In March 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary, installed a collaborationist government, and launched a campaign of terror against the country’s 762,000 Jews. Adolf Eichmann was sent with a team of 150-200 SS personnel to implement the ghetto concentration, deportation, and extermination of the victims.
Eichmann was largely successful in carrying out his evil task. With the support of the Hungarian regime, he was able to round up the Jews in the Hungarian provinces and deport them to Auschwitz in record time. But for outside intervention, he would have extended his campaign to the Jewish population of Budapest, and Hungarian Jewry would have been eradicated by the end of July 1944.
Throughout the Holocaust in Hungary, the SS conducted “rescue negotiations” with a Jewish rescue committee led by Rezső Kasztner. The talks – which also involved an offer to trade a million Jews for trucks and other goods from the West (the “Goods for Blood” offer) – led to the eventual release of a train carrying 1,684 people (the so-called “Kasztner Train”).
Kasztner, who was assassinated in Israel after a criminal libel trial known as the “Kasztner Trial,” has been hailed by some as a hero (for arranging the release of the train), and condemned by Holocaust survivors and others as a Nazi collaborator (for his alleged complicity with Eichmann in deporting Jews to Auschwitz).
My book Kasztner’s Crime (Transaction Publishers, 2016) uses Kasztner’s own words and other evidence to prove his guilt. It vindicates the Hungarian Holocaust survivors who spoke out against Kasztner. That Kasztner’s supporters would be unhappy with my conclusions was to be expected. One of them, Paul Sanders, has penned a 3,000-word blog post attacking the book. He would have won my respect if he had produced new arguments or offered new evidence against my findings, but he has done neither. His post is, alas, an extremely misleading one.
In his blog post and in a previous journal article, Sanders – who teaches “leadership,” “international marketing,” and similar subjects at a business school, and who has published no original research on the Kasztner affair – is pleased to present himself as an expert on the historiography of this subject. In his post he boasts of “absorbing all the relevant published material and doing archival work.”
Such overconfidence is odd, coming as it does from someone who sent me an unsolicited email last September confessing that he had not used any Hebrew publications and had never even consulted the records of the Kasztner Trial, the single most important source for understanding the controversy. Given the shortcomings of his own research, why does Sanders consider himself competent to assess the efforts of others who really have done the hard work of reading the published material, trial transcripts, and archival documents?
Sanders accuses me of making grave omissions. His charges are all false.
Sanders cites an “incontestable fact that has no place in Bogdanor’s interpretation.” The fact that “has no place” in my book is “Hungarian collaboration, arguably the key for a correct understanding of the infernal speed of the Hungarian chapter of the Holocaust.” This is a serious charge: do I really ignore Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis?
Anyone who spends a moment checking my book can answer that question. I name “virulent antisemites” in the Hungarian quisling government who became “the chief Hungarian tormentors and destroyers of the Jews” (p. 18). On the same page, I mention “the eager support of the new regime” in Hungary for the Final Solution.
Further on, I state that “victims in the ghettos were committing suicide after torture” by Hungarian gendarmes (p. 31). And on the same page: “Eichmann was expected to deport over three-quarters of a million people to their deaths. Such an operation could only be completed with the full support of Hungary’s Interior Ministry, which supplied a force of twenty thousand gendarmes to carry out the segregation, expropriation, concentration, and expulsion of the victims.”
After detailing Hungarian collaboration throughout the book, I conclude that it was not only the Nazis but also Hungarian antisemites who “perpetrated the degradation, torture, and massacre of Hungary’s Jews” (p. 293).
The Strasshof Operation
Sanders criticises my book’s “key omission,” namely “inadequate contextualisation of several transports of at least 15,000 Jews from the Hungarian provinces to Strasshof, a labour camp outside Vienna.” In truth, my book devotes three whole chapters to the Strasshof deportations and to Kasztner’s role in them.
Sanders pretends that I ignore the letter of Eichmann’s superior Ernst Kaltenbrunner informing the mayor of Vienna of the impending transports. Actually, the letter is quoted at length in my book (pp. 122-3). It is central to the case that Kasztner was not the initiator of the Strasshof deportations, which were a Nazi operation from start to finish.
