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Sensitive Matters

From S. B. Beit-Zvi, Post-Ugandan Zionism on Trial (S. B. Beit-Zvi, 1991), vol. 2, appendix:

In September 1975, Yad Vashem held a conference devoted to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Senior researchers of the institution took part, and their lectures were subsequently published in a special collection (
The Hungarian Jewish Leadership in the Crucible of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, 1976). Summing up the conference, Prof. Yehuda Bauer stated:

However, we did not dare address the issue of the Aid and Rescue Committee. These are still such sensitive matters that somehow, by unwritten and unspoken agreement, we refrained from dealing with. Yet this is misguided. Because this issue is one of the most central and most serious problems. For it involves not only the Aid and Rescue Committee or Otto Komoly or Israel Kastner, not only the famous mission of Joel Brand – it has to do with what some of the speakers characterized as the main thrust... The trees are important, and they are still unrevealed; the forest is obscure, its general contours are still not known, not yet clear (pp. 153, 154).

The explanation adduced for this surprising phenomenon is as significant as the phenomenon itself. It emerges that the inability of Yad Vashem researchers to present a paper on the Aid and Rescue Committee is a general characteristic of everyone affiliated with the institution. Because the matter remains so sensitive and so delicate, not a single researcher “dared” to deal with it. Yet the affair has been discussed in various forums, both in Israel and abroad, for years. It has been the subject of judicial deliberations in 2 major trials, one of which (Greenwald vs. Kastner) was devoted exclusively to this subject, and was concluded in 1957. The second case (the Eichmann trial) was concluded in 1962. But 15 years later it turns out that “the trees” (the details) have yet to be revealed, while “the forest” (the subject in general) is still extremely obscure. Both arenas of activity of the Aid and Rescue Committee – the Kastner affair and the Brand mission – continue to be “taboo” at Yad Vashem. This in the winter of 1976.

Two years later, an effort was made to break the taboo in the less sensitive arena – the Brand mission – in isolation from the other sphere, when Prof. Yehuda Bauer published an extensive article in Yalkut Moreshet (November 1978, pp. 23-60) entitled “The Mission of Joel Brand.” The article was detailed and abundantly documented. The discussion was balanced and substantive. Prof. Bauer raised a number of important points and suggests interesting interpretations for several facts (biographical details about Joel Brand, his personality traits, his relations with the Gestapo and with German counter-intelligence personnel, his credibility or non-credibility on various topics, the idea to bomb Auschwitz, and others). One salient innovation was his account of the relationship and connection between the missions on which the Nazis sent Joel Brand, and the professional smuggler Bandi Grosz.

Prof. Bauer concluded, on the basis of Grosz’s testimony in Cairo and in the Greenwald-Kastner trial, that contrary to the generally accepted view, it was Grosz and not Brand who had the leading role in their joint mission. Bauer maintains that the SS was primarily interested in the Grosz mission: to propose to the Western Allies, England and the US, a separate peace directed against the Soviet Union, “The two were sent by the SS, at Himmler’s order, to prepare the ground for negotiations on a separate peace.” Moreover, “Brand’s proposal was the opening gambit for such negotiations, and served also as a cover for the true intentions” (p. 55). This is the author’s first conclusion of the 3 conclusions with which he ends his article. It is also the only conclusion based directly on arguments and evidence contained in the article itself.

Prof. Bauer’s account is actually a conjecture which has yet to be proved, and it cannot pretend to be anything more. The Nazis left behind few traces that constitute unequivocal evidence concerning their plans and intentions. In some cases a Holocaust researcher (like a researcher in any other field) has no choice but to collect fragmentary data in the field, classify them according to their probability and relevance, and construct from them a reasonable account. If he has managed not to overlook important relevant facts, and to interpret and assemble his data correctly, he has a good chance of coming up with a “working hypothesis” which will explain all the known facts with certainty and provide answers to all the relevant questions. In such cases the researcher is successful and his field of expertise is enriched.

