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Notes from Limmud 2008

Kasztner: Saviour or Collaborator?

Ladislaus Löb and Michael Pinto-Duschinsky

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speakers, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[This was the second of two talks; as will become clear, not everything is explained here, so it would have helped if I had attended the first, but probably not by much. I've annotated where necessary (hooray for Google).]

[Brief orthographic note: In Hungarian, 'sz' is pronounced /s/, 's' /ʃ/ (as in English "she"), 'cs' /tʃ/ (as in English "church") and 'zs' /ʒ/ (as in English "measure").]

Rezső Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew, negotiated with the Nazis—with Eichmann in particular—to save Jewish lives from the Holocaust. He saved about 1670 Hungarian Jews, who were taken to Bergen-Belsen, not Auschwitz, stayed there five months, and then were taken to Switzerland. Belsen became what it was notorious for in January 1945, but the speaker [Löb] and the others got out [i.e. were got out by Kasztner] in December 1944.

Kasztner paid Eichmann about $1000 a head. There were plans to make a bigger deal, but they came to nothing. After the war, Kasztner was accused in Israel of collaborating with the Nazis. The judge found against him, and said he had sold his soul to Satan. Kasztner appealed, and his name was cleared; but by then he had been murdered on the street in Tel Aviv by three young extremists.

The court did not say that he had not been hobnobbing with Eichmann, but what mattered was the intention, which was of saving people. The accusation was that Kasztner knew about Auschwitz, when half a million Hungarian Jews did not; he should have raised the alarm, and they would not have gone willingly to Auschwitz. The court found that he did not raise the alarm because he thought he would save many more by quiet diplomacy.

Mr Pinto-Duschinsky was also saved by Kasztner, but in a different way. He came from a long line of Hungarian Orthodox rabbis. His grandmother's sister married a rabbi, Martof, from Cluj, the town Kasztner came from. His son was a member of the Hungarian parliament. Working with him was another journalist, who was Kasztner.

[Kasztner organised] a train carrying 1700 Jews who would be "sample goods"; it was thought to be the first of many that would rescue Hungarian Jews. Unfortunately, it was to be the only one in the end. Eight of Mr Pinto-Duschinsky's relatives were on that train. He was left as an infant in Budapest, but the day before the train went off, he was deported to Budakalács, where about 20,000 people were left for about five or six days, and then the group was sent to Auschwitz.

Before that happened, about eighteen or twenty families were told they would be sent back into a deaf-mute home in Budapest. These were to be the people who would go on the next train. That train never went, but by then the deportations to Auschwitz had stopped.


The problem about assessing Kasztner is that he has become symbolic, or iconic, both for good and for evil. Historians, playwrights and commentators have argued over his image for over half a century. Antizionists have accused him of condemning Jews so a small number could be saved to go to Israel.

It is certainly true that Kasztner was a Zionist, and that many young Zionists went on the train, and they did not have to pay: a minority of rich Jews paid for them. Whether you then said he aided and abetted the entire Holocaust to save a few hundred young Zionists is [moot].

More importantly, Hannah Arendt portrayed Kasztner as the symbol of the Jew as collaborator.

Third, and most harmfully, he has been symbolic in Israel politics. He was a member of Mapai, and later became a person the Likud loved to hate. So looking at the histories, the people who like him tend to be Mapai, and those who hate him Likud.

So, was he a collaborator? It's not really relevant whether he was or was not. During the Holocaust, active resistance was sometimes counterproductive, and collaboration worked better. The question was whether he was a good and effective collaborator. Shortly after his dealings with Eichmann in Budapest, you had the uprising of Slovak Jews, which just meant the Germans had a few guerilla pot-shots taken at them; but afterwards, tens of thousands were sent to Auschwitz who probably would have survived the war if they had just laid low at the time.

Chaim Rumkowski in the Łódź ghetto did deal with the Germans. He agreed to the deportation of nine-year-old children so that ten-year-old children could be saved. He chose to go ahead and do these terrible things if it did lead to survival in the end. And the numbers who survived from the Łódź ghetto were larger than those who survived from several other ghettos.

The speaker believes Kasztner was a fully-fledged collaborator.

During the war, the German intelligence often threatened Jews would be sent to camps unless they became informants. The main line of contact out to the west from Budapest and places was via Istanbul. There was a line of couriers that went between Hungary and Istanbul. They could go because they were working for the Germans. Some of these were Jews or half-Jews. The Vaada [Aid and Rescue Committee, a Zionist commttee in wartime Budapest] used these half-Jewish agents to act on their behalf, and act as double-agents: whilst doing messages for the Germans, to bring back messages from Istanbul and gold napoleons that could be used in Hungary. They were also used by the Americans and MI6.

