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March 29, 2017 6:52 am

Rezső Kasztner: The Man Who Betrayed 400,000 Jews

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avatar by Paul Bogdanor


Rezső Kasztner. Photo: Wiki Commons.

A major injustice is being committed in our time, as a traitor to the Jewish people is being turned into a hero, and the anguished cries of Holocaust survivors are being silenced.

From May 1944 to July 1944, more than 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz. The enthusiastic perpetrators of this crime — the fastest destruction of any Jewish population during the Final Solution — were Adolf Eichmann’s SS unit and the Hungarian government.

Throughout the preparations for, and the implementation of, the deportations, the Nazis conducted “rescue negotiations” with a small Jewish committee led by Rezső Kasztner (also known as Rudolf Kastner). The Nazi aim in these “negotiations” was to buy time for the mass murder operation by holding out the prospect of a rescue deal. As Himmler told one of his officers: “Take what you can get from the Jews. Promise them what you like. What we keep is another matter.”

That the Nazis tried to trick Jewish leaders is no surprise. What is shocking is that Kasztner, who was supposed to be in charge of the Jewish rescue effort in Hungary, was induced to play along.

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The bait was the promise to free a trainload of 1,684 specially selected “prominents,” who were first moved to a Nazi-guarded camp in Budapest, then held hostage in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and finally released to Switzerland.

In return for this “concession” — supposedly the first stage of a grand bargain to spare one million Jews in exchange for goods from the West — Kasztner was expected to collaborate in sending the Jews of Hungary to their deaths.

Kasztner knew that the trains from the Hungarian ghettos were taking their victims not to a resettlement site — as the Jews had been told — but to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Yet he ordered his committee to send messages to the ghettos telling local Jewish leaders to prepare their communities for agricultural work in the countryside. By doing so, Kasztner guaranteed that there would be no significant escape attempts, even though some of these Jewish communities were near the country’s borders, and the Romanian authorities — at this stage of the war — openly tolerated the arrival of Jewish refugees.

What Kasztner did is not speculation.

In his postwar report on his activities, Kasztner admitted to knowing in advance that Auschwitz was the destination of the Jewish men, women and children boarding the death trains. He also disclosed the specific instructions that he had received from the SS. Eichmann, he wrote, “wanted no fuss” as the ghettos were emptied. Therefore, “the ‘rescue secret’ had to be kept.”

Kasztner’s activities during the Holocaust were the subject of a sensational libel trial in Israel in the 1950s. The outcome of that trial — in which the judge ruled that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil” — caused the collapse of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett’s government. The verdict was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court, but not before Kasztner’s assassination at the hands of right-wing extremists.

For the past decade, a campaign has been afoot to exonerate Kasztner. Books have been written applauding him as an “unknown hero” of the Holocaust. There have been repeated efforts to name an Israeli street after him. A hagiographic documentary, “Killing Kasztner,” has been shown to countless audiences in North America and beyond. Soon a play celebrating Kasztner will be staged by Israel’s National Theater.

This campaign has been fueled by awareness that the last Hungarian survivors of Auschwitz are dying off, and can no longer speak out against what is happening. Some of those who remain alive have been put under considerable distress by the insensitivity of Kasztner’s apologists. At past meetings on the subject, Hungarian Holocaust survivors have been shouted down.

All this comes as conclusive evidence of Kasztner’s guilt has emerged.

My new book, Kasztner’s Crime, quotes from the letters he sent to his foreign Jewish contacts during the Holocaust. In one of these letters, he referred to Auschwitz-Birkenau not as a death camp, but as an “industrial center.” In another, he asserted that the Jews sent there were alive and well in “Waldsee” — a fictitious location used as a decoy by the Nazis.

Kasztner also openly promoted the Nazi propaganda line. “If there was anything humane at all to be said about the handling of the deportation,” he wrote at the height of the mass murders, “it was paradoxically always to be attributed to the SS.”

It is time to call a halt to the whitewashing of Kasztner’s legacy. Respect for the memory of the Jewish victims demands no less.

Kasztner’s Crime by Paul Bogdanor (Transaction Publishers) is available now in paperback, priced at $29.95. Visit

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