Some ten years ago, I was sent to Brighton by the Shoah Foundation to interview Professor Ladislaus Löb of Sussex University. I knew Laci Löb professionally, and had always assumed that he was Swiss. Only during the course of the interview did it emerge that he had been born the son of Hungarian Jews in Kolozsvár (Cluj), capital of Transylvania, which became part of Romania in 1918 and was returned to Hungary by Hitler in 1940.
At the age of 11, in 1944, his life was saved when he and his father boarded the legendary train organised by Rudolf Kastner (Rezsö Kasztner), a prominent figure in Hungarian Jewry, in which some 1,670 Jews travelled from Budapest to safety in Switzerland, spending several months in a compound for special prisoners at Bergen-Belsen camp en route. Kastner had successfully negotiated this rescue with Adolf Eichmann; for this he was assassinated in Israel in 1957, after having been vilified as a collaborator with the Nazis. Now, Ladislaus Löb has written a book about his experiences: Dealing with Satan: Rezsö Kasztner’s Daring Rescue Mission (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008, £18.99), which mounts a stout defence of Kastner against the charges levelled against him.
The Holocaust came late to Hungary, with the German occupation of their erstwhile ally in March 1944. But in the months before their eviction by the Red Army in January 1945, the Germans used the techniques of extermination they had perfected to kill some 450,000 Hungarian Jews. In this desperate situation, Kastner set up the Vaada, an organisation to rescue Jews, in Budapest. Considering resistance futile and assistance from outside unlikely, Kastner opted to negotiate – with remarkable audacity, as he held no bargaining cards in his hand at all and could himself have been deported at any moment.
But he succeeded in spinning out negotiations with Eichmann and other senior SS officers for months, the trainload of Jews released to Switzerland being only the most visible evidence of his efforts. Löb claims that Kastner’s negotiating tactics also helped to protect the Jews in the Budapest ghetto from deportation, saved children and the elderly from murderous forced marches from Budapest towards Austria, and even that he influenced Himmler’s decisions to terminate the extermination programme in late 1944 and to hand over Theresienstadt and Belsen to the Allies without fighting. These claims are disputable, but Kastner probably saved more Jewish lives during the Holocaust than did any other Jew.
Kastner played on the Nazis’ greed and, towards the war’s end, on their need for testimony to their lenient behaviour towards Jews. The Vaada raised 5 million Swiss francs, the ransom demanded by the Germans for the Jews on the train, by selling 150 places on it to rich Jews still in possession of their property. But mostly the Vaada had to bargain with imaginary assets. Joel Brand, one of Kastner’s associates, was sent to the Middle East with Himmler’s offer to spare a million Jews if the Western Allies provided the Germans with 10,000 lorries for use on the Eastern Front. Brand was arrested by the British and his mission failed. Kastner realised that the Allies would reject the Nazi offer, but hoped that they would make a show of interest, so as to drag the process out and delay the deportations.
The transparent bad faith of the Germans gave him something with which to flesh out his bluff: he was able to lay the blame for the failure of Brand’s mission on Eichmann by pointing out that he had already sent the Jews intended for exchange to Auschwitz. Hence the importance of the train to Switzerland: only if the Germans gave a tangible token that they were negotiating in good faith, argued Kastner, could they have any hope of obtaining money from ‘world Jewry’ or concessions from the Allies. On this frail basis of bluff and deception, Kastner built up a position in which he worked closely with SS-Obersturmbannführer Kurt Becher, travelled freely around Germany, crossed the Swiss border with the train from Bergen-Belsen and returned, and even went to Berlin for a meeting with Himmler (which never took place). It was a performance of staggering audacity and steely nerves.
But one needs a long spoon to sup with the devil. Post-war Israel was psychologically unprepared to accept the moral compromises necessitated by attempts to negotiate with the Nazis. Israelis preferred to see the Holocaust in black-and-white terms, with the evil of Nazism opposed by heroic figures like those of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; they saw Israeli society as creating a new kind of Jew - the sabra - tough, self-reliant and capable of striking back at any enemy, in contrast to the image of the European ‘ghetto Jew’ - weak and passive, who had gone ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ in the Holocaust.
