Most misleading book about the Hungarian Shoa
There has been earlier valid criticism of Paul Bogdanor’s book: ‘KASZTNER’S CRIME’, and several hair-splitting responses to that by the author. Although Mr. Bogdanor may not be expecting people who were alive at the time of those events still to be capable of challenging him, I wish to do so.
Rudolf Kasztner, a Zionist activist during World War II, was one of the leaders of the Budapest Jewish Rescue Committee, which led negotiations with SS officials to rescue Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods and military equipment. In June 1944, the so-called Kasztner Train, with 1,684 Jews on board, departed Budapest for the safety of neutral Switzerland. Most historians have concluded that Kasztner’s negotiations saved another 20,000 Hungarian Jews. Kasztner was assassinated in Israel in 1957.
As a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, I give regular talks to schoolchildren on the period. My enduring interest in the Kasztner case is based on the fact that Otto Komoly, his colleague on the Jewish Rescue Committee, was my uncle, and that I have access to his wartime diary and have a soundly based understanding of the heroic work of the JRC . For this reason I was horrified to discover Bogdanor’s book, in which he accuses the Budapest Jewish Rescue Committee of collaborating with the SS. Although neither a journalist nor a historian, I take issue, in the strongest possible terms, with the selective way Bogdanor assembled his evidence of ‘guilt’; his naive portrayal of Hungarian Jewry as a potential source of resistance; the exaggerated importance he attributes to the Auschwitz Protocol; and his false assumption of an alternative to negotiations.
A TENDENTIOUS HANDLING OF THE MATERIAL
Mr Bogdanor would have been wise to heed the advice of Judit Molnár, a distinguished Hungarian historian that “the historian is not a judge, prosecutor or defence lawyer. His role is to get to know and analyse the events of a period of history … it is to be regretted that a number of essays, books come to conclusions that criticize or, on the contrary, overrate certain persons without taking into consideration, indeed, ignoring archival material that are indispensable for understanding certain events, for an objective assessment of certain individuals.”
Bogdanor’s book is biased, putting forward nefarious interpretations. It is tailored to prove what he had pre-determined was the truth, ignoring or glossing over evidence which does not fit his thesis, rather than taking into consideration all the available information. Examples of this bias can be found in the out of context partial use of references. I find it quite remarkable that the vast array of sources that Bogdanor quotes as evidence of Kasztner’s ‘guilt’, or to which he refers in his bibliography, are in reality mostly appreciative of Kasztner’s efforts. One of them, Egon Mayer, who was very close to events in Hungary, wrote that at “war’s end, the ransom negotiations successfully saved 1,648 deportees from Bergen-Belsen. They also saved about 18,000 deportees who were placed ‘on ice’ at the Strasshoff camp in Austria.” A Hungarian historian referenced by Bogdanor wrote that “ it is not easy to sum up Rudolf Kasztner’s life and activities… All in all, my opinion is that he brought a great sacrifice to the world. He was not a collaborator; he risked his life through his battles with Eichmann.”
Even more surprising is Bogdanor’s almost total lack of attempt to draw on Hungarian scholarly writing on the topic. The names of Mária Schmidt, László Veszprèmy, László Karsai, and others (some 40-50 works) are strangely absent, unjustifiably so given that most have been translated into English. (The translator he used for his Hebrew source material, Prof. Reichenthal, was fluent in Hungarian too). This glaring omission of crucial pro – Kasztner writings, can only be ascribed to abysmal ignorance and to cynical disregard of any contrary position, nowadays known as ‘confirmatory bias’.
As recently as last January Bogdanor replied to a historian who challenged his book in a review on these pages: “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.” Ironically, he couldn’t have formulated my criticism of his own book more aptly.
Other arguments he makes, such as the Jewish Rescue Committee having functioned as a client institution under SS protection, are plain nonsense. Do I take it that my uncle Otto, honoured by the State of Israel and by Bnei Brit and murdered by the Hungarian Nazis, was either a traitor or a fool? Bogdanor’s repeated rhetorical question as to how many Jews the Rescue Committee saved conveniently overlooks the 5-6,000 children and the 30,000 adults placed in protected houses by the Committee (a fact he then mentions on page 215 of his book). Finally, by dwelling on Kasztner’s affair with Hansi Brand, he is trying to insinuate that she was manipulated by him. In reality, however, Hansi was probably even more strong-minded than Kasztner and supported him, by suggesting stratagems that increased his leverage over Eichmann. He must have needed that support to have the incredible courage to meet repeatedly with the SS, and risk at any moment being shot, or thrown into the next Auschwitz bound wagon.
