Chapter 25





The destruction of Hungarian Jewry is one of the most tragic chapters in the Holocaust. When the Germans finally occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944, the leaders of the Jewish community knew what to expect from the Nazis, as Hungary had been a refuge for thousands of Polish and Slovakian Jews, and they had been warned by the Bratislava working group that Wisliceny had promised that Hungary's 700,000 Jews would eventually be deported.

The Nazis summoned the Jewish community leaders and told them not to worry, things would not be so bad if the Jews co-operated. As Randolph Braham has written, 'History and historians have not been kind to the leaders of Hungarian Jewry in the Holocaust era.' For as Braham admits, many 'tried to obtain special protection and favors for their families'. Some did not have to wear the yellow star and, later, were allowed to live outside the ghettos and were permitted to look after their property. In post-war years the roles of two Hungarian Labour Zionists --Rezso Kasztner and Joel Brand, leaders of the Budapest Rescue Committee-- were subjected to detailed scrutiny in Israeli courtrooms. Kasztner had been accused of betraying the Hungarian Jewish masses.


'They...Begged Them to Hush up the Matter'


On 29 March 1944 these two Zionists met Wisliceny and agreed to pay him the $2 million he had previously mentioned to Weissmandel, if he would not put the Hungarian Jews in ghettos or deport them. They also asked for transport along the Danube of 'some hundred people' with Palestine certificates, saying that it would make it easier for them to raise the cash from their people abroad. Wisliceny agreed to take their bribe and to consider the transport, but was concerned that it be done secretly in order not to antagonise the Mufti who wanted no Jews released. The first instalments of the bribe were paid, but the Nazis nevertheless set up ghettos in the provinces. Then, on 25 April, Eichmann summoned Joel Brand and told him that he was to be sent to negotiate with the WZO and the Allies. The Nazis would allow a million Jews to leave for Spain in exchange for 10,000 trucks, soap, coffee and other supplies. The trucks were to be used exclusively on the eastern front. As a token of Nazi good faith, Eichmann would allow the Zionists the preliminary release of a Palestine convoy of 600.

Brand was confirmed by the Rescue Committee as their representative and the Germans flew him to Istanbul on 19 May in the company of another Jew, Bandi Grosz, a German and Hungarian agent who had additional contacts with various Allied intelligence services. Grosz was to conduct his own negotiations with Allied intelligence about the possibilities of a separate peace. On arrival, Brand met the local representatives of the WZO's Rescue Committee and demanded an immediate meeting with a Jewish Agency leader. The Turks, however, refused to grant a visa to Moshe Shertok, the head of the Agency's Political Department, and the Istanbul committee finally advised Brand to confer with him in Aleppo, on Syrian territory, which was then under British control. On 5 June, when Brand's train passed through Ankara, two Jews-one a Revisionist, the other an Agudist-warned him that he was being lured into a trap and would be arrested. Brand was reassured by Echud Avriel, a leading WZO rescue figure, that this warning was false and motivated by factional malice. However, Brand was in fact arrested by the British.

Shertok interviewed Brand on 10 June in Aleppo. Brand described the encounter in his book, Desperate Mission (as told to Alex Weissberg):


Moshe Shertok withdrew into a corner with them [the British], and they talked softly but vehemently together. Then he came back to me and laid a hand on my shoulder... 'You must now go on further south... it is an order... I cannot change it'... 'Don't you understand what you're doing?' I shouted. 'This is plain murder! Mass murder!... You have no right to seize an emissary. I am not even an emissary from the enemy... I am here as the delegate of a million people condemned to death.'


Shertok huddled with the British and returned again: 'I will not rest until you are free once more... you will be set free.'In fact Brand was escorted by a British officer to imprisonment in Egypt. They stopped in Haifa, where he strolled around the harbour:


I even considered the possibility of escape. But only those who have belonged to a party held together by the strongest ties of ideology will understand... I was a Zionist, a party member... I was bound by party discipline... I felt so small, so insignificant --a man thrown by chance into the boiling cauldron of history-- that l dare not take on my own shoulders the responsibility for the fate of a hundred thousand people. I lacked the courage to defy discipline, and therein lay my true historical guilt.

Brand never had any illusions that the Eichmann proposition would be accepted by the Western Allies. However, he believed that, as with the earlier negotiations with Wisliceny, some serious SS of ficers wanted to invest in their own future. Live Jews were now a negotiable currency. Brand hoped that it would be possible to negotiate for more realistic arrangements or, at least, to decoy the Nazis into thinking that a deal could be made. Possibly the extermination programme would be slowed down or even suspended while an accord was being worked out. However, the British were not interested in exploring the possibilities of Eichmann's scheme and notified Moscow of Brand's mission; Stalin naturally insisted that the offer be rejected. The story reached the press and on l9 July the British publicly denounced the offer as a trick to divide the Allies.