The real question was who was getting the best out of the deal. Unfortunately, the Jewish authorities in Budapest were using tainted agents throughout this period, so it must be presumed that the Germans were getting information throughout this period. So the things that Kasztner was doing to resist the Germans involved some collaboration with the Germans. So it was a question of who was double-crossing whom.

Also, negotiation with the Germans meant collaboration with the Germans. Kasztner had a special phone number he could use to get in contact with Eichmann if he was in trouble. He did not have to live in the Jewish area, or wear a yellow star, etc. For example, when Kasztner went to Cluj, his home town, the Germans knew all about it and sent people to greet him.

The negotiation also meant the sacrifice to the Nazis of some wanted persons to show good faith with them. The mother of Hannah Szenes [Senesh] tried to get Kasztner to help, and he wouldn't help; furthermore, one of the other parachutists into Hungary was persuaded to give himself up to the Germans.

The speaker came across a document in which someone abandoned the Gestapo and went into hiding. He went into hiding for a month, and then heard that Agent Avraham [lacuna] under the name of Gustav Ehrlich [lacuna] arrived at the place where all the Jews awaiting transport were heard. But this place was run by the Gestapo. [Lacuna?] They read out to him his real name. [Lacuna] Kasztner is now [immediately post-war] in Switzerland and afraid to go back.

Joel Brand [lacuna. Brand, along with Kasztner, was one of the seven members of the Vaada.] Three others of these agents were held by the Gestapo, but Brand and his wife were released. The implication is that Brand had lured the others there in order to betray them.

The price of doing deals with Eichmann was giving up Jewish lives.

[Aside: I was not able to reconstruct what the above section was about through looking at Brand's Wikipedia article, but it makes for fascinating reading—not relevant here, but alluded to further down. Brand was taken to meet Eichmann and told to go to the Allies, via Istanbul, and offer the release of a million Jews in return for 10,000 lorries and other goods to be supplied by the Allies to Germany. The result was a clash of mindsets between an increasingly frantic Brand (whose wife and children were being held hostage) and a suspicious Jewish Agency and frankly uninterested Britain ("What can I do with this million Jews? Where can I put them?").]

Kasztner at the beginning of June sent letters to the leaders of Swiss Jewry that the deportations to Auschwitz had stopped. This was lulling them into a sense of false security. (Though was there a code embedded in that to say that they really were continuing?)

With Kasztner, there was something of the Stockholm syndrome. There were also allegations of corruption, not just with members of his own family in the group. (Kasztner's own family were killed; it was his wife's family that was saved.) A report to the Zionist organisation in '46 alleged that they took Persian carpets and antiques on board the train; they had better food, and were treated better in Bergen-Belsen.

The speaker would put all of that to one side, because these are all just details. Kasztner was playing for very large stakes. If he was able to save several thousand people, then giving up one or two people is a terrible thing, but a price worth paying in wartime.

Kasztner saved the seventeen hundred people on the train, many of whom have lived very fulfilled lives since. There are the hundreds saved in the Columbus ?cab. He diverted a number of trains from Auschwitz to wait in Austria, at Strashof, in case the Jewish labour was needed. In total he saved about 20,000. Whether he saved the Jews of Budapest, or his later dealings with Himmler saved the Jews in the concentration camps, is much more open to questions.

On the minus side is his pact of silence, not blowing the whistle about what was gong on in Auschwitz. In March there had been an escape of two people from Auschwitz. They had details, turning it from vague rumour: the Jewish community in Slovakia did not believe them until they provided concrete details, including the dates of trains on which the family of people back in Slovakia had been deported. Rudolf Vrba escaped, but could not get the message further than Bratislava.

That information was with Kasztner in April. Kasztner visited his family in Cluj on 3 May. He spoke to people, who decamped to Romania. However, he did not deliberately spread the knowledge. Only about 20 June 1944 did knowledge of the Auschwitz protocols reach Switzerland and hence the west.

What happened between the middle of May, when the trains [to Auschwitz] stepped up to 10,000 [Hungarian Jews] a day, and the latter part of June, by which time Edmund Wesenmahr, the German plenipotentiary, was able to report that 30,000 people had already been deported? By the time the news came to the west, most of the Jews in Budapest would already have been deported.

Time was not on Kasztner's side; it was on Eichmann's side. If the British had during July done a deal [to destroy Auschwitz], they would not have been able to save anybody as there was nobody left outside Budapest.

The assumption was that the reason to tell people was that Jews could resist. But it was pointed out that Jews had no ability to resist in Hungary. This is what was pointed out in the court in Israel. The speaker, however, believes that the ruler of Hungary feared that if things were known, the Allies would bomb, not the railway line to Auschwitz, which is not an easy target, and easy to repair, but Budapest itself. The fear was that if the Allies bombed Budapest, they would be bombing Jews.

Within days of the knowledge of Auschwitz reaching Washington, Roosevelt threatened Horthy [Regent of Hungary] that if the deportations were not stopped, Budapest would be bombed. If the knowledge had reached the west six weeks earlier, before the deportations of 12,000 per day—this was what caused hundreds of thousands of people to be killed. And this was the tragedy of the Kasztner deal.

Why is Kasztner the only person blamed for this? We don't know about the routes taken to get the message to the West. There was an attempt to get them to the Vatican; in the end it reached Switzerland via the Swiss legation. The tragedy is that Kasztner was playing with a very weak hand; he was playing in a terrible position, and could be deceived with the myth of saving the Jews, whilst Auschwitz worked faster and more efficiently than at any other time of its existence.

So do we even then condemn Kasztner? There's been far too much in the Jewish community of blaming ourselves. Kasztner was a very brave man. The negotiations were, in the speaker's opinion, a mistake; but Kasztner was not to blame. The blame goes on people like Eichmann [who was in charge of deportations from Budapest], and Veesenmayer [the Nazi representative in Hungary]. He was imprisoned for twenty years in 1949, but was out of jail by Christmas 1951, with a certificate from the Americans that he would make a good citizen. The head of the SS in Budapest, Otto Winkelmann, became a respectable citizen after the war. Becher [responsible for extorting money on behalf of Himmler from Hungary's Jews] got off, and went on to become a multi-millionaire; and founded a scholarship at Oxford.

Ben Therez, who was one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials, pointed out that 23 out of the 4000 of the Einsatzgruppen [death squad members] were condemned after the War. Why should we have all this soul-searching about Kasztner, he said. Let the blame go to the perpetrators!

Löb continues, talking about the film Killing Kasztner, where Kasztner's murderer, confronts the murderer of Kasztner's daughter and family; and Israeli reactions to the whole story, even now, fifty years later. There is one scene were students are talking about Kasztner in a university seminar. One of them said, "It's quite simple: we Jews like our heroes dead. If they are alive, they are no heroes."

Löb disagrees with Pinto-Duschinsky's about Hannah Szenes. She was a young girl, in her early twenties, and a poet. In her case, [s]he was in Palestine along with Goldstein and Palgi [who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia along with Szenes]. Palgi was not very helpful in the Kasztner trial: He was in love with Kasztner's sister-in-law; and Kasztner was given the job of breaking them up.

The three were dropped into Yugoslavia and smuggled across the border into Hungary. However, they were very naïve, and were betrayed. Kasztner knew that they could jeopardise his whole enterprise. Kasztner never met things head-on; he wanted to do things by wheeling and dealing. He tried to do so for Hannah. She was in prison and tortured. Kasztner made a deal with the Hungarian [lacuna]

Horthy was deposed; there was a coup, and a rabid fascist came to power. Arrangements had already been made to get Hannah Szenes out of prison; if it had not been for this coup, she would probably have been saved.

Löb also disagrees with the semantics of it. Collaboration means guilt, and guilt means intention. By saying he collaborated, you are using the language of his enemies. Löb say yes, you have to collaborate. Kasztner became a victim first of the Nazis, and then of Israeli politics. By saying he collaborated, you are taking the line Tamir took to destabilise the Mapai government: When Kasztner was accused of collaborating, the opposition was led by Shmuel Tamir, a one-time Irgun member, who became a member of Ḥerut, which went on to become part of Likud. He started the downfall of Mapai (albeit that it took twenty years).

About Hannah Arendt: Löb finds she muddies the waters because she lumps Kasztner together with the Judenrat. It was quite clear that Kasztner and the Va'ada were a self-appointed group trying to save lives; whereas the Judenrat was set up by the Germans.

About the deportations, it being too late by the time Auschwitz became known, he also disagrees. Eichmann said you can have a million Jews, and Brand answered him: where do you get a million Jews from? Eichmann said don't worry about that: there are still a million Jews elsewhere. It was too late for the half-million in Budapest, but not for the whole enterprise.

In Hungary in total there were 750–800,000. There were many refugees. Also, the borders of Hungary changed in the war; it was awarded bits of neighbouring countries [i.e. what used to be Hungary before 1918] for being nice to Hitler.

There were 200,000 left in Budapest. Slave labour was invented in Budapest to pick up mines and do the dirty work and stuff.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-03-02 12:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zsero.livejournal.com
Murdered by extremists? More likely murdered by agents of the Israeli government, for fear that he'd embarrass them further, as the legal proceedings continued. Read Ben Hecht's Perfidy.

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