Presenting presumption and out of context interpretation as evidence is one of the regular features of this book. The absence of a mention of Strasshof or Kenyermezo in Otto Komoly’s appointments book is repeatedly used as evidence against Kasztner. Clearly, Otto Komoly used discretion in his entries in case his appointments book was found by the authorities – he also did not mention in it conversations with Hanna Szenes’s mother or the Vrba-Wetzler report.
In using as half his evidence records of the first (1954) court case in Israel, Bogdanor is following in the footsteps of Ben Hecht (‘Perfidy’, 1961), a right-wing Zionist. The right v. left struggle in Israel is well known and casts a long shadow, distorting many historical and present arguments. Kasztner’s condemnation (reversed by the Supreme Court after his murder) had much to do with Tamir (the lead lawyer against him) and Halevi (the judge) wishing and succeeding to attack Labour, then in government (later both achieving top positions therein). The battle continues today, and if you examine Bogdanor’s output prior to this book, you will find that it is exclusively dedicated to the cause of the Zionist right. You should ask the question: was there an agenda in writing ‘Kasztner’s Crime’ 70 years after the events?
THE REALITY OF HUNGARIAN JEWRY
Bogdanor’s portrayal of Hungarian Jewry is as lop-sided as the rest of his book. The position and attitudes of Hungarian Jews (and those in Budapest in particular) are totally ignored. A cornerstone of his argument is the assumption that, had it not been for Kasztner’s interference, a different situation could have materialised: hundreds of thousands could have been saved, instead of the 30-50,000 we know about. He says outright in places, and implies often between the lines, that there could have been a mass exodus or armed resistance to the oppressors, on the model of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. We must examine this hypothesis.
First of all, very similarly to Germany, Hungarian Jewry became slowly conditioned to their impending fate. The climate of integration and assimilation had degraded very rapidly, starting from the 1930s. Hungarian Jews, with their huge contribution to the industrial, scientific, commercial and cultural life of the country, could not understand the Damocles sword hanging over their existence. Hungary followed the German example by introducing anti-Jewish laws, and in 1943 all Jewish men aged between 18 and 50 were called up into forced labour units of the Hungarian Army, doing hard and dangerous work under inhuman conditions.
The German Army had occupied Hungary in March 1944 and Eichmann arrived with only about 200 SS men. In June 1944 the Budapest government designated around 2,000 apartment buildings for Jewish occupation, every building marked with a yellow star. My home in the suburbs was taken over with all its contents by neighbours and my father’s business by his foreman. We were allowed to go out between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. wearing a yellow star, and the concierge was to report to the Arrow Cross (the Fascist organisation) on all our movements. Several people committed suicide. Supervision and enforcement was taken over enthusiastically by the 22,000 Hungarian gendarmes and the Arrow Cross (variously quoted as 300,000 to 750,000 strong). Does Mr Bogdanor not realise what a profound effect all of this had on us? I accept it is not easy today to understand what conditions were like in Hungary at that time.
THE RESISTANCE FALLACY
So what was the response of the atomised Jewish population? There is a major difference here between historians arguing about records and evidence, and having the experience and knowledge of what it was like to be in this situation. Ladislaus Löb (author of Dealing With Satan – the story of Rezso Kasztner’s Daring Rescue Mission)) introduced a very useful extension of the classical psychological choice between ‘fight or flight’, that of ‘freeze’. This freezing is associated with a sense of the utter impossibility of escape, which may lead to total submission. This is exactly what we are talking about here. At each of the stages of the Holocaust in Hungary you can witness obedience, falling into line, following orders, self-subjugation.
In October 1944 the Hungarian fascists took over government, and enthusiastically restarted the deportations that had been suspended in July (my aunt Elvira committed suicide on October 17, and they ordered all remaining Jewish men between 16 and 60 and women between 16 and 40, to report for forced labour. In November they ordered the setting up of a ghetto. By then the Allies led day and night bombing raids and we sat in the cellars hoping the bombs would reach their targets – even if we also perished in the process. We secretly listened to the BBC on clandestine radios.
At which point does Mr Bogdanor suggest we should have started resisting? He posits the old canard that there were options for Jews to evade or resist the deportations. Who could have risen to the challenge? Uncle Fisher (my Grandmother’s blind friend)? Or the Jewish concierge who betrayed my father when he came from forced labour to see my mother? Or the rich who tried to bribe their way onto the Kasztner train? The mothers who aborted their children? Or the young Jewess in our Columbus Street protected house, who played hell with an old man who spent too long on the shared toilet? My aunt Elvira? The 100,000 converted Jews?
