The Zionist Rescue Committee (ZRC) headed by Rezso Kastner negotiated with SS Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann and Kurt Becher for the safe passage of a group of about 1,700 Hungarian Jews. Kastner has been called the Hungarian Oskar Schindler. They were Jews drawn from all walks of life. A large ransom had been paid to these NAZIs. The negotiations were concluded (June-July 1944). The train consisted of 35 cattle trucks departed Budapest for Switzerland (July 1). At The Hungarian Austrian border the train was diverted to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Here the Jewish passengers were held in a special area. They were eventually allowed to proceed to Switzerland but in two groups. The first smaller group left for Switzerland (August). By this time other Hungarian Jews were being killed in large numbers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Once safe in Switzerland they were taken by bus to their billets. One of the children was an 11 year old boy called Ladislaus Lob. He grew up to be a professor of literature and taught at the University of Sussex. After the war this became a very controversial issue and Rezso Kastner was assassinated in Israel because of negotiating with the Nazis. One critic called the whole episode, 'Jews for sale.' The Kastner rescue mission is now looked at in a more favorable light, but not by all. Issues like this are very difficult. They have to be considered that the Jews in NAZI hands were in a hopeless situation. Those who cooperated with the NAZIs for improved conditions such as as Ghetto police can be criticized. But in this case, Kastner did not put other Jews in danger, he simply paid a ransom to save a small group.
After Hitler and the NAZIs seized control of Germany (January\y 1933), large numbers of Jews fled abroad. The initial NAZI policy was to encourage this. The major problems were obtaining entrance visa to enter other countries and the restrictions on taking property out of the country. Wealthy Jews might have to pay bribes to local NAZIs. . Other Jews decided to ride it out or did not have the means to go abroad. Many believed the NAZIs would not last long and they could ride it out in Germany. The NAZIs of course did last and the situation got progressively worse, especially after the introduction of the Nuremberg laws (1935). Kristallnacht made it clear to Germany's remaining Jews about their perilous position (1938). At this point NAZI emigration policy changed and it became increasingly difficult to obtain exit visas. And the flood of Jews seeking refuge caused neighboring countries to limit entrance visas. The War followed (September 1939) and millions more Jews fell into NAZI hands. There was virtually no way to escape. Numerous rescue attempts were attempted involving bribes to NAZI officials to save individuals and some groups. These attempts mostly failed. [Bauer] The primary stumbling block was Hitler was intent on killing and NAZI officials could get in trouble if their negotiations became public. Another problem was the Allies did not want to condone any effort which would aid the NAZI war effort.
Admiral Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay after the German defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk realized that the Germans were losing the War. Kallay attempted to see if separate armistice could be negotiated with the western Allies, all to aware of the fate that awaited them if the Red Army entered Hungary. To prevent Hungary's withdrawal from the Axis and a separate peace, Hitler ordered German forces to occupy Hungary on March 19, 1944. Hitler allowed Admiral Horthy to continue as Regent. Kallay was dismissed and General Dome Sztojay, who was fanatically pro-NAZI, was appointed prime minister. Sztojay not only pledged to continue Hungary role in the War, but to deport Hungarian Jews. While Horthy and Kallay had joined in the German war effort, they had refused to deport Hungarian Jews. With Sztojay as prime minister the deportations could begin.
The Zionist Rescue Committee (the Vaadah, or Vaadat Ezra ve'Hatzalah--the Vaadah or the Committee--ZRC) was established to assist Jewish refugees (1943). At the time the primary focus was on Jews from Slovakia and Poland who had managed to flee to Hungary. Hungary was a German ally, but not actively killing Jews and stopped transports to the German death camps in occupied Poland. The Committe leaders were: Rudolph (Rezsö) Kastner (a Zionist from Cluj in Hungarian occupied Transylvania) and Joel Brand (also from Transylvania), and Otto Komoly (a Budapest engineer). One author describes Brand as 'something of an adventurer in politics'. [Friedlander, p. 621.]