In his blog post, Sanders does not quote from the Kaltenbrunner letter. The reason is obvious: the text of this document flatly contradicts his assertion that in this operation the Nazis were “dispatching labourers together with their families to camps where they might survive the war together.” As Kaltenbrunner made clear, the women and children among the Strasshof deportees were to be held “in readiness for special action [Sonderaktion],” a Nazi euphemism for extermination. As for the deportees able to work, they could be “removed at any time” to suffer the same fate.
For Sanders, the idea of including Jews unable to work in transports arranged for purposes of slave labour must have been “planted” in the heads of the Nazis by someone on the Jewish side, meaning Kasztner. My critic seems to believe that it was Kasztner who gave orders to Eichmann, who imposed these orders on his superior Kaltenbrunner.
Besides my critic’s failure to offer a shred of evidence in support of his outlandish hypothesis, it is an incontestable fact that the Nazis routinely deported Jewish women and children alongside Jewish men they intended to exploit as slaves. At the “selection” in Auschwitz, some of those fit for work were temporarily spared for that purpose, while everyone else was sent to the gas chambers.
The Deception of Holocaust Victims
One of the central conclusions of Kasztner’s Crime is that Kasztner not only failed to warn Hungary’s Jews about their impending fate, but actively deceived a great many of them into boarding the trains to Auschwitz. He did this by instructing local Jewish leaders to tell their communities that the trains were taking them to fictitious locations inside Hungary.
Sanders tries to cast doubt on this finding, but his objections collapse upon inspection.
First, he alleges, “none of the testimonies cited by Bogdanor to incriminate Kasztner provide first-hand accounts of the latter’s purported disinformation.” This charge is untrue. My book quotes eye-witness testimony (pp. 189-90) from a Jewish Agency representative that Kasztner ordered the Jewish Council in Budapest to distribute the infamous “Waldsee postcards.”
The postcards had been written at gunpoint by Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz. These Holocaust victims – who were gassed immediately afterwards – were forced to tell their relatives still in Hungary that they were alive and well in “Waldsee,” a Nazi camouflage for the death camp.
The eye-witness in question, Moshe Krausz, testified under oath:
“When Kasztner arrived, I asked him: ‘Why did you order the Jewish Council to distribute the postcards? Have you read the contents? One can see that the contents of the postcards are each identical; that the people wrote them under duress; that the style is the same as well.’ … But Kasztner insisted that they had to be distributed.”
Relying on his own untruth about the lack of eye-witness testimony, Sanders is able to allege that “Bogdanor’s charge is by-and-large a charge of guilt by association, based on circumstantial evidence.” In fact, the sworn testimony of Krausz that Kasztner ordered the distribution of the postcards, and the sworn testimony of many survivors that they were deceived with Kasztner’s complicity, is confirmed by an important source: Kasztner himself.
In his book-length postwar report on his activities, Kasztner revealed the orders given to him by the SS. Eichmann, he explained, warned that any leak of the true fate of the deportees “would lead to murder in the ghetto” as the desperate victims struggled for places on the Kasztner Train. Eichmann, according to Kasztner, “wanted no fuss” during the deportations to Auschwitz. Otherwise it would be impossible to conceal the deal for the Kasztner Train from the Hungarian government.
Thus Eichmann told Kasztner that the precondition of their agreement was avoiding “murder in the ghetto” by guaranteeing “no fuss” as the Jewish masses were sent to their deaths.
And what was Kasztner’s response to this demand? He tells us. “Only a few people” in his home town of Kolozsvár were allowed to know the true purpose of the Kasztner Train: “The ‘rescue secret’ had to be kept.”
Keeping the “rescue secret” from the Jews in Kolozsvár meant deceiving those about to board the trains to Auschwitz about their fate; otherwise these Holocaust victims would have asked where the death trains were really taking them and why a small fraction of them needed to be “rescued” from that destination.
The Auschwitz survivors returning to Kolozsvár did not have to await Kasztner’s report to understand his role in deceiving them. They had witnessed his relatives and friends on the local Jewish Council urging the Jews in the ghetto to board the death trains obediently because they were to be “resettled” inside Hungary for “work” purposes. And they knew that Kasztner himself had been sent to the ghetto by the Nazis in order to contact this Jewish Council. Hence their campaign, after liberation, to prosecute Kasztner and his associates on the Kolozsvár Jewish Council for war crimes.