People like Mr Bogdanor can glibly speak about Jews taking a chance to escape or fight. When my mother found herself among a group of 200 women rounded up by four Arrow Cross men, and marched towards a collection camp, she made a run for it. The young recruits took shots at her but missed. The ensuing confusion was a perfect opportunity for some or most women to escape but instead they stayed and awaited their fate.
Priests visited some Jewish families, and christened their children in the hope of ensuring their survival. By this time, Budapest Jewry consisted largely of women and children, old men, and the sick and disabled. Escaping to the hills, never mind fighting, was just a daydream for half-a-million middle-class weaklings, for whom hiding and bribery were the only options which could be considered. The remaining miserable Jews of Budapest were waiting for a miracle, and in the meantime obeyed orders just because civilised members of society do so. The option was clear-cut: behave yourself, follow instructions, lie low and you’ll have a small chance of survival – resist and be subjected to the brutality of the Nazis and /or die. Resistance consisted of false papers, hiding valuables, cheating and lying, and conversion to Christianity.
The Zionist youth (despite their noble efforts) were toothless – ultimately only involved in secret talks, printing false documents, investigating secret routes out of the country maybe to Romania – (from the frying pan into the fire!). Joel Brand is quoted by Bogdanor as saying that by May 1944 the young Zionists had a weapons cache of 150 pistols, 40 grenades, 3 carabiners and 2 machine guns – some resistance! In neighbouring countries there were partisans resisting the German occupiers, and sympathetic to Jews. The Warsaw and Slovak uprisings were quashed in August, notwithstanding local support and the Soviet Army within reach. Who would have supported Hungarian Jews? There were no partisans, and the Hungarian population was 90% aligned with the Fascists, both out of antisemitism and for personal gain.
There were some righteous gentiles – I knew one and survived thanks to her, but they were the exceptions. There was no prospect of an effective Jewish uprising in the summer of 1944 – or at any other time. Paradoxically, Bogdanor says as much himself, on pages 31 and 172 of his book. Any call to resistance would only have resulted in a massacre of the women, children and the weak.
POWERLESS AND DIVIDED LEADERSHIP
If those were the pressures on ordinary Jews, what would it have been for the leaders who had to deal with situations they had never encountered, nor were prepared or qualified for? Knowing from Otto Komoly’s diary and many other sources about the difficulty of achieving even a small compromise and agreement within the Judenrat (Jewish Council), it is appropriate to ask who could have achieved anything in the way of the rescue of the majority by the time of the German occupation, and how?
Gaining time was about the only objective on which there could be agreement between the anti-Zionist Judenrat, the Rescue Committee with its at least 3 different alignments of Zionists, the Neologue and Orthodox religious, and the Palestine Office/ Jewish Agency. At best they could achieve small compromises and agreements; at worst they were subject to outright animosity and competition. Understandably some just tried to further their own survival. As every animal in danger they fought for their own and their families. How could they be an example and lead the masses?
The Hungarian government did not engage in discussions about the fate of the community with Jews. Cooperating smoothly with the staff of Eichmann, they issued decrees, summoned meetings, sequestered property, organized ghettos and collecting camps, and deported people. The German and Hungarian authorities completed the evacuation of the provincial collecting camps by July 9, 1944.
In the midst of all this, the position of the Jewish Rescue Committee was abundantly clear: there was no hope of receiving assistance from abroad or from domestic sources. Eichmann launched the Goods for Blood deal on the basis of the release of 1 Million Jews to neutral territory in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods. The Rescue Committee bluffed and pretended to subscribe to this, knowing full well that whatever international connections they could muster, they would never be able to persuade the Allied leadership to bring forth the goods. It was never more than a high-stake poker game, to gain time.
The Germans, on the other hand, wanted to test whether this was an avenue to gain something material for their fight on the Eastern front, and to generate an anti-Soviet coalition of the West (as in 1917-21). All of this was of course totally unrealistic. But nonetheless, it equated to the only hope for the possible rescue of Hungarian Jews. The context after Admiral Horthy’s about-turn in July 1944, and after the Romanian capitulation in August 1944 only heightened the rescue through negotiation logic. Following the Allied landing in France, the Germans could feel the heat and had every reason to try to create alibis.
