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No Thanks to Kastner

Nov 6, 2009

More than 50 years after the murder of Rudolf Kastner, the de facto head of the Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest, the controversy surrounding him is being rekindled.

Kastner, who made a deal with Adolph Eichmann in 1944 to allow between 1,600 and 1,700 Hungarian Jews to leave for Switzerland in exchange for money, gold and diamonds, was convicted in an Israeli courtroom in 1955 for collaboration with the Nazis. The court ruled that Kastner, by keeping Hungarian Jewry ignorant of the Nazi plans for their extermination in exchange for freedom for his colleagues, had indeed "sold his soul to the devil.” Two years later he was murdered outside his home in Tel Aviv.

The affair has spawned more than 10 books, a theater play and a television film. Now a storm has been raised again after the documentary "Killing Kastner" by the American director Gaylen Ross was screened at the Haifa International Film Festival in July 2009. It is now being released in the United States. The film attempts to rehabilitate Kastner’s image as the executer of one of the most successful rescues of Jews during the Holocaust.

At the end of the documentary, Kastner’s daughter Zsuzsi, a hospital nurse in Tel Aviv, tells an undocumented tale of how the Kastner called Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who was among those saved on the transport, to testify in his favor in court, and the Rebbe refused, saying, “Kastner did not save me. G-d saved me.” When asked later for her source for this story, she was unable to answer.

The Satmar Rebbe was famous for his displays of deep gratitude to anyone who ever did him a favor, no matter how small. He maintained feelings of appreciation for people, and to their children as well, for his entire life. This was especially true of anyone who helped the Rebbe during the War, no matter whether the person was religious or secular, Jew or gentile. For years after the War, he sent them gifts and tried to help them in any way possible.

For example, the Rebbe sent an emissary to thank Dr. Joseph Fischer, through whose efforts the Rebbe was included in the transport. He was grateful to the El Salvadoran ambassador to Hungary for working for his release. He showed his appreciation to Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Klein, who helped him with health problems in the Bergen Belsen camp. This is not to mention the Rebbe’s lifelong gratitude to all his supporters in the religious community who helped him at every step of the escape and paid huge sums for his release.

Clearly, then, it is false to attribute to the Rebbe the view that since his escape was orchestrated by Divine Providence, he need not repay the kindness of those human beings who served as G-d’s agents to save him.

But Kastner was a different story. Certainly the Rebbe would not have testified in a court of the Zionist state, which he refused to recognize. We can assume that in this aspect he shared the position of his close colleague Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl, who was asked to testify in the Kastner trial and refused because he “did not recognize a secular Jewish court.” But the Rebbe could have showed appreciation to Kastner in other ways, and he could have spoken out to clear his name. Why didn’t he?

The plan to bribe the Nazis to release Jews from occupied lands originated not with Kastner and his fellow Zionists in Hungary, but with Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl in Bratislava, Slovakia. By giving the Nazi officer Dieter Wisliceny a total of $50,000 in bribes, Rabbi Weissmandl was able to delay the deportation of the 30,000 Slovakian Jews for a full two years.

After seeing this success, Rabbi Weissmandl began working on a more general plan to save all the remaining Jews of Europe. Negotiations on the Europa Plan, as it was called, continued after Nazis began occupying Hungary in March 1944. On Rabbi Weissmandl’s advice, Wisliceny began discussing this plan with the head of the Orthodox community of Budapest, Pinchus Freudiger. The Nazi proposed to release the approximately one million Jews of Hungary for 12 million dollars.

This amazing rescue might have taken place, had the Zionists in Budapest not sabotaged the effort so that they could assume the role of rescue committee themselves. Rudolf Kastner and Joel Brand became the new rescue leaders. In the words of Rabbi Weissmandl in his book “Min Hameitzar”, the Zionist takeover of the rescue effort was a misfortune, because the Zionist party was not primarily interested in saving Jews, but in saving their own leaders and party members so that they could go to Palestine and help build a state.