As Auschwitz survivor David Rosner testified, “The atmosphere towards Kasztner was very bad. If he had returned, he would have been killed in the street.” In the words of another survivor, Yosef Krausz, “if Kasztner had turned up in Kolozsvár at that point, there wouldn’t have been time to try him because he would have been torn to pieces on his way to the tribunal.”
Sanders does not think much of sworn testimony from Auschwitz survivors. His unfounded complaint about “false memory” echoes the words of the extreme right-wing US politician Patrick Buchanan, who mocked Jewish death camp survivors for their “group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics.” Such disdain for the survivors of genocide – whose accounts are corroborated by other eye-witness testimony and by Kasztner’s own words – sits ill with a commitment to serious research.
Disinformation Sent to the Outside World
Another core finding of my book is that Kasztner’s communications with the outside world during the Nazi occupation were disinformation calculated to deceive his contacts about the horrific fate of Hungarian Jewry. Attempting to rebut this claim, Sanders attacks my use of a letter from Kasztner to the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) on June 13, 1944.
The letter referred to an alleged Nazi promise, in connection with the Strasshof operation, to transfer Hungarian Jews to special camps for the purpose of letting them emigrate from Europe. In his letter, Kasztner misrepresented the supposed promise as the result of his negotiating efforts. He also stated – falsely – that many of the deported Hungarian Jews were alive and well in “Waldsee,” from which 750,000 postcards had allegedly been received. Kasztner, of course, knew full well that the Jewish deportees had been murdered in Auschwitz.
Sanders insinuates three criticisms: (i) Kasztner was not the author of the letter; (ii) perhaps Kasztner was the author, but he could not tell the truth about the deportations because the letter was written under duress; (iii) although Kasztner was writing under duress, he tried to tell the truth by hinting at the “unpleasant” fate of the Jewish deportees from Hungary. It will not escape anyone’s notice that Sanders blatantly contradicts himself here.
Point (i) – that Kasztner did not write the letter – can be dismissed. Other researchers who have discussed this document – such as Shlomo Aronson, Ester Farbstein, Ayala Nedivi, and Eli Reichenthal – also consider Kasztner to be the author. This is indeed obvious from its style and content. Several researchers, myself included, point out that an almost identical letter was sent at the same time by Joseph Blum, the JDC’s delegate in Budapest. If Blum unwittingly lent credence to the disinformation, its source must have been Kasztner. Blum was not negotiating with Eichmann; Kasztner was.
Attempting to defend his denial of Kasztner’s authorship, Sanders notes that the letter at one point mentioned Kasztner in the third person. But the letter also referred to Blum, the other sender, in the third person, so his argument evaporates.
Point (ii) – that Kasztner was writing under duress – is examined in my book. There I explain that Kasztner had already acquiesced in SS control over his committee’s communications with the outside world. If he had really wanted to send his foreign contacts accurate information about the Holocaust in Hungary, he could have done so via neutral diplomats in Budapest.
As for point (iii) – that Kasztner hinted about the “unpleasant” fate of the deportees – the letter’s content precisely matched the Nazi propaganda line at the time: Hungarian Jews were being deported in terrible circumstances, but they were nevertheless being kept alive. Hence the letter’s reference to the fake destination of Waldsee and the imaginary 750,000 postcards received from deported Hungarian Jews.
If there is any remaining doubt that Kasztner’s message of June 13, 1944 was Nazi disinformation, my book also cites another letter sent eleven days later, which again claimed that deported Hungarian Jews were destined for Waldsee, where they were alive and well. And, as mentioned above, my book quotes eye-witness testimony that Kasztner ordered the Jewish Council in Budapest to distribute the Waldsee postcards received from the SS.
A Final Thought
The controversy about Kasztner’s role during the Holocaust in Hungary is entrenched and emotional. Those who enter this field should make the greatest possible effort to ascertain the facts and to consult as many of the sources as possible. Neglecting this task and then pretending to be competent to assess the research of others is not at all constructive. It is equally unhelpful to attack people by seriously misrepresenting their work.
I encourage Paul Sanders to consult the records of the Kasztner Trial, as he has not so far done, and to familiarise himself with the other basic sources on the subject. Then he will be able to make a useful contribution to much-needed further debate on this tragedy.