OPED: Saving Kasztner


In 1944, a Hungarian Jew named Rudolf Kasztner saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz by negotiating directly with the symbol of the Holocaust itself, SS Colonel Adolph Eichmann. He saved more Jews than Oskar Schindler, for which the movie "Schindler's List" was produced to honor Schindler's brave deeds to save over 1,200 Jews. Although he saved more Jewish lives than Schindler or any other single person during the Holocaust, Kasztner was seen by many as a Nazi collaborator and Jewish traitor. Months before the Israeli government cleared Kasztner of any charges of being a Nazi collaborator, he was shot to death by a fellow Israeli in 1957 who believed he betrayed his people.

Rudolf Kasztner

Kasztner was an attorney in Hungary during World War II who joined a rescue mission to help smuggle Jews from other countries under Nazi control. Hungary kept the Nazis out of their country until Spring 1944 by maintaining an alliance with the Germans. Unfortunately, the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944 and immediately formed Jewish Councils and ghettos to prepare their Jews for transport to Auschwitz. Surprisingly, Kaszner was able to gain an audience with Colonel Eichmann to negotiate for the lives of the Hungarian Jews. Kasztner did not serve on any Jewish Councils and although he was a rescue worker, he was not in an official position to represent any Jews in Hungary. This didn't stop Kaszner from using his relationship with Eichmann to try and save Hungarian Jews. Eichmann demanded 100,000 trucks from the Allies in exchange for a million Jewish lives. Kasztner realized that the Allies would never agree to such a deal, so he tried to buy for time to get as many Jews freed as possible. He talked Eichmann into agreeing to send a train full of Jews to neutral Switzerland as a show of good faith, even though Kasztner was well aware that no trucks were ever coming. As a result, Kasztner is directly responsible for the "Kasztner Train" that transported over 1600 Jews to freedom. He also saved approximately 15,000 Jews from Auschwitz by “tricking” Eichmann again into agreeing to send them to a work camp in Germany that required labor. The majority of Jews saved by Kasznter's clever ruse were women and children, most of who would have been sent to the gas chambers. 

Unfortunately, as Kasztner was negotiating with Eichmann, the SS continued to ship 12,000 Jews a day to Auschwitz. This is the point in the story where many Israelis feel that Kazstner betrayed the Hungarian Jews and was responsible for their deaths. His accusers argue that while he negotiated freedom for 1600 Jews, he damned the rest by not letting them know where the trains were heading. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, a Hungarian Jew who wrote about his harrowing experiences at Auschwitz in his best-selling book, "Night", is one of many Holocaust survivors who feel that Kasztner betrayed his people. Had they known their fate, Wiesel argues, Jews could have hid in the country or fought back. Although the State of Israel cleared Kasztner of Nazi collaboration, the government failed to recognize his work to save thousands of Jews and he did not receive recognition at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. 

Although Wiesel was a great man beyond reproach, his opinion of Kasztner may have been based on faulty information. Kasztner was a rescue worker, not an official member of a Jewish Council. He did not have an official position to warn the Jews about the dangers of deportation. Kasztner and many leading Jews in Hungary apparently received a report from Slovakia that detailed the level of murder at Auschwitz, but Kasztner and many other leaders did not believe it. However, the report was compelling enough for Kasztner to become suspicious and concerned about the fate of the Jews being deported. In response to the report, he asked younger members of a nearby Zionist group to span out through Hungary and inform the Jews that deportation was dangerous and could lead to their death. The Jewish Councils simply did not believe them. Kasztner could have tried to speak to the Councils directly, but it's doubtful they would have believed his claims. 

In 2007, a documentary named "Killing Kasztner" was released that closely examined Kasztner's actions during the Holocaust and the opinions of various people who knew him. In an interview, the producer of the documentary said she did not want to share her opinion on Kasztner, but rather allow her audience to judge him based on her work. After watching the documentary and reading more about Kasztner, I believe that Kasztner is undoubtedly a hero who risked his own life negotiating with SS officials to secure the safety of over 16,000 Jews. The Yad Vashem Museum came to a similar conclusion when it recently decided to recognize Kasztner's bravery and apologized to his family. Since Kasztner did not receive the justice he deserved when he was alive, it felt appropriate to title my letter "Saving Kasztner” since he received his justice well after he passed. Many great deeds can only be accomplished if someone is willing to walk the fine line between hero and villain, especially in times of war. Kasztner was willing to walk this line and there are over 16,000 Jews and their families who are alive because he did so.

— Matt Helfrich is a York Dispatch guest contributor and a resident of Harleysville, Pa.