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Kurt Andreas Ernst Becher (12 September 1909 – 8 August 1995) was a mid-ranking SS commander who was Commissar of all German concentration camps, and Chief of the Economic Department of the SS Command in Hungary during the German occupation in 1944. He is best known for having traded Jewish lives for money during the Holocaust.
Becher was born to a wealthy family. He testified during the Nuremberg Trials that he had joined the SS because from 1932 he had been actively engaged in horseback riding, and in 1934, his instructor had advised him to enter the SS cavalry regiment (the Reiter-SS). Hannah Arendt suggests that the only reason Becher stressed this story was that the Nuremberg Tribunal had excluded the Reiter-SS from its list of criminal organizations.
Becher served as an SS Major in Poland and Russia, as part of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, which perfected the techniques for killing Jews. He was appointed Commissar of all German concentration camps, and Chief of the Economic Department of the SS Command in Hungary, by Heinrich Himmler. The "Economic Department" was tasked with extracting maximal economic value from Jews, which included confiscating goods and property, and selling or using belongings and body parts, including shorn hair and gold extracted from teeth.
Becher became the main buyer of horses for the SS and, according to his own testimony, was sent to Hungary in March 1944, when Germany invaded that country, to buy 20,000 horses. Arendt posited that this story is unlikely to be true, because as soon as he arrived in Budapest, he began to engage in a series of negotiations with the heads of several large Jewish business concerns.
His later actions showed that his goal was rather to extort as much wealth as possible from Hungary's Jews on behalf of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS. From 1944-45, he collected large sums of money, jewellery, and precious metals, worth an estimated 8,600,000 Swiss francs, from Hungarian Jews, a portion of which travelled with him in six large suitcases, in what became known as the "Becher Deposit".
In January 1945, he was appointed as Special Reich Commissioner for all the concentration camps by Himmler.
He was arrested in May 1945 by the Allies and imprisoned at Nuremberg but was not prosecuted as a war criminal, serving only as a witness during the Nuremberg Trials, as a result of a statement provided on his behalf by Rudolf Kastner, a leading member of the Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee in Hungary.
In an affidavit that Kastner submitted before the court at Nuremberg Kastner states: ”There can be no doubt about it that Becher belongs to the very few SS leaders having the courage to oppose the program of annihilation of the Jews, and trying to rescue human lives...that Kurt Becher did everything within the realm of possibilities to save innocent human beings from the blind fury of the Nazi leaders...I never doubted for one moment the good intentions of Kurt Becher etc.“
Kastner himself was eventually the defendant in a trial in which the Jerusalem District Court found that he was complicit in the Nazi murder of 740,000 Hungarian Jews, and had "sold his soul to the devil". The court found that Kastner collaborated with the Nazis' extermination of the Jews in Hungary, and by saving the war criminal Kurt Becher from its penalty. Kastner was subsequently assassinated in Israel in March 1957. The Supreme Court of Israel overturned the judgment against Kastner in 1958, except for the section exonerating Becher, whose status as a war criminal was determined in a 35 page decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Kastner's affidavit was perjurious, as Kastner had known of Becher's activities during the war.
The Becher Deposit was eventually sold for $55,000, far less than its estimated value. Some of the discrepancy was due to the hyperinflation which made the Hungarian pengő worthless after the war, but the Hungarian officials had already confiscated most of the cash and foreign currency held by Jews, so most passengers paid "in the form of jewelry, gold (gold jewelry, gold bullions and Napoleon gold), platinum, precious stones, and other valuables." Dagobert Arian of the Jewish Agency suggested that Becher had hidden most of his loot before he was captured, and that this explained the difference.
Historian Yehuda Bauer writes that Becher is known to have had specific Jewish treasures in his possession, which came from payments made to him by the Aid and Rescue Committee, and from property he had confiscated in Hungary. Of the luggage that made up the Becher Deposit, Becher gave one case to Moshe Schweiger (an associate of Rudolf Kastner), who had been released from Mauthausen specifically to take possession of the case. On 24 May 1945, Subsection B of the 215th American Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) detachment found 18.7 pounds of gold, 4.4 pounds of platinum, and some jewelry hidden under beds in a house Becher had been living in, and on May 30, the suitcase Becher had given to Schweiger was handed over to the CIC. On 25 June some other Jewish refugees Becher had been using as couriers handed in gold and paper shares.
After the war, Becher became a prosperous businessman in Bremen. He was the president of many corporations, including the Cologne-Handel Gesellschaft, which did extensive business with the Israeli government.
By 1960 he was one of the wealthiest men in West Germany, with estimated assets of US$30 million. He came to public attention once again in 1961 when he served as a witness for the prosecution during the trial in Jerusalem of SS officer Adolf Eichmann. He provided his testimony from his home in Germany, because he was unwilling to travel to Israel. He reportedly died a wealthy man.
- Joel Brand
- Rudolf Kastner
- Kastner train
- Aid and Rescue Committee
- Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl
- Rudolf Vrba
- Alfred Wetzler
- Adolf Eichmann
- History of the Jews in Hungary
- Auschwitz concentration camp
- The Holocaust
- Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod
- Arendt, Hannah (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (2006 ed.). Penguin Books. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-14-303988-4.
- Hecht, Ben. Perfidy, Milah Press, 1999, pp. 67-68.
- Arendt, p. 142.
- Zweig, Ronald W. The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary, Harper Collins, 2002, p. 223.
- ""Becher, Kurt"" (PDF). (26.1 KiB) Yad Vashem, retrieved May 8, 2006.
- "Statement from Kurt Becher", The Trial of German Major War Criminals, sitting at Nuremberg, Germany, April 4–15, 1946, The Nizkor Project.
- an aﬃdavit signed by Walter H. Rapp, lieutenant colonel of the American army, legal oﬃcer of the State Department, and head of the Evidence Counsel of the War Crimes Council in Nuremberg, states: "Becher’s ultimate release was solely the result of Kastner’s pleadings and the contents of his sworn testimony. His aﬃdavit regarding Becher was the main, if not the sole reason underlying our decision to free him." Aﬃdavit given in Tel Aviv on February 6, 1957. Hecht, Ben. Perfidy, Milah Press, 1999, pp. 70-71.
- Hecht, Ben. Perfidy, Milah Press, 1999, p. 67
- "Kastner's conviction in mistestifying for a war criminal- part A", Supreme court of Israel's verdict at Daat website, Hebrew
- "Kastner's conviction in mistestifying for a war criminal- part B", Supreme court of Israel's verdict at Daat website, Hebrew
- Zweig, Ronald W. The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary, Harper Collins, 2002, p. 230.
- Kadar, Gabor, and Vagi, Zoltan. Self-financing Genocide: The Gold Train, the Becher Case, and the Wealth of Hungarian Jews. Central European University Press, 2004, p. 213.
- Zweig, Ronald W. The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary, Harper Collins, 2002, p. 231.
- Bauer, Yehuda. Jews for sale: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945. Yale University Press, 1994, p. 240
- Bauer, Yehuda. Jews for sale: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945. Yale University Press, 1994, p. 239
- Hecht, p. 84.
- Hecht, p. 259, footnote 48.
- "The Testimony of Kurt Becher", Trial of Adolf Eichmann, The Nizkor Project
- Zweig, Ronald W. The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary, Harper Collins, 2002, p. 232.
- Patzwall & Scherzer 2001, p. 29.
- "Statement from Kurt Becher, The Trial of German Major War Criminals, Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany, April 4–15, 1946, The Nizkor Project
- "The Testimony of Kurt Becher", Trial of Adolf Eichmann, The Nizkor Project
- ""Becher, Kurt"" (PDF). (26.1 KiB) Yad Vashem, retrieved May 8, 2006
- Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, first published 1963, this edition Penguin Books, 1994. ISBN 0-14-018765-0
- Bauer, Yehuda. Jews for sale: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945. Yale University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-300-06852-2
- Kadar, Gabor, and Vagi, Zoltan. Self-financing Genocide: The Gold Train, the Becher Case, and the Wealth of Hungarian Jews. Central European University Press, 2004. ISBN 963-9241-53-9
- Hecht, Ben. Perfidy, Milah Press, first published in 1961; this edition 1999. ISBN 0-9646886-3-8
- Zweig, Ronald W. The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary. Harper Collins, 2002. ISBN 0-06-620956-0
- Patzwall, Klaus D.; Scherzer, Veit (2001). Das Deutsche Kreuz 1941 – 1945 Geschichte und Inhaber Band II [The German Cross 1941 – 1945 History and Recipients Volume 2] (in German). Norderstedt, Germany: Verlag Klaus D. Patzwall. ISBN 978-3-931533-45-8.
- Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, this edition Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-300-09557-0