Archive for the ‘Új Kelét’ Tag

‘The Tribunal of History’: The Death of Rezső Kasztner, 15 March 1957, and his Legacy.   1 comment

15 March 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Rezső Kasztner. The following post is based on Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, and includes extensive extracts from it.

001Introduction:

“The affair of the Judenrat (and perhaps also the Kasztner case) should, in my view, be left to the tribunal of history in the coming generation. The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived.”

David Ben-Gurion, quoted in Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice.

Five years ago, Zsolt Zágoni published a translation of a handwritten notebook of Rózsa Stern, written in Switzerland following her escape on the train via Bergen-Belsen (1,684 people were deported on the train to the camp and from there in two groups to Switzerland – I have summarised her account of the transit elsewhere). Rózsa’s father, Samu Stern, was the President of the Hungarian Jewish Community in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation on 19 March, obliged to negotiate with Eichmann about the fate of the Jewish community, not just in Budapest, but throughout Hungary and the Hungarian-occupied territories. Rózsa’s notebook confirms that Rezső Kasztner encouraged Samu to leave with his daughter and her husband, György Bamberger, because if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either (if there are no Jews left in the city, there is no need for a President of the Jewish Council).

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Above: The memoir written by Samu Stern in 1945 (he died on 9 June, 1946).

Stern’s photo is seen on the cover

In the accompanying historical essay, written by Krisztián Ungváry, the historian also confirms Porter’s account that in the early Summer of 1944 the Kolozsvár-born Kasztner had made a deal with the SS Commander in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, the man sent to Hungary that Spring to complete the Final Solution. It was as a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, a leading Zionist and member of the Rescue Committee that he had been given the approval of the Jewish Council to meet with Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March that year, Eichmann had been charged with the deportation of all six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz within a matter of months. By the end of June, more than 440,000 had been deported from the countryside, first placed in ghettos, and then transported in cattle wagons on trains to the death camp. Yet Kasztner and his colleague Joel Brand secured Eichmann’s agreement to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland by train.  These negotiations and the deals they struck with the devil continued to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his life, and help to explain why he has never been fully honoured for his role in saving so many lives.

Dealing with the Devil:

In exchange for getting the Jews to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport military trucks through Switzerland to Germany. The wealthy Jews of Budapest and Kasztner’s native Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now and previously Cluj in Romania) paid an average of $1,500 for each family member to be included on the lists of those who would eventually leave for Switzerland by train and emigrate to Palestine. The poor families included were to pay nothing. Kasztner also negotiated to keep twenty thousand more Hungarian Jews alive in Budapest – Eichmann called them Kasztner’s Jews or his Jews on Ice – in exchange for a deposit of approximately $100 per head. It was the right and duty of Kasztner’s Rescue Committee to decide who would get on the train that would mean survival. In order to include some of the poorest, who paid nothing, they had to select mainly wealthier, educated people and, controversially, relatives and acquaintances from Kolozsvár. Had he told even these people what would probably happen to  those left behind, he would certainly have risked the success of the entire rescue mission, including the futures of the twenty thousand Jews on ice, as Eichmann called them, who would not be deported, in exchange for $100 per head. Rózsa Stern’s journal confirms that of those interned at the Aréna  Street (now Dózsa György Street) Synagogue on 30 June, awaiting the departure of the Aliyah train most… were families from the countryside who were saved from the brick factories. Only about a dozen people died on the way to Switzerland, so that the survivors on the Kasztner train could consider themselves the ‘lucky’ ones.

After the war Kasztner was a witness at the trial of major war criminals and was a defence witness six times in the case of Kurt Becher in Nuremberg, the SS officer with whom Kasztner was negotiating in 1944 and who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he had ambitions for a political career in Israel, he was told that it was essential for him to clear his name, and he therefore filed a lawsuit. However, this backfired on him and although he won his libel case, the evidence presented led to the widespread public conclusion that he had sold his soul to the devil. In Israel, Kasztner’s case turned into a political scandal. The survivors whose lives were not saved by the train and whose families died in Auschwitz or on the trains and forced marches there, saw in Kasztner a mean, calculating collaborator. His alleged favouritism for family, friends and acquaintances in the selection of the ‘survivors’, together with the fact that , knowing the whole truth about the death-camp, from the so-called Auschwitz Protocols, he chose not to reveal this to the wider public, strengthened the subsequent hatred against him. In fact, those who really wanted to know what was happening to those deported had had many channels from which they could get information from as early as 1942, and had access to these since well before the Auschwitz Protocols arrived in Budapest via Bratislava. Porter’s book gives evidence that many of the Jewish leaders, including Samu Stern, did not want to give credence to what the Eichmann and the Nazis repeatedly dismissed as malicious rumours aimed at starting an uprising, which would be met with severe repression should they be repeated or publicised in any way. Certainly, it was made plain to Kasztner that any rumour-mongering would lead to the breakdown of his plans for an exodus of remaining Jews. 