Hansi Brand, wife of Joel Brand, was one of the members of ZRC in Budapest The surviving Hungarians Jews thought they would escape the Holocaust. The Hungarian Government had stopped deportations and the Germans were clearly losing the War. Then the Germans invaded Hungary (March 1944), the last country Hitler occupied. Hungarian Jewish leaders had no illusions as to what this meant. Thus SS Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann ordered the Jews in the provinces to be concentrated in Budapest, this included the Jews in Transylvania. Hansi at this time brought Kastner to meet Eichmann. The ZRC at this time shifted the focus of its efforts. They began negotiating with SS Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann and Kurt Becher (March-April 1944). The initial idea was to exchange of Hungarian persons for military trucks, desperately needed by the Wehrmacht. Eichmann initially told Brand that 10,000 Jews could be saved for every truck delivered to the Germans. The final project was to exchange of 800,000 Hungarian lives for 10,000 trucks. Eichmann agreed to allow Brand to go to Istanbul to raise the funds along with Bandi Grosz, another Hungarian Jew. Brand met with the Yishuv (Jewish community in Mandate Palestine) representatives in Istanbul (May 19, 1944). Hansi reported that "... Eichmann told her husband that he should hurry on his mission to Istanbul, because 12,000 Jews per day were taken to Auschwitz." [Lanzmann] Eichmann made sure that Hansi and her children remained in Hungary as hostages. The Brand mission ultimately failed.
Deportations (May 1944)
Eichmann personally organized and oversaw the deportations. By May 1944 he was ready to begin. Hungarian authorities and the German Security Police began the deportations (May 15). The Hungarian police were responsible for rounding up the Jews and bringing them to the train stations where they were forced on to the transport trains. In less than 2 months, about 440,000 Jews were deported on 145 trains. Most of the transports went directly to the death camp at Auschwitz. Some were sent to the border with Austria to be employed as force labor in the construction of trenches which were to defend Vienna. In the entire history of the Holocaust the NAZIs never succeeded in deporting so many people so quickly. This is especially remarkable as the Hungarian Jews in the provinces were widely dispersed. Horthy stopped the deportations on July 6. His reasons are unknown, but presumably involve concern over war crime trials after the War. Presumably the Allied landings in Normandy or the advance of the Red Army motivated him as by this stage of the War, it was clear that the Germans had clearly lost. Eichmann was reportedly furious, but without Hungarian support he could not continue the deportations and a large number of Jews still existed in Budapest that had not been touched by the deportations in the provinces.
The Hungarian police arrested Kastner, his wife, Hansi Brand, Sholem Offenbach (treasurer of the Vaada), and his wife were arrested (May 27). We are not sure under whose auspices this action was taken. Hansi Brand was viciously beaten. She was bed ridden for a week. The SS intervened to release them (June 2). The SS brought 388 Jews from the Kolozsvar ghetto (holding 18,000 Jews) were brought to Budapest on a special train and held in a 'privileged camp' (June 10). This was set up in the courtyard of the Wechselmann Institute for the Deaf on Columbus Street.
For the safe passage of a group of about 1,700 Hungarian Jews. Kastner has been called the Hungarian Oskar Schindler. The larger effort to save Hungarian Jews failed. A very small group was saved. They were Jews drawn from all walks of life. A large ransom was paid to Eichmann. We are not sure what became of these funds. We do not know if Eichmann and his associates kept the money or if it was deposited in SS accounts. The Kastner train transport (1,685 persons) left Budapest (June 30/July 1). The train consisted of 35 baggage trucks and was supposed to be headed for Switzerland and freedom. The transport was, however, after entering the Reich diverted to the north. Many of the deportees panicked on the sealed cattle cars. We are not sure just why it was diverted and by whose orders. One report suggests it was Eichmann's orders, but his reasons are unknown. One report indicates thst the transport stopped at Linz where the deportees were stripped, their hair shaved, and deloused. The image here taken bout a month later shows the deportees and their hair has not been shaved (figure 1). Some of tghem may have had their hair shaved t Linz, bt clearly not all. Many thought they were about to be killed, especially when they were ushered into showers.
The Kastner deportees after delousing at Linz were then put back on the transports. They arrived at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp (July 8). Here they were held in the Ungarnlager (Hungarian camp). Conditions at the camp were primitive, but not genocidal. About 130–160 people were crammed into about 10-12 small rooms. Food was limited, but enough to stay alive. They like the inmates in the Bergen-Belsen Star Camp did not wear inmate uniforms, but had Stars of David on their clothes. The group included some of the few children in the camp. One of the children provides a insightful of his observations of the group and their reactions to their terrible plight. [Lob]. The Hungarian police arrested Kastner (July 18). They held him incommunicado for 9 days They turned him over to the SS. Saly Mayer, Swiss representative of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Switzerland met with Kastner and Kurt Becher on a bridge linking Switzerland and Austria (August 21).
