The blog published in The Times of Israel by Paul Bogdanor requires a rather more measured answer than either his book or his blog provides.
Bogdanor tries, rather desperately, to finish what was started all those years ago by Melchior Gruenwald, namely the character assassination of a man and his associates who at a crucial and tragic time of Jewish history were among the very few who stood in the face of the forces released from hell.
Mr Bogdanor does not make the slightest attempt to understand the conditions in Hungary in 1944. His omission is particularly inexcusable as he declares himself a journalist and researcher, but his attempts to interpret his research are so one sided as to remove all credibility from them. To interpret Kasztner’s every action as being against his community and assisting the murderers cannot pass any standard of credibility. Even if Kasztner had wanted to do this, there were two members of the committee on which he served who were, and are, justly credited with unimpeachable integrity namely Otto Komoly (cruelly murdered by the Hungarians, whom Bogdanor dismisses as just saving 6000 orphans) and Andras Biss whom he hardly mentions, who would have stopped Kasztner if his actions had been contrary to their aim of saving lives. Instead they both, particularly Otto, supported him and cooperated with what he did. Mr Bogdanor, apart from claiming infallibility (“anybody who has read my book”) even suggests that Kasztner used aliases (a.k.a.) overlooking that he was born in a multilingual city where his parents named him farsightedly “Rezso Rudolf Izrael”.
I was a precocious teenager in 1944 (you grew up quickly in those days), our lives were saved by a Komoly/Kasztner action Bogdanor doe not like to talk about, namely removal from one of the “intermediate” camps to the special camp at Kolumbusz-Street in Budapest where there were, after the train left, some 800 inmates saved from all over Hungary and from all walks of life. There I saw Kasztner sometimes with Komoly and sometimes meeting him in the camp – both completely exhausted and haggard. Working in the kitchen I took them cups of tea or ersatz coffee and still remember the shaking hands with which they raised the cups. They gave their all and knew even a thousandfold was not enough.
Hungarian Jewry had a rude awakening on March 19th 1944 when the Germans occupied the country and within days their intentions with the Jews was clear (in fact on that very Sunday from a first floor window in Lendvai-Street I saw Ferenc Chorin taken away by the Gestapo). We were all in shock and did not know what to do. The Defence Committee turned out to be the only ones who had any idea at all. They realised that resistance was futile and impossible; to arrange escape for 850,000 even more impossible. They had to negotiate and negotiate they did, necessarily from an inferior position. Whatever they achieved was a bonus. Inevitably there had to be mistakes, inevitably they had to give in., but it was the only game in town. Wallenberg was not even in Hungary, Lutz, the Vatican envoys, the Spaniards were sitting in their embassies. Even Perlasca was just an Italian in Budapest. Bogdanor’s favourite, Krausz, was playing game with the visas to Palestine he controlled, and it is no accident that the Jewish Agency summarily dismissed him at the end of the war – a dismissal he did not contest.
Most Jews did not believe the deportations would start in Hungary, felt the Hungarian population would not stand for it. They were wrong, but when the deportations did start we knew where they were going, although there were still those who decided not to want to believe it. If we knew nothing else we knew that the U.K. Parliament observed a minute’s silence on 17th December 1942 for Jews murdered in Poland.
Bogdanor knows so little about Hungarian Jews that he thinks an order to hand in radios would mean all radios were handed in. One was most certainly left if not in every household than in every other. We listened to it and called it “Jewish Vitamins.” (All valuables were also to be handed in so where did all the jewellery Becher collected subsequently come from?)
Young men came to the ghetto and warned us, we tried to escape, paid money to “friends” for arrangements and were either let down or betrayed. Bogdanor makes great play of Kolozsvar Jews not escaping. He chooses to ignore the fact that they were well aware that 300,000 Jews were already murdered in Romania and did not want to jump from the frying pan into the fire. My wife’s uncle, Bela Nussbaum, lived in Nagyvarad, even closer to the border, owned a forest and a house over the border, went and came back having decided that the Romanians would first bleed him and then kill him. Whatever Kasztner did or did not say details were circulated by something Bogdanor does not seem to be familiar with “Jewish Osmosis”. Such details were available as e.g. Mengele’s experiments on twins – my Mother warned a neighbour with twin boys of the horrible probability. Bogdanor may be excused for believing that a Hungarian speaker in Hungary would accept the existence of a place named “Kenyermezo”. The handfuls of postcards were too ridiculous for words – all identical, no stamps, distributed by hand.
