Douglas & McIntyre
Kasztner's Train

Book details:

September 2007
ISBN 978-1-55365-222-9
Hardcover
6" x 9"
512 pages
Biography & Autobiography BIO000000
Nonfiction
$37.95 CAD

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Douglas & McIntyre

Kasztner's Train

The True Story of Rezso Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust

Excerpt / Additional Content

Introduction

I first heard of Rezsö Kasztner in 1999 from Peter Munk, a Canadian businessman-entrepreneur. Munk’s energy and charm are legendary, as are his successful business ventures. And he owes his life to Rezsö Kasztner.

We sat in a dark room with leather furniture, Persian rugs, heavy silk drapes, paintings that looked old, and bronze statuettes that looked recent. There were some faded black-and-white prints on a low-slung coffee table. I noticed pictures of a five-story, white-painted brick house, a shaded garden with puffball flowers, and a small, slanting lawn. Then a picture of his grandfather, Gabriel Munk, in the garden, hand resting on a brass-handled walking cane, dressed in a three-piece suit, with a gold watch-chain and a white kerchief neatly triangled out of his top jacket pocket. Next, Peter’s father, also with felt hat and walking cane, and Peter’s stepmother—“a great beauty,” as Peter said. Her face half in shadow, her chin raised, her short, flared dress a fashion statement of the early forties, she seems to be flirting with the photographer.

“I’ve been sorting some boxes,” Peter said, almost apologetically. “I don’t think about the past much, but we have to pack some of these old things…” He picked up another photograph, showing “the most elegant man I have ever known.” In this picture Grandfather Gabriel is framed by an ornate doorway. He stands next to a slight woman whose hand rests on his forearm.

Gabriel Munk had purchased seats on the last train from Budapest transporting Jews not destined for the death camps. The train left Budapest on July 1, 1944, three and a half months after the German occupation of Hungary, two and a half months after the first deportations of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.(1)

Munk showed me a photograph of gray and white people standing around a railway carriage. They seem aimless, as people often do when they are waiting. Some are lining up at metal steps, and one woman in a light, two-piece suit with padded shoulders and high-heeled shoes is looking back at the camera. A man in a long, belted raincoat is helping her up with one hand while holding her small valise in the other. In the background stands a German soldier, his rifle at ease. The woman is smiling.

It seems a very ordinary picture, except that this photograph was taken in the summer of 1944, at a time when Hungarian Jews were brutalized, robbed, beaten, and shot, and when many witnessed the slaughter of their children. It was the summer when 437,402 of them were packed into cattle cars destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of them were murdered.(2) At the time the photo was taken, Peter Munk’s family was boarding a train toward the west.

It was Kasztner’s train.


Like Peter Munk, I was born in Budapest. My early education about the war years, however, was somewhat different from his. Although mine was full of detail about the Soviet “liberation” of the country in 1945, it contained few references to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. Searching for Rezsö Kasztner, I read all the books I could find that dealt with the years leading up to the war.

I met Erwin Schaeffer, Munk’s business associate in Budapest, who took me to the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street and told me the story of how his father had been thrown off the Kasztner train and murdered by the Arrow Cross Party’s thugs, the Hungarian Nazis who assumed power in October 1944. I visited libraries and archives in Budapest, New York, Washington, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. I read everything I could find about Kasztner, only to become more confused by the irreconcilably different versions of him presented in memoirs, documents, letters, and testimonials. Adolf Eichmann described him as “an ice-cold lawyer” and talked of their mutual deals. Hansi Brand, Kasztner’s lover, spoke of a “passionate believer in human values.” Tomy Lapid, a former colleague, remembers his extraordinary facility with words and his devastating wit. American scriptwriter Ben Hecht saw him as a smug Nazi collaborator. Thousands owe their lives to Kasztner. But thousands still decry his “deal with the devil.”

I listened to the stories of survivors. Some still remembered Rezsö Kasztner, the brilliant raconteur, the idealistic Zionist, the humanist, the writer, the politician, the resourceful negotiator, the inveterate gambler, the romantic, the sarcastic critic of everyone less intelligent and less well informed. I met his daughter, Zsuzsi, who adored her father’s warmth and humor. I had tea with Sári Reuveni, who said Kasztner could not have dealt with Eichmann without the support of Hansi Brand. “She was his soul,” she mused, his partner in saving lives, his lover during the months of the German occupation of Hungary. I met Hansi’s son Dani in Tel Aviv. He talked about his strong, spirited mother, who had hidden him during the siege of Budapest. He was proud of her fearlessness, her extraordinary empathy for others. We did not talk about Hansi’s affair with Rezsö.

