From May to July 1944, the Nazis and their local accomplices in Hungary deported hundreds of thousands of Jews to a horrible death in Auschwitz. Not long before, the head of the Rescue Committee in Budapest, Rezső Kasztner (AKA Rudolf Kastner, Israel Kastner), had made a deal with Adolf Eichmann’s SS unit.
Under the initial terms of the deal, several hundred individuals were to be allowed out of the country. The questions that have divided Jewish opinion ever since are: Was Kasztner expected to obey the Nazis as part of the deal? Or was he permitted to work against the Nazis while they made concessions to him?
My book KASZTNER’S CRIME shows that the head of the Rescue Committee agreed to obey the Nazis. He didn’t just refuse to warn the Jewish victims about their impending fate; he helped to deceive many of them into boarding the death trains. He didn’t just fail to inform his Jewish contacts abroad; he sent them disinformation as the bloodbath was taking place.
For several months, Thomas Komoly, nephew of the chairman of Kasztner’s Committee, has been waging a vitriolic online campaign against KASZTNER’S CRIME and against me personally. Here I will respond only to his longest attack on the book and not to his personal insults.
Komoly could have addressed the mass of evidence I offered. This would have meant acknowledging the Auschwitz survivors who spoke out against Kasztner, as well as the man’s own statements proving his guilt. Sadly, Komoly chose the easier path: ignoring the Auschwitz survivors and Kasztner’s own words while reciting the same old discredited talking points in Kasztner’s favour.
Komoly, like all too many Kasztner campaigners, attributes vast successes to his hero without any basis in fact. He even revives Kasztner’s discredited fiction about the “rescue” of “20,000 Hungarian Jews.” He is referring to 15,000 deportees who were sent to Austria rather than to Poland. That these Jews were to be used as slave labour pending their extermination; that a quarter of them died within a year; and that Kasztner’s claim to have “rescued” them was shattered at the Nuremberg Trials, the Kasztner Trial, and the Eichmann Trial – none of this seems to matter to him.
Komoly again manipulates facts by invoking “30,000 adults placed in protected houses by the Committee.” Actually, the Jews in the protected houses were rescued at the initiative of Zionist official Moshe Krausz, who did not belong to the Committee and who condemned Kasztner as a collaborator.
Komoly’s uncle Ottó, rightly honoured for sheltering 5-6,000 children in Budapest from the fascist Arrow Cross, acted in late 1944, months after the deportations from the Hungarian provinces to Auschwitz had ceased; and not even Kasztner claimed to have taken part in this genuine rescue operation.
Many of Komoly’s charges against me are so obviously false that no-one who reads KASZTNER’S CRIME will take them seriously. He accuses me of ignoring all Hungarian scholarly writings, yet anyone who consults my endnotes and bibliography will see that I cite Hungarian historians throughout the book. These include Randolph L. Braham, widely acknowledged as the world authority on the Hungarian Holocaust; Szabolcs Szita, Director of the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest; Gábor Kádár, former Senior Historian of the Hungarian Jewish Archives in Budapest; and Zoltán Vagi, a former Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Komoly’s assertions are contradicted by these historians. He may reject as “nonsense” the idea that the Rescue Committee became a client institution under SS protection, but Braham details the “entrapment” of the Kasztner group by the SS (“Rescue Operations in Hungary: Myths and Realities,” Yad Vashem Studies, Vol. 32, 2004, pp. 43-8), and Szita states that Eichmann had “members of the Rescue Committee under his thumb” in a situation of “increasing collaboration” (TRADING IN LIVES?, Central European University Press, 2005, p. 88).
WHAT INFORMATION DID THE VICTIMS HAVE?
Hungarian Jews, says Komoly, “were fully aware that ‘deportation’ was synonymous with a death sentence.” His evidence for this is paper-thin.
1. He invokes news broadcasts from the BBC announcing the realities of Hitler’s Final Solution. But it’s now well established that the BBC’s Hungarian Service suppressed the news of the Holocaust. In any case, as soon as the Nazis occupied Hungary, they ordered the confiscation of all radios from Jews to prevent them from listening to the BBC, a crucial fact that Komoly doesn’t see fit to mention.
2. He refers to the pre-1944 visits to Budapest by Oskar Schindler and others. These visits (described in KASZTNER’s CRIME) couldn’t have alerted the Hungarian Jewish public to the dangers, since Kasztner and other leaders kept the information to themselves. Kasztner admitted as much during the Veesenmayer Trial at Nuremberg.