In Israel – Accusations of Collaboration:

In Israel, after the war, the exiled Kasztner was vilified in an infamous libel trial for ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis. As a result of the libel case, the Israeli government was forced to resign. The Israeli political right labelled their opponents as Gestapo agents and Kasztner became an obvious scapegoat. It was the first time that the general public, in Israel and elsewhere, became aware of the contacts between Zionist organisations and the Nazis and, not having experienced the terror of 1944 in the Hungary, they failed to understand the pressures which the Budapest Rescue Committee and the Jewish Council in Budapest were under, pressure which led to almost continual friction between the two organisations over tactics in dealing with the Nazis, whether at home or abroad.

In Tel Aviv, Kasztner and his whole family were subjected to appalling hate crimes. His young daughter, Zsuzsi, was stoned on the streets and his wife Bogyó became severely depressed. While awaiting the Supreme Court verdict that would eventually vindicate him, he was assassinated outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv. Kasztner did not think of himself as a hero, but as a proud Zionist who believed that promises, even those made to the Nazis, had to be kept. Anna Porter, born in Budapest and educated there after the war, has written a compelling account of him, subtitled The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, based both on written sources in Hungarian and English, and on eyewitness accounts, collected at a time when there were few recorded references to the victims of what she (properly in my view) calls the Hungarian Holocaust. There were even fewer references to Rezső Kasztner, although the better-known Oskar Schindler, who had met Kasztner in Budapest in 1942, had written of his actions that they remained unsurpassed. Soon after the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated and lionized. Kasztner, by contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy. Porter acknowledges that:

… the deals Kasztner made with the SS… raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.

Yet moral questions must be set alongside historical ones and Porter’s book, though a work of popular history, is meticulous in its use of diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, and memoirs – both written and oral, including those written in German and Hebrew. Since Kasztner’s only goal was that of saving human lives, she concludes that Kasztner achieved more in this way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Consequences of the Libel Trial, 1956-57; Extracts from Porter:

In March 1956, the chief magistrate in Jerusalem dismissed the charge of perjury against Kasztner… but the year presented greater trials than the re-trial of the perjury case… On October 29… the Israeli army invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. It was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of Egypt’s occupation of the Suez Canal. The invasion’s chief achievement, as far as the Israelis were concerned, was that it signaled to the surrounding Arab states that Israel could preserve its security against its enemies. Headlines in Israeli papers were occupied with news of the victory and the ensuing peace negotiations. Kasztner was no longer in the headlines. The government cancelled his protection.

He continued to work for ‘Új Kelet’ (‘New East’) and co-produced some radio programmes. He took on some freelance work as a translator… Tomy Lapid  (a colleague) said that Kasztner seemed aware of his life being in danger. “He became a hunted man,” Lapid said… Kasztner now looked along the street carefully before he stepped out of a doorway; he hesitated when he turned corners; once, when a car backfired he ducked into a store; he stayed close to walls; he had seemed nervous even when government-appointed guards followed him. There were so many abusive, threatening calls that he stopped answering the phone at the office. At home, too, he disconnected the telephone. He didn’t want his wife or daughter listening to the deranged ravings about how his life was to end.

On March 3, 1957, Kasztner was working the night-shift at the editorial offices of ‘Új Kelet’. He drove a colleague… home. A few minutes after midnight, Kasztner parked his car in front of his apartment building at 6 Sderot Emanuel Street. While he was still in the driver’s seat, he was approached by two young men. A third, he saw, was standing in the shadows of the building. One of the men asked if he was “Doctor Kasztner.” When he replied that, yes, he was, the man drew a gun, but it misfired. Kasztner opened the car door, pushing his assailant aside, then ran toward the entrance of the building. The man fired, twice in quick succession. This time the bullets found their target. Kasztner ran a few more steps, then collapsed. He shouted for help as the three assailants fled. He saw the gunman run to a jeep and speed off.

He was still conscious when the first person from the building arrived at the scene and tried to administer first aid. A woman who had gone to her balcony when the shots rang out ran to wake Bogyó (Kasztner’s wife). Another man heard Kasztner say that the assailant had gone in a jeep; that neighbour jumped on his bike and gave chase. Two men emerged from the jeep near the city zoo, where their pursuer, a former army man, found a phone booth and called the police.

