Eichmann's List: a pact with the devil

Rudolph Kasztner cut a $1.5m deal with the architect of the Holocaust, to allow hundreds of privileged Jews to escape death. But was he a hero or a collaborator?

In the summer of 1944 in wartime Budapest, two men, a Nazi and a Jew, sat negotiating through a fog of cigarette smoke. One was notorious: Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust. The other was less well known: a Hungarian lawyer and journalist called Rudolf Kasztner, leader of the Zionist Vaad (or Rescue and Relief Committee). The topic of their discussion was a train to be filled with Jews. Not a cattle train, but something more comfortable: a train which would take 1,685 privileged passengers out of the Holocaust to the safety of neutral Switzerland - for a price of $1,000 a head, or a total of more than $1.5m. The money was paid to Himmler's envoy, an SS officer called Kurt Becher. It was a deal which was to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his days; in the end, it cost him his life.

In the summer of 1944 in wartime Budapest, two men, a Nazi and a Jew, sat negotiating through a fog of cigarette smoke. One was notorious: Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust. The other was less well known: a Hungarian lawyer and journalist called Rudolf Kasztner, leader of the Zionist Vaad (or Rescue and Relief Committee). The topic of their discussion was a train to be filled with Jews. Not a cattle train, but something more comfortable: a train which would take 1,685 privileged passengers out of the Holocaust to the safety of neutral Switzerland - for a price of $1,000 a head, or a total of more than $1.5m. The money was paid to Himmler's envoy, an SS officer called Kurt Becher. It was a deal which was to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his days; in the end, it cost him his life.

The VIP train duly left Budapest, on the night of 30 June 1944. All the passengers on board were saved - eventually reaching Switzerland, after a long stop-over in Bergen-Belsen, in a special "VIP" annex. Kasztner helped draw up the passenger list, which included many of his family and friends, as well as community and Zionist leaders. But even as Kasztner and Eichmann agreed their terms, the Hungarian Holocaust still proceeded at a ferocious pace. Every day thousands of Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices, and sent to Birkenau.

The VIP train truly was a deal with the devil, demanding macabre choices in the darkest of days. Was Kasztner a hero, or a collaborator? A Jewish Schindler or Quisling? Either way, the train's departure exacted a heavy cost. Its ghosts still haunt both Hungary and Israel, where Kasztner settled after the end of the war, and its legacy still bitterly divides Hungarian Holocaust survivors. The Kasztner episode, until now little known in Britain, raises questions - about moral choices, the grey area between compromise and collaboration, and courage in extremis - that are as relevant now as they were 56 years ago.

Why did the Nazis even bother negotiating with a wartime Jewish official? Nazis gave orders usually, Jews followed them. But those were the dog days of the Second World War: the Allies had landed in Normandy, the Russians were advancing from the east. In Berlin, Eichmann's boss Heinrich Himmler plotted behind Hitler's back, spinning crazed schemes to split the Allies and bring about a separate peace between Germany, the United States and Britain.

Rudolf Kasztner was not part of the Jewish Council, the official leadership of the once powerful Hungarian Jewish community. But as head of the tiny, rival Zionist movement (most Jews were not then Zionists), Himmler believed Kasztner could be a conduit to the West to try and negotiate a separate peace in exchange for stopping the Holocaust. Perhaps he was right. In November 1944, the SS officer Kurt Becher travelled to Zurich. There he met Saly Meyer, leader of the Swiss Jewish community, and Roswell McClelland, who represented President Roosevelt on the US War Refugee Board. The discussion was in total contravention of official Allied policy, to demand unconditional surrender.

Kasztner and his colleagues in the Vaad were certainly mavericks, operating outside the usual channels, running courageous rescue missions over the Slovak mountains, bringing Jews in from Poland. Eichmann professed himself quite taken with Kasztner, as an interview he gave, published in Life magazine in 1960, reveals:

"This Dr Kasztner was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist... We negotiated entirely as equals. People forget that. We were political opponents trying to arrive at a settlement and we trusted each other perfectly. With his great polish and reserve, he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself. As a matter of fact, there was a strong similarity between 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 Kasztner: 'We too are idealists, and we too had to sacrifice our own blood before we came to power.' I believe that Kasztner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand... to achieve his goal."

For some - mostly passengers on the train or their relatives - Kasztner was a hero, a man who repeatedly risked his own life to save hundreds of others. Whatever Eichmann told Life magazine, he and Kasztner were never "equals". We can only imagine the depths of courage on which Kasztner must have drawn to negotiate with a man who could have, at any moment, despatched him to Auschwitz.

For many others though - those who could not get on the train - he was a collaborator. And possibly something even worse, for Eichmann also claimed: "He [Kasztner] 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 to Palestine. It was a good bargain."

Eichmann is doubtless being disingenuous here. It is doubtful whether anyone apart from the SS could "keep order in the deportation camps". Kasztner and the Vaad were not well known in the provinces where the deportations were taking place. But it is well documented that by the summer of 1944, both the Vaad and the official Jewish Council knew and understood the reality of Auschwitz, that Jews were being deported to their deaths.

At the end of April, fully two months before the train left, Kasztner had received information about the "Auschwitz Protocol". This was an extremely detailed report, compiled by Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, two prisoners who had escaped from Auschwitz. They had seen the preparations being made for the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry - by then Eastern Europe's last remaining Jewish community - and hoped that once alerted, Hungary's Jewish leadership would organise resistance or encourage Hungary's Jews to flee into the countryside. Yet nothing happened; no national warning was issued.

Kasztner's defenders argue that as he was comparatively unknown, nobody would have listened to him anyway. Paradoxically, they also claim that the Vaad did send emissaries to the provinces, who were ignored. Either way, why 450,000 Hungarian Jews went meekly to their deaths when their leaders knew their coming fate is one of the Holocaust's great mysteries.

Some Hungarian Holocaust survivors charge that the price of Eichmann's agreement to let the VIP train leave was high indeed: that Kasztner and the Vaad would remain silent about Auschwitz and allow a quiescent Jewish population to board the other, non-VIP trains, that led not to Switzerland, but the gas chambers. For Budapest-born Ernest Stein, a fighter in the Zionist resistance now living in Miami, Kasztner was "less than a rat".

"Kasztner received the Auschwitz Protocol," says Stein, "but he never showed it to anybody. I am sure he did a deal with the Nazis... He did everything for that train. For him the rest of the Jews were not important. He figured that if he took out the 1,500 or 2,000 people, the rest can go to hell."

To Kasztner, only the train mattered. When two Hungarian Jewish parachutists arrived in Budapest from Palestine, he refused to help them in their mission of organising armed resistance.

But he was no coward. In early 1945, he travelled to Germany on a bizarre and dangerous mission, in the company of SS Officer Becher. Himmler had ordered Becher to prevent the destruction of the concentration camps as the Allies advanced - partly to construct a humanitarian alibi. Becher had a murky record serving on the Eastern Front, but the two men, the Hungarian Jew and the Nazi, worked well together. After Germany's surrender, Becher was arrested as a suspected war criminal, which he almost certainly was. Kasztner came to his rescue, and testified to his good character, describing him as "cut from a different wood than the professional mass murderers of the political SS". This, even more than negotiating with Eichmann, would taint him forever in the eyes of many Jews. After Kasztner's deposition, Becher was released and became an immensely successful businessman.

As for Kasztner, he settled in Israel, where he worked as a civil servant. Then in 1952, Malchiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian Jew living in Israel, published a newsletter accusing Kasztner of collaboration with the Nazis and stealing the wealth of Hungarian Jews with Becher. Kasztner sued for libel, but the case turned into a trial of his own wartime relationship with Becher. The judge, Benjamin Halevi, accused Kasztner of having "sold his soul to the devil" by negotiating with the Nazis.

In March 1957, Kasztner was shot dead outside his home. His killer, an Israeli with connections to the secret service, was caught and imprisoned. "Kasztner was caught up in events which were so much bigger than an ordinary - or even an extraordinary - person could handle. How can we judge what was right and wrong in such a situation?" said Israeli journalist Uri Avnery. "In the end I must say I tend towards Kasztner. I don't believe he was a traitor."

Whether he was a saviour, a collaborator, or something of both, Rudolf Kasztner would talk no more about the secret deals between Budapest's wartime Zionist leadership and the Nazis.

'Last Train From Budapest', Channel 4, tomorrow at 9pm

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits