Escaping Auschwitz: A
Culture of Forgetting
by Prof. Ruth Linn
A conspiracy of silence
Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting
By Prof. Ruth Linn
Cornell University Press
When Rudolf Vrba escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944, he did so not only to save his and co-escapee Alfred Wetzler's life, but also to warn the more than half of a million Hungarian Jews of their impending fate.
As Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, the SS staff at Auschwitz began making intensive preparations for the arrival of Hungarian Jews. Knowing perfectly well that it was the secrecy surrounding their actions that allowed the Nazis to herd unsuspecting Jews and transport them like sheep to slaughter, Vrba and Wetzler - as soon as they got in touch with Jewish community representatives in their native Slovakia - compiled a detailed report. They wrote about Auschwitz and what awaited Hungarian Jews once they arrived: immediate death by gassing.
This was the first reliable eyewitness account, and it was delivered with haste to the Vatican, as well as to the US and British authorities and the International Red Cross. On Vrba and Wetzler's insistence, it was also delivered to the Hungarian Jewish leadership. The idea, as Vrba would later explain, was that once informed about the Nazis' plan, Hungarian Jews would resist. If each and every one of them cast a stone, there would be a hail of stones, Vrba said.
Unfortunately, this never happened. Just as they were reading the Auschwitz Protocol - as the Vrba-Wetzler report would become known - the Hungarian Jewish leaders were involved in delicate negotiations with Mr. Final Solution himself - Adolf Eichmann.
On the surface, they were trying to get a deal that would allow them, their families and their friends to leave Hungary unscathed, with most of their worldly possessions, and in exchange the Nazis would get trucks and other such non-lethal material from the Allies.
Some of the Hungarian Jewish leaders would later acknowledge that the talks were described by both sides as "blood for trucks." This in itself indicates that Eichmann knew he was letting Hungary's Jewish leaders leave in exchange for their silence.
As Eichmann himself would say later, he tried to avoid irritants that would delay the Final Solution.
In any case, the result was that about 1,700 Hungarian Jewish leaders, with their families and friends, ended up in Switzerland, while almost half a million unsuspecting Hungarian Jews ended up dead in Auschwitz.
This story has been widely documented throughout Europe and North America. But it was completely unknown to the Hebrew-speaking citizens of Israel until the end of the last millennium.
THIS IS where Prof. Ruth Linn, dean of the faculty of education at Haifa University, comes in. Her book, Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting, should explode among scientists in general and historians in particular, not only in Israel, but all over the world.
It should alarm non-scientific readers, and encourage them to start asking uncomfortable questions about the people who write their history for them.
Linn is the first Israeli-based - and educated - scientist to dismantle the conspiracy of silence surrounding the fate of the Auschwitz Protocol. She stumbled upon the story in 1987, when she saw French - yes, French - filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's ground-breaking documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah. Lanzmann considers Vrba's testimony central to our understanding of the Holocaust.
Linn was shocked: Here she was, a highly educated Israeli scientist, and she had never heard about this important aspect of the Holocaust.
She wasn't alone. Several years later, she conducted a poll of 594 students. Some of them were in their third year of undergraduate studies and some in the first year of graduate studies at the University of Haifa. Asked whether any Jews ever managed to escape from Auschwitz, 98 percent said no.
The reason for this ignorance? Neither the story of the Auschwitz Protocols nor the writings of Rudolf Vrba have ever been part of any school curriculum in Israel, and neither the Auschwitz Protocols nor Rudolf Vrba's writings were published in Hebrew until the end of the last century - more than 50 years after the fact. But why?
As Linn establishes, there is a combination of reasons. First, the official Israeli history of the Holocaust maintains that it was the heroic leadership of the Zionists that was at the core of any Jewish resistance to the Nazis. Secondly, some of the Hungarian Jewish leaders proceeded to gain leadership roles in the State of Israel. Revealing their not-so-glorious past would be embarrassing to themselves and to the ideology. In fact, if they were to concede Vrba's points, they would admit to having been Nazi collaborators, willing or not, and that would be simply unacceptable, as far as they - and history - were concerned.
