Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


Hannah Arrendt on Kastner and the fate of Hungary's Jews
Seán Mac Mathúna

Rudolf Kasztner

THE KASTNER TRIAL - shown at the Jewish Film Festival in 1997

Czech film about Rabbi Weissmandel: Among Blind Fools

The Nizkor Project: Dedicated to the millions of Holocaust victims who suffered and died

Simon Wiesenthal Centre

Shamash: The Jewish Internet Consortium: Holocaust Home Page

The Confession of Adolf Eichmann

Revolt of Warsaw's Jews

Jews of Hungary website

Hannah Szenes: famous Jewish partisan betrayed by Kastner

The Nazis round up the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943

Rudolf Kastner and the fate of Hungary's Jews in 1944 features prominently in Hannah Arendt's account of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in Israel in 1960 in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report in the Banality of Evil (Penguin, London, England, 1994). If Kastner had not been assassinated in 1958 for being an alleged Nazi collaborator, he would undoubtedly been called by Eichmann as a witness in his trial for crimes against humanity and involvement in the murder of six million Jews in occupied Europe. In fact, the Israeli's had first come across Eichmann when Kastner was still alive. Although all trace of Eichmann had been lost after the war in Europe in May 1945, he had actually remained in Europe until 1950, maintaining no contact with his family. In 1950, with the help of the ODESSA network (which assisted former Nazis to leave Europe), he escaped to Argentina. Two years later, he sent for his wife and children. For the next seven years, like many leading Nazis who escaped justice, no one had heard of Eichmann. However, in the autumn of 1957, an official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Walter Eytan, got a call from Fritz Bauer, the public prosecutor of the province of Hesse, Germany. Hesse told him that Eichmann was alive and living in Argentina. MOSSAD soon mounted a daring operation to capture him, which only just suceeded in 1960, when he was kidnapped by them in Buenos Aires. He was brought back to Israel for trial and later executed in 1962. Thus, within four years of each other, two of the most important people who were involved or witnesses to the genocide of Hungary's Jews were dead.

According to Arendt, after Eichmann was arrested, went "to considerable lengths" to try and somehow prove that "never harboured any ill feelings against his victims" something he notes, he also explained to Kastner. When he was being interrogated in Israel over his complicity in war crimes, Eichmann claimed that he had Jewish friends and as he had Jewish relations through his stepmother, he had his own "private reasons" for not hating the Jews (p30). He spoke of how he had helped a half-Jewish cousin escape during the war, and claimed he had intervened to save a Jewish family in Vienna:

"The daughter of this marriage, half-Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws. . . . came to see me in order to obtain my permission for her emigration into Switzerland. Of course, I granted this request, and the same uncle came also to see me to ask me to intervene for some Viennese Jewish couple. I mention this only to show that I myself had no hatred for Jews, for my whole education through my mother and my father had been strictly Christian; my mother, because of her Jewish relatives, held different opinions from those current in S.S. circles." (p30).

Eichmann on Kastner

As Arrendt observes, Eichmann had a high regard for Kastner:

The greatest "idealist" Eichmann ever encountered among the Jews was Dr. Rudolf Kastner, with whom he negotiated during the Jewish deportations from Hungary and with whom he came to an agreement that he, Eichmann, would permit the "illegal" departure of a few thousand Jews to Palestine (the trains were in fact guarded by German police) in exchange for "quiet and order' in the camps from which hundreds of thousands were shipped to Auschwitz. The few thousand saved by the agreement, prominent Jews and members of the Zionist youth organizations, were, in Eichmann's words, "the best biological material." Dr. Kastner, as Eichmann understood it, had sacrificed his fellow-Jews to his "idea," and this was as it should be. Judge Benjamin Halevi, one of the three judges at Eichmann's trial, had been in charge of the Kastner trial in Israel, at which Kastner had to defend himself for his cooperation with Eichmann and other high-ranking Nazis; in Halevi's opinion, Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil." Now that the devil himself was in the dock he turned out to be an "idealist," and though it may be hard to believe, it is quite possible that the one who sold his soul had also been an "idealist." (p42)

'"To Sum It All Up, I Regret Nothing" - Nazi mass-murderer Adolph Eichmann

Eichmann himself had talked about Kastner a lot already when his interview Life magazine was first published on the 28th November and 5th December 1960:

I resolved to show how well a job could be done when the commander stands 100% behind it. By shipping the Jews off in a lightning operation, I wanted to set an example for future campaigns elsewhere . . .

In obedience to Himmler's directive I now concentrated on negotiations with the Jewish political officials in Budapest . . . Among them Dr. Rudolph Kastner, authorized representative of the Zionist Movement. This Dr. Kastner was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation - and even keep order in the collection camps - if I could close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain. For keeping order in the camps, the price . . . was not too high for me . . . We trusted each other perfectly. When he was with me, Kastner smoked cigarettes as though he was in a coffeehouse. While we talked he would smoke one aromatic cigarette after another, taking them from a silver case and lighting them with a silver lighter. With his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself. Dr. Kastner's main concern was to make it possible for a select group of Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Israel . . .

As a matter of fact, there was a very strong similarity between our attitudes in the S.S. and the viewpoint of these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders . . . I believe that Kastner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal . . . 'You can have the others', he would say, 'but let me have this group here'. And because Kastner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape. After all, I was not concerned with small groups of a thousand or so Jews . . . That was the 'gentleman's agreement' I had with Kastner

(Quoted in Hecht, ibid., p.260-61)

Only Heinrich Himmler could turn off the liquidation machine. It was in 1944, the year of the assassination attempt on Hitler, when Reichsführer Himmler took over as commander of the Reserve Army, that he authorized me to propose an exchange: one million Jews for 10,000 winterized trucks with trailers. The World Jewish Organization could decide for itself what Jews it wanted to choose. We asked only that they get us 10,000 trucks. Thanks to Himmler's directive, I could assure them, on my word of honor, that these trucks would be used only on the Eastern front. As I said at the time, "When the 10,000 winterized trucks with trailers are here, then the liquidation machine in Auschwitz will be stopped.

In obedience to Himmler's directive I now concentrated on negotiations with the Jewish political officials in Budapest. One man stood out among them, Dr. Rudolf Kastner, authorized representative of the Zionist movement. This Dr. Kastner was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation and even keep order in the collection camps if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain. For keeping order in the camps, the price of 15,000 to 20,000 Jews - in the end there may have been more - was not too high for me.

Except perhaps for the first few sessions, Kastner never came to me fearful of the Gestapo strong man. We negotiated entirely as equals. People forget that. We were political opponents trying to arrive at a settlement, and we trusted each other perfectly. When he was with me, Kastner smoked cigarettes as though he were in a coffeehouse. While we talked he would smoke one aromatic cigarette after another, taking them from a silver case and lighting them with a little silver lighter. With his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.

Dr. Kastner's main concern was to make it possible for a select group of Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Israel. But the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascist party, had grown strong and stubborn. Its inspectors permitted no exceptions to the mass deportations. So the Jewish officials turned to the German occupation authorities. They realized that we were specialists who had learned about Jewish affairs through years of practice.

As a matter of fact, there was a very strong similarity between our attitudes in the SS and the viewpoint of these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders who were fighting what might be their last battle. As I told Kastner: "We, too, are idealists and we, too, had to sacrifice our own blood before we came to power."

I believe that Kastner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred- thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal. He was not interested in old Jews or those who had become assimilated into Hungarian society. But he was incredibly persistent in trying to save biologically valuable Jewish blood, that is, human material that was capable of reproduction and hard work. "You can have the others," he would say, "but let me have this group here." And because Kastner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape. After all, I was not concerned with small groups of a thousand or so Jews.

At the same time Kastner was bargaining with another SS of ficial a Colonel Kurt Becker. Becher was bartering Jews for foreign exchange and goods on direct orders from Himmler. A crafty operator, Becher had come to Hungary originally to salvage a stud farm which the SS wanted. He soon wormed his way into dealings with the Jews. In a way, Reichsführer Himmler was Becher's captive. Becher showed me once a gold necklace he was taking to our chief, a gift for a little lady by whom Himmler had a child. There were other agencies, German and Hungarian, which tapped Kastner for foreign exchange in return for Jews, but I held aloof from money affairs and left the material transactions to Becher.

Men under Becher's command guarded a special group of 700 Jews whom Kastner had requested from a list. They were mostly young people, although the group also included Kastner's entire family. I did not care if Kastner took his relatives along. he could take them whereever he wanted to.

 Life, Vol. 49, No. 23, December 5, 1960, p. 146

Kurt Becher and Kastner

On witness called for Eichmann's defense was the former SS officer Kurt Becher, who with Kastner's help had avoided execution after the war:

Becher, an old enemy of Eichmann who is today a prosperous merchant in Bremen, was called, strangely enough, as a witness for the defense. He could not come to Jerusalem, for obvious reasons, and he was examined in his German home town. His testimony had to be dismissed, since he had been shown, well ahead of time, the questions he was later called on to answer under oath. It was a great pity that Eichmann and Becher could not have been confronted with each other, and this not merely for juridical reasons. Such a confrontation would have revealed another part of the "general picture," which, even legally, was far from irrelevant. According to his own account, the reason Becher joined the S.S. was that "from 1932 to the present day he had been actively engaged in horseback riding." Thirty years ago, this was a sport engaged in only by Europe's upper classes. In 1934, his instructor had persuaded him to enter the S.S. cavalry regiment, which at that moment was the very thing for a man to do if he wished to join the "movement" and at the same time maintain a proper regard for his social standing. (A possible reason Becher in his testimony stressed horseback riding was never mentioned: the Nuremberg Tribunal had excluded the Reiter-S.S. from its list of criminal organizations.) The war saw Becher on active duty at the front, as a member not of the Army but of the Armed S.S., in which he was a liaison officer with the Army commanders. He soon left the front to become the principal buyer of horses for the S.S. personnel department, a job that earned him nearly all the decorations that were then available.

Becher claimed that he had been sent to Hungary only in order to buy twenty thousand horses for the S.S.; this is unlikely, since immediately upon his arrival he began a series of very successful negotiations with the heads of big Jewish business concerns. His relations with HimmIer were excellent, he could see him whenever he wished. His "special mission" was clear enough. He was to obtain control of major Jewish business concerns behind the backs of the Hungarian government, and, in return, to give the owners free passage out of the country, plus a sizable amount of money in foreign currency. His most important transaction was with the Manfred Weiss steel combine, a mammoth enterprise, with thirty thousand workers, which produced everything from airplanes, trucks, and bicycles to tinned goods, pins, and needles. The result was that forty-five members of the Weiss family emigrated to Portugal while Mr. Becher became head of their business. When Eichmann heard of this Schweinerei, he was outraged; the deal threatened to compromise his good relations with the Hungarians, who naturally expected to take possession of Jewish property confiscated on their own soil. He had some reason for his indignation, since these deals were contrary to the regular Nazi policy. which had been quite generous. For their help in solving the Jewish question in any country, the Germans had demanded no part of the Jews' property, only the costs of their deportation and extermination, and these costs had varied widely from country to country-the Slovaks had been supposed to pay between three hundred and five hundred Reichsmarks per Jew, the Croats only thirty, the French seven hundred, and the Belgians two hundred and fifty. (It seems that no one ever paid except the Croats.) In Hungary, at this late stage of the war, the Germans were demanding payment in goods-shipments of food to the Reich, in quantities determined by the amount of food the deported Jews would have consumed.

The Weiss affair was only the beginning, and things were to get considerably worse, from Eichmann's point of view. Becher was a born businessman, and where Eichmann saw only enormous tasks of organization and administration, he saw almost unlimited possibilities for making money. The one thing that stood in his way was the narrow-mindedness of subordinate creatures like Eichmann, who took their jobs seriously. Obersturmbannführer Becher's projects soon led him to cooperate closely in the rescue efforts of Dr. Rudolf Kastner. (It was to Kastner's testimony on his behalf that Becher later, at Nuremberg, owed his freedom. Being an old Zionist, Kastner had moved to Israel after the war, where he held a high position until a journalist published a story about his collaboration with the S.S. - whereupon Kastner sued him for libel. His testimony at Nuremberg weighed heavily against him, and when the case came before the Jerusalem District Court, Judge Halevi, one of the three judges in the Eichmann trial, told Kastner that he "had sold his soul to the devil." In March, 1957, shortly before his case was to be appealed before the Israeli Supreme Court, Kastner was murdered; none of the murderers, it seems, came from Hungary. In the hearing that followed the verdict of the lower court was repealed and Kastner was fully rehabilitated.) The deals Becher made through Kastner were much simpler than the complicated negotiations with the business magnates; they consisted in fixing a price for the life of each Jew to be rescued. There was considerable haggling over prices, and at one point, it seems, Eichmann also got involved in some of the preliminary discussions. Characteristically, his price was the lowest, a mere two hundred dollars per Jew-not, of course, because he wished to save more Jews but simply because he was not used to thinking big. The price finally arrived at was a thousand dollars, and one group, consisting of 1,684 Jews, and including Dr. Kastner's family, actually left Hungary for the exchange camp at Bergen-Belsen, from which they eventually reached Switzerland. A similar deal, through which Becher and HimmIer hoped to obtain twenty million Swiss francs from the American Joint Distribution Committee, for the purchase of merchandise of all sorts, kept everybody busy until the Russians liberated Hungary, but nothing came of it. (pp141-143).

Zionist collaboration in wartime Hungary

Arrendt is scathing about the collaboration of Zionist leaders in Hungary with the Nazis:

To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story. It had been known about before, but it has now been exposed for the first time in all its pathetic and sordid detail by Raul Hilberg, whose standard work The Destruction of the European Jews I mentioned before. In the matter of cooperation, there was no distinction between the highly assimilated Jewish communities of Central and Western Europe and the Yiddish-speaking masses of the East. In Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains, until, as a last gesture, they handed over the assets of the Jewish community in good order for final confiscation. They distributed the Yellow Star badges, and sometimes, as in Warsaw, 'the sale of the armbands of cloth and fancy plastic armbands which were washable'. In the Nazi-inspired, but not Nazi-dictated, manifestos they issued, we still can sense how they enjoyed their new power - 'The Central Jewish Council has been granted the right of absolute disposal over all Jewish spiritual and material wealth and over all Jewish manpower', as the first announcement of the Budapest Council phrased it. We know how the Jewish officials felt when they became instruments of murder - like captains 'whose ships were about to sink and who succeeded in bringing them safe to port by casting overboard a great part of their precious cargo'; like saviors who 'with a hundred victims save a thousand people, with a thousand ten thousand'. The truth was even more gruesome. Dr. Kastner, in Hungary, for instance, saved exactly 1,684 people with approximately 476,000 victims. In order not to leave the selection to 'blind fate', 'truly holy principles' were needed 'as the guiding force of the weak human hand which puts down on paper the name of the unknown person and with this decides his life or death'. And whom did these 'holy principles' single out for salvation? Those 'who had worked all their lives for the 'zibur' (community)' - i.e. the functionaries - and the 'most prominent Jews', as Kastner says in his report.

. . . No one bothered to swear the Jewish officials to secrecy; they were voluntary 'bearers of secrets', either in order to assure quiet and prevent panic, as in Dr. Kastner's case, or out of 'humane' considerations, such as that 'living in the expectation of death by gassing would only be the harder', as in the case of Dr. Leo Baeck, former Chief Rabbi of Berlin. During the Eichmann trial, one witness pointed out the unfortunate consequences of this kind of 'humanity' - people volunteered for deportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and denounced those who tried to tell them the truth as being 'not sane'. We know the physiognomies of the Jewish leaders during the Nazi period very well: they ranged all the way from Chaim Rumkowski, eldest of the Jews in Lodz, called Chaim I, who issued currency notes bearing his signature and postage stamps engraved with his portrait, and who rode around in a broken-down horse-drawn carriage; through Leo Baeck, scholarly, mild-mannered, highly educated, who believed Jewish policemen would be 'more gentle and helpful' and would 'make the ordeal easier' (whereas in fact they were, of course, more brutal and less corruptible, since so much more was at stake for them); to, finally, a Jew who committed suicide - like Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, who was not a rabbi but an unbeliever, a Polish-speaking Jewish engineer, but who must still have remembered the rabbinical saying: 'Let them kill you, but don't cross the line. (pp. 117-119)

. . . What was morally so disastrous in the acceptance of these privileged categories was that everyone who demanded to have an "exception" made in his case implicitly recognized the rule, but this point, apparently, was never grasped by these "good men," Jewish and Gentile, who busied themselves about all those "special cases" for which preferential treatment could be asked. The extent to which even the Jewish victims had accepted the standards of the Final Solution is perhaps nowhere more glaringly evident than in the so-called Kastner Report (available in German, Der Kastner-Bericht über Eichmanns Menschenhandel in Ungarn, 1961). Even after the end of the war, Kastner was proud of his success in saving "prominent Jews," a category officially introduced by the Nazis in 1942, as though in his view, too, it went without saying that a famous Jew had more right to stay alive than an ordinary one; to take upon himself such "responsibilities" - to help the Nazis in their efforts to pick out "famous" people from the anonymous mass, for this is what it amounted to - "required more courage than to face death." But if the Jewish and Gentile pleaders of "special cases" were unaware of their involuntary complicity, this implicit recognition of the rule, which spelled death for all non-special cases, must have been very obvious to those who were engaged in the business of murder. They must have felt, at least, that by being asked to make exceptions, and by occasionally granting them, and thus earning gratitude, they had convinced their opponents of the lawfulness of what they were doing. (pp132-133) . . . .

. . . But the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and the international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people. (p.125).


There existed, however, a sizable group of Jews in the country whose leaders, at least, indulged less in self-deception. The Zionist movement had always been particularly strong in Hungary, and it now had its own representation in the recently formed Relief and Rescue Committee (the Vaadat Ezra va Hazalah), which, maintaining close contact with the Palestine Office, had helped refugees from Poland and Slovakia, from Yugoslavia and Rumania; the committee was in constant communication with the American Joint Distribution Committee, which financed their work, and they had also been able to get a few Jews into Palestine, legally or illegally. Now that catastrophe had come to their own country, they turned to forging "Christian papers," certificates of baptism, whose bearers found it easier to go underground. Whatever else they might have been, the Zionist leaders knew they were outlaws, and they acted accordingly. Joel Brand, the unlucky emissary who was to present to the Allies, in the midst of the war, HimmIer's proposal to give them a million Jewish lives in exchange for ten thousand trucks, was one of the leading officials of the Relief and Rescue Committee, and he came to Jerusalem to testify about his dealings with Eichmann, as did his former rival in Hungary, Philip von Freudiger. While Freudiger, whom Eichmann, incidentally, did not remember at all, recalled the rudeness with which he had been treated at these interviews, Brand's testimony actually substantiated much of Eichmann's own account of how he had negotiated with the Zionists. Brand had been told that "an idealistic German" was now talking to him, "an idealistic Jew" - two honorable enemies meeting as equals during a lull in the battle. Eichmann had said to him:

"Tomorrow perhaps we shall again be on the battlefield."

It was, of course, a horrible comedy, but it did go to show that Eichmann's weakness for uplifting phrases with no real meaning was not a pose fabricated expressly for the Jerusalem trial. What is more interesting, one cannot fail to note that in meeting with the Zionists neither Eichmann nor any other member of the Sondereinsatzkommando employed the tactics of sheer lying that they had used for the benefit of the gentlemen of the Jewish Council. Even language rules" were suspended, and most of the time a spade was called a spade. Moreoever, when it was a question of serious negotiationsover the amount of money that might buy an exit permit, over the Europe Plan, over the exchange of lives for trucks-not only Eichmann but everybody concerned: Wisliceny, Becher, the gentlemen of the Counterintelligence service whom Joel Brand used to meet every morning in a coffee house, turned to the Zionists as a matter of course. The reason for this was that the Relief and Rescue Committee possessed the required international connections and could more easily produce foreign currency, whereas the members of the Jewish Council had nothing behind them but the more than dubious protection of Regent Horthy. It also became clear that the Zionist functionaries in Hungary had received greater privileges than the usual temporary immunity to arrest and deportation granted the members of the Jewish Council. The Zionists were free to come and go practically as they pleased, they were exempt from wearing the yellow star, they received permits to visit concentration camps in Hungary, and, somewhat later, Dr. Kastner, the original founder of the Relief and Rescue Committee, could even travel about Nazi Germany without any identification papers showing he was a Jew (pp198-199).

Arrendt's book is by far one of the best of the trial of the Eichmann and is highly recommended for those wishing to get a through background to the events in Hungary in 1944 and Jim Allen's play Perdition.