The Kastner rescue Jews were eventually allowed to proceed to Switzerland, but in two groups. As far as we know, this was the largest group of Jews that Swiss authorities permitted to enter the country. The first smaller group (about 300 Jews) left for Switzerland in August (figure 1). The weather was apparently very warm. A photograph shows the children sitting in an open train car. This was apparently after reaching the Swiss border. We don't believe that the Germans would have allowed them to travel through the Reich in open cars. By this most other Hungarian Jews had been killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They arrived at the Swiss border in sealed baggage cars. Ir was a long trip, Bergen-Belsen was located in Lower Saxony (northwestern Germany). Once safe in Switzerland they were taken by bus to their billets. The second group of the Kastner transport that had been held in Bergen-Belsen (1,368 Jews) crossed the Swiss frontier (December7). During the odyssey in the Reich, there were several of births and deaths. The Germans detained 17 individuals in Bergen-Belsen on a variety of pretexts. The total number saved was about 1,670 people.
Kastner also helped save the remnants of the Budapest ghetto at the end of the War. He also played an important role in saving the Jews who remained alive in scattered places, primarily liberated concentration camps. They were in desperate conditions.
One of the children saved by Kastner was an 11-year old boy named Ladislaus Lob. Ladislaus was born in Transylvania when it was still part of Romania. After the outbreak of Wold War II, Hitler approved the transfer of Transylvania to Hungary. The photograph taken here we think was for an Hungarian identity card. He had only just 11 years old when he was packed on to the transport, not fully understanding what was happening. Then came frightening train odyssey throough the Reich before entering Bergen-Belsen. They were held apart from the other inmates. One of the happier memories concerns a Red Cross parcel. He writes, "... a miracle seemed to have happened. From the Red Cross in Geneva we received some 60 cases containing food, medicines, vitamins, and in particular 1,300 boxes of a product called "Starkosan." This was a chocolate powder with added vitamins and nutrients. I have never forgotten the please of stuffing myself with it..." [Lob] In his diary he noted, " "For the first time in five months a cultured flavour: chocolate! Old people and children are truly becoming drunk on it; they are eating it with spoons, dry, on bread, with butter, with water, with jam, mixed with glucose, etc. There has been a change in people. Cheerful, calm faces, chattiness, an optimistic mood ...." Ladislaus finally after 5 months crossed the border into Switzerland. He recalls being cold and hungry, but alive and finally safe. After being saved in the Kastner Rescue Mission, Ladislaus grew up in Switzerland. He became a professor of literature and taught at the University of Sussex in Britain. He writes, "I was one of the 1700, rescued from the Holocaust at the age of eleven. Rezső Kastner was later accused of collaboration and assassinated before he could hear that his name had been cleared. I grew up in Switzerland and in due course became a professor of German in England. It took me many decades to confront the decisive role of Rezső Kastner in my life and to recognise his importance in the history of the Holocaust. When I finally did so, the result was my book Dealing with Satan: Rezső Kasztner's Daring Rescue Mission and a continuing series of invitations to lecture."
After the war this became a very controversial issue and Rezso Kastner was assassinated in Israel because of negotiating with the Nazis. One critic called the whole episode, 'Jews for sale.' The Kastner rescue mission is now looked at in a more favourable light, but not by all. Issues like this are very difficult. They have to be considered that the Jews in NAZI hands were in a hopeless situation. Those who cooperated with the NAZIs for improved conditions such as Ghetto police can be criticized. But in this case, Kastner did not put other Jews in danger, he simply paid a ransom to save a small group.
Bauer, Yehuda. Jews for Sale? : Nazi-Jewish negotiations, 1933-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
Friedlander, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945,
Landé, Peter and Joyce Field. "'Jews For Sale': The Rudolph Kasztner Transports" (August 2008).
Lanzmann, Claude. Lanzmann interviewed Hansi Brand while the negotiatiins with Eichmannwere underway.
Lob, Ladislaus. Dealing with Satan: Rezső Kasztner's Daring Rescue Mission.
Porter, Anne. Kasztner's Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. Portner strongly defends
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