Linn details Israeli historians' attempts to discredit Vrba, by then an associate professor at the Department of Pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. When the well-respected German publication Vierteljahrshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte commissioned Vrba to write a detailed account of his experiences, Israeli historians accused the magazine of anti-Semitism. Later, they would suggest that Vrba should tend to his pharmacological knitting and leave writing about history to professionals.
VRBA HAS indeed tended to his pharmacological knitting, and his numerous papers have earned him not only tenure at the UBC but also emeritus status upon his retirement. But he has also proven that one need not have a specialized education to become an accomplished historian. Even after some Israeli historians agreed that some of Vrba's information might indeed be valuable, they did so in a rather patronizing way, quoting him as Vrba rather than as Dr. Vrba, which, in Israel, borders on insult.
And there was another unfortunate angle. Jumping on Israeli historians' dismissive views of Vrba's Holocaust writings, several Holocaust deniers - American Arthur Butz, France's Robert Faurisson and Britain's David Irving among them - concluded that Vrba was in fact the author of what they called "the hoax of the century." After all, if Israeli scientists didn't believe him, why should anyone else?
Linn raises several important questions. First, to what degree should history be written by people sitting in ivory towers rather than by eyewitnesses - especially eyewitnesses capable of providing detailed, documented information - who understand the context of their times? Should there not be at least some cross-referencing between the two sides?
An academic book, with footnotes, references and cross-references, Linn's Escaping Auschwitz reads like a novel. It must have taken a great deal of persistence and courage on her part to break through the establishment barriers. It also took integrity on the part of Cornell University Press to publish this book. Linn deals with a most unpleasant topic, but one that must see the light of day.
The writer is a Canadian journalist and editor in Edmonton, Alberta.
THE JEWISH JOURNAL
Righteous Anger Fuels ‘Auschwitz’
by Michael Berenbaum
“Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting” by Ruth Linn (Cornell University Press, $20).
There is a fierce anger at the core of Ruth Linn’s work, the anger of a woman who suddenly and irrefutably discovers that the story she has been told by her Israeli teachers, Israeli society and Israeli culture from childhood onward regarding the Holocaust is but a partial narrative. Her teachers selected materials from the events of Holocaust history to fortify Zionist ideology, to reinforce the importance of Israel and to indoctrinate a new generation. This unraveling of her seemingly naïve trust in her elders revolves around one of the truly important and fascinating events of the Holocaust.
On April 7, 1944, two men, Rudolph Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Slovakia. There, with the help of the Jewish Working Group, they wrote a report, complete with maps, detailing what had occurred at Auschwitz over the past two years and the plans — soon to be realized — for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, who were deported en mass only weeks thereafter. Their report made its way from Slovakia to Hungary, where Hungarian Jewish leaders had a clear idea of what indeed was happening at Auschwitz — mass murder — before the deportations. Those leaders chose not to share this information with ordinary Hungarian Jews who reported for the trains not knowing that “resettlement in the East” was deportation to death factories and who didn’t know what Auschwitz was.
As Elie Wiesel wrote in his memoir “Night”: “Auschwitz, we had never heard the name.”
Many Hungarian Jews, young and old, echo his statement. Vrba’s work has been translated into many languages, but not into Hebrew until 1999. Why? Vrba had not been honored by Israel until he received a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Haifa due to Linn’s initiative. Why?
The story of Vrba is well-known in the West. Claude Lanzmann interviewed him at length in his classic film “Shoah.” I personally published the Vrba-Wetzler Report in my collection of Holocaust documents “Witness to the Holocaust,” and his report formed a centerpiece of “Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp” (Indiana University, 1998), which I co-edited with Israel Gutman, and “Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It” (St. Martins, 2000), which I co-edited with Michael Neufeld, based on an international conference held at the Air and Space Museum honoring the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Vrba was a featured speaker at