NEW YORK — Imagine that you are a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. Imagine further that somehow you have developed a relationship, with a senior SS officer responsible for what is euphemistically known as the “Jewish Question.”
You know — indeed, you may actually have been told — that the vast majority of the Jews in your country are about to be mercilessly murdered. And then imagine that the SS officer gives you the opportunity to save the lives of a not inconsiderable number of Jews — over a thousand — including the closest members of your family, but at a price: You must keep silent, you must keep everything you know to yourself, or the deal is off.
What do you do?
Consider the tragic case of Rezső, or Rudolf (Hebrew name, Israel) Kasztner, who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann and other senior SS officers in Budapest in 1944 to try to save at least some Hungarian Jews from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In less than two months beginning in mid-May of 1944, around 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz on more than 145 trains in what proved to be one of the most efficient, if not the most efficient, operations of the Final Solution. In the midst of this ever-growing horror, a group of Jews, who had previously been involved in helping Jews from Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia and Yugoslavia find a precarious shelter in Hungary, now tried desperately to devise some last-ditch rescue operations.
Kasztner, a Zionist journalist from the Transylvanian city of Cluj, was the most prominent member of what was called the Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee. It must be emphasized that he did not belong to any official body designated or appointed by the Germans. As it happened, there were Nazis in Budapest in 1944 who, for reasons of their own, were willing to engage in negotiations to barter some Jews — a minimal amount to be sure — for cash, trucks, and/or other critically needed consumer goods.
To make a long and extremely complex story short, Kasztner bargained for the lives of more than 1,600 Jews at a cost of $1,000 a head. On June 30, 1944, they left Budapest on a train supposedly bound for freedom.
In his 1946 report about the work of the Budapest Jewish Rescue Committee, Kasztner referred to the train as “a Noah’s Ark.” The passengers, chosen by various members of the committee, included wealthy Jews who purchased places on the train for themselves and their families, but who also paid for the passage of Jews who did not have such resources at their disposal; the vehemently anti-Zionist Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum from the town of Satu Mare, or, in Yiddish, Satmar, and other ultra-Orthodox Jews; members of the Hungarian indigenous mildly reformist Neolog movement; Polish, Slovak and Yugoslav refugees; Zionists from across the political spectrum, among them members of different youth movements; Jewish orphans; and a category Kasztner referred to as “the spiritual Elite of the Hungarian Jewry.”
The passengers also included Kasztner’s wife, mother, brother, father-in-law, and other members of his family. A substantial number were from Kasztner’s hometown of Cluj. At the Hungarian-Austrian border, the train was diverted to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
Kasztner himself remained behind, negotiating feverishly with Eichmann and several of his aides, including an SS officer named Kurt Becher with whom Kasztner developed a close, some would say insidious, relationship. Together with Becher, Kasztner traveled to Switzerland several times to meet with representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Roosevelt administration’s War Refugee Board. On Aug. 21, 1944, 318 of the so-called “Kasztner Jews” arrived in Switzerland from Bergen-Belsen, and 1,368 followed on Dec. 7 of that year.
Oskar Schindler, it should be remembered, has been lionized for saving around 1,200 Jews. Rezső Kasztner enabled 1,686 Jews to reach Switzerland rather than perish in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Kasztner was also instrumental in having between 18,000 and 20,000 Hungarian Jews sent to the Strasshof concentration camp near Vienna rather than Auschwitz. Most of these survived. And in early April 1945, Kasztner accompanied Becher to Bergen-Belsen where Becher literally compelled SS Commandant Josef Kramer to hand that camp over to the British rather than simply killing all its remaining inmates.
And yet Kasztner was vilified for years as a collaborator, accused of rescuing the few at the expense of the many. He immigrated to Israel in 1947, becoming a government official there. In 1952 one Malkiel Grünwald published a pamphlet depicting Kasztner as a traitor. The Israeli government sued Grünwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf, with catastrophic consequences.
At trial in Jerusalem District Court, Kasztner was denounced for failing to warn the doomed Jews of Hungary of what he knew to be their fate, thereby not giving them the opportunity to try to save themselves. Moreover, the charge that he was an accomplice of the Germans was intensified by the revelation that he had given testimony after the war on behalf of some of the SS men such as the aforementioned Becher with whom he had, depending on one’s perspective, either worked or collaborated. Following a lengthy, highly sensational trial, Judge Benyamin Halevy found for the defendant in the civil defamation case, concluding famously that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.”
Kasztner, who had been responsible for saving literally thousands of Jews, now became a virtual pariah in Israeli society. By the time the Israel Supreme Court reversed Halevy’s verdict in January of 1958, Kasztner had been assassinated in front of his home.
In his devastating 1961 book “Perfidy,” Ben Hecht called Kasztner “a remarkable monster” and a “sad, foolish and tormented penny-Napoleon from [C]luj.” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel has said that, “I followed his trial and I think he wanted to help but he chose the wrong method.” On the other hand, the late Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, chairman of Yad Vashem’s board and a former Israeli Minister of Justice who survived the Holocaust in the Budapest Ghetto, told the Associated Press in 2007, “There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kasztner.”
This column is not meant to be a defense of Rezső Kasztner. Nor is it an indictment. I, who was born three years after the end of World War II, would not presume to pronounce a judgment of any kind on Kasztner, except to commend, for those who want to delve more deeply into this chapter of Holocaust history, historian Yehuda Bauer’s “Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945” (Yale University Press, 1994); “Kasztner’s Train,” by Anna Porter (Walker & Co., New York, 2007); “The Man Who Was Murdered Twice, The Life, Trial and Death of Israel Kasztner,” by Yechiam Weitz (Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2011); and Gaylen Ross’s remarkable 2009 documentary film, “Killing Kasztner.”
Perhaps the most any of us who were not there can do is to try to understand.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)