A Shoah hero in the dock

Rudolf Kasztner saved more than 1,600 Jews, but is villified for letting thousands more die. Now, he is under fresh attack

By Leon Symons, June 17, 2009

Rudolf Kasztner is one of the most controversial figures of the Holocaust. To some, he is the hero who saved over 1,600 Hungarian Jews from the gas chambers; to others, a Nazi collaborator who bears responsibility for the death of hundreds of thousands at Auschwitz.

Since the end of the war, a debate has raged over the role of this Hungarian-Zionist leader in the tragic fate of his country’s Jewish community. Kasztner himself fell victim to the dispute when he was assasinated by a Holocaust survivor in Israel in 1957.

Now, a new chapter in the controversy has been opened by a British-based doctor, who is speaking for the first time about how she believes Kasztner betrayed her late husband and the Jews of Hungary.

Dr Gerta Vrbova, who is 82 and lives in North London, was married to Rudolph Vrba, one of the few inmates known to have escaped from Auschwitz. Vrba and fellow escapee Alfred Wetzler brought information to Jewish leaders about the mass murder being carried out at the camp.

Vrba accused Kasztner of suppressing the information, in order to make a deal with the Nazis that would save his family and friends.

“As far as I am concerned, Kasztner denied the Hungarian Jews the choice of whether they should stay where they were or flee the Nazis,” says Dr Vrbova. “This is the first time I have made my feelings public. I am speaking for my husband and for the thousands of Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz, because they have no voice now.”

She has decided to break her silence after 65 years following the recent broadcast of a BBC documentary on Kasztner which she believes was a “whitewash”.

Vrba, who died in 2006, and Wetzler, who died in 1988, escaped from Auschwitz on April 7, 1944, having been held there for two years. They worked as registrars, keeping records of the possessions taken from the Jews who arrived and were swiftly gassed and incinerated, and so had an intimate knowledge of the numbers being killed.

The pair, both Slovaks, were determined to alert the world to the then-secret genocide taking place there and to alert Hungary’s Jews, who were about to be transported to the camp unaware of its purpose.
(The Germans invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, and the transportations began on May 15. They were halted on July 8, by which time 437,000 had been deported and the vast majority sent to the gas chambers.)

Vrba and Wetzler made it to Bratislava where they wrote a report, known as the Auschwitz Protocol, for the Slovakia Jewish Council. Kasztner, who was head of a help and rescue sub-committee in Budapest, visited Bratislava and was made aware of the report. But the information was not passed on to Jews in Hungary, and Vrba later accused Kasztner of suppressing it.

It was believed that Kasztner had been negotiating with the Nazis — including Adolf Eichmann, the SS colonel known as the architect of the “Final Solution” plan to murder Europe’s Jews — to send a trainload of about 1,700 Jews to safety in Switzerland. The train left on June 30, 1944, with 1,684 people on board. It took its passengers first to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they were held for five months before eventually arriving in Switzerland.

There were accusations that Kasztner had filled the train with family, friends and council members. Both Kasztner and his relatives strongly denied the allegations made against him. In 1953, after Kasztner had settled in Israel, and was working for the transport ministry, he was accused by journalist Malchiel Grünwald of being a Nazi collaborator, because of his relationship with Eichmann and the fact that he had given testimony on behalf of a Nazi officer, Kurt Becher, after the war.

The Israeli government sued Grünwald on Kasztner’s behalf, but Judge Benjamin Halevi, one of the three judges who later presided at Eichmann’s war crimes trial, found against him, saying he had “sold his soul to the devil”. Kasztner was assassinated in Israel in 1957 by Ze’ev Eckstein, a Holocaust survivor who had been recruited by Mossad. Ironically, a year later, the Halevi verdict was overturned on appeal.

Dr Vrbova says her husband’s attempts to publicise what was happening at Auschwitz have never been recognised and that the BBC documentary, Killing Kasztner, shown on BBC4’s Storyville strand, failed to explore fully Kasztner’s dealing with the Nazis and his involvement with the Auschwitz Protocol.

“I think what Kasztner did was unbelievable and unforgiveable because people had the right to have this information. Rudolph was very bitter about the fact that Kasztner was regarded as a hero in Israel while he and Wetzler went unrecognised, even to this day.

“This programme brought out in my mind how far Kasztner’s family can speak in his favour about all that he did yet those who died have no one to speak up for them. It was criminal that he did not share that report with the people it concerned.

“When Rudi and Freddie Wetzler escaped and reached Bratislava, I was there when he was writing the Protocol and I helped him type it up for the Slovakia Jewish Council. He then tried to send it out elsewhere. Other than that, I have no personal knowledge of Kasztner.”

The couple married in 1947 and had two children before divorcing a decade later. “All the people with whom Kasztner was involved were Zionists. Rudolph and Freddie were not and that is also why they were ignored,” says Dr Vrbova.

“I tried to spread the word when I was in Budapest in November, 1944. I had some relatives there, my aunt and some other family members. I asked them whether they had heard about what was happening in Auschwitz but they said they had not heard anything.

“I met quite a lot of young people while I was there, many of whom were Zionists and they also didn’t know anything. I was also trying to tell them to spread the word. I was very concerned that they should know about what was happening. They may have known that the camp was there and something was going on, but they did not know anything about the methods and scale of the camp.”

A radically different view comes from 76-year-old Professor Ladislaus Löb, of Sussex University, who, as an 11-year-old, was one of the 1,684 people who escaped to Switzerland on the Kasztner train. “I owe my life to Rudolph Kasztner,” he says. “We never knew him before the train journey. I never met him or any members of his family. There may well have been some rich people on board the train, but they paid for everyone else.

“Assuming that Dr Kasztner could have saved thousands if he had not kept silent about Auschwitz is wrong. There was very little opportunity for people to rise up in large numbers against the Nazis. Was he supposed to hold a public meeting? People didn’t have telephones or cars, they were not allowed out, so how was the information to be transmitted? All the men had been taken away; only women, children, the elderly and the sick were left.

“Don’t forget, who was assassinated? Who was accused of collaborating? It wasn’t Rudolph Vrba.”

“In the end, all three of them — Kasztner, Vrba and Wetzler — failed. They tried to save people but could not save as many as they wanted, but all three contributed.”

The director of Killing Kasztner, Gaylen Ross, says she is saddened by the lingering dispute. “In the middle of this terrible tragedy and horror, Jews are blaming each other for the deaths of other Jews and it is horrible. This causes rumours, lies and half-truths and ends up with people demonising each other.

“I understand Dr Vrbova’s emotional responses but she is not a historian. You have to go to historians to research what has been written. Why do we have to demonise any of these people after all this time? It’s very sad.”

Imagery courtesy of Gaylen Ross, director of the film Killing Kasztner

Last updated: 2:30pm, June 19 2009