Kasztner's Crime FAQ

Paul Bogdanor

Q: Who was Rezső Kasztner and why is he important?

A: Rezső Kasztner (Rudolf Kastner) was the acting head of the Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest before and during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. He is important because he led the "rescue negotiations" between the Hungarian Jewish leadership and the SS.

Q: What was the Jewish rescue committee?

A: The rescue committee was a project of Labour Zionists in Hungary, who represented a minority of the Hungarian Zionist movement, which in turn represented a minority of Hungarian Jewry. Before the Nazi occupation of Hungary, it was an illegal underground body. After the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944, the rescue committee became a client institution under SS "protection."

Q: Who were Kasztner's colleagues on the rescue committee?

A: The chairman of the committee was Otto Komoly, president of Hungary's Zionist Federation. Other key members were Joel Brand and his wife Hansi, with whom Kasztner had an extramarital affair.

Q: How many Jews did the rescue committee save?

A: Before March 1944, the rescue committee smuggled thousands of Jews from Poland and other countries to temporary safety in Hungary. After March 1944, the vast majority of the foreign Jews still in Hungary were murdered by the occupiers. The committee's negotiations with the Nazis allegedly saved the 1,684 Jews of the Kasztner Train. It is also claimed - falsely - that these negotiations saved 15,000 Jews who were diverted to Strasshof in Vienna instead of Auschwitz.

Q: Why is Kasztner's rescue committee controversial?

A: After March 1944, the committee was the sole Jewish body allowed to negotiate with the Nazis. Two alleged "rescue opportunities" resulted: the Goods for Blood deal and the Kasztner Train. The first failed; the second succeeded, but at the cost of many Jewish lives.

Q: What was the Goods for Blood deal?

A: In late April or early May 1944, after a previous Nazi offer to ransom Hungary's Jews had been exposed as a sham, Adolf Eichmann summoned Joel Brand and made the following proposal: the Nazis would allow a million Jews to leave Europe, in return for 10,000 trucks and other goods from Western governments. The trucks were to be used by the Wehrmacht against the Soviets.

Q: What was the Brand Mission?

A: In mid-May 1944, after a series of meetings with Eichmann, Brand was sent to Turkey to deliver the offer to the Jewish Agency and to Western governments. He was accompanied by Bandi Grosz, a double-agent who had worked as a courier for the rescue committee. Grosz brought a separate Nazi offer to make peace with Western governments and form a new coalition against the Soviets.

Q: What was the result of the Brand Mission?

A: The Jewish Agency, hoping that negotiations would delay the genocide of Hungary's Jews, urged Western governments to pursue the Goods for Blood offer. The British government, however, arrested Brand and Grosz. After the war, Brand accused the Jewish Agency and the British government of "sabotaging" a great "opportunity" to save Jewish lives.

Q: What is the truth about the Goods for Blood offer and the Brand Mission?

A: Eichmann's proposal was made on the instructions of Himmler. It was a ruse to split the Allies. Shortly before Brand's departure, Eichmann began deporting thousands of Hungarian Jews per day to Auschwitz. He promised Brand that these Jews would be "kept on ice" for two weeks pending his return to Budapest. In fact the deportees were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. During the first two weeks of the Brand Mission, Eichmann deported the first 200,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths.

Q: What was the Kasztner Train?

A: During initial talks with Eichmann's officers Dieter Wisliceny, Hermann Krumey, and Otto Hunsche, Brand and Kasztner had requested exit permission for 600 Jews holding Palestine entry certificates. After Brand's departure, the negotiations were conducted by Kasztner. The result was the departure of a trainload of 1,684 Jews at the end of June 1944. These Jews were sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as hostages and later released to Switzerland in two convoys.

Q: Why is the Kasztner Train controversial?

A: Since the Nazis did not hand out free gifts to Jews, the question is what price Kasztner had to pay them for the Kasztner Train deal. Allegedly, Kasztner had to agree to two conditions: refusing to warn the victims of their impending fate; and actively deceiving the victims into boarding the death trains to Auschwitz.

Q: If the Nazis wanted Kasztner to remain silent about their plans for Hungary's Jews, why didn't they just arrest him?

A: What the Nazis wanted from Kasztner was not just a passive refusal to warn Jews but active collaboration in deceiving them about their imminent fate. Far from arresting Kasztner, the Nazis secured his release whenever he was detained by the Hungarian authorities.

Q: What did Kasztner know about the Nazi plans for the Jews of Hungary?

A: By his own admission, Kasztner had complete knowledge of Auschwitz from 1942 onwards. By late April 1944, Kasztner had the following specific intelligence: a warning from German military agents that mass deportations of Hungarian Jews were inevitable; a warning from Slovak Jewish leaders of preparations in Auschwitz for the mass murder of Hungary's Jews; and the initial "test" deportation of thousands of Jews from the Kistarcsa and Topolya detention camps in Hungary to Auschwitz. Possibly, he also had intelligence about preparatory negotiations between Hungarian and Slovak railway officials for the mass transportation of Hungarian Jews to Poland.

Q: What did Kasztner do with this information?

A: Nothing. He did not warn the masses of Jews who were being rounded up and imprisoned in ghettos in the Hungarian provinces.

Q: Could Kasztner have warned Hungary's Jews?

A: Yes. In early May 1944, Kasztner visited his home town of Kolozsvar (now Cluj-Napoca) with Nazi permission. Kolozsvar was the capital of North Transylvania, and the day of Kasztner's visit was the date of the beginning of the ghetto concentration of North Transylvania's Jews. Not only did Kasztner fail to warn Jews being sent to the Kolozsvar Ghetto, but his relatives and friends on the Kolozsvar Jewish Council even encouraged Jews in the ghetto to board the death trains. These leaders announced that the Jews of Kolozsvar were being resettled inside Hungary at a fictitious agricultural site called "Kenyermezo" Some 18,000 Jews believed them, boarded the trains, and were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.

Q: Could the Jews of Kolozsvar have been saved?

A: Before Kasztner's visit, there was an escape route from Kolozsvar across the nearby Romanian border. By his own admission, Kasztner followed Nazi instructions to tell Jewish leaders in Kolozsvar that the escape route had been blocked. As a result, these leaders ended the escape of Jews from Kolozsvar. According to witnesses, thousands of Jews could have escaped on this route.

Q: Did Kasztner have other opportunities to warn Jews in the Hungarian provinces?

A: Yes. Activists in the Zionist youth movements travelled to Kolozsvar and many other towns throughout the Hungarian provinces. These Zionists warned Jews to avoid entering the ghettos and to use any opportunity for escape. But the activists lacked the authoritative information in Kasztner's hands, and so their warnings were not believed.

Q: But Kasztner's defenders claim that he was the one who sent the Zionist messengers to the ghettos.

A: This is false. The Zionist messengers were sent by two officials in the Provincial Department of the Budapest Jewish Council, Moshe Rosenberg and Lajos Gottesman. Kasztner tried to prevent the illegal Zionist missions. When he failed to do so, he gave the messengers none of the intelligence in his possession.

Q: Kasztner's defenders also claim that Hungarian Jews had information about Auschwitz but refused to accept it.

A: Kasztner himself repeatedly stated, both during and after the Holocaust, that the Hungarian Jewish masses were not informed of the death camps. Other Hungarian Jewish leaders confirmed this. Auschwitz survivors, including the late Elie Wiesel, also confirmed it.

Q: If other Jewish leaders in Budapest knew about Auschwitz, while the Jewish masses in the Hungarian provinces did not, why blame Kasztner alone?

A: The leaders of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council in Budapest, such as Samu Stern and Fulop Freudiger, also bear a heavy burden of guilt. They too concealed what they knew and helped to spread Nazi disinformation among the Jewish victims. None of this is an excuse for Kasztner, who was supposed to be running a Jewish rescue operation.

Q: Why focus on Kasztner, a minor figure who did not even have a place on the Jewish Council in Budapest?

A: Kasztner was more important than the leaders of the Jewish Council. Even before Eichmann sent Brand to Turkey, Kasztner was the only Jewish leader in Hungary with the full range of Nazi "privileges," including not only freedom to use his car and telephone and exemption from the Yellow Star, but also Nazi permission to travel outside the Hungarian capital. After Brand's departure, Kasztner became the official Jewish negotiator with Eichmann. His importance to the Nazis is shown by the fact that Adolf Hitler's envoy to Hungary, Edmund Veesenmayer, intervened to free him when he was arrested by the Hungarian authorities.

Q: Was Kasztner motivated by his aim of negotiating a deal with the Nazis to save all Hungarian Jews?

A: No. Kasztner's defenders claim that during the deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz, he was trying to arrange a Goods for Blood deal with Eichmann. The Kasztner Train deal was supposedly the first phase of a large-scale rescue. But according to his own admissions, Kasztner never believed in the possibility of such a deal.

Q: How do we know that Kasztner never believed in the Goods for Blood talks?

A: He himself said so after the war. According to his repeated statements, Eichmann promised that the Jews to be released under the deal would first be sent to Auschwitz to be "kept on ice." But Kasztner knew full well that Jews sent to Auschwitz would be murdered.

Q: Didn't Kasztner's negotiations with Eichmann save 15,000-18,000 Jews who were sent to Strasshof in Vienna instead of Auschwitz?

A: No. Eichmann was ordered to send these Jews to Strasshof by his superior Ernst Kaltenbrunner. As revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, Kaltenbrunner planned to use these Jews as slave labour and then murder them all. About a quarter of the Jews sent to Strasshof were in fact killed in the space of a year.

Q: Perhaps Kasztner sincerely, albeit mistakenly, believed that he had saved the Strasshof Jews?

A: No. By his own account, he was informed of orders to send Hungarian Jews to Strasshof the day before he started negotiating about it with Eichmann.

Q: Did Kasztner do anything to further the Strasshof operation?

