15 March 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Rezső Kasztner. The following post is based on Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, and includes extensive extracts from it.
“The affair of the Judenrat (and perhaps also the Kasztner case) should, in my view, be left to the tribunal of history in the coming generation. The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived.”
David Ben-Gurion, quoted in Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice.
Five years ago, Zsolt Zágoni published a translation of a handwritten notebook of Rózsa Stern, written in Switzerland following her escape on the train via Bergen-Belsen (1,684 people were deported on the train to the camp and from there in two groups to Switzerland – I have summarised her account of the transit elsewhere). Rózsa’s father, Samu Stern, was the President of the Hungarian Jewish Community in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation on 19 March, obliged to negotiate with Eichmann about the fate of the Jewish community, not just in Budapest, but throughout Hungary and the Hungarian-occupied territories. Rózsa’s notebook confirms that Rezső Kasztner encouraged Samu to leave with his daughter and her husband, György Bamberger, because if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either (if there are no Jews left in the city, there is no need for a President of the Jewish Council).
Above: The memoir written by Samu Stern in 1945 (he died on 9 June, 1946).
Stern’s photo is seen on the cover
In the accompanying historical essay, written by Krisztián Ungváry, the historian also confirms Porter’s account that in the early Summer of 1944 the Kolozsvár-born Kasztner had made a deal with the SS Commander in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, the man sent to Hungary that Spring to complete the Final Solution. It was as a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, a leading Zionist and member of the Rescue Committee that he had been given the approval of the Jewish Council to meet with Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March that year, Eichmann had been charged with the deportation of all six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz within a matter of months. By the end of June, more than 440,000 had been deported from the countryside, first placed in ghettos, and then transported in cattle wagons on trains to the death camp. Yet Kasztner and his colleague Joel Brand secured Eichmann’s agreement to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland by train. These negotiations and the deals they struck with the devil continued to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his life, and help to explain why he has never been fully honoured for his role in saving so many lives.
Dealing with the Devil:
In exchange for getting the Jews to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport military trucks through Switzerland to Germany. The wealthy Jews of Budapest and Kasztner’s native Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now and previously Cluj in Romania) paid an average of $1,500 for each family member to be included on the lists of those who would eventually leave for Switzerland by train and emigrate to Palestine. The poor families included were to pay nothing. Kasztner also negotiated to keep twenty thousand more Hungarian Jews alive in Budapest – Eichmann called them Kasztner’s Jews or his Jews on Ice – in exchange for a deposit of approximately $100 per head. It was the right and duty of Kasztner’s Rescue Committee to decide who would get on the train that would mean survival. In order to include some of the poorest, who paid nothing, they had to select mainly wealthier, educated people and, controversially, relatives and acquaintances from Kolozsvár. Had he told even these people what would probably happen to those left behind, he would certainly have risked the success of the entire rescue mission, including the futures of the twenty thousand Jews on ice, as Eichmann called them, who would not be deported, in exchange for $100 per head. Rózsa Stern’s journal confirms that of those interned at the Aréna Street (now Dózsa György Street) Synagogue on 30 June, awaiting the departure of the Aliyah train most… were families from the countryside who were saved from the brick factories. Only about a dozen people died on the way to Switzerland, so that the survivors on the Kasztner train could consider themselves the ‘lucky’ ones.
After the war Kasztner was a witness at the trial of major war criminals and was a defence witness six times in the case of Kurt Becher in Nuremberg, the SS officer with whom Kasztner was negotiating in 1944 and who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he had ambitions for a political career in Israel, he was told that it was essential for him to clear his name, and he therefore filed a lawsuit. However, this backfired on him and although he won his libel case, the evidence presented led to the widespread public conclusion that he had sold his soul to the devil. In Israel, Kasztner’s case turned into a political scandal. The survivors whose lives were not saved by the train and whose families died in Auschwitz or on the trains and forced marches there, saw in Kasztner a mean, calculating collaborator. His alleged favouritism for family, friends and acquaintances in the selection of the ‘survivors’, together with the fact that , knowing the whole truth about the death-camp, from the so-called Auschwitz Protocols, he chose not to reveal this to the wider public, strengthened the subsequent hatred against him. In fact, those who really wanted to know what was happening to those deported had had many channels from which they could get information from as early as 1942, and had access to these since well before the Auschwitz Protocols arrived in Budapest via Bratislava. Porter’s book gives evidence that many of the Jewish leaders, including Samu Stern, did not want to give credence to what the Eichmann and the Nazis repeatedly dismissed as malicious rumours aimed at starting an uprising, which would be met with severe repression should they be repeated or publicised in any way. Certainly, it was made plain to Kasztner that any rumour-mongering would lead to the breakdown of his plans for an exodus of remaining Jews.
In Israel – Accusations of Collaboration:
In Israel, after the war, the exiled Kasztner was vilified in an infamous libel trial for ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis. As a result of the libel case, the Israeli government was forced to resign. The Israeli political right labelled their opponents as Gestapo agents and Kasztner became an obvious scapegoat. It was the first time that the general public, in Israel and elsewhere, became aware of the contacts between Zionist organisations and the Nazis and, not having experienced the terror of 1944 in the Hungary, they failed to understand the pressures which the Budapest Rescue Committee and the Jewish Council in Budapest were under, pressure which led to almost continual friction between the two organisations over tactics in dealing with the Nazis, whether at home or abroad.
In Tel Aviv, Kasztner and his whole family were subjected to appalling hate crimes. His young daughter, Zsuzsi, was stoned on the streets and his wife Bogyó became severely depressed. While awaiting the Supreme Court verdict that would eventually vindicate him, he was assassinated outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv. Kasztner did not think of himself as a hero, but as a proud Zionist who believed that promises, even those made to the Nazis, had to be kept. Anna Porter, born in Budapest and educated there after the war, has written a compelling account of him, subtitled The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, based both on written sources in Hungarian and English, and on eyewitness accounts, collected at a time when there were few recorded references to the victims of what she (properly in my view) calls the Hungarian Holocaust. There were even fewer references to Rezső Kasztner, although the better-known Oskar Schindler, who had met Kasztner in Budapest in 1942, had written of his actions that they remained unsurpassed. Soon after the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated and lionized. Kasztner, by contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy. Porter acknowledges that:
… the deals Kasztner made with the SS… raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.
Yet moral questions must be set alongside historical ones and Porter’s book, though a work of popular history, is meticulous in its use of diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, and memoirs – both written and oral, including those written in German and Hebrew. Since Kasztner’s only goal was that of saving human lives, she concludes that Kasztner achieved more in this way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Consequences of the Libel Trial, 1956-57; Extracts from Porter:
In March 1956, the chief magistrate in Jerusalem dismissed the charge of perjury against Kasztner… but the year presented greater trials than the re-trial of the perjury case… On October 29… the Israeli army invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. It was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of Egypt’s occupation of the Suez Canal. The invasion’s chief achievement, as far as the Israelis were concerned, was that it signaled to the surrounding Arab states that Israel could preserve its security against its enemies. Headlines in Israeli papers were occupied with news of the victory and the ensuing peace negotiations. Kasztner was no longer in the headlines. The government cancelled his protection.
He continued to work for ‘Új Kelet’ (‘New East’) and co-produced some radio programmes. He took on some freelance work as a translator… Tomy Lapid (a colleague) said that Kasztner seemed aware of his life being in danger. “He became a hunted man,” Lapid said… Kasztner now looked along the street carefully before he stepped out of a doorway; he hesitated when he turned corners; once, when a car backfired he ducked into a store; he stayed close to walls; he had seemed nervous even when government-appointed guards followed him. There were so many abusive, threatening calls that he stopped answering the phone at the office. At home, too, he disconnected the telephone. He didn’t want his wife or daughter listening to the deranged ravings about how his life was to end.
On March 3, 1957, Kasztner was working the night-shift at the editorial offices of ‘Új Kelet’. He drove a colleague… home. A few minutes after midnight, Kasztner parked his car in front of his apartment building at 6 Sderot Emanuel Street. While he was still in the driver’s seat, he was approached by two young men. A third, he saw, was standing in the shadows of the building. One of the men asked if he was “Doctor Kasztner.” When he replied that, yes, he was, the man drew a gun, but it misfired. Kasztner opened the car door, pushing his assailant aside, then ran toward the entrance of the building. The man fired, twice in quick succession. This time the bullets found their target. Kasztner ran a few more steps, then collapsed. He shouted for help as the three assailants fled. He saw the gunman run to a jeep and speed off.