In New York, Egon Mayer, a director at the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, collected a massive archive of Kasztner information. He had a special interest in the train: his parents were on it, and he was born six weeks after its second detachment of passengers arrived in Switzerland. It was Mayer who first told me that Kasztner had supplied the funds to feed and clothe Oskar Schindler’s Jews.(3)

Schindler, I discovered, had gone to Budapest in 1942 to meet Kasztner. Both men had powerful egos; both believed they were the only ones who could outwit the Nazis. Schindler, the big-boned, rough-talking Sudeten German industrialist, and Kasztner, the soft-spoken Jewish intellectual, had not liked each other, but they shared a passionate belief that one man could make a difference. During subsequent meetings, exchanging letters, cash, and information, Schindler grew to admire Kasztner: “He was utterly fearless,” he wrote in a postwar memoir, and “his actions remain unsurpassed.”(4)

After the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated, and lionized. Kasztner, in contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy.

The deals Kasztner made with the SS (Schutzstaffel), the Nazi Party’s protection and security service, raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.


A NOTE TO THE READER

This is a work of popular history. I have done my best to be accurate but have allowed myself the leeway to reconstruct scenes and dialogue based on the diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, pretrial interrogations, and memoirs—both written and oral—of the participants in Hungarian, English, German, and Hebrew. My primary sources are listed in the bibliography. Where I have attributed emotions or thoughts to people, I based these on published and unpublished sources. I interviewed more than seventy-five people—those who remembered most clearly are credited in the text, notes, and acknowledgments. Discerning the truth is never an exact science when relying on people’s memories, but I have done my best to cross-reference wherever possible, and only when convinced of the credibility of the testimony did I use it. Is it possible that some of my judgments or reconstructions are mistaken? Of course. But I do not consider anything in this book to be simply speculative.

After all the reading, listening, and searching, I feel I have discovered the real Rezsö Kasztner—an extraordinary man who played a high-stakes game of roulette with the devil. And won. In the only game he cared about, that of saving human lives, he achieved more in his way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.

In the end, all he lost was his own life. Kasztner would have considered that a small price to pay.


Chapter 20: The Journey

He who saves a single life, it is as though he has saved the entire world.
--SANHEDRIN, CHAPTER 4, TALMUD

On Friday, June 30, 1944, Rezsö Kasztner’s “token” group, its numbers swelled to around 1,500,(1) left the Columbus Street camp on foot in heavy rain and walked in rows, five abreast, toward the Rákos Street railway station.(2) The passengers had come from all parts of Hungary, from villages and cities, and from all social standings. There were forty rabbis, including Joel Teitelbaum, the fabled Szatmár rebbe, the chief rabbi of the ultrareligious Hasidim; well-known Zionists; eastern European Jews in traditional garb; several secular scholars; a world-famous psychologist; two opera singers; a number of journalists, farmers, and landowners; peasants and former officers in the Hungarian army; ladies of leisure, and old women who had worked in the wheat and potato fields. Baron Fülöp von Freudiger, whose family and congregation had contributed the major share of the original deposit, had been allotted only sixty places for his Orthodox congregation, not including his relatives.(3) There were Slovak and Polish refugees, Communists and Conservatives, Neologs and Orthodox young halutzim who had trained for aliya (the return to the land of Eretz Israel, or Palestine) and were singing in newly learned Hebrew, and seventeen Polish and about forty Hungarian orphans.(4) Some of the industrialists and bankers on board had paid handsomely for their seats but were now no different from the other passengers.

Joel Brand’s mother, sister, and niece Margit were on the train; so were Kasztner’s brother Ernö and their mother, Helen, and Bogyó, her father, József Fischer, and other members of Bogyó’s family. Samuel Stern’s daughters, Ottó Komoly’s daughter Lea, and Ernö Szilágyi, the man who had been most responsible to the Va’ada for the list, were also there.

Peter Munk thought all these people had been selected to represent the myriad lives of the Jews—a kind of Noah’s Ark.