I know of two instances of possible resistance when an Ujpest tanner, Lajos Kaufer, made a wrong move and was shot dead by a Hungarian gendarme, the second, after the Kolumbusz-Street camp was converted (due to Otto Komoly’s efforts) into a Swiss Red Cross establishment with some 1300 inhabitants (in space for 900). One night armed men broke in demanding food and as one of our guards had a gun he shot one of the intruders. Within hours the camp was surrounded, we were driven to a nearby sports field and 1200 ended up on a death march to Austria.
Bogdanor blames Kasztner for the fate of the three emissaries from Palestine. They should, of course, never have been sent without consultation and certainly not led by an inexperienced, aspiring poetess who crossed the border alone and was immediately arrested. Knowing this why her companions followed (and left their radios at the border) is inexplicable. Even then Kasztner tried to save them by directing them to the SS where he had influence, away from the Hungarians where he did not and where neither would have survived.
Bogdanor does not suggest alternatives nor were there any the Defence Committee could have followed with more success.
Bogdanor names a list of sources and uses very carefully selected quotes out of context. The one he describes as the most prestigious, Prof. Braham, at a recent interview in Budapest was asked if the atrocities were known at the time, he answered “of course they were” and is reported to have looked astonished that such a question could even be asked. In his book he names Zsuzsa Kasztner (Rezso’s daughter) as a source eliciting the question “what could she have said against her father?”. Unsurprisingly she is not quoted. Similarly Bogdanor has the temerity of naming Prof Ladislaus Loeb (author of “Dealing with Satan”) as a source, again no quotation and Prof Loeb went on record with a most damning comment on the book on Amazon.
I am a survivor and still have a strong feeling of guilt: why and what for was I saved and not my friends, my relatives who were much worthier than I am. I do believe most survivors have such a feeling. Unfortunately when they are pointed to another Jew to whom this guilt can be transferred it takes a strong character to withstand the temptation. Kasztner became such a Jew whom it was easy to blame and but for whom all those others would still be alive. I sometimes wish I could make myself belong to that group – I would have an easier life. It is perhaps for this reason that I should very much like to talk to the survivors who provided Bogdanor with such convenient testimony.
Bogdanor blames Kasztner for saving Becher. This shows ignorance of the standards Hungarian Jewry observed. In December 1944 my family (four of us) were arrested by the Arrowcross, taken to their headquarters and eventually handed to a couple of armed youths who were told to do what they wanted with us during the day, but bring us that night to the “usual place” we knew to be the Danube bank to be shot into the icy waters. My Father spent seven hours talking to the leading youth promising to help him if he spared us. Late at night they delivered us to the U.S. Embassy occupied by the Swiss. In March 1945 I saw the youth sitting at a desk in my Father’s factory. I rushed to ask him if he knew who the chap was. He confirmed that he did and I expressed surprise that he would employ such a person. My Father looked at me and said:”I gave him my word and I keep my word. I expect you to do likewise. Mr Bogdanor should note – this is how honourable people behave.
Bogdanor makes frequent references to the highly emotional and political trial where Kasztner was only a witness. It is to be noted that both Judge Halevy and “winning” lawyer Tamir end up as right wing members of parliament. Bogdanor tries to brush aside the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court in the cool light of day when judgement and detachment once again were possible, looking at the facts, the events and the testimonies overturned the lower court’s decision and wisely said:
“In this period (Kasztner) was motivated by the sole aim of saving Hungarian Jewry as a whole i.e. saving as many as he thought possible to save in the circumstances of time and place”
Who can do more?
The Supreme Court judgement should have finished the argument and Mr Bogdanor would do well to accept it and refrain from further calumny helping no one but himself.