer Hatzair, a youth organisation with small clubs, called ‘nests’, throughout Europe; the Maccabee Hatzair, another socialist youth movement that had been organised at Jewish high schools in the late 1930s; and the Dror (affiliated with the Ihud), which, with its leadership in Poland, had been active on Hungary’s eastern borders, helping to bring across refugees from both Poland and Slovakia. On the right was Betar, the youth wing of the Revisionists, which, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Palestine, fought bitterly with the Mapai leadership. He fostered armed resistance to both the British in Palestine and to the Germans in Europe, though, like Kasztner, he too became involved in deal-making to save lives. The Klal, or general Zionists, focused on emigration to Palestine, and the Mizrachi, the religious Zionists, saw themselves as the intellectual leaders of the Zionist movement. Despite all the alarming outside threats, the Zionists remained deeply divided along religious and political lines, each passionately opposed to the others’ points of view. This open animosity among the various groups was difficult for even the Jewish leadership to understand, as was its continuance during the German occupation of 1944-45. Despite these divisions, Kasztner knew as early as 1941 that the only Zionist organisations left in eastern Europe were the ones in Budapest.
From the spring of 1941 to the spring of 1944 the Hungarian Jewish community, uniquely in Europe, remained more or less intact. In every other country, occupied by the Reich, Jews had already been taken to extermination camps or were gathered in ghettos working under inhuman conditions. The losses among Jewish men in forced labour units of the Hungarian Army from 1942 had been heavy, but this was true of the entire Army fighting on the eastern front. Against this back-drop, the Israelite Community of Pest had remained staunchly opposed to Zionism. Its president, Samu Stern, in his acceptance speech in 1929, had warned the members of the community not to fall for the tempting words of emigration and Zionism. He believed that for the Hungarian Jews the only possible route was not to leave their traditions and not to form a separate Jewish party, but to be present in all Hungarian parties. He maintained particularly good relations with many personalities in the political establishment, and regularly played cards with Regent Horthy in his role as a Hungarian Royal Court Advisor, a nominal post and title which he had been given in 1916. Following the occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 he was appointed president of the Jewish Council set up by the Nazis.
Hungary under Nazi occupation:
The Hungarian historian Krisztian Ungváry has pointed out how, within days of the occupation beginning, the prominent characters of the Hungarian Jewish community found themselves suddenly cut off from their former social connections in wider society. Those whom they could previously rely upon were either arrested or removed, as the Hungarian authorities had no choice but to obey the German High Command’s representatives. These included Adolf Eichmann who, together with his colleagues, made systematic use of the Jewish Council both to calm the victims and to make them carry out as many of the anti-Semitic measures as possible. Ungváry characterises the dilemma facing the Jewish leaders as follows:
In this situation you could only choose between bad and worse, and in many cases it was not even clear which choice would be more acceptable. The conditions for open resistance were totally missing. In Hungary, the Jewish community did not separate as much from the majority in the society as it did in other eastern European countries. The overwhelming majority of Jews considered themselves assimilated with only cultural ties to their origin. They considered themselves to be Hungarian nationals. On the other hand, the Christian middle class, the segment of the majority society that was mainly in contact with people of Jewish origin, mostly showed anti-Semitic behaviour. Good examples of this were the chambers of doctors or architects which were regularly biased against their Jewish members, even taking away job opportunities from them.
In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Stern himself had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:
I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.
Nevertheless, in a meeting with Rezső Kasztner on the afternoon of 22 March, Stern had revealed his disdain for the Zionist cause. The two men met in an elegant, old-world café that Jews of any standing would soon be forbidden from entering. A record of the meeting was made by Ernő Szilágyi, and summarised in English by Anna Porter:
Kasztner leaned toward the older man, his hands resting on the table. He pleaded as before: “The gentlemen at the Astoria know everything about us, sir – they know who we are and what we have been doing. They have had dealings with Zionists before, most recently in Bratislava. They are expecting to hear from us – in fact, they would be astonished if we did not try to make contact. They know that we are tough bargainers and that we will try to save lives. They know we deliver on our promises. “
Stern sipped his espresso. “We don’t need help from Zionists,” he said, “A few months, and the Germans will disappear.”
“Exactly,” Kasztner replied. “But it’s those few months we are talking about-how to survive those months. Don’t imagine, sir, that those months will be uneventful. We know what they can do. You have heard from the refugees. You must know, as I know, that obeying every order, that delivering whatever they ask for, that begging and crying at their doorsteps is useless. We are looking for an alternative to committing suicide.”
“We don’t need advice from Zionists,” Stern repeated.