On 5 October Brand was finally allowed to leave Cairo and he rushed to Jerusalem. He tried to go on to Switzerland, where Rezso Kasztner and SS Colonel Kurt Becher had been sent to negotiate further with Saly Mayer of the Joint Distribution Committee. The Swiss were willing to allow him entry, providing the Jewish Agency would sponsor him. The British gave him a travel document under the name of Eugen Band, the name Eichmann had given him for reasons of secrecy. He went to Eliahu Dobkin, head of the Jewish Agency's Immigration Department, who was supposed to represent the WZO at the negotiations, to get his sponsorship paper; Dobkin refused:


'You will understand, Joel,' he said, 'that I cannot vouch for a man called Eugen Band, when your name is Joel Brand.' 'Are you aware, Eliahu, that many Jews in Central Europe have been sent to the gas chambers simply because officials have refused to sign documents that were not absolutely correct?'


Late in 1944, at a Tel Aviv Histadrut meeting, Brand was introduced, as '"Joel Brand, the leader of the Jewish workers' movement in Hungary. He has brought with him the greetings of Hungarian Jewry"... I wondered where this Hungarian Jewry was., He tore into the meeting:


'You were the last hope of hundreds of thousands condemned to death. You have failed them. I was those people's emissary yet you let me sit in a Cairo prison... You have refused to declare a general strike. If there was no other way, you should have used force.'... They hurried up to the reporters who were present and begged them to hush up the matter.


An inquiry commission was hurriedly set up to appease Brand, but it met only once and decided nothing. Weizmann arrived in Palestine and Brand asked for an immediate interview. It took Weizmann 'a fortnight' to reply


29 Dec. 1944, Dear Mr Brand:... As you may have seen from the press, I have been traveling a good deal and generally did not have a free moment since my arrival here. I have read both your letter and your memorandum and shall be happy to see you sometime the week after next -- about the 10th of January.


They finally met, and Weizmann promised to help him get back to Europe; Brand never heard from him again.


'Hardly likely to Achieve the Salvation of the Victims'


The WZO approach to the crisis in Hungary had been timid throughout. On 16 May 1944 rabbi Weissmandel had sent detailed diagrams of Auschwitz and maps of the railway lines through Slovakia to Silesia to the Jewish organisations in Switzerland demanding 'absolutely, and in the strongest terms', that they call upon the Allies to bomb the death camp and the railways. His proposal reached Weizmann in London, who approached the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, in an extremely hesitant manner. Eden wrote to the Secretary for Air on 7 July:


Dr Weizmann admitted that there seemed to be little enough that we could do to stop these horrors, but he suggested that something might be done to stop the operation of the death camp by bombing the railway lines... and bombing the camps themselves.


A memorandum by Moshe Shertok to the British Foreign Office, written four days later, conveys the same hangdog scepticism:


The bombing of the death camps is... hardly likely to achieve the salvation of the victims to any appreciable extent. Its physical effects can only be the destruction of plant and personnel, and possibly the hastening of the end of those already doomed. The resulting dislocation of the German machinery for systematic wholesale murder may possibly cause delay in the execution of those still in Hungary (over 300,000 in and around Budapest). This in itself is valuable as far as it goes. But it may not go very far, as other means of extermination can be quickly improvised.


After setting out all the reasons why the bombing would not work, Shertok then elaborated on the theme that 'the main purpose of the bombing should be its many-sided and far-reaching moral effect'.


The Jews of occupied Europe, through Weissmandel and Brand, were imploring immediate action. The bombing of Auschwitz was not only possible, it happened by mistake. On 13 September 1944 American pilots, aiming for an adjacent Buna rubber works, hit the camp and killed 40 prisoners and 45 Germans. In July, when Eden had asked if the question could be discussed in Cabinet, Churchill had replied: 'Is there any reason to raise these matters at the cabinet? You and I are in entire agreement. Get anything out of the Air Force you can and invoke me if necessary.' Nothing happened. It was felt the cost to the attacking planes would be too high. Weizmann and Shertok continued to petition the British to bomb the camps, but lost the initiative.