Eichmann, the Nazi official in charge of destroying Hungarian Jewry, sent Joel Brand as an emissary to the Zionist leadership in Istanbul to ask them for "trucks for blood." The Nazis offered to spare one million Jews in exchange for one thousand tons of tea, one thousand tons of coffee, and ten thousand trucks. But Moshe Sharet, Yitzchok Greenbaum and the other leaders of the Zionist Agency decided that it would be undesirable to invest any efforts to save these Jews, because it might displease their British allies and interfere with their plans for a Jewish state in the Holy Land. So they decided to conceal Brand’s mission. They lured him across the border from Turkey into Syria, the British took him to a prison in Egypt, and he languished there for months with his message undelivered, until most of the Jews of Hungary had been gassed and burned in Auschwitz.

After the failure of the general plan to save Hungarian Jewry, all Kastner could get from Eichmann was an offer to release a small number of Jews that Kastner would select, in exchange for bribes and Kastner’s silence. In 1960 an interview with Eichmann made by the Dutch Nazi journalist Willem Sassen in Argentina was published in Life Magazine. In the interview Eichmann said that Kastner "agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation — and even keep order in the collection camps — if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate to Palestine. It was a good bargain."

By the beginning of May 1944, Kastner and many other Jewish leaders had received the Vrba-Wetzler report, compiled by two escapees from Auschwitz, and other evidence that Hungary's Jews would be sent to their deaths. The report was released to the leaders of Jewish organizations in the hope that Hungarian Jews would be warned that they were being deported to a death camp and were not being resettled, as they had been led to believe. However, the report was not made public by the Jewish Council in Hungary or by Kastner. It was his Jewish Agency rival Krausz who eventually sent the report to Switzerland for publication. The resulting international outcry persuaded the Hungarian government to stop the deportations. But by then 437,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz, where the overwhelming majority were murdered on arrival.

Kastner testified at his own trial that his main concern had been “that most of the Zionist leadership should leave Budapest with the transport.” Even those 1684 Jews that eventually went on the transport were released only thanks to huge sums of money and valuable objects, collected by the Jewish communities of Hungary – mostly by the Orthodox in Budapest.

The fact that so much of the money came from the Orthodox was the main reason why Kastner was forced to include in his list some Orthodox rabbis, notably the Satmar Rebbe, for whose seat the Orthodox activist Chaim Roth personally paid a huge sum. Rabbi Yonasan Steiff and Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Strasser were also included.

Despite all the money paid on his behalf, Kastner at first refused to save the Satmar Rebbe, knowing that he was an enemy of the Zionist party. He only agreed to do it at the insistence of his father-in-law, Dr. Joseph Fischer, head of the Jewish council of Cluj (Klausenberg).

Later, when they had reached freedom in Switzerland, Dr. Fischer approached the Rebbe and said, “I am sure the Rebbe understands that we did not plan to include him on the list of the privileged. Everyone knows that the Satmar Rebbe is a sworn enemy of the Zionists. But I will tell you the truth. One night in Klausenberg, my mother came to me in a dream and warned me to make sure to include the Satmar Rebbe in the list – and only then would there be hope of all the people escaping.”

When the Rebbe told this story years later, he noted that Fischer’s mother had been a religious woman who covered her hair and kept the commandments of the Torah, and his father had been a Torah scholar. He was the uncle of Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fischer, who was later a member of the anti-Zionist religious court of Jerusalem.

At every stage of the way from Budapest to the Swiss border, it was not Kastner but the Rebbe and his followers who ensured the success of the effort. The train was stopped for two days at the Austrian border, then was sent the other direction, and then stopped again in the middle of nowhere. The Jews got off and sat on the ground near the cars. Some of them asked the driver where they were going, and he replied, “Auschwitz.” Fear seized everyone, and they looked for ways to notify the rescue committee in Budapest.

The Rebbe arranged for a Jewish girl who didn’t look Jewish to travel to Budapest and notify Chaim Roth. Roth together with Kastner ran to Eichmann and cried that they had betrayed him. Eichmann smiled and replied coolly, “It seems there was a mistake. We ordered the train sent to a camp in Auschpitz, in the Sudetenland. Someone wrote Auschwitz instead. Don’t worry, if they go to Auschwitz I’ll give you another train.” Roth protested that he had given a lot of money to save a certain great rabbi who was on the train. Eichmann said, “Listen, this was not my mistake, but if you bring me more money I’ll try to correct it.” Roth brought another large bribe, and only then was the train turned around and sent to Bergen Belsen, where they were held for five months while the Nazis waited for more money from the Jews of the free world.

How did the Jews of the free world get the message? When the train stopped in Bratislava, Slovakia, the Rebbe spoke to the local Jews and asked them to spread the news of their predicament. Shlomo Gefen, a follower of the Rebbe, wrote to his brother-in-law Moshe Gross in Switzerland. He in turn notified the Orthodox rescue committee in Switzerland, led by Yitzchok Sternbuch, who sent the news around the world. Orthodox Jews in America turned to the War Refugee Board in Washington. Rabbi Michael Weissmandl in Slovakia and his fellow rescue workers never ceased to alarm the world about the danger to the transport, until the money the Nazis wanted was finally collected.

The Joint Distribution Committee had the necessary amount of money, and it would not have been hard to get the trucks the Nazis wanted. The only obstacle was the head of the Joint in Switzerland, Dr. Solly Mayer. He refused to use any money to buy trucks for the Germans, arguing that the S.S. was using this as ploy to drive a wedge between the Allied nations fighting Germany. Germany, he said, would make sure the Russians knew that America and England were supplying them with trucks to use against Russia. Solly Mayer even refused to allocate any money to free the prisoners in Bergen-Belsen. Even Kastner could not understand Mayer’s cold-hearted attitude.

In the end, the Jews of Budapest, together with Yitzchok Sternbuch in Switzerland, themselves raised enough money to buy 30 trucks from Switzerland. When Solly Mayer found out about this, he was angry and threatened to cut off the Joint’s support to Budapest.

The refugees were released from Bergen Belsen in December 1944 and put on a train to Switzerland. But in the middle of the night, in Austria, near the Swiss border, the train suddenly stopped. It remained standing for a long time, and the passengers began to worry. Then someone came on the train and ordered everyone to take their belongings and disembark. Now the passengers’ fear grew greater. They had been ready to step on free soil in short time, and now suddenly the Germans were ordering them around again.

Their fears were not unfounded, for the rumor began to spread that a command had just come from Himmler in Berlin to stop the train to Switzerland and send it to Auschwitz.

Back in Budapest, S.S. Colonel Kurt Becher was still insisting that not all the money had been paid. For 1,684 Jews, they wanted $1,684,000. According to Becher, $64,000 was still remaining to be paid. He said he had received orders that if the money was not paid, the train would be turned around and sent to Auschwitz. Again, Solly Mayer refused to provide the money.

And so the train sat on the border, its passengers not knowing if their lot would be life or death. Then Rabbi Leibush Rubinfeld from Switzerland came to their rescue. He brought a sum of money and bribed Herman Krumey and the other S.S. officer accompanying the train. Krumey quickly ordered everyone to take their belongings and get onto the train to Switzerland. The two Nazis themselves helped them to put their belongings on the train. Then they sent a telegram to Berlin saying that Himmler’s order had come too late, the train had already reached the Swiss side of the border and the order could no longer be carried out.

Throughout this miraculous story, the religious Jews, not Kastner and the Zionists, were G-d’s agents to save the Satmar Rebbe and the other Jews on the transport. Divine Providence saved the Rebbe so that he could rebuild and light up the Jewish world after the destruction of Europe.