A: Yes. He had a rescue committee colleague send messages to Jewish leaders in the ghettos telling them to select Jews for transportation to a labour camp. These leaders then had an incentive to keep order in the ghettos and prevent panic among those about to be deported to their deaths.

Q: What did Kasztner tell the outside world about the situation of Hungary's Jews?

A: He sent deceptive letters to his foreign Jewish contacts boasting of his magnificent "rescue" achievements and pretending that the Jewish deportees from Hungary were alive and well in "Waldsee," the Nazi camouflage for Auschwitz. His Jewish contacts in the free world then had an incentive to avoid creating publicity about the events in Hungary.

Q: Did Kasztner do anything else to help the Nazis?

A: According to the eye-witness testimony of Moshe Krausz, head of the Jewish Agency's Palestine Office, Kasztner ordered the Budapest Jewish Council to distribute postcards from Jews supposedly in "Waldsee" to the Jewish masses in the capital. The postcards were a standard Nazi method of reassuring their Jewish victims.

Q: How did the deportations from Hungary end?

A: Two Jewish escapees from Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, had prepared a detailed report on the death factory. This report, the Auschwitz Protocols, ultimately fell into the hands of Krausz, who smuggled it to Switzerland with an accurate account of the atrocities in Hungary. It reached diplomat George Mantello, who started a press campaign that caused global uproar and massive pressure on the Hungarian government to stop the deportations. The deportations finally ended in early July 1944, by which time 437,000 Hungarian Jews had boarded the trains. Only the Jewish population of Budapest remained.

Q: Did Kasztner continue to collaborate with the Nazis after the end of the deportations?

A: Yes. He met a wide range of prominent Nazi war criminals. Having already dealt with Kurt Becher, who extorted and plundered Hungarian Jews, he was also introduced to Hans Juttner, commander of the Waffen-SS, and to Rudolf Hoss, the former commandant of Auschwitz. Later he had a short encounter in Vienna with Heinrich Himmler.

Q: Was Kasztner to blame for the Holocaust in Hungary?

A: No. The Nazis and the Hungarian antisemites were the perpetrators. But Kasztner played a role in facilitating their genocidal crimes.

Q: Why didn't the Nazis kill Kasztner at the end of the war?

A: They expected him to provide them with postwar alibis, which is exactly what he did. They protected him to such an extent that after they allowed him to go to Switzerland, he voluntarily left the free world for Nazi Vienna. There the deputy head of the local Gestapo arranged a room for him at the Grand Hotel, the main residence of SS officers.

Q: Didn't Kasztner travel with Becher to Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps at the end of the war in order to save Jews?

A: The Kasztner-Becher mission to the concentration camps was ordered by Himmler. The aim was to establish postwar alibis for the parties concerned. Kasztner and Becher were not responsible for the surrender of Bergen-Belsen and other camps.

Q: What was the Kasztner Trial?

A: In the 1950s, the Israeli government charged an elderly Hungarian Jew, Malkiel Gruenwald, with criminal libel for calling Kasztner a collaborator. Kasztner was by then a government official. Malkiel Gruenwald was defended by Shmuel Tamir, who succeeded in exposing Kasztner's dishonesty on the witness stand. Many Hungarian Holocaust survivors also testified against Kasztner.

Q: Wasn't the Kasztner Trial verdict that Kasztner had "sold his soul to the Devil" reversed by Israel's Supreme Court after Kasztner's assassination?

A: Yes, but the Supreme Court verdict falsified the evidence. For instance, according to Judge Shimon Agranat, who delivered the longest opinion, Kasztner had been uncertain of the imminent murder of Hungary's Jews when he visited Kolozsvar in early May 1944. But according to Kasztner's own testimony, he had been certain - because SS officer Dieter Wisliceny had told him.

Q: Nowadays many historians exonerate Kasztner. Who are you to contradict them?

A: Regardless of what Kasztner's defenders say, we know without any possibility of doubt that he was guilty of collaboration, because his own statements confirm it.

Q: Some anti-Zionists use the Kasztner scandal to attack Zionism and the State of Israel. Aren't you assisting them?

A: No. Zionism means bringing the Jewish people to a Jewish homeland. It has never meant helping antisemites to destroy the Jewish people. Kasztner actively opposed the rescue efforts of other Zionists, such as Krausz, who directly and indirectly saved the lives of scores of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

Q: You were not there. Who are you to judge what someone did in such extreme circumstances?

A: The Hungarian Holocaust survivors were there and they overwhelmingly condemned Kasztner. After liberation, the Jewish survivors from Kolozsvar wanted to have him prosecuted as a war criminal. The Auschwitz survivors who testified in the Kasztner Trial all testified against him. But his supporters today, who were never in Auschwitz, are trying to turn him into a hero.

Q: According to Jewish tradition, saving one life is equivalent to saving the whole world. Doesn't this apply to Kasztner?

A: Jewish tradition also says that destroying one life is equivalent to destroying the whole world. For the sake of the Kasztner Train, Kasztner helped to deceive countless Hungarian Jews into boarding the trains to Auschwitz. These Jews were murdered by the Nazis and cannot speak for themselves. It is our duty to defend their memory.