We will now examine whether and to what degree Prof. Bauer’ s conjecture fits the requirements of a “working hypothesis.” For the sake of convenience, we will first summarize the article’s 2 other conclusions.

The second conclusion is that the Allies, England and the US, did not conduct themselves fittingly. True, the author does not believe that there it was feasible that they would accept the proposal as formulated by Brand.

This was out of the question. But this was not the main thing. The Allies were under no obligation to supply the Nazis with war materiel... Certainly they were not obligated to conduct genuine negotiations on a separate peace. All they were requested to do by Brand and Sharett was to conduct negotiations. A negotiating process of this kind, which would produce no substantial results, might save human lives. Indeed, this was precisely the course followed by Saly Mayer in the negotiations he conducted from August 1944-February 1945. It is impossible to say how many lives, if any, could have been saved in this manner. But the Allies had a moral imperative to try, even if only one life could be saved. The fact that no such attempt was made during the Brand mission, conflicted with the free world’s declared war goals.

The third conclusion follows from the second: “The true conclusion is not that Brand failed, or that his mission failed – it was the democracies that failed” (pp. 55-56; all emphases added).

Let us return to Conclusion No. 1. The first thing that stands out in Prof. Bauer’s account is that this was a scheme of one mind, the mind of Himmler. Throughout the article, the author identifies the SS with Himmler, as though the organization and its leader were interchangeable. When he speaks about “traits of the SS” or “SS intentions,” he is really referring to traits and intentions of Himmler. He perceives the SS commander as sole initiator, judger and decider, with all the others merely endeavoring to do his will.

This view would have been acceptable in normal times. Himmler, the all-powerful ruler of Nazi Germany, was accountable only to the great Fuehrer Adolf Hitler. The organizations and institutions under Himmler’s command were loyal to him and were subjected to iron discipline, in them his word was law, and no one dared contradict him. But all this applied in normal times, before cracks appeared in the edifice of Nazi rule. One of the first visible cracks in that edifice took the form of a confrontation between Himmler and one of his subordinates, Adolf Eichmann.

The Holocaust historian Gerald Reitlinger says that in the final months of the war the fate of the Jews incarcerated in the ghettos and concentration camps depended on the will of 3 people: Hitler, who desired their death, his own death and the deaths of many of his own people, the Germans; Himmler, who wanted to sell them alive to the Allies in return for receiving personal immunity; and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who deluded himself into thinking that it would be to his advantage to frustrate Himmler’s stratagem [1]. It is safe to say that a year earlier, in April-May 1944, when the Brand mission was planned and executed, Hitler was not yet contemplating suicide or considering German deaths on a mass scale. The passive opposition of devout SS personnel to their commander’s innovativeness had not yet attained the dimensions it would reach a few months later. But even then a clear conflict of loyalties and intentions was discernible. The Nazi Krumey addressed himself trenchantly to this conflict, according to Brand’s testimony in his book, Mission of the Condemned:

Shortly before liftoff [to Istanbul] Krumey took me aside and asked me not to forget him during the negotiations in Turkey. I was to make it known there that not everyone in the SS was like Eichmann, but that there were also decent officers like himself and Wisliceny. For his part, he would do everything he could to rescue Jews. In his words I could sense his fear of the catastrophe looming for the Nazi regime (pp. 103-104).

Krumey may really have said this as insurance in the event of a Nazi defeat. But implicit in his words was something more, which Brand, unfortunately, failed to register or grasp. Besides imparting information about differences within the Nazi leadership, Krumey sounded a hint and a warning: Do not believe Eichmann. Someone other than Joel Brand, someone more perceptive, might have been able to glean more from this important message.

Krumey’s tacit warning was borne out a thousandfold. Eichmann, the faithful assistant to Kaltenbrunner and Mueller, went to Budapest not to compromise with the Jews but to exterminate them. This was the devout and bloodthirsty Nazi who just days before the collapse of the Third Reich boasted to his colleague, Wisliceny, that he would leap happily into his grave because the feeling that he had 5 million people on his conscience was for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction. A better documented incident attests to his stubborn determination to carry out his task. About a week after the Regent Horthy prohibited deportations from Hungary, Eichmann’s officers transported 1,500 Jews from the Kistarcsa camp near Budapest. When Horthy learned of this, he ordered the train stopped while it was still in Hungary and returned to Kistarcsa, But Eichmann managed to outmaneuver both him and the Jews, and a few days later the deportation was effected once more, this time successfully.

In order to bypass obstacles and facilitate his work in difficult geographical and political conditions, Eichmann made use of far-reaching stratagems and was even ready for “sacrifices” in the form of temporarily forgoing the murder of a few hundred or a few thousand Jews. Thus, he agreed to release 1,700 Jews from the “train of the privileged,” but instead of sending them to Spain, as he had promised, he had them taken to Bergen-Belsen, where they remained for another 6 months before he was forced to release them. In another case, he sent 17,000 Jews to work at the Strasshof industrial works in Austria – this at Kaltenbrunner’s order – and described the transport as a gesture of mercy toward the Jews, since he was keeping them “on ice” instead of dispatching them directly to Auschwitz. Were it not for the drastic changes that occurred in the military situation in both the East and the West, it’s doubtful whether the privileged on the train or the detainees at Strasshof would have emerged alive and free, and the same applies to the Jewish officials who handled their cases.

Eichmann, who prepared the Hungarian operation with precise planning and a detailed timetable, was determined to execute the operation in its full scope and in the shortest possible time. The country was divided into 5 zones (with the city of Budapest forming a 6th zone). A daily quota of deportees was set: 4 trains of 45 cars each, 70 people in each car (standing) – all told, 12,000 men, women and children [2]. The precision of the plan is apparent from the operational data. In the period from May 15, 1944, when the deportations began, until June 7, 1944 – a period in which deportations were carried out in areas of dense Jewish population in Carpatho-Russia and Transylvania – the daily average stood at 12,000 persons, according to Nazi records, and a total of 289,357 Jews were deported. In 3 other zones, excluding Budapest, where conditions were less favorable to the Nazis, the pace was slowed and “only” 143,045 Jews were deported within one month. Hungarian and German records show that Eichmann managed to send more than 430,000 Jews to Auschwitz before he was forced, for reasons beyond his control, to stop the deportations [3]. In each locale the Jews were very briefly herded into ghettos before the deportations. Prior to the deportation from Budapest, an interim plan was drawn up, with the active participation of the German Foreign Office, for the transfer of all the city’s Jews to a certain island in the Danube. An intensive one-day operation was planned, involving Eichmann’s Sonderkommando, the Hungarian Gendarmerie from the capital and the provinces, as well as the postmen and chimney sweeps of Budapest.

In early July, the Gendarmerie began arriving in Budapest, on the pretext of attending a festival, but at the last moment Horthy ordered their removal from the capital.

These are all ironclad facts, documented at the time they occurred. Their import, which is in no doubt, is that Eichmann carried out the annihilation with all the cruelty and efficiency he could muster, and showed no disposition to slacken the operation even for a moment, not even for the week or two during which Joel Brand said he had been assured that no Jews would be sent to Auschwitz. The facts also indicate that where the fate of Jews was concerned, Eichmann had a free hand, at least until the final deportation from Kistarcsa (July 19, 1944), independent of whatever Himmler had planned or not planned. A clear knowledge of these solid facts, which do not appear in Prof. Bauer’s essay, leads to a series of conclusions which cannot be squared with his and show them in an unflattering light.

