LONDON — Most historians probably have a good idea of their central thesis even before they begin the laborious spadework of research.
But for British Jewish historian Paul Bogdanor, his ambition to find material defending the controversial wartime Zionist leader, Rudolf Kasztner, was cruelly thwarted.
Bogdanor was “extremely shocked” to find that everything pointed towards Kasztner’s having been “a collaborator” with the Nazis, and a “betrayer of the Zionist movement and the Jewish people.”
Bogdanor’s new book, “Kasztner’s Crime,” published in October, sets out the case against the Jewish leader in damning detail. Even the most devoted defender might have second thoughts after reading his book.
Ironically, Bogdanor set out to work on the book almost a decade ago in a bid “to prove Kasztner’s innocence.” He was tired of seeing Kasztner’s name come up repeatedly in anti-Zionist propaganda.
Kasztner was a leader of a small Zionist grouping in Budapest towards the end of World War II. He led a Jewish rescue committee which, before the Nazis entered Hungary, did succeed in saving the lives of a number of Jews. But once the Nazis arrived, Kasztner, an ambitious lawyer, became embroiled in prolonged negotiations with the Nazi leadership, particularly Adolf Eichmann.
After complex dealings with Eichmann, Kasztner succeeded in getting the Nazis to agree to the deportation of a group of 1,684 Hungarian Jews, the so-called “Kasztner Train,” who eventually ended up in freedom in Switzerland.
But thousands more continued on the doomed path to Auschwitz. Bogdanor says that not only did Kasztner know they were being sent to their deaths, but that he actively kept such information secret from other Jews in Hungary and the wider Jewish world.
Kasztner himself did not get on the train, but survived the war and made his way to Palestine. By 1952 he was a spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and a would-be member of Knesset, though he did not succeed in obtaining a place high enough on the Mapai list to become elected.
Nevertheless, when, in 1953, an embittered Hungarian Jew named Malkiel Gruenwald distributed a pamphlet about Kasztner, naming him as a Nazi collaborator, the Israeli government thought highly enough of him to bring a libel suit on his behalf, accusing Gruenwald of defamation.
During the trial, dozens of witnesses testified about Kasztner’s actions during the war. The case lasted 18 months and did not end well for him. The presiding judge ruled that Kasztner had indeed collaborated, and in words which echo down the years, said he had “sold his soul to the devil.”
The Israeli government of the day fell and Kasztner and his family became virtual prisoners in their home. He resigned from his post, his wife sank into depression and his daughter spoke, years later, of having been ostracized and mocked by other children at school.
On March 3, 1957, right-wing extremists shot Kasztner dead. The following year, too late for him, the court verdict was reversed, suggesting that much of what was claimed against him was not correct. Leading the campaign in ensuing years to rehabilitate Kasztner was journalist and political Tommy Lapid, himself a Hungarian Jew and father of Yair Lapid, the leader of today’s Yesh Atid party.
“Kasztner didn’t start out as someone evil,” says Bogdanor. “He started out as someone who wanted to rescue Jews, and before March 1944, he did rescue Jews. But when the Nazis occupied Hungary, he began negotiating with them and, very quickly, I argue, he became a collaborator.”
Among the dramatis personae of the Kasztner story were Joel Brand and his wife Hansi, key associates in the negotiations with the Nazis. The central part of the deal with Eichmann was the so-called “Goods for Blood” arrangement in which the Nazis tried to barter Jewish lives for money, arms and supplies in the dying months of the war.
‘She spun the truth in Kasztner’s favor for the rest of his life. She was manipulated by him’
Joel Brand was dispatched to Istanbul in order to persuade the Jewish Agency leadership to accept this plan, which came to nothing. The Zionist leaders told Brand that Moshe Sharett — then head of the Agency’s political department, and later, Israel’s second prime minister — could not obtain a visa for Istanbul and that a meeting could only take place in Aleppo. Within moments of leaving the train to Aleppo, Brand was arrested by the British, and, back in Budapest, Kasztner had begun an affair with Hansi Brand.
“She [Hansi] spun the truth in Kasztner’s favor for the rest of his life,” says Bogdanor. “She was manipulated by him.”
Bogdanor makes it clear that while the case against Kasztner is damning, the anti-Zionist claim “that Kasztner was part of a Zionist conspiracy with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe, is nonsense.”
“He was not acting on behalf of the Zionist movement, he betrayed it. This is proved in my book by the fact that he was feeding his contacts in the free world Nazi disinformation. If there had been a Zionist conspiracy with the Nazis, Kasztner wouldn’t have been feeding the Zionists Nazi disinformation,” says Bogdanor.