Each person had been allowed to take two changes of clothing, six sets of underwear, and sufficient food for ten days’ journey. The train was nothing but boxcars, and the suitcases and food were packed into wagons attached to the end of the train. During the hours they waited in a railroad yard for departure from Budapest, about sixty additional people boarded from Bocskay Street, where a small area around the synagogue had been assigned for the last of the Kasztner transport. A young woman who had escaped from Poland with her two-year-old son threw the boy through the open doors of one of the boxcars. She had heard of the train from one of the Polish halutzim and had been waiting for it to pass. Margit Fendrich, Joel’s niece, remembers persuading one of the Hungarian families to take responsibility for the child.(5) That night the train moved slowly to the outskirts of the city, where it stopped on a siding to take on more coal. During the dark hours, some of the labor service men from a nearby train stealthily scrambled aboard.

Most of the passengers settled on the floor of the boxcars, surrounded by a few of their bags. Some made nests for themselves with clothing; others just leaned against one another. A few had brought pillows and blankets. Babies cried, children had to be kept quiet and entertained.

Unlike those of the trains going to Auschwitz, the boxcar doors were not padlocked, so, as they waited, the passengers could let in the night air. Some men sat on the ledges, their legs dangling over the sides of the wagons, smoking, looking at the stars and for the last time at the antiaircraft lights over Budapest. Peter Munk remembers lying on the roof of a wagon, looking at the sky and seeing the sudden flashes of light where the bombs landed. Later, he, too, sat on a ledge, smoking one of his grandfather’s gold-tipped cigarettes and talking with a beautiful, blond-haired girl.

The train finally left Budapest a half hour after midnight on Saturday, July 1.(6)

Munk isn’t sure how many passengers left Budapest in the end; he has read several versions of the story, and they all give different numbers. He has no recollection of anyone being taken off the train or anyone scrambling onto it, unidentified, but the excitement surrounding their departure was so great that he concedes it could have happened. The guards seemed not to have counted the over two hundred babies and toddlers. In any event, there were more people than Kasztner had paid for. The SS demanded to be paid in full for every one in the final count of 1,684—and, as it happened, they were paid twice for the people to whom Kurt Becher had sold his tickets.

Once on their way, many gave in to their exhaustion and slept in snatches; some talked loudly, edgily, all night and through the next day; others seemed dazed, caught in their own private horrors. The train stopped for several hours while a nearby town was lit up by heavy bombardments and planes rumbled overhead so close that those on the ground could make out the silhouettes of British pilots in the blinding antiaircraft lights. Some of the halutzim were quickly shut up when they started singing about Jerusalem. “Damned fools, they’re going to draw enemy fire,” someone muttered in the dark.
Who is the enemy?” another gruff voice inquired. “And who is the fool?”

They spent the nights of Sunday and Monday in a field, surrounded by a few gendarmes and a couple of German guards. They dug latrines at the point farthest from the train and erected a plank fence around them. Fortunately, the rain had subsided. There was a clear sky, with myriad stars and a million mosquitoes. One of the poets recited a long poem of farewell to the night sky or some other abstraction, but no one paid much attention.

On the fourth day, a baby was born in one of the wagons, with two doctors (one of them a renowned obstetrician) in attendance. It was the last day for Hungarian signs and Hungarian newspapers. The German guards supplied extras if they were offered Swiss francs—they didn’t want Hungarian pengös anymore. Most people cried when they said goodbye to Hungary. Even the Zionists kept quiet, out of respect for those who still felt that the country was their home. The passengers saw their last Hungarian soldier, and then they rolled into Austria.

Jewish labor brigade workers brought them food on a railway siding on the way to Vienna. When they were informed that there would be hot showers in Auspitz,(7) many protested that they were fine without them. They had heard rumors of the kinds of showers that awaited Jews in German camps, and the word “Auspitz” sounded a lot like “Auschwitz.” In hindsight, Peter Munk wonders how so many of the passengers knew about Auschwitz. He had not heard of it.

In the end, it was Linz where the showers waited. Each person had to stand naked in front of a German doctor before being sent to wash. Some of the women were ordered to have their hair cut off and their bodies shaved to prevent the spread of lice, or so they were told. Some women protested, others cried. Bogyó remembered standing before the German with her head held high, her shoulders back, and thinking, “I am a proud Jewish woman.” Peter Munk’s aunt, Eva Speter, looked straight into the doctor’s eyes. She ignored the grinning guards who watched the whole process. She would not be humiliated.