The British Zionist leadership likewise faltered in its reaction to the Hungarian crisis. When the Germans occupied Budapest, Alex Easterman, Political Secretary of the British section of the WJC, went to the Foreign Office; when the officials asked that the establishment not organise any street demonstrations, of course he agreed. Again, on 11 July, Selig Brodetsky, a member of the WZO Executive and the President of the Board of Deputies, rejected a call from the Palestinian Vaad Leumi (National Council) that they should put on a mass march in London. Lady Reading, Eva Mond, was the President of the British section of the WJC, and she came out against 'nagging'. 'Don't let us drift into continental Jewish habits,' she admonished on 23 May, when the death trains were still rolling.


'He Agreed to Help Keep the Jews from Resisting Deportation'


The destruction of Hungarian Jewry took place at a time when the Nazi structure was showing all the signs of collapse. Canaris's Abwehr Intelligence had concluded that the war was lost; it therefore started making its own contacts with Western Intelligence, and had to be taken over by the SD. Count Klaus von Stauffenberg's bomb on 20 July 1944 came in the middle of the Hungarian crisis and almost destroyed the Nazi edifice. The Germans had invaded the country because they knew that Admiral Miklos Horthy was planning to pull Hungary out of the war. The neutrals, under the prodding of the War Refugee Board, protested against the new murders, and some made efforts to extend diplomatic protection to some of the Jews. From the beginning Eichmann, who had responsibility for the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, was concerned that Jewish resistance or attempts at escape over the border to Romania, which by then was unwilling to hand over Jews to the Nazis, would trigger off political shock waves that could slow down his operation.

When Eichmann first went to work for von Mildenstein, the fervent philo-Zionist gave him Herzl's Judenstaat. He liked it. He was also fond of Adolf Bohm's Die Zionistische Bewegung (The Zionist Movement) and once, in Vienna, he recited an entire page of it by heart during a meeting with some Jewish leaders, including the mortified Bohm. He had even studied Hebrew for two and a half years, although, he conceded, he never really spoke it well. He had had many dealings with the Zionists before the Second World War. In 1937 he had negotiated with the Haganah's representative, Feivel Polkes, and had been their guest in Palestine. He had also had close contacts with the Czech Zionists. Now, again, he would negotiate with the local Zionists.

In 1953 the Ben-Gurion government prosecuted an elderly pamphleteer, Malchiel Gruenwald, for having libelled Rezso Kasztner as a collaborator for his dealings with Eichmann in 1944. The trial had considerable international coverage throughout 1954. Eichmann must have followed it in the press, for he described his relationship with Kasztner at length in taped interviews he gave to a Dutch Nazi journalist, Willem Sassen, in 1955, parts of which were later published in two articles in Life magazine after his capture in 1960. Gruenwald had denounced Kasztner for having kept silent about the German lies that the Hungarian Jews were only being resettled at Kenyermezo. In return, he was allowed to organise the special convoy, which ultimately became a train to Switzerland, and place his family and friends on it. Further, Gruenwald claimed, Kasztner later protected SS Colonel Becher from being hung as a war criminal by claiming that he had done everything possible to save Jewish lives. Eichmann described Kasztner as follows:


This Dr Kastner [many sources Anglicise Kasztner's name] was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation --and even keep order in the collection camps-- if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain. For keeping order in the camps, the price of 15,000 or 20,000 Jews --in the end there may have been more-- was not too high for me. Except perhaps for the first few sessions, Kastner never came to me fearful of the Gestapo strong man. We negotiated entirely as equals. People forget that. We were political opponents trying to arrive at a settlement, and we trusted each other perfectly. When he was with me, Kastner smoked cigarettes as though he were in a coffeehouse. While we talked he would smoke one aromatic cigarette after another, taking them from a silver case and lighting them with a little silver lighter. With his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.

Dr Kastner's main concern was to make it possible for a select group of Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Israel...

As a matter of fact, there was a very strong similarity between our attitudes in the SS and the viewpoint of these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders who were fighting what might be their last battle. As I told Kastner: 'We, too, are idealists and we, too, had to sacrifice our own blood before we came to power.'

I believe that Kastner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal. He was not interested in old Jews or those who had become assimilated into Hungarian society. But he was incredibly persistent in trying to save biologically valuable Jewish blood --that is, human material that was capable of reproduction and hard work. 'You can have the others' he would say, 'but let me have this group here.' And because Kastner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape. After all, I was not concerned with small groups of a thousand or so Jews.


André Biss, Joel Brand's cousin, who worked with Kasztner in Budapest, and who supported his policy, nevertheless corroborated Eichmann's statement in part in his book, A Million Jews to Save, when he described who boarded the famous train which reached Switzerland on 6 December 1944:


Then came the most numerous group, Kasztner's pride --the Zionist youth. These were composed of the members of various organisations of agricultural pioneers, of extreme right-wing 'revisionists' who already possessed immigration certificates, and a number of orphans... Lastly came those who had been able to pay cash for their journey, for we had to collect the sum the Germans demanded. But of the 1684 in the train 300 at the most were of this category...

Kasztner's mother, his brothers, sisters and other members of his family from Klausenburg [Kluj] were passengers... Members of the families of those who had fought for the formation of this convoy formed at the most a group of 40 to 50 persons... In the confusion that ensued about 380 persons managed to clamber into the train which left Budapest, not with 1300 passengers as expected, but crammed full with more than 1700 travellers.


The Israeli Labour Party got more than it bargained for when it set out to defend Kasztner. Shmuel Tamir, a former Irgunist, a brilliant cross-examiner, appeared for Gruenwald. Later, in 1961, Ben Hecht wrote his book, Perfidy, a remarkable expose of the Kasztner scandal, and he presented many pages of Tamir's masterly demolition of Kasztner's defence.


Tamir How do you account for the fact that more people were selected from Kluj [Kasztner's home town] to be rescued than from any other Hungarian town?

Kastner That had nothing to do with me.

Tamir I put it to you that you specifically requested favoritism for your people in Kluj from Eichmann.

Kastner Yes, I asked for it specifically.


Kastner... All the local Rescue Committees were under my jurisdiction.

Tamir Committees! You speak in the plural.

Kastner Yes --wherever they existed.

Tamir Where else except in Kluj was there such a committee?

Kastner Well, I think the committee in Kluj was the only one in Hungary.


Tamir Dr Kastner, you could have phoned the other towns, just as you phoned Kluj?

Kastner Yes, that's right.

Tamir Then why didn't you contact the Jews of all these towns on the phone to warn them?

Kastner I didn't because I didn't have time enough.


There were 20,000 Jews in Kluj and only a limited number of seats on that train. Judge Benjamin Halevi began pressing Kasztner and he blurted out his criteria for choosing who to save:


Kastner... the witnesses from Kluj who testified here --in my opinion, I don't think they represent the true Jewry of Kluj. For it is not a coincidence that there was not a single important figure among them.


Levi Blum, also from Kluj, had attended a dinner for Kasztner in 1948, which had been arranged by the train passengers; he had spoiled the occasion by suddenly leaping up and calling the honoured guest a collaborator and daring him to take his accuser to court:


Blum... I asked him, 'why did you distribute post cards from Jews supposed to be in Kenyermeze?' Someone yelled out, 'This was done by Kohani, one of Kastner's men.' Kohani was also in the hall. He jumped up and yelled, 'Yes, I got those post cards.' I asked him, 'Who were they from?' He answered, 'That's none of your business. I don't have to explain what I do to you.'

Judge Halevi All of this happened in public?

Blum Yes, several hundred people were there.


Kasztner was also involved in the affair of Hannah Szenes which was described at the trial. Szenes was a brave young Zionist from Hungary, whom the British finally allowed, together with 31 others, to parachute into occupied Europe to organise Jewish rescue and resistance. She landed in Yugoslavia on 18 March, one day before the German invasion of Hungary; she smuggled herself back into Hungary in June and was promptly caught by Horthy's police. Peretz Goldstein and Joel Nussbecher-Palgi followed her in and they contacted Kasztner, who conned them both into giving themselves up to the Germans and Hungarians for the sake of the train. Both were sent to Auschwitz, although Nussbecher-Palgi managed to saw through some bars on his train and escape. Szenes was shot by a Hungarian firing squad. Kasztner's admission in court that he had failed to notify the Swiss, who represented Britain's interests in Budapest, of the Hungarians' capture of a British officer and spy --'I think I had my reasons'-- outraged the Israeli public, many of whom had read her poetry and knew of her bravery in the Hungarian prisons.


'Are We Therefore to be Called Traitors?'


On 21 June 1955 Judge Halevi found there had been no libel of Kasztner, apart from the fact that he had not been motivated by considerations of monetary gain. His collaboration had crucially aided the Nazis in murdering 450,000 Jews and, after the war, he further compounded his offence by going to the defence of Becher.


The Nazis' patronage of Kastner, and their agreement to let him save six hundred prominent Jews, were part of the plan to exterminate the Jews. Kastner was given a chance to add a few more to that number. The bait attracted him. The opportunity of rescuing prominent people appealed to him greatly. He considered the rescue of the most important Jews as a great personal success and a success for Zionism.


The Israeli Labour government remained loyal to their party comrade and the case was appealed. Attorney-General Chaim Cohen put the fundamental issue before the Supreme Court in his subsequent arguments:


Kastner did nothing more and nothing less than was done by us in rescuing the Jews and bringing them to Palestine... You are allowed --in fact it is your duty-- to risk losing the many in order to save the few... It has always been our Zionist tradition to select the few out of many in arranging the immigration to Palestine. Are we therefore to be called traitors?


Cohen freely conceded that:


Eichmann, the chief exterminator, knew that the Jews would be peaceful and not resist if he allowed the prominents to be saved, that the 'train of the prominents' was organized on Eichmann's orders to facilitate the extermination of the whole people.


But Cohen insisted:


There was no room for any resistance to the Germans in Hungary and that Kastner was allowed to draw the conclusion that if all the Jews of Hungary are to be sent to their death he is entitled to organize a rescue train for 600 people. He is not only entitled to do it but is also bound to act accordingly.


On 3 March 1957 Kasztner was gunned down. Zeev Eckstein was convicted of the assassination, and Joseph Menkes and Dan Shemer were found guilty of being accessories on the basis of a confession by Eckstein. The assassin claimed that he was a government agent who had infiltrated a right-wing terrorist grouping headed by Israel Sheib (Eldad), a well-known right-wing extremist. However, the matter did not end with Kasztner's death. On 17 January 1958 the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Kasztner-Gruenwald case.

The court ruled, 5 to 0, that Kasztner had perjured himself on behalf of Colonel Becher. It then concluded, 3 to 2, that what he did, during the war, could not be legitimately considered collaboration. The most forceful argument of the majority was put forward by Judge Shlomo Chesin:


He didn't warn Hungarian Jewry of the danger facing it because he didn't think it would be useful, and because he thought that any deeds resulting from information given them would damage more than help... Kastner spoke in detail of the situation, saying, 'The Hungarian Jew was a branch which long ago dried up on the tree.' This vivid description coincides with the testimony of another witness about Hungarian Jews. 'This was a big Jewish community in Hungary, without any ideological Jewish backbone.'...The question is not whether a man is allowed to kill many in order to save a few, or vice-versa. The question is altogether in another sphere and should be defined as follows: a man is aware that a whole community is awaiting its doom. He is allowed to make efforts to save a few, although part of his efforts involve concealment of truth from the many; or should he disclose the truth to many though it is his best opinion that this way everybody will perish. I think the answer is clear. What good will the blood of the few bring if everyone is to perish?


Much of the Israeli public refused to accept the new verdict. Had Kasztner lived, the Labour government would have been in difficulty. Not only had he perjured himself for Becher, but, between the trial and the Supreme Court decision, Tamir had uncovered further evidence that Kasztner had also intervened in the case of SS Colonel Hermann Krumey. He had sent him, while he was awaiting trial at Nuremberg, an affidavit declaring: 'Krumey performed his duties in a laudable spirit of good will, at a time when the life and death of many depended on him.'

Later, in the 1960s during the Eichmann trial, Andre Biss offered to testify. Because of his involvement with Kasztner he had more contact with Eichmann than any other Jewish witness --90 out of 102 had never seen him-- and it was apparent that his testimony would be important. An appearance date was set, but then the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, discovered that Biss meant to defend Kasztner's activities. Hausner knew that, despite the Supreme Court's decision in the case, had Biss tried to defend Kasztner there would have been an immense outcry. Hausner knew from the Sassen tapes of the Eichmann interviews how Eichmann might implicate Kasztner. Israel had gained great prestige from Eichmann's capture and the government did not want the focus of the trial to shift away from Eichmann towards a re-examination of the Zionist record during the Holocaust. According to Biss, Hausner 'asked me to omit from my evidence any mention of our action in Budapest, and especially to pass over in silence what was then in Israel called the "Kasztner affair"'. Biss refused and was dropped as a witness.


Who Helped Kill 450,000 Jews?


That one Zionist betrayed the Jews would not be of any moment: no movement is responsible for its renegades. However, Kasztner was never regarded as a traitor by the Labour Zionists. On the contrary, they insisted, that if he was guilty, so were they. Kasztner certainly betrayed the Jews who looked to him as one of their leaders, despite Judge Chesin's opinion:


There is no law, either national or international, which lays down the duties of a leader in an hour of emergency toward those who rely on leadership and are under his instructions.


However, by far the most important aspect of the Kasztner-Gruenwald affair was its full exposure of the working philosophy of the World Zionist Organisation throughout the entire Nazi era: the sanctification of the betrayal of the many in the interest of a selected immigration to Palestine.