Kasztner was “drawn into this web of collaboration,” says Bogdanor, by degrees. Part of it was his own sense of aggrandizement and vanity that he was the sole conduit for the Nazis to deal with the Jews of Hungary.
Bogdanor notes members of Kasztner’s rescue committee were the only Jews in the country who did not have to wear a yellow star. They were permitted to continue to use their own cars and telephones and Kasztner, within a month of the occupation, was the only Jew allowed to travel from the capital to the provinces.
The lawyer who sealed Kasztner’s fate in his trial, Shmuel Tamir, was politically opposed to prime minister David Ben-Gurion and was a former member of the right-wing pre-Independence group, the Irgun.
Tamir, who later became justice minister in prime minister Menachem Begin’s government, saw something in Kasztner “which other people had missed, which the Hungarian Holocaust survivors also saw,” says Bogdanor. “He was convinced that Kasztner was guilty, and he saw his streak of utter ruthlessness and megalomania. He saw it as his public duty to prevent Kasztner from assuming an important position in Israel.”
Despite the verdict, the government appealed, and after Kasztner’s death, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling. But Bogdanor says that that decision was based on “a fundamental distortion of the evidence in the trial, the judges misread the evidence.”
‘Kasztner had instructed local Jewish leadership to mislead them, to deceive them into boarding the trains to Auschwitz’
“The longest decision was delivered by Judge Shimon Agranat, who argued that at every crucial point, Kasztner was not yet sure that the Nazis intended to murder Hungary’s Jews. The thing is, often in the very passages [from the trial evidence] cited by Agranat, Kasztner said that he was sure that the Nazis intended to exterminate the Jews of Hungary,” says Bogdanor.
The central charge made against Kasztner by the surviving Hungarian Jews was, says Bogdanor, “not just that he failed to warn them [of the Nazis’ intention]. It was that Kasztner had instructed local Jewish leadership to mislead them, and to deceive them into boarding the trains to Auschwitz. After Kasztner had visited the local communities, the leadership spread false information — which he had given them — that the Jews were going to be resettled inside Hungary. Agranat and the other judges overlooked this matter of deception.”
Bogdanor admits to being profoundly shocked by the depth and extent of what he found out about Kasztner. It would have been bad enough, he argues, if Kasztner had passively collaborated with the Nazis. But he actively collaborated, he says, taking steps to mislead both Jews inside Hungary and his Jewish contacts in the outside world.
For example, Bogdanor says that “on May 14, 1944, he sent a letter [out of Hungary] saying that Auschwitz was merely an industrial center, not an extermination camp, and later on he sent letters saying that the Jews deported from Hungary were alive and well in Waldsee, which was the Nazi camouflage for Auschwitz.”
It’s plain to see, 70 or so years on from these terrible events, what made Kasztner tick.
Bogdanor says the Nazis “saw how attracted he was to power. He went gambling and drinking with the Nazi officers. He was their tool — but he also knew he was being used as their tool.”
‘He was their tool — but he also knew he was being used as their tool’
In 2007, when Yosef (Tommy) Lapid was chairman of Yad Vashem’s board, Kasztner’s private papers were presented to the museum by his family and public declarations were made indicating his exoneration.
But Paul Bogdanor believes “Yad Vashem made a very serious mistake. For years Yad Vashem didn’t take a position on the Kasztner issue; but Lapid had been a personal friend of Kasztner and he started pushing for his rehabilitation from Yad Vashem.”
Bogdanor does not accept the case made by Kasztner’s defenders that he had rescued thousands of Jews.
“All the rescue claims are without substance, whatsoever,” he says.
Bogdanor has met Holocaust survivors from Hungary “who are extremely distressed by the campaign to rehabilitate Kasztner. I felt a greater obligation to them to do what I could for them… Kasztner did know that Jews were being exterminated, he knew and he repeatedly admitted it. His defenders have to say he didn’t know, which is contrary to the facts.”
He saw “a tsunami of pro-Kasztner sentiment,” which had spurred him to write the book, and next year playwright Motti Lerner’s eponymous Kasztner is set for a revival production by Israel’s national theater.
Paul Bogdanor says he constantly asked himself during the decade it took him to write the book, “Am I wrong? Am I sure?”
“But yes,” he concludes. “I am as sure as it is possible to be. Kasztner was guilty.”
“Kasztner’s Crime,” by Paul Bogdanor, is published by Transaction Publishers in the United States and the UK.