OVERINFLATING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE AUSCHWITZ PROTOCOLS
A report by Auschwitz prisoners Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who escaped in spring 1944, has always played an important role in the debate over Kasztner’s responsibility. It has been alleged that Kasztner suppressed the report from gaining wider publicity in order to further his own schemes with the SS. This again is patently false. I know from the cousin of Lily Ungar (she was the secretary of the Rescue Committee) that Lily turned white after reading the Vrba-Wetzler report, and then with Lea Komoly, and four others spent the following night typing out several copies for distribution to Jewish mail boxes. This is also confirmed by Oded Furst, Otto Komoly’s grandson. There was no Jewish media (or the Internet!) in those days, and any other distribution would have been suicidal.
The Jews of Budapest were always well-informed. From the beginning of the war they listened avidly to British broadcasts, both in English and Hungarian. When the receivers had to be handed in, some risked retaining and hiding their sets so as to listen secretly in small groups to ‘London calling’.
The first news of the German method of killing victims in gas chambers was broadcast over the BBC as early as June 1942 and by the British press. Other information came in ’41 from Kamenets Podolskiy, in ’42 from Arthur Bomba escaping from Treblinka, in ’43 from Schindler visiting Budapest. Other broadcasts followed in summer 1944: in July a trade union leader urged Hungarian railway workers to prevent the deportation trains from reaching their destination; and Professor Lindley Fraser threatened the Hungarian and German governments with consequences (both on the BBC) . In early July leaflets were dropped by the Allies, threatening punishment for those responsible for the deportation of Hungarian Jews. Proof that these messages were heard by Hungarians can be found in Otto Komoly’s diary entries.
Similar messages were again delivered in October 1944, leading David Cesarani to conclude that “many Hungarian Jews who survived the deportations claimed that they had not been informed by their leaders, that no one had told them. But there’s plenty of evidence that they could have known.” One of my fellow survivors confirmed that news about Auschwitz was widespread but pushed out of mind, because of the feeling of entrapment and the sense of no escape.
We are left with a conundrum, already noted by Eli Wiesel in The Night: “people not only refused to believe, they refused to listen”. This is further reinforced by depositions at Yad Vashem about young Zionists being called agent provocateurs for bringing such news. The Jews of Hungary were fully aware that ‘deportation’ was synonymous with a death sentence. The lucky few who could find someone to hide them, or who obtained a place in a protected house, acted for precisely that reason. But even with that knowledge, when it came to the crunch, they would comply and board the trains. In those days the notion of ‘fight and die’ simply did not occur. As surprising as this may seem, additional information about gas chambers was rather immaterial.
Anyone who has not lived through those days must tread very, very carefully if he wants to venture an opinion or criticism. If you were not there, you cannot imagine the fears, the uncertainty, the illusory desire to find some magic solution to our predicament. Feigning acceptance of the Goods for Blood deal was a desperate attempt to salvage something, or gain time for survival, however little the chance. Some of us were lucky that the time ran out for the murderers and we slipped through the net – and that was partly due to the work of the Rescue Committee.
Sophistry will not turn a Hungarian Jewish revolt into reality. One only need turn to Otto Komoly’s diary, and his repeated comments about total impotence and helplessness, about the horror of making the choices between those who would or would not go on the train, to have even the slightest understanding of the situation. None of us should go around accusing a fellow Jew for what he or she did in those times, and certainly nobody 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. It is a great shame that some think otherwise, and that others again give them the space to spread their groundless accusations. If you’re lucky enough to not have lived through such horrendous times, you record the facts, praise the noble, but otherwise bear your head in humbleness. You have no right to judge.
There was only one group of criminals in this story: the Germans and their Hungarian helpers. The accusations brought against Kasztner and others who worked to save Jewish lives, at enormous risk to themselves and their families, are therefore totally unacceptable.
Theodore Roosevelt said at the Sorbonne in April 1910:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Or in our terms :ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו: do not judge your fellow human being until you stand in his place (Mishna, Pirke Avot 2:5).
Ultimately, I am not talking about the errors or accuracy of individual writers, or the correctness of data or quotations. I am challenging whether a 21st century critic, who cannot possibly understand what it took to exist under the circumstances of Hungary in 1944, can have the right to sit in judgement and burden our hearts with distortions of reality. Five times each year, on completion of the Five Books of the Torah in the synagogue, we say “chazak, chazak – Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another”. I regret to say that Mr Bogdanor’s book has done the Jewish cause a great disservice.