On my recent trip, when I was not reading about young women who disappeared, I read Anna Porter’s enthralling “Kasztner’s Train”. Who needs fiction, when non-fiction is so much harder to believe?
This is a holocaust book. The Germans invade Hungary in 1944, when the war was all but lost, determined to destroy the remaining large European Jewish community that had not been touched by 11 years of Nazi rule in Germany and 5 years of war. They succeeded in murdering over 400,000 Hungarian Jews over a period of several months, largely through deportations to Auschwitz.
The question this books asks: did this have to happen?
Although the invasion of Hungary went smoothly, the Germans knew they were on the ropes, and that they were facing great shortages of necessary military equipment, including primarily trucks. Would it have been possible to trade Jewish lives for military materiel? And if so, would the trade have been wise?
“Sophie’s Choice” has nothing on this.
The bare bones story: Adolph Eichmann is Germany’s man in charge. He selects, for reasons only he knows, a Hungarian Jew named Joel Brand to negotiate with. Joel Brand is sent to unoccupied Istanbul to reach the British, the Palestinian Jewish community, and var,ious international Jewish organizations, to negotiate a deal. Brand is unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, back in Budapest, Kasztner, an acquaintance of Brand, a lawyer with ambition and guts, working with his wife, Brand’s wife and others, tries to negotiate with the Nazis inside of Budapest, obviously a risky proposition.
The Nazis seem serious in wanting to work something out. There are negotiations over price and there is an agreement that a train of Jews will be allowed to leave Hungary, travel through Germany, and reach Switzerland. It is up to Kasztner to select the occupants of this train and, after months of ups and downs of negotiations, the train is allowed to depart. On board are wealthy Jews, Jewish celebrities, Zionist leaders, the Satmar rebbe, some poor Jews, and about 50 members of Kasztner’s family. All in all, over 1600 people.
But beyond this train, the negotiations are a failure. In part this is because the Nazis refused to halt the deportations to let negotiations continue – their feeling was that continuing, and accelerating, the deportations would spur on the talks. In part, the negotiations failed because the Allies refused to participate – they had a war to win, and giving military supplies to the enemy was not part of their plan. In part, it was because the Jewish organizations were afraid that they were being conned, or that they found it simply distasteful to deal with Nazis. The result was the loss of so many lives.
Brand is arrested by the British and is not released in time to help further. Kastzner lives throughout the war in Budapest and, with his wife, moves to Palestine (later of course Israel).
The story does not end. Expecting to be a hero, Kasztner is treated more like a pariah, a man who negotiated (yes, even befriended, or socialized with) Nazis. A man who might have chosen 1600 Jews to be on a train, but who in making the choice, left behind others who wanted to go, and whose surviving relatives blamed Kasztner. Especially, they blamed him that he put his own family members on the train, ahead of others.
In Jerusalem, there was an older man, a survivor, who published (for very few readers) a newsletter berating just about everything. He published a scathing account of Kasztner’s activities. Kasztner in the meantime had taken a job in the Israeli government. He was told that he could not keep the job unless he defended himself against charges of working with Nazis. Reluctantly, he was drawn into libel litigation.
But his opponent in the litigation did not want only to attack Kasztner, he wanted to attack Ben Gurion and the entire Israeli political elite for failing to do enough to save the Jews of Europe, for fearing that too many Jews in Palestine would spell another kind of disaster.
The trial becomes the O.J. Simpson trial of 1950s Israel. The judge rules against Kasztner on every count. Kasztner cannot believe it. His wife is even more shocked: her husband has been accused under the same Israeli law that Adolph Eichmann was tried under.
The trial is over. Kasztner’s future appears dim indeed. But it is dimmer than even he thought. He is murdered in front of his apartment building.
After his death, the Israeli Supreme Court reverses the decision. After his death, Kasztner is legally exonerated.
What I have written is bare bones – Anna Porter, Hungarian by birth, Canadian publisher by occupation has written a fascinating book.