Munk remembers Vienna—the excitement he felt when the train stopped at the station, one of the grand European cities where he had always longed to be. “My grandfather was inside reading for most of the journey. I was getting a suntan, watching the scenery go by, still excited about the adventure. I could scamper onto the roof, stand there with the wind in my face… taller than all the bombed-out buildings.” He shared his cigarette (again stolen from Grandfather Gabriel) with a young German guard, sitting by the open doors at the side of the wagon, basking in the morning sunshine. The guard was not much older than Peter, and he, too, had always wanted to see Vienna, but not now. The escorts had strict orders not to let the passengers off the train here. Vienna had become proudly Judenfrei some time ago.

On July 8 they stopped and changed trains for one with fewer boxcars. They camped that evening in a field outside Hannover. The sky was alive with hundreds of Allied bombers, and the earth shook and vibrated as they dropped their lethal loads on the city. József Fischer gathered the group of former leaders together on the railway siding late that night and told them that the train had been refused permission to cross France, so they could no longer go to Portugal or Spain. The Allied forces were gaining ground: U.S. units had liberated Cherbourg, while British and Canadian units were at the outskirts of Caen. He had received a telegram, via the local SS, from Rezsö Kasztner. The Sonderkommando had assured him that they were all safe. No one should panic. There would be a short delay while the SS found another way to the west, but the deal was going to be honored.

In the small circle of those who surrounded Fischer that night, he may have been the only one who believed his son-in-law. There had been too many rumors about Kasztner falling for the Nazis’ lies. Moshe Krausz had told those who sought his opinion that “the convoy was headed for destruction.”(8) He had warned the Joint and the Jewish Agency that Kasztner and Ottó Komoly had become tools in Eichmann’s hands and that the SS, having extracted the Jews’ remaining valuables, would send the special train’s passengers to their deaths. Krausz’s influence had been so great that several of those originally on the lists had changed their minds and stayed behind in Budapest.

“We did not know where the train was going,” Olga Munk remembers, and they had “no idea if we would be alive at the end of the journey. But we were absolutely certain we would not live to see the end of the war if we stayed in Budapest.”

The train arrived at Bergen-Belsen, about forty-five miles northeast of Hannover, Germany, on Sunday, July 9. They received an armed reception from Hungarian guards in German uniforms, some holding onto tightly leashed dogs. The passengers stood in lines of ten to be counted, and to be counted again. There were 972 women and 712 men, including 252 children; the oldest was eighty-two, the youngest but a few days old.(9) The counting took three hours, during which they stood in heavy rain. It was dark by the time it was over, and the guards were not willing to start looking for the luggage then. “When we arrived in Bergen-Belsen we thought it was an extermination camp,” says Olga Munk. “We were given a single blanket each, a wooden bowl, a spoon, and herded into long barracks with double wooden bunks.” Her little boy, John—he was only six at the time—wanted her to sew on a second yellow star. He thought they were beautiful. The next morning there was milk and rice pudding for the babies and toddlers; for the rest, thin turnip soup.

This part of the camp became known as the Ungarnlager, “the Hungarian camp,” a separate part of Bergen-Belsen for the Hungarian “exchange Jews.” In 1944 parts of Bergen-Belsen still retained the camp’s original 1942 purpose of holding only those the German government considered useful—persons with influence, foreign Jews, those who could serve in case of prisoner exchanges or be traded for goods. The so-called privileged area was divided by high barbed-wire fences and landmines into separate units, one for each nationality. There were separate cages for Greeks, Romanians, Spanish, Dutch, North Africans, Yugoslavs, Albanians, and two hundred French women. In addition, there was a separate area for Jewish working prisoners, who were treated considerably worse than the rest of the inmates.(10) SS guards with machine guns at the ready manned the watchtowers to ensure that there was no mixing of nationalities. “There can be no logical, sane explanation for this camp,” Béla Zsolt remembered. “It was as if some crazed people had given vent to a maniacal, pointless collecting passion. And even now that there are few Jews left to categorize, the insane collecting and sorting goes on unabated.”(11)

Bergen-Belsen did not become a death camp where more than 100,000 people were murdered and where thousands died of typhoid, or dysentery, or hunger until much later, when other camps were evacuated as the Allies advanced.

