Was Rezso Kasztner, leader of the Budapest-based Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, a hero who saved the lives of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust? Or was he a collaborator who knowingly played an indispensable role in assisting the Nazis in the deportation and murder of nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews in a matter of weeks?
To answer that question Paul Bogdanor has examined previously unused documentation, including Kasztner’s private papers, and evidence provided by Kasztner himself in two libel trials held in Israel in the 1950s. Bogdanor’s answer is summed up in the title of his recently published book: Kasztner’s Crime. (Bogdanor’s own politics are certainly not socialist. His personal webpage is the cyberspace equivalent of “The Black Book of Communism”.)
Bogdanor concludes that Kasztner deliberately withheld information about Auschwitz from Jewish communities in Budapest and the Hungarian provinces, and then misled them into believing that the Nazis were deporting them to another part of Hungary rather than to Auschwitz. Kasztner also undermined and blocked rescue activities organised by other Jewish activists, knowingly delivered hostages to the Nazi SS, misled foreign contacts about the fate of Hungarian Jews, and betrayed to the Gestapo Jewish paratroopers sent to help organise resistance in Hungary.
After the war Kasztner gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trials in defence of high-ranking Nazi war criminals who, as he knew full well, had played a central role in the Holocaust. Bogdanor describes Kasztner as “a high-level informer for the Gestapo” and “a collaborator in the genocide of his own people”. He was someone who had been “recruited by the Nazis as a collaborator” and who “betrayed his duty to rescue the victims and placed himself at the service of the murderers.” Kasztner occupies an almost iconic status in those “anti-Zionist” versions of history which claim that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust, as part of their “strategy” to achieve the creation of Israel.
The most notorious example of this is Jim Allen’s play ‘Perdition’. Dating from 1987, it purports to be a dramatised version of a libel trial dealing with the role played by a Dr. Yaron (i.e. Kasztner by another name) in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Allen described his play as: “The most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, which is itself racist.”
In summing up the play’s central argument, one of the characters talks of “the Zionist knife in the Nazi fist”, describes Israel as “coined in the blood and tears of Hungarian Jewry”, and claims: “To save your hides, you (Zionists) practically led them (Jews) to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
The play treats Yaron/Kasztner not as an individual but as the embodiment of Zionism per se. The now defunct Flame magazine summed up the central argument of the play: “There is a story here which the Zionists do not want you to know … about the role of the Zionist movement in the war and its collaboration with the Nazi regime. The Zionist leadership of Hungary bought their freedom in a shameful deal with Eichmann, whilst the Jews of Hungary were led to the gas chambers.”
“The Zionist movement stands accused of sacrificing the majority of the Jews in Hungary so as to save a thousand Jews to fulfil the Zionist conquest of Palestine. Clearly, the Zionist movement regarded the establishment of the state of Israel as a higher priority than saving their brethren from the concentration camps.”
Bogdanor makes passing mention of the controversy about ‘Perdition” and the identification of Kasztner as “the avatar of a Zionist-Nazi conspiracy to murder the Jews of Europe in order to justify creating the ‘fascist’ state of Israel.” Bogdanor’s riposte: “such ideas, if they can be dignified as such, have no contact with reality.”
In Nazi-occupied Hungary, there was no “neat” dividing line between bad Zionists (or bad Zionist leaders) and good anti-Zionists. On all sides there were people foolishly thinking Jews could benefit from trying to do deals with the Nazis. The Budapest Judenrat (Jewish Council), for example, was created by anti-Zionist community leaders acting under instructions from the Nazis in March of 1944.
It “demanded blind obedience to the Nazis from the Jewish community” and was “enlisted in Eichmann’s effort to deceive the widest strata of Jewry.” By 24 April it was “summoning selected Jews for ‘internment’ – which in reality meant death – at the hands of the Nazis.” Only in mid-June did it reverse its “previous decision to handle news of the slaughter [in Auschwitz] confidentially” and begin to “circulate the eye-witness report [of Auschwitz] among the Hungarian elite.”
Far from being the ultimate expression of Zionism, Kasztner himself repeatedly came into conflict with other Zionist activists who were doing exactly what ‘Perdition’ claimed they were not doing, i.e. opposing the Nazis and trying to save Jewish lives.
In late 1943, Hungarian Zionists began organising an armed underground movement in preparation for a possible Nazi occupation. The movement was to be open to all Zionist parties (apart from the Revisionists) and to non-Zionists. But Kasztner scuppered the plans for armed resistance in favour of “negotiations” with the Nazis. Hungarian Zionists also helped to smuggle Jews out of Poland and Austria and issued them with forged Hungarian ID papers, as well as providing financial support to Jews in the Polish ghettoes and Jews in hiding in Austria.
Kasztner wanted an end to such activities, for fear that they would jeopardise his “negotiations” with the Nazis. But the Zionist youth ignored Kasztner’s instructions and continued their activities, with the support of most of the Hungarian Zionist leaders. When the deportations of Jews began in Hungary itself, Hungarian Zionist youth activists set about encouraging Jews to flee the Nazi-created ghettoes in Budapest and the provinces. Again, Kasztner sought to undermine and block such activities. Other Zionists organised “protected houses” in Budapest (i.e. houses covered by Swiss diplomatic immunity, or by the protection of other foreign missions) and children’s homes with Red Cross extraterritorial status which provided safety for thousands of Jews.
As Bogdanor points out, the number of Jewish lives saved by Zionists without any help from Kasztner is an indication of how many more could have been saved if Kasztner, as head of the Relief and Rescue Committee, had not placed himself at the service of the Nazis. The gap between Kasztner and the broader Zionist movement is further underlined by the fact that in mid-April of 1944 the entire Hungarian Zionist movement was banned by the Nazis. Kasztner’s Relief and Rescue Committee, on the other hand, enjoyed the patronage first of the Abwehr and then of the SS.