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Book review: Kasztner's Crime, by Paul Bogdanor.

Kasztner's Crime, by Paul Bogdanor. Transaction, £27.50

Kastner on radio Israel a few years before he was assassinated in March 1957
Kastner on radio Israel a few years before he was assassinated in March 1957

Paul Bogdanor has written a clear, compelling, important book about one of the most disputed sets of events during the Holocaust.

The deportation of over 430,000 Jews from Hungary, almost all of them to Auschwitz, was Adolf Eichmanns greatest triumph. It was the model of the science of mass gassing combined with the art of leading the victims to their deaths with a minimum of resistance or evasion.

Eichmann's achievement was all the greater because he managed it during eight weeks in May to July 1944, a time when Hitler had already lost the war and the Russians were about to liberate Hungary from its previously pro-German regime. 

By 1944, a great deal was known about Nazi brutalities both in the outside world and among the surviving Jewish remnants in Europe. Far more detailed knowledge was provided by two Jewish escapees from Auschwitz who reached Slovakia in April 1944.

When their devastating report reached the West in late June, immediate protests from the Vatican and the King of Sweden combined with American threats of retaliatory bombing of Budapest led the hitherto pro-German regime in Hungary to abort Eichmann’s planned deportation of Jews from Budapest. It was the precision of the escapees’ reports that led to a decisive response by the United States.

So the inevitable question arises of why these reports did not reach the West during several crucial weeks when nearly 8,000 Jews a day were being deported and most were murdered. Did the reports fail to reach the neutral countries that maintained diplomatic missions in Budapest? If so, why? Much of the blame has been pinned on the Zionist Vaada (Relief and Rescue Committee) in Budapest.

The subsequent accusation against its leader, Rezso Kasztner, a 37-year-old journalist from Cluj, was that he was informed of the reports at an early stage but preferred to keep them secret because he did not wish to endanger what were to prove abortive negotiations with Eichmann to ransom Hungary’s entire Jewish community. As a reward for his silence, he was permitted to save just over 2,000 specially chosen Jews — nearly 1,700 on the so-called “Kasztner Train” and 76 others (including the author of this review) from the marshalling point for Auschwitz at the Budakalasz brickworks north of Budapest. The saved included a disproportionate number from his home town, about 20 of his family among them.

Some Israeli historians, such as Yehuda Bauer have provided defences of Kasztner. Bauer has given disputably large estimates of the numbers of Jews he saved. Bogdanor has produced what may be the best historical review of Kasztner’s wartime activities produced in recent years. Certainly, he provides a largely convincing counterbalance to Bauer’s work. The case against Kasztner, based on years of careful research is presented with forensic skill.

For decades, critics of Kasztner have been swatted by the Jewish establishment, which generally has given precedence to emotion over rational, evidence-based historical research. For all their virtues and vices, Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem), Ben Hecht (Perfidy) and Jim Allen (Perdition) were dismissed on other than historical grounds: Arendt as renegade Jew, Hecht as pro-Menachem Begin rightist, and Allen as anti-Zionist, antisemitic leftist.

When Hungarian Holocaust survivors criticised Kasztner at a Wiener Library meeting in 1994 chaired by David Cesarani, they were shouted down. Now that 72 years have passed since the Hungarian tragedy, it is to be hoped that Bogdanor will escape similar tactics.

Kasztner’s Crime takes the history of the Holocaust in Hungary a considerable step forward. It cannot be regarded as definitive since documents are incomplete and subject to differing interpretations. Moreover, no scholar has yet tackled the arduous task of examining sources from all the countries involved in the events in question.

Bogdanor is particularly strong on Israeli sources, Nuremberg trial archives and British intelligence reports. There is more to be gained from Hungarian, Romanian, Swedish and Swiss archives and from a large number of reports about individual experiences.

 

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky will be in discussion with Paul Bogdanor and Anthony Rudolf at Jewish Book Week 2017 at JW3 on February 27