Though Stern already knew the whole story, Kasztner persisted in telling him about Dr. Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw engineer who was president of the Jewish Council there when almost 400,000 Jews were stuffed into the ghetto. Czerniaków had been eager to please the Germans, fulfilling their every wish, responding to their calls, a good negotiator, a professional, “just like you, sir.” Late one night, the Jewish Council was told to appear before the German commander. Word spread through the ghetto like wildfire. Nobody slept. In the crowded one-room apartments, children and adults stood by the windows, waiting, talking about what it was the Germans wanted this time. They were frightened, hungry, exhausted, beaten. During the night, the Gestapo came for the doctors, the lawyers, the other prominent Jews and their families and murdered them where they found them. At dawn, the militia arrived with dogs, hunted down more people, and packed them into waiting trucks.
The next morning, the German commander gave Dr. Czerniaków this order: “Seven thousand Jews to be ready for transport to Treblinka tomorrow morning. Seven thousand more the next day. Seven thousand the day after tomorrow. ” The first seven thousand had already been collected by the Ukrainian militia the night before. Czerniaków knew what Treblinka meant, as did everybody else in the ghetto. The next day, the Jewish Council had a new president. Czerniaków had killed himself.
“This, sir, is the Jewish Council,” Kasztner said.
“I know the story,” Stern said, his voice hard and decisive. “It has nothing to do with us. I have my contacts with the Hungarian government, and they are confident these are temporary measures. If we keep our heads down, we shall survive. And I have my own contacts with the Germans.”
But Kasztner persisted: “Now I would like to tell you about the kind of contact Zionists in Bratislava had with the Germans.”
“I know that story, too,” Stern said, irritated…
“It is the Zionists they wish to deal with, sir. As they did in Vienna and Berlin, and Bratislava. And we are going to need money, sir, a lot of money, but more than that, we will need your trust. We must be able to represent you and the council when we go to meet Eichmann’s men…”
At that point, Stern is reported to have risen to his feet and left the café, with a dismissive glance towards Kasztner. In referring to ‘the gentlemen at the Astoria’ Kasztner meant the SS staff whom Eichmann had brought with him and who had set up a temporary HQ at the Astoria Hotel in ‘downtown’ Pest. In referring to deals in Vienna, Berlin and Bratislava, he meant the agreements the Germans had made with various Jewish leaders, including Zionists, in those cities, for the exit of large numbers of Jews to Palestine. Over the next fortnight or so, Stern continued to call for calm, as rumours of deportations in the east began to grow. “But it’s only in the eastern provinces,” he rationalised, “You can see from the papers that there are saboteurs in these areas, and we can’t be sure that some of them are not working directly with the partisans.” However, even his daughter, Rózsa, felt increasingly nervous as the deportations from the provinces nearer by became a fact of everyday life in late April and May:
Every day we heard the news about which town was being deported. A number of good friends and acquaintances disappeared like this. Meanwhile in Budapest, the Community, with an exact list from the Germans (lawyers, doctors, merchants, journalists, etc.) was supposed to collect people who were then interned to Csepel, Kistarca, and other places. Only through tremendous financial efforts was it possible to save some Zionists with highly respected backgrounds from the brick factories in certain towns. They were interned to Budapest until there would be an opportunity to take them to Palestine.
The Zionist negotiations with the Nazis:
Despite the obvious fact that Kasztner was the undisputed leader of the Zionist Va’ada in the capital, on 25 April, it was Joel Brand whom Eichmann summoned to his new office in the Majestic Hotel, on the leafy Buda side of the Danube. He probably made this decision because he had seen the letters from Istanbul which were all addressed to Brand. They were concerned with the tyul, or ‘excursion’ to Palestine that Kasztner and Brand were planning together. Eichmann had decided to take over the negotiations over this ‘deal’, as Brand later testified at the SS commander’s trial:
He summoned me in order to propose a deal. He was prepared to sell a million Jews – “goods for blood,” that was how he spoke at that time. Then he asked me a question… which sticks in my mind until today. He said: “Who do you want to have rescued – women able to bear children, males able to produce children, old people? Speak!