3. Other warnings mentioned by Komoly – such as the leaflets dropped on Budapest by the Allies on July 2, 1944 (also described in KASZTNER’s CRIME) – came when the deportation of 437,000 Jews from the Hungarian provinces was almost complete, and were too late to help those murdered by the Nazis.
4. Komoly misrepresents the late Elie Wiesel. Far from asserting that Hungary’s Jews knew what would befall them, as Komoly suggests, Wiesel insisted throughout his life that they were kept in the dark about the genocidal plans of the Nazis. In his many books, essays and interviews, Wiesel repeatedly explained that “we didn’t even know what the word ‘Auschwitz’ meant.”
But never mind my critic’s imprecision with the truth; compare his distortions with a typical testimony from the Kasztner Trial in Israel. At that trial, Irena Hirsch of the Kolozsvár Ghetto was one of many death camp survivors who described conditions before their deportation to Auschwitz. Asked if the Jews had any information about Auschwitz before boarding the death trains, she responded: “No… all we were told was that they were taking families [to Kenyérmező] together to do agricultural work.”
Witnesses who gave exactly the same testimony included Levi Blum, Jacob Freifeld, Paul Gross, David Rosner, and Yechiel Shmueli from the Kolozsvár Ghetto; Yosef Katz and Eliezer Rosenthal from the Nagyvárad Ghetto; and others. They are among numerous Auschwitz survivors quoted at length in KASZTNER’S CRIME.
Even witnesses who avoided deportation to Auschwitz agreed with their statements: “We didn’t know where the rest of the deportees were going,” declared Rabbi Meir Weiss from the Debrecen Ghetto, “It definitely didn’t even cross our minds that our community was being sent to its extermination.”
But suppose that Komoly insists on disregarding the Auschwitz survivors’ accounts and prefers to keep building on his own pseudo-factual house of cards. Even then his argument collapses, for Kasztner himself stated that the victims in Hungary’s ghettos had no information about the Nazi extermination plan.
In a letter dated July 12, 1944, just days after the suspension of the deportations, Kasztner admitted: “the hundreds of thousands went to Auschwitz in such a way that they were unaware until the last moment of what it meant and what was going on.” And in his postwar report, issued in 1946, Kasztner confessed: “In each ghetto… they were convinced until the very last moment that the transports would not cross the country’s borders.”
All of this evidence – the testimony of the victims and Kasztner’s statements alike – substantiates Kasztner’s admission to Himmler’s envoy Kurt Becher on July 15, 1944: “Our people went into the wagons like cattle because we trusted in the success of the negotiations [with the SS] and failed to tell them the terrible fate awaiting them.”
HOW DID KASZTNER BETRAY THE JEWISH PEOPLE?
In a number of ghettos, the Jews were “informed” that they were being sent to work sites inside Hungary, such as the fictitious town of “Kenyérmező.” Or they received postcards from Hungarian Jewish deportees supposedly working in “Waldsee” in Germany. The victims had been forced to write the postcards before being sent to the gas chambers.
Moshe Krausz was a Budapest representative of the Jewish Agency and a forgotten Holocaust rescuer who helped to save scores of thousands of lives. During the Kasztner Trial, he declared under oath: “I was in the Judenrat office and they showed me the postcards. They said that Kasztner had brought them from the Germans. I read a few, then Kasztner came in… Kasztner insisted that they had to be distributed.”
At the same time, Kasztner was telling people face-to-face that hundreds of thousands of Jews sent to Auschwitz were alive and well and awaiting his “rescue” efforts – this when Eichmann himself was boasting to him that the deportees had been murdered.
Yoel Palgi was a Zionist paratrooper sent from the Land of Israel to Hungary and one of the comrades of Hannah Szenes. He recalled what he heard in person from Kasztner on the morning of June 21 or 22, 1944: tens or hundreds of thousands of deportees were alive in the camps, according to Kasztner, because the order to kill them had not been given; “Eichmann promised that for the time being they wouldn’t destroy any Jews…”
But suppose that Komoly dismisses these eye-witness accounts, just as he “overlooks” the testimony of Hungarian death camp survivors. His position is still untenable, for Kasztner confirmed what the survivors had to say about his role in the Nazi deception.
In a letter he sent to a Jewish contact in Switzerland on June 24, 1944, Kasztner pretended that the deportees to Auschwitz had been resettled in Waldsee: “The flow of trains to Auschwitz could be neither halted nor contained. Many of the deportees who were sent to work have already given signs of life. All these cards are dated from Waldsee and report that those concerned are fine.”
For good measure, Kasztner added: “If there was anything humane at all to be said about the handling of the deportation, it was paradoxically always to be attributed to the SS.”
COULD ANY OF THE JEWS HAVE BEEN SAVED?
Komoly’s article devotes a lot of space to the impossibility of saving any Jews apart from the beneficiaries of Kasztner’s deal with Eichmann. Even if this were accurate – and it is not – it would be no excuse for Kasztner’s role in the Nazi deception about their horrible fate.
“At which point,” asks Komoly, “does Mr Bogdanor suggest we should have started resisting? … Sophistry will not turn a Hungarian Jewish revolt into reality.” The answer, as he knows, is that at no point does KASZTNER’S CRIME “suggest” that Hungarian Jews should have started resisting. Quite the contrary: my book explicitly denies that this was a realistic option. Komoly’s long discourse on the futility of a Jewish revolt in Hungary attributes to me a view that I flatly rejected. His polemical trick is a simple one, but it has to be carefully watched.
On the separate issue of opportunities to escape from areas close to the border, KASZTNER’S CRIME presents both documentary evidence and the testimonies of death camp survivors. Again, Komoly contradicts the words of those who experienced the torments of Auschwitz and who knew the situation in the provincial ghettos first-hand.
Irena Hirsch from Kolozsvár recalled that “when the ghetto was bombed everything was in chaos and then they could have escaped.” Paul Gross from the same ghetto estimated that “more than half” of the town’s Jews could have escaped across the Romanian border, a few kilometres away, “if we had known that we were being sent to Auschwitz for extermination.” And Eliezer Rosenthal from Nagyvárad explained that there was a sewer running through his ghetto and that “many thousands could have escaped this way because the sewer exit was in the direction of the forest” next to the Romanian border.
But suppose that Komoly again dismisses the testimonies of Auschwitz survivors, claiming that they were unimportant people (this was Kasztner’s reaction at the Kasztner Trial) or that they had no idea of what they were talking about. Even this desperate move won’t save his case, for Kasztner himself confirmed what they had to say.
On May 3, 1944 – just as the ghetto drive in the region was starting – Kasztner visited Kolozsvár with Nazi permission. There he met Eichmann’s officer Dieter Wisliceny, the butcher of the Jews of Greece and Slovakia. Wisliceny ordered him to sever the escape route already in operation. As Kasztner later testified, “[Wisliceny] said that he knew about the flight, that orders had been given to increase the number of guards, and that I must warn my friends to look for safer ways.”
Kasztner did as he was told: he passed Wisliceny’s disinformation to the local Jewish leaders. As a result, organised escapes from Kolozsvár came to a halt.
It would seem that in his apologetics for Kasztner, Komoly must not only stoop to burying the memories of Auschwitz survivors, but also accuse Kasztner himself of not knowing about escape opportunities he openly admitted to sabotaging on the orders of the SS.
A FINAL THOUGHT
In this article, I’ve tried to introduce readers to some of the victims who spoke during the Kasztner Trial about their deportation to Auschwitz. Kasztner’s supporters may be determined to bury the memory of their experiences, but such efforts will not succeed. Nor will they be able to make credible excuses for Kasztner by denying facts that Kasztner himself repeatedly admitted to be true.
Permit me to conclude with a comment on the most shocking statement in Komoly’s article. “Nobody,” he says, “who has not participated and suffered through those months and years, or lost substantial parts of their family, has any right to pontificate on the matter, whatever their credentials may be, or the amount of paperwork they may have sifted.”
As it happens, my family – like the vast majority of European Jewish families – fell victim to the Holocaust, so I pass my critic’s test for Jews allowed to “pontificate on the matter.” In any case, his attempt to suppress legitimate inquiry is unacceptable.
According to Komoly, no matter how much proof of Kasztner’s guilt is uncovered; no matter how many Auschwitz survivors from Hungary spoke out against Kasztner; no matter what admissions Kasztner himself made – there is no right to make the slightest criticism of him. Any Jew who affirms that the death camp survivors were telling the truth should be silenced, so that the victims’ tears and suffering can be obliterated by campaigners with a strong vested interest in Kasztner’s rehabilitation.
Such tactics are no service to the Jewish people. With all due humility I suggest that it is a mitzvah to keep in our hearts and memories the words of the death camp survivors who testified at the Kasztner Trial. These are people who told the truth about the Hungarian Shoah, and who are no longer here to stand up for themselves.