A crowd gathered around Kasztner. Someone had called an ambulance. Bogyó, a neighbor reported later, seemed strangely calm when she saw that Rezső had been shot. Perhaps she, too, had been expecting something like this to happen. She knelt next to her bleeding husband, put a pillow under his head, covered him with a blanket, stroked his forehead and whispered to him…

Friends and a few passengers from the Kasztner train went to the hospital with flowers. There were hundreds of telegrams with good wishes for a speedy convalescence… Newspapers that had denounced Kasztner now shouted in headlines that the attackers had aimed at the heart of the nation of Israel.

Kasztner’s room was guarded by two policemen. He was conscious but spoke little. He wished to see no visitors except his immediate family and Hansi (his Zionist colleague Joel Brand’s wife and Rezső’s long-term lover). Bogyó had intended to bar Hansi from the room, but she managed to plead her way in. At one point he asked her, “Why did they do this to me?” Hansi was with him on March 12 as his condition began to deteriorate. 

On March 15, at 7:20 a.m., Rezső Kasztner died.                                                                                                                                                                                         

The Aftermath of the Assassination:

On Sunday, March 17, 1957, Rezső Kasztner’s coffin was set up in front of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv to provide his many admirers with an opportunity to pay their respects in public and to show their solidarity with the family. His mother, his two brothers, Bogyó, and Zsuzsi (his daughter), stood next to the coffin. Though neither David Ben-Gurion nor Mohse Sharett came, the Mapai (the ruling party) were represented by Attorney General Chaim Cohen and State Secretary Teddy Kollek. Some of his old colleagues from Budapest and Kolozsvár, and the halutzim who had worked with him paid their respects. Hansi stood near the coffin but out of Bogyó’s immediate circle. Yoel Palgi was there, as were many of the passengers from the Kasztner train. At the Bilu Synagogue, Rezső’s brother Gyula, his voice breaking as he read the words, recited the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead…

Kasztner was interred at the Nachlat Yitzhak Cemetery in Givataim, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, amid numerous declarations of friendship and tears. Most of the speakers vowed to continue the struggle not only to clear his name, but also to enshrine it among the heroes of the Holocaust. Those he had helped to survive promised to take promised to take care of his family.

‘Új Kelet’ published a moving obituary written by Ernő Márton. He praised Kasztner’s capacity for wit and erudition and his obsession with saving Jewish lives, his death-defying courage, his self-sacrifice, and his ambition to do something great, something “eternally significant for his people.”

Within days of the murder, the police arrested a twenty-four-year-old man, Zeev Eckstein, and his evidence led to the arrest of two other men, John Menkes, a former member of the Stern Gang, and Yaakov Cheruti, a lawyer. The three were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment the following January. A week later, on 15 January 1958, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. In the key matter of the original libel of his collaboration with the Nazis, the majority of the judges accepted the appeal of the attorney general and convicted Malchiel Grünwald. In the midst of the joy of vindication that followed the Supreme Court ruling, notes of doubt remained.

The Supreme Court of Israel had acquitted Kasztner of all the charges brought against him, except for the one of helping Becher escape prosecution at Nuremberg. This led to remaining doubts concerning his affidavit  written on Becher’s behalf at that time, and his subsequent confused evidence in the libel case about this. In his statement about this following the initial Grünwald trial, Kastner had written:

I cannot refrain from expressing again my sorrow over the impression which may have been made in some people regarding the phrasing of my testimony about Becher, and the result of it. Neither I nor my friends have anything to hide in this whole affair, and we do not regret that we acted in accordance with our conscience, despite all that was done to us in this trial.

Several journalists continued to criticise Kasztner as having sold his soul in his deal with the Nazis. Nevertheless, the promise made by Alexander Rosenfeld at his funeral; We shall not rest, nor shall we remain silent until your name is cleared had been fulfilled by the Supreme Court’s verdict. His widow and daughter expressed their sadness that the new verdict had come too late to save his life. He had died aged just 51.

Despite the justifications of Kasztner’s role in Budapest, his fate of making friends with the devil, still divides the shrinking number of survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust of 1944-5. In 2006, István Bubryák made a three-part documentary about his life and several academic works, including Anna Porter’s book, have been published about his life. By way of postscript, an Italian book by Andrea Schiavon has also been published about one of the subsequently famous survivors on the train, Shaul Ladany. He was a member of the ill-fated Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. When the book was published (2012), he was in his seventies and still taking part in various walking competitions (see picture below).

001 (2)

These accounts lend support to the evidence presented by Anna Porter, that, while human beings always have choices to make, even in the most difficult of times, there was no doubt that Kasztner acted with integrity during those months between March and December 1944, and that his actions saved many thousands of Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, not just the 1,684 who went on his train, but those who might have died on the subsequent death marches, or at the hands of the Arrow Cross. It is this very fact of survival which enables the ultimate vindication of Kasztner and the Budapest Rescue Committee.

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest.

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

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.  

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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.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

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?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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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.

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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?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

 

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