Kasztner asked Jozsi Winninger, the former Abwehr agent he’d known since arriving in the capital what exactly Eichmann wanted with Brand. Winninger told him that Eichmann had always dealt directly with Zionists, ‘selling’ the right-wing Austrian Zionists (or Revisionists as they were known within the movement) under Vladimir Jabotinsky’s leadership. He had also been invited to Jerusalem by Zionists, and Winninger thought that he ‘liked Zionists’. He added, jokingly, “doesn’t everyone?” When Brand and Eichmann met, according to Wiscilency’s testimony at Nuremberg, Eichmann stunned Brand by announcing that he was a Zionist and asking Brand if he had read Herzl’s book, The Jewish State. Brand nodded and thought to himself how the classic book offered the Jews the only happy solution, their own homeland, a place where they could be safe from men like Adolf Eichmann. Of course, the question was laced with heavy irony and designed to catch Brand off guard. “I know all about you!” Eichmann shouted, “You know nothing about me… I am in charge of the Aktion! In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, it has been completed. Now it’s your turn.” Herman Krumey explained that the German war effort needed trucks and that, if the Zionists moved quickly, ten thousand trucks would buy one million lives. “Not a bad deal,” he mused, “one hundred Jews for only one truck. One truck for every one hundred lives… a great bargain, don’t you think?” Brand protested that trucks would be difficult because the Allies might think they were military equipment. Eichmann promised to give his personal undertaking that the trucks would only be used on the eastern front. Brand returned to the Zionist Central Information Office in Pest, where he met Kasztner and Komoly. They agreed to try to meet the terms and immediately began writing to the Jewish Agency offices in Istanbul and Geneva.
After further lengthy negotiations, which involved other parties as well, Kasztner made a deal with Eichmann that in return for Jews getting to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport the required trucks through Switzerland to Germany. As a first step, Himmler was willing for a larger transport to travel with Kasztner to Switzerland. Kasztner had the right, and responsibility, to decide who would get on the train that meant survival. He selected mainly wealthier, educated people, and of course included many Transylvanian Jews. It is only fair to point out that by choosing people he could trust to keep the secret, he was also ensuring the success of the rescue mission. He also included some poor people, who paid nothing, and negotiated for a further 20,000 Jews to be kept alive – Eichmann called them ‘Kasztner’s Jews’ or ‘Jews on ice’.
The Deportations of 1944 and Kasztner’s Train:
Altogether, 437,000 people were deported by train from the provinces up until July 1944, when Budapest was supposed to be evacuated of Jews. Transportations were then suspended by Himmler to divert resources to the eastern front in order to resist the advances of the Red Army through Romania, which had abandoned the Axis cause and changed sides. Hungary’s Regent also tried to agree an Armistice with the Soviet Union, but was arrested and deposed by the SS, who installed a puppet government consisting of Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascist Party) members. From mid-October, deportations recommenced on foot, with the Red Army now surrounding the Carpathian Basin. Rózsa Stern estimated that as many as half a million Jews in total were deported from Hungary. The remaining Jewish population of Budapest comprised about a quarter of a million, about half of whom we think were either murdered by the Arrow Cross, shot on the banks of the Danube, their bodies falling into it, or starved to death in the ghetto which they set up (I have quoted more about these conditions from Rózsa’s diary elsewhere on this site). The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:
One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave.
Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, ‘who started this aliyah’, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade Samu Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination, and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, maneuvering between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population as well as the active involvement of the gendarmerie in the deportations which took place from the countryside.
Kastner’s train was taken on a round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and then in two groups to Switzerland. This group, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. His personal courage cannot be doubted, since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people.
The aftermath of the Holocaust and its survivors :
After the war, Kasztner was a witness at the trials of major war criminals in Nuremberg, including defence witness for Kurt Becher, the SS officer who concluded the negotiations with him in 1944, who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he wanted to have a political career in Israel, he decided to try to clear his name by filing a lawsuit. However, the court convicted him of libel, saying that he had “sold his soul to the devil”. The case turned into a scandal in Israel at a time when the domestic political scene was toxic. The survivors whose lives had not been saved by the train, and whose family members were killed in Budapest, saw Kasztner as a mean, calculating collaborator. As a consequence of the lawsuit, the Israeli government had to resign and the Israeli political right called their political opponents Gestapo agents. This was the first time that the general public in Israel and the world became aware of the negotiations that had taken place between the Nazis and Zionist organizations. Kasztner’s family were subjected to a hate campaign which included violence against his daughter, and it culminated with his shooting in front of his apartment in Tel-Aviv on 3 March 1957. He died twelve days later. In 1958 the Supreme Court of Israel acquitted him of all charges except one, that of helping Nazi war criminals to escape prosecution. Kasztner’s act of “making friends with the devil” in order to save Jewish lives still divides the shrinking number of survivors throughout the world, not just in Israel and Hungary.
For that reason, if for no other, the politicians of the later twentieth century, of whom Ken Livingstone is one held in high esteem by many, should know better than to associate the names of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen with Zionism. They are deliberately opening old wounds in order to encourage anti-Zionism and justify anti-Semitism in the process. They should leave it to the historians to examine and interpret the evidence, and hand over the task of ridding British society of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism to a new generation in a new century with fresh moral challenges and choices.
Andrew James, May 2016
Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest: The Author.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.
Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin.