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

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