Every Picture Tells a Story:
Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942. In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.
A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels. Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.
On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.
The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.
My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.
So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.
The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.
One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.
One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.
The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:
To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.
By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.
In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.
By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.
Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?
The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.
In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.
By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.
Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.
In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:
Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.
She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:
The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.
Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.
The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.
Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.
Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.
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.
Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.
Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.
Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:
Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.
Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War
Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.
Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.
Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:
We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.
Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.
To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.
Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.
Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.
In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames?
Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.
The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:
Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.
Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.
In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.
However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.
In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:
In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.
Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:
The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.
At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:
It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.
The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…
…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.
Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.
It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:
A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”
Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.
In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.
The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.