In the Ungarnlager, the daily diet was black gruel, a thin cattle-turnip stew, a tiny piece of dark bread that tasted like sawdust, and sometimes a bit of cheese, sausage, jam, and even margarine. Children got milk and oatmeal.(12) The little ones were exempted from the daily roll calls. The denizens of the Ungarnlager did not work. As they settled in, the men elected a camp executive—József Fischer was president—to help run daily activities. The halutz youth organized themselves into subgroups for studies in Hebrew and outdoor gymnastics training. The women ran exercise classes. The Orthodox started a yeshiva for the children.(13) There were lectures by professors of philosophy and psychology, history and political science, and also religious education, including Orthodox Jewish. Some evenings there were concerts—Hanna Brand, Joel’s sister, sang Handel on the second evening after their arrival: “Und wer hat nicht am Jordan freund…”(14) One of the great bass singers from the National Opera House joined her the following night. The Polish children told stories about their shtetl childhoods, and everyone cried when they remembered the dead. They held readings of poetry by Ady, Attila, Heine, and Petöfi; they listened to dissertations about the work of Kant, Thomas Mann, and Dickens. Some of the theater people created a musical revue with hilarious takeoffs of others in the camp, re-enacting various verbal jousts among the inmates.

Inevitably, as the days marched on and their future remained uncertain, there were more arguments; small differences grew into monsters from living at such close quarters. The halutzim managed to acquire some alcohol and sometimes got drunk in their barracks. There were numerous accusations of hoarding food or stealing precious items, of not keeping clean or of spreading lice in the barracks; there were jealous rages, heated religious arguments, and fistfights. One evening Bogyó Kasztner slapped the face of a young man who had dared to address her disrespectfully; another night a woman committed suicide over a tiff with her recently acquired lover. Sometimes there were letters from Budapest and parcels from the Red Cross. Ernö Szilágyi was the only Va’ada member to have made the journey. He said he wanted to be there to reassure the young halutzim. The Poles and the Slovaks would not have come if they hadn’t seen him lining up for the train. He was their insurance against going to Auschwitz. In the camp, he gave lectures on Herbert Spencer, astronomy, Chinese culture, Plato, and ancient cultures. Professor Lipót Szondi, a world-famous psychologist, offered evening lessons on the applications of modern psychiatry and new developments in the field since Freud. He even provided the occasional private consultation.

In another, separate camp adjacent to the Ungarnlager was a large contingent of Dutch exchange Jews who had been there for a couple of years. They had their own hospital and storage rooms. They sang songs and celebrated Dutch holidays. “We were kept apart by barbed-wire fences. Sometimes we could hear them singing Dutch songs,” Margit remembers. “It was as if a madman with too much barbed wire had decided to create a series of cages for groups of mice. We could run all day in and out of the barracks in our own enclosure but were not allowed to have any contact with the mice on the other side of the cage.” There was also a häftlinger camp, where emaciated men with shaved heads, dressed in striped pajamas, could barely walk to their barracks after twelve hours of hard physical labor. They stared over the barbed-wire fence at the exchange Jews with wonder and hatred.

Every morning and afternoon there were the dreaded roll calls. Sometimes it took two or even three hours for all the people to be counted—then recounted if the numbers did not match the previous tally. An old man and a ten-month-old baby in his mother’s arms died while waiting in the heat.

But Peter Munk had fallen in love with a dark-haired beauty from Budapest. Her name was Kitty, and she was the only member of her family on the train. Her father had asked that the Munks look after her, and Peter had volunteered for the service. He spent most of his time in Bergen-Belsen trying to be alone with her, stealing his grandfather’s expensive cigarettes to bribe the guards to allow them an hour or two in the guardhouse or the storerooms.

On August 1, Hermann Krumey visited the Ungarnlager. He told Fischer that the group would be able to leave soon, though definitely not for Spain or Portugal, but perhaps Switzerland. “When you are free, don’t tell horror stories about us,” he warned the men surrounding him as they persisted with their questions.


Two of the passengers on the Kasztner transport, lawyers from Kolozsvár, found out that their daughters were on the other side of the barbed wire and tried to give them food. They were allowed to join their children, and they died, later, with them.