Kastner train passengers in August or December 1944 on their way to Switzerland from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where the train made a long and unexpected stop.
|Participants||Rudolf Kastner (1906–1957)
Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee
Adolf Eichmann (1906–1962), SS
Kurt Becher (1909–1995), SS
|Location||Nazi-controlled Budapest, Hungary|
|Departure||The train left Budapest on Friday, 30 June 1944Central European Time., at c. 23:00|
|Diversion||It arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hannover on 9 July, with 1,684 passengers on board.|
|Result||1,670 passengers arrived in Switzerland in August and December 1944|
|Allegations||Malchiel Gruenwald (1881–1958) accused Kastner in Israel in 1952 of being a Nazi collaborator, leading to a libel case, The Attorney General of the Government of Israel v. Malchiel Grünwald.|
|Libel trial||The judge ruled on 22 June 1955 that, in his dealings with Eichmann and Becher, Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil," and had sacrificed the many to save the few.|
|Assassination||Kastner was shot by Zeev Eckstein on 3 March 1957, and died 12 days later|
|Appeal||Supreme Court of Israel appeal hearing began January 1957, and most of the verdict was overturned in January 1958.|
The Kastner train consisted of 35 cattle trucks that left Budapest on 30 June 1944, during the German occupation of Hungary, carrying around 1,700 Jews to safety in Switzerland. The train was named after Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish-Hungarian lawyer and journalist, who on behalf of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee negotiated with Adolf Eichmann – the German SS officer in charge of deporting Hungary's Jews to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland – to allow a number of Jews to escape the Holocaust, in exchange for gold, diamonds, and cash.
Compared by Kastner to a Noah's ark, the train was organized during the deportations to Auschwitz in May–July 1944 of 437,000 Hungarian Jews, three-quarters of whom were sent to the gas chambers. Its passengers were chosen from a wide range of social classes and included around 273 children, many of them orphaned. One hundred and fifty of the wealthier passengers paid $1,000 each, which allowed the others to board for free. After a journey of many weeks, including an unexpected diversion to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, 1,670 of the passengers reached Switzerland in two batches, the first in August, the second in December 1944.
Kastner emigrated to Israel in 1947, and was a spokesman for the Minister of Trade and Industry when his negotiations with Eichmann became the subject of controversy. Kastner had been told of the mass murder taking place inside Auschwitz, particularly in April or May 1944 when he received a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report, written by two Auschwitz escapees. Allegations spread after the war that he had done nothing to warn the wider community, but had focused instead on his negotiations to save a smaller number. The inclusion on the train of his family, as well as 388 people he rescued from the ghetto in his home town of Kolozsvár, reinforced the view of his critics that his actions had been self-serving. In his defence, the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer argues that the Hungarian-Jewish community already knew that Jews were being killed in Poland, and there was nothing further Kastner could have done to warn them. Bauer also argues that Kastner could hardly have been expected to exclude his own family from the train.
The allegations culminated in a libel trial in Israel that lasted from January 1954 to June 1955, after Kastner was accused in a self-published newsletter of having been a Nazi collaborator. The government sued on his behalf, and the defendant's lawyer turned the trial into an indictment of the Mapai (Labour) leadership and its alleged failure to help Europe's Jews. The judge found against the government, ruling that Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil" by negotiating with Eichmann, and by selecting some Jews to be saved while failing to alert others. Kastner received numerous death threats after the ruling and was assassinated in Tel Aviv in March 1957. Nine months later the Supreme Court of Israel overturned most of the lower court's ruling, stating in a 4-1 decision that the judge had "erred seriously."
Rudolf Kastner (1906–1957), also known as Israel Rezső Kasztner, was born in Kolozsvár, Austria-Hungary. Kolozsvár became Cluj, Romania in 1918, before being returned to Hungary in 1940, then restored to Romania in 1947. Kastner attended law school, then worked as a journalist for Új Kelet as a sports reporter and political commentator. He also became an assistant to Dr. József Fischer, a member of the Romanian parliament and leading member of the National Jewish Party, and in 1934 married Fischer's daughter, Erzsébet (Elizabeth, known as Bogyó).