In this scenario, even when it came to saving Jewish lives, those who opted for negotiation rather than resistance became associated with the figure of the grovelling, conniving Jew who had half-collaborated in his own extermination, a standpoint advanced with more force than fairness by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Even Yiddish, the language of Jewish Eastern Europe, was tainted with inferiority to Hebrew: when Rozka Korczak, a resistance heroine from Vilna, spoke Yiddish at a Histadrut convention soon after her arrival in Palestine in late 1944, David Ben-Gurion complained that ‘Comrade Refugee’ was speaking a ‘foreign language’.
Consequently, when Malchiel Gruenwald, an embittered eccentric from Jerusalem, used his newsletter to launch a wild and highly coloured attack on Kastner in 1952, attitudes to Kastner’s rescue operation were far less favourable than would be the case today. Kastner felt obliged to sue Gruenwald for libel, since the charges levelled against him were extremely serious; worse still, he held an important position in a government ministry, so the attack could be extended to the entire Mapai-led government and had, Attorney-General Chaim Cohn believed, to be refuted in open court.
Gruenwald alleged that Kastner had profited from his collaboration with the Nazis, both financially and through saving members of his own family, and that he bore indirect responsibility for the murder of Hungary’s Jews. Judge Halevy, who presided over the trial that commenced in 1954, listed Gruenwald’s accusations under four headings: collaboration with the Nazis; ‘indirect murder’; partnership in theft with a Nazi, Kurt Becher; and saving that Nazi from punishment after the war. Kastner proved to be his own worst enemy, for he had indeed travelled to Nuremberg and provided an affidavit in Becher’s favour; his reasons for doing so, however, were not financial, as Gruenwald alleged, since Kastner lived and died a poor man.
But when Shmuel Tamir, Gruenwald’s able and unscrupulous lawyer, caught Kastner out in an ill-judged attempt to fudge the truth about his intervention on Becher’s behalf, Kastner’s credibility began to unravel; he effectively became the defendant in the case. Tamir, allowed remarkable latitude by the indulgent Judge Halevy, went on to exploit the fact that Kastner had allocated places on the train to Switzerland to members of his family, to people from his hometown of Kolozsvár and to leading Hungarian Zionists. He alleged that Kastner had indeed used the negotiations with Eichmann for his own selfish ends and that, by failing to warn Hungary’s Jews about their impending fate, he had colluded in their murder in order to save a small number of those close to him. (How Kastner might have done more to save those deported remained obscure.)
In what seems today a seriously flawed judgment, Halevy found that three of the four charges levelled at Kastner by Gruenwald had been substantiated, and in relation to the fourth imposed the derisory fine of one Israeli pound on Gruenwald. Kastner had, said Halevy, in a remarkable departure from the normal language of legal verdicts, ‘sold his soul to Satan’. Though Kastner was subsequently cleared of most of the accusations against him on appeal to the Supreme Court, the damage had been done. On the night of 3 March 1957, he was shot, and died three days later. Three suspects with extreme right-wing connections were convicted of the murder, but released in 1963.
Kastner’s murder was not the first of its kind. In June 1924, Jacob de Hahn, a Dutch Jew and poet who was friendly with Arabs (especially Arab boys), was shot in Jerusalem by political activists, for whom he epitomised the ignoble ‘Diaspora Jew’, the antithesis of the new Zionist pioneer. The murder inspired a gripping novel by the German-Jewish writer Arnold Zweig, De Vriendt kehrt heim (De Vriendt Goes Home, 1932). In June 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff, a senior Jewish Agency official involved with the haavara (transfer) agreement with Nazi Germany, by which German Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine while economic benefits accrued to the Reich, was assassinated in Tel Aviv, presumably by right-wing activists. And we are still living with the consequences of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a right-wing fanatic.