He was still conscious when the first person from the building arrived at the scene and tried to administer first aid. A woman who had gone to her balcony when the shots rang out ran to wake Bogyó (Kasztner’s wife). Another man heard Kasztner say that the assailant had gone in a jeep; that neighbour jumped on his bike and gave chase. Two men emerged from the jeep near the city zoo, where their pursuer, a former army man, found a phone booth and called the police.
A crowd gathered around Kasztner. Someone had called an ambulance. Bogyó, a neighbor reported later, seemed strangely calm when she saw that Rezső had been shot. Perhaps she, too, had been expecting something like this to happen. She knelt next to her bleeding husband, put a pillow under his head, covered him with a blanket, stroked his forehead and whispered to him…
Friends and a few passengers from the Kasztner train went to the hospital with flowers. There were hundreds of telegrams with good wishes for a speedy convalescence… Newspapers that had denounced Kasztner now shouted in headlines that the attackers had aimed at the heart of the nation of Israel.
Kasztner’s room was guarded by two policemen. He was conscious but spoke little. He wished to see no visitors except his immediate family and Hansi (his Zionist colleague Joel Brand’s wife and Rezső’s long-term lover). Bogyó had intended to bar Hansi from the room, but she managed to plead her way in. At one point he asked her, “Why did they do this to me?” Hansi was with him on March 12 as his condition began to deteriorate.
On March 15, at 7:20 a.m., Rezső Kasztner died.
The Aftermath of the Assassination:
On Sunday, March 17, 1957, Rezső Kasztner’s coffin was set up in front of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv to provide his many admirers with an opportunity to pay their respects in public and to show their solidarity with the family. His mother, his two brothers, Bogyó, and Zsuzsi (his daughter), stood next to the coffin. Though neither David Ben-Gurion nor Mohse Sharett came, the Mapai (the ruling party) were represented by Attorney General Chaim Cohen and State Secretary Teddy Kollek. Some of his old colleagues from Budapest and Kolozsvár, and the halutzim who had worked with him paid their respects. Hansi stood near the coffin but out of Bogyó’s immediate circle. Yoel Palgi was there, as were many of the passengers from the Kasztner train. At the Bilu Synagogue, Rezső’s brother Gyula, his voice breaking as he read the words, recited the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead…
Kasztner was interred at the Nachlat Yitzhak Cemetery in Givataim, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, amid numerous declarations of friendship and tears. Most of the speakers vowed to continue the struggle not only to clear his name, but also to enshrine it among the heroes of the Holocaust. Those he had helped to survive promised to take promised to take care of his family.
‘Új Kelet’ published a moving obituary written by Ernő Márton. He praised Kasztner’s capacity for wit and erudition and his obsession with saving Jewish lives, his death-defying courage, his self-sacrifice, and his ambition to do something great, something “eternally significant for his people.”
Within days of the murder, the police arrested a twenty-four-year-old man, Zeev Eckstein, and his evidence led to the arrest of two other men, John Menkes, a former member of the Stern Gang, and Yaakov Cheruti, a lawyer. The three were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment the following January. A week later, on 15 January 1958, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. In the key matter of the original libel of his collaboration with the Nazis, the majority of the judges accepted the appeal of the attorney general and convicted Malchiel Grünwald. In the midst of the joy of vindication that followed the Supreme Court ruling, notes of doubt remained.
The Supreme Court of Israel had acquitted Kasztner of all the charges brought against him, except for the one of helping Becher escape prosecution at Nuremberg. This led to remaining doubts concerning his affidavit written on Becher’s behalf at that time, and his subsequent confused evidence in the libel case about this. In his statement about this following the initial Grünwald trial, Kastner had written:
I cannot refrain from expressing again my sorrow over the impression which may have been made in some people regarding the phrasing of my testimony about Becher, and the result of it. Neither I nor my friends have anything to hide in this whole affair, and we do not regret that we acted in accordance with our conscience, despite all that was done to us in this trial.