Kastner gained a reputation as a political fixer, and joined the Ihud party, later known as Mapai, a left-wing Zionist party. He also helped to set up the Aid and Rescue Committee, along with Joel and Hansi Brand, Samuel Springmann, Ottó Komoly, a Budapest engineer, Ernő Szilágyi from the Hashomer Hatzair, and several others. According to Joel Brand, the group helped 22,000–25,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe reach the relative safety of Hungary between 1941 and March 1944, before the German invasion of that country on 19 March that year.
The passengers were chosen by a committee that included Kastner, Ottó Komoly, and Hansi Brand from the Aid and Rescue Committee, as well as Zsigmond Leb, a former president of the Orthodox community in Cluj. Israeli legal scholar Asher Maoz writes that Kastner told the Zionist Congress after the war, in a report he wrote about the actions of the Aid and Rescue Committee, that he saw the train as a "Noah's ark," because it contained a cross-section of the Jewish community, and in particular people who had worked in public service.
According to Jeno Kölb, a passenger who kept a diary, there were 972 female and 712 male passengers in all; the oldest was 85, the youngest was born on the train. Ladislaus Löb, another passenger (see right), writes that the exact number on board when the train left Budapest remains uncertain, because in the early stages of the journey several passengers disembarked, fearing that the train would end up in Auschwitz, while others took their places. Several women threw their young children on board at the last minute. What is known is that 1,684 passengers were registered when the train (unexpectedly) reached the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hannover on 9 July.
According to Löb, the passengers included 199 Zionists from Transylvania and 230 from Budapest, and 126 Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, among them 40 rabbis; one of the rabbis was Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe. There were scholars, artists, housewives, peasants, farmers, industrialists and bankers, journalists, teachers and nurses. The writer Béla Zsolt was on board, as was the psychiatrist Léopold Szondi, the opera singer Dezső Ernster, the artist István Irsai, and Peter Munk, who became a businessman in Canada. There were also 388 people from Kastner's home town of Cluj, including family members. His mother, Helen Kastner, was given a place, as was his brother Ernő, his pregnant wife Bogyó (she gave birth to a daughter, Zsuzsi, in Switzerland in December 1944), along with her father József Fischer, and Bogyó's other relatives. Erno Szilagyi of the Aid and Rescue Committee was on board, as were Joel Brand's mother, sister, and niece Margit, and the daughters of Ottó Komoly and Samuel Stern.
Porter writes that each passenger was allowed to bring two changes of clothing, six sets of underwear, and food for 10 days. Three suitcases of cash, jewels, gold, and shares of stock, amounting to about $1000 per person, were paid to SS officer Kurt Becher in ransom.
|Part of a series of articles on the
|"Blood for goods"
According to Bauer, the train was stopped at the Hungarian-Austrian border, where it could head west, or east to Auschwitz. The passengers started panicking; he writes that Joel Teitelbaum and his party sent off messages asking people to save them, and only them. Eichmann decided, for reasons that remain unclear, to divert the train to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany, near Hannover.
The train passed through Linz in Austria, where passengers disembarked and were sent to a military delousing station for medical inspections and showers. They were forced to strip and stand naked for hours waiting to see medical personnel or go into the showers; the women were subjected to intimate examinations by the doctors, supposedly in a search for lice. They also had their heads and pubic regions shaved.
Several passengers believed the showers would turn out to be gas chambers, something that Löb writes one of the SS guards confirmed with a grin. Bauer cites this fear as evidence that the Hungarian-Jewish community was well aware of the information about the gas chambers inside Auschwitz. Between August 1943 and May 1944, Rudolf Vrba and three other Auschwitz escapees had passed information about the gas chambers to Jewish and other officials; it was this information that Vrba believed Kastner had access to but did not distribute widely enough.
When the train reached Bergen-Belsen on Sunday, 9 July, the passengers were taken to a special section, the Ungarnlager (Hungarian camp), where they were held for weeks, and in some cases months. Löb writes that their daily diet consisted of 330 grams of a grey, dense bread, 15 grams of margarine, 25 grams of jam, 1 litre of vegetable (mostly turnip) soup, 1.5 litres of coffee substitute, and sometimes cheese or sausage, with milk and extra rations for children under 14. The group was allowed to organize itself and its activities, and with so many intellectuals among the passengers, there were regular poetry readings, and lectures in history, philosophy and religious education. The living arrangements were primitive, with 130–160 people crammed into each room. Ladislaus Löb describes a typical night, based on a diary kept by Szidonia Devecseri, another passenger:
The rabbi's wife tries in vain to stop her children, aged four and eight, fighting in her bunk. Her neighbours, kept awake by the din, swear at them. A woman screams because a mouse has run over her face. Bedbugs drop from the higher bunks onto the lower. Another woman screams because the little boy in the bunk above her has spilled the jam jar he uses as a chamber pot all over her. Somebody has whooping cough. Another little boy begs his mother not to beat him because in his sleep he wet the bunk he shares with her. She does and he squeals. A former night-club dancer tells dirty stories about her ex-colleagues to the refined Orthodox language teacher, who does not know whether to block her ears or to laugh. A spoilt rich wife has hung her clothes on all available nails, leaving no room for anybody else. The passage ends with: "In 24 out of 24 hours there is never a minute's silence ..."
Three hundred and eighteen of the passengers were taken to Switzerland in August, and the remainder in December. There were a number of births and deaths, and about 17 continued to be detained in Bergen-Belsen on various pretexts. The total saved was about 1,670.
The transport played a major role in the Kastner trial in Israel in 1954, in which the government of Israel sued Malchiel Gruenwald, a political pamphleteer, for libel after he self-published a pamphlet charging Kastner, by then an Israeli government spokesman, with collaboration. A major detail of Gruenwald's allegations was that Kastner had agreed to the rescue in return for remaining silent about the fate of the mass of Hungarian Jews. This accusation was accepted by the court, leading Judge Benjamin Halevi to declare that Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil." In 1958, most of the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court of Israel. The Court upheld Judge Halevi's verdict on the manner in which Kastner offered testimony after the war on behalf of SS officer Kurt Becher.
- Killing Kasztner (2008)
- Transport of concentration camp inmates to Tyrol, a Nazi attempt to move high-profile prisoners from Dachau Concentration Camp away from the advancing Western Allies in April 1945.
- The number of passengers cited most often is 1,684. This was the number registered when the train arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The number on board when the train left Budapest is not known, because people jumped on and off while the train was in motion.
- For the date (30 June), see Bauer (1994), p. 199
- For the date and time (30 June, towards 11 pm), see Löb (2009), pp. 50, 97; for 35 cattle trucks, see p. 97.
- Porter (2007), p. 234, writes that the train left Budapest at half an hour after midnight on Saturday, 1 July.
- Cohen (2010), pp. 578–579; Porter (2007), pp. 403–405; Weitz (1996), p. 5; Time magazine (11 July 1955); The New York Times (3 July 1955); The New York Times (30 June 1955)
- Weitz (1996)
- Braham (2004)
- For the comparison to Noah's ark, see Kastner (1945), pp. 61–62, cited in Maoz (2000); Bauer (1994), p. 198; Porter (2007), p. 234; and Löb (2009), p. 89
- For 437,000 Jews, and that three-quarters were killed, see Bauer (1994), p. 156
- Löb (2009), pp. 117–118
- Bauer (1994), p. 198
- Bauer (1994), p. 150ff and 199–200 for the Hungarian community already knowing about the gas chambers; p. 197 for 388 people from Kolozsvár; pp. 199–200 for Bauer's argument that it would have been contrary to human nature for Kastner to exclude his family.
- The New York Times (16 March 1957); The New York Times (8 January 1958).
- The New York Times (16 January 1958); The New York Times (17 January 1958); The New York Times (18 January 1958); Time magazine (27 January 1958)
- Porter (2007), p. 9–10, 15–18.
- Löb (2009), p. 72
- Bauer (1994), pp. 152–153.
- "Joel Brand's testimony", Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Session 56, Part 1/4, 29 May 1961.
- For Kölb and the numbers, see Löb (2009), p. 115; for the ages, see Porter (2007), pp. 1, 235
- Löb (2009), p. 114
- For a two-year-old Polish boy being thrown on the train by his mother at the last minute, see Porter (2007), p. 234.
- Also see Reisz (28 February 2008)
- Bauer (1994), pp. 197-199
- Braham (2004); for Munk, see Porter (2007), p. 3
- Bauer (1994), p. 197
- Porter (2007), p. 233ff
- Bauer (1994), p. 199; also see Porter (2007), p. 236
- Löb (2009), pp. 102–105
- Kárný (1998), p. 553ff
- Löb (2009), pp. 125–126
- Porter (2007), pp. 237–239
- Löb (2009), p. 124
- Löb (2009), pp. 114, 198-200
- Bauer, Yehuda (1994). Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933–1945. Yale University Press.
- Braham, Randolph (2004). "Rescue Operations in Hungary: Myths and Realities", East European Quarterly, 38(2): pp. 173-203.
- Cohen, Boaz (2010). "The Holocaust in Israel's Public Square", in Peter Hayes and John K. Roth (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies. Oxford University Press.
- Hilberg, Raul (2003) . The Destruction of the European Jews. Yale University Press.
- Kárný, Miroslav (1998) . "The Vrba and Wetzler report", in Michael Berenbaum and Yisrael Gutman (eds.). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press.
- Kastner, Rudolf (1945). Der Bericht des jüdischen Rettungskomitees aus Budapest 1942-1945. Vaadat Ezra Vö-Hazalah Bö-Budapest.
- Mayer, Egon (translator). The Report of the Jewish Rescue Committee 1942-1945. Center for Jewish Studies.
- Löb, Ladislaus (2009). Rezso Kasztner. The Daring Rescue of Hungarian Jews: A Survivor's Account. Random House/Pimlico; first published as Dealing with Satan: Rezso Kasztner's Daring Rescue Mission (2008). Jonathan Cape.
- Maoz, Asher (2000). "Historical Adjudication: Courts of Law, Commissions of Inquiry, and 'Historical Truth'", Law and History Review, Volume 18, Number 3, Fall.
- Porter, Anna (2007). Kastner's Train. Douglas & MacIntyre.
- Reisz, Matthew (28 February 2008). "A tainted saviour?", Times Higher Education.
- Time magazine (11 July 1955). "On Trial"
- Time magazine (27 January 1958). "Exoneration of Dr. Kastner.
- Vrba, Rudolf (2002). I Escaped from Auschwitz. Barricade Books.
- Weitz, Yechiam (1996). "The Holocaust on Trial: The Impact of the Kasztner and Eichmann Trials on Israeli Society", Israel Studies 1(2), 1-26.
- Bilsky, Leora (2001). "Judging Evil in the Trial of Kastner", Law and History Review, Vol 19, No. 1, Spring.
- Bilsky, Leora (2004). Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial. University of Michigan Press.
- Blumenthal, Ralph (21 October 2009). "Once Reviled as Nazi Collaborator, Now a Savior", The New York Times.
- Hecht, Ben (1997) . Perfidy. Milah Press.
- Mayer, Egon. "Kastner memorial site
- Segev, Tom (2000). The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. Owl Books.