Holocaust Educational Trust Blog

A space for featured guest bloggers and members of the Holocaust Educational Trust team to comment and reflect on timely issues.

The Kasztner train – a personal perspective

In our latest blog, survivor Tomi Komoly offers his personal perspective on one of the most sensitive stories of the Holocaust.

Rudolf Kasztner, a Zionist activist during World War II, was one of the leaders of the Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee (JRC) in Budapest, which tried to negotiate with Nazi officials to release Hungarian Jews in exchange for money and equipment (later known as the Goods for Blood proposal). In June 1944, the so-called Kasztner Train, with 1,684 Jews on board, departed Budapest for the safety of neutral Switzerland. Hailed by some as a Holocaust hero and accused by others as a collaborator, Kasztner was assassinated in Israel in 1957.

The arguments surrounding this story have recently been rekindled by journalist turned historian called Paul Bogdanor whose book Kasztner’s Crime which ‘brings out of the grave’ Kasztner (this  summer honoured in Haifa) and the whole issue of the Zionists and Jews of Hungary. I am neither journalist nor historian but feel compelled to take issue with the arguments presented in the book. I lived in Budapest at the time and have direct access to the diary of my uncle Otto Komoly who was chairman of the JRC and of the Hungarian Zionist Federation. Furthermore, I have looked at more than 100 publications, including from contemporary Hungarian historians, which conflict with the thesis of the book.

The cornerstone of the book is that had Kasztner acted differently, or not at all, the fate of Hungarian Jewry would have altered for the better. It particularly centres on what it terms ‘suppression of the Auschwitz Protocol’ [an eyewitness report by two Slovakian Jews who had escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944], and yet neglects to mention that a) wider distribution was impossible or carried overwhelming risks and b) when such news was available, Hungarian Jewry was not only incapable of responding but even refused to listen to it.

It is important to consider the existing human condition and attitudes of Hungarian Jews at the time. Having been conditioned to consider themselves assimilated, they trusted the goodwill of governments until it was too late. Stripped of men between the ages of 16-60 and women 18-50, there was no appetite or possibility for resistance, nor any likelihood of hiding in hills or forests or in villages with hugely antisemitic populations supported by a gendarmerie (22,000) and the 300,000-strong fascist Arrow Cross. This on top of the fact that there were no arms worth mentioning at their disposal. 

I cannot give a more telling picture of conditions and mindsets of those sad days, than when my mother was one of 200 Jewish women rounded up by four Arrow Cross men, and marched towards a collection camp. She made a run for it, and they tried to shoot her. In the ensuing confusion most of the others could have escaped – but instead they just stood and waited for their fate.

The old Jewish leadership were out of their depth in the face of these developments. The JRC, a largely Zionist group of activists, formed to fill the gap, to deal with situations never encountered before, for which they were neither prepared nor qualified. The situation became desperate; every day 12,000 were being deported.  They had an impossible choice: accept that all were to be lost to the camps OR support a hopeless resistance leading to a Warsaw-like massacre? An alternative occurred to them:  try to negotiate to rescue SOME and slow down deportations, knowing that the Allies had landed in Normandy, and the Russians were advancing. By agreement, Komoly dealt with the Hungarians and Kasztner with the Germans. It was like a very high stake poker game, they had to look death in the face every day. They knew full well they could never access high enough Allied government sources to bring forth the supplies demanded, even using whatever connections they could create through international Jewish/Zionist links. Ultimately their activities saved the passengers of the train, over 5000 children placed in safe embassy houses, and about 30,000 in ‘internationally protected’ buildings.  Most historians have concluded that Kasztner's negotiations saved another 20,000 by diverting them to an Austrian labour camp instead of Auschwitz. Komoly and Kasztner were incredibly brave men. Neither was on the train, nor was I. Otto Komoly was murdered by Hungarian fascists and honoured by the post-war Hungarian and Israeli governments and by Bnei Brith for his bravery and achievements. Perhaps Kasztner’s real ‘crime’ was that he survived? 

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, Pirkei Avot 2:5). 

Ultimately, we are not talking about the rights or wrongs of individual writers, the correctness or otherwise of some data or record. Living in the comfort of the twenty-first century, without any possible feel or knowledge of what it took to exist under the circumstances of 1944 Hungary, it is unwise to sit in judgement of people who worked to save Jewish lives at enormous minute-by-minute risk to themselves. The only criminals in this story of the Shoah in Hungary, were the Germans and the Hungarian Nazis, not Kasztner.

 

For more on the Kasznter story, see Ladislaus Löb’s book Dealing with Satan, Anna Porter, Kasztner's Train, or watch the DVD Killing Kasztner by Gaylen Ross.

 

My comment on antisemitism