It turns out that the opposite side to the potential rescuers of Hungarian Jewry was in fact not the hesitating and vacillating Himmler, but the crafty and energetic Eichmann who strove with all his might to continue the destruction of the Jews, no matter what. We do not know what Himmler thought about Eichmann’s intentions and how he thought to integrate the mission of Joel Brand and Bandi Grosz. In retrospect, it is clear that this was of no importance, since Himmler’s plans did not determine Eichmann’s actions. By the same token, no importance should be attached to Prof. Bauer’s description of the priority given to the Bandi Grosz mission, as spelled out in Conclusion No. 1. By ignoring the 2 basic germane facts – Eichmann’s deeds and his partial independence of Himmler – Bauer forfeited any chance of formulating a “working hypothesis” for his study.

Prof. Bauer’s failure at the academic level to interpret an affair from the past parallels the failure – but one which bore very concrete ramifications – of Jewish functionaries in Jerusalem and Budapest in 1944 to decipher Eichmann’s ploy. They, too, needed a “working hypothesis” which was based on facts and could provide a key enabling a reasonable prognosis to be made of additional facts which still lay in the future. Yet there was one person among them who almost from the very outset of Brand’s mission grasped what was afoot, suggested a “working hypothesis” which explained everything, and even tried, in his own way, to prevent what he foresaw would occur. The tragic predicament in which this man, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, found himself in the case of Hungarian Jewry, deserves special mention and a more detailed study.

Prof. Bauer’s 2 “practical” conclusions are no better grounded than his principal conclusion. His second argument, that “a negotiating process of this kind, which would produce no substantial results, might save human lives,” doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Generally, it is a recommended and accepted measure to try to gain time by negotiating with criminals in order to rescue people they are holding (kidnap victims, hostages, prisoners, and so forth). But what is the proper course of action when it is not clear or certain whether by negotiating one may perhaps be losing time instead of gaining time, and that the other side is using the negotiations to mislead and as a cover to carry out his designs? In that case it is necessary, often at the last minute, to take urgent and drastic action in order to prevent a total disaster and to save what can still be saved. This is exactly what happened in the case of Joel Brand’s mission, except that the drastic and urgent measures were not taken at the initiative of the Jewish representatives [4]. It is perhaps because these facts were known to Prof. Bauer that the case he presents is singularly unconvincing. He is aware of the fact that there was no prospect of the Allies accepting the Nazis’ proposals. However, he insists, “this was not the main thing.” The main thing was to negotiate with the Nazis and thereby to save lives.

Then it emerges that he is not certain that tangible results could have been achieved in this manner. He postulates that it is impossible to say how many people might have been saved, if any. But even this is not the main thing; the main thing, he believes, is that the free world’s moral imperative and its declared war aims should have enjoined the Allies to try to hold talks with the Nazis, as the Jewish representatives asked.

Maybe it wouldn’t have helped, but it wouldn’t have hurt to try.

But would it really not have hurt?

To get a proper perspective, we will recapitulate briefly the circumstances of the time and the events. The time is late June and early July, 1944. Moshe Sharett is in London together with Chaim Weizmann in order to urge forcefully that negotiations be undertaken with the Nazis on the Eichmann-Brand proposal. In Hungary, Eichmann proceeds with the deportations efficiently, according to plan. He is able to transport 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz, emptying virtually the whole country of Jews with the exception of the capital. Under his direction plans are being concluded for a lightning one-day operation to remove the entire Jewish population of Budapest to a temporary ghetto on an island in the Danube, from where they will be dispatched to Auschwitz in short order. The operation to annihilate Hungarian Jewry is nearly completed. If the present pace can be maintained, it is only a matter of weeks before Hungary will be Judenrein.

In the midst of all this, official Jewish representatives seem to be in a dazzle. In London and New York they continue to plead with the Allies to do nothing that might thwart the great plan of deliverance. In Budapest, where the final stage of the operation is about to begin, the wily Eichmann conjures up for the mesmerized Jewish officials a delusory vision of the train of the privileged, ostensibly “on its way to freedom” (but which actually ends up at Bergen-Belsen). And in Jerusalem, David Ben-Gurion tells the Jewish Agency Executive, partly in his name and partly in the name of a Hungarian official, that “heading the anti-Jewish action in Hungary is now an SS leader who is a ‘decent’ man, in his view” [5]. And all this is occurring at the edge of the abyss.

During the Holocaust it sometimes happened that at the entrance to the gas chambers the victims would be welcomed by a relatively courteous Nazi who distributed bars of soap and told the Jews how good they would feel after going through the “wash” and travelling to their new destination. He might be assisted by prisoners working in the gas chambers, who backed up his lie. Reassured, the Jews entered the hall of death. And then everything changed in a twinkling. The show was over, cruel reality reasserted itself. Eichmann staged his macabre spectacle across whole countries and continents.

When the concluding operation was imminent, he found voluntary lobbyists who did not cease importuning others to remain faithful to the dialogue with him. Had these helpers succeeded, had the free world followed through on the Brand mission, as the Jewish representatives urged in 1944, and as Prof. Bauer, citing the moral imperative, definitely wishes they had 30 years later, it is probable that by July or August, Eichmann would have completed his mission and that not a trace would have remained of Hungarian Jewry. There is no reason to think that under those circumstances the successful Nazi would have missed the opportunity “to settle accounts” with the 1,700 “privileged” from the Kastner train awaiting their fate at Bergen-Belsen, and for that matter with Kastner himself and his aides, for whom Eichmann would no longer have had any use.

Fortunately for the Jews of Budapest, the would-be rescuers did not heed the pleading of the functionaries, who very nearly brought a quick and bitter end to their ostensible dispatchers. Eichmann’s plot was thwarted at the last minute by the intervention of the War Refugee Board, established several months earlier in the United States expressly to rescue Jews. In the second half of June, the WRB was able to enlist the aid of international forces to extricate the vestiges of Hungarian Jewry still remaining in Budapest. The US and Swedish governments, the International Red Cross and the Vatican appealed to Horthy in the strongest terms to stop the deportations to Auschwitz. On July 2, Budapest was bombed by 600 American aircraft, and a few days later Horthy ordered a halt to the transports [6]. Eichmann’s plan for July was not carried out, and the immediate threat of annihilation hanging over Budapest’s Jews was removed for 3 months, until October 15, when Horthy was ousted by the Germans and by Hungarian Fascists.

None of these events are mentioned in Prof. Bauer’s article, as though they were immaterial. After eulogizing the Brand mission and reprimanding the democracies, he loses interest in whether or not Budapest’s Jews were rescued. He may return to the subject if one day he decides to deal with the other arena of the crisis of Hungarian Jewry – the Israel Kastner (and Moshe Kraus) affair. In the meantime, it is clear that any attempt to separate and detach one arena from the other is doomed to failure. The two are interwoven and intertwined, and both represent “sensitive matters” which the staff of Yad Vashem, as Prof. Bauer notes, do not “dare address.” His contribution is that by conspicuously disregarding the rescue activity of the War Refugee Board, he shows plainly that this affair too belongs to that category of subjects which are “taboo” in the establishment Israeli institute for Holocaust research.

Notes

[1] Gerald Reitlinger, The Final Solution, Perpetua Books, 1961, p. 461.

[2] Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel, From the Depths, p. 103.

[3] Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jewry, US ed., 1967, pp. 535-547; Livia Rothkirchen, in the collection Hungarian Jewry in the Crucible of the Holocaust, p. 48.

[4] For additional details, see the author’s Post-Ugandan Zionism in the Crucible of the Holocaust, pp. 358-374.

[5] Minutes of a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive, July 2, 1944.

[6] Testimony of Pinhas Freudiger in the Eichmann trial, p. 759; testimony of Moshe Kraus in the Greenwald-Kastner trial as related by Shalom Rosenberg in File 124, p. 166; Menachem Bader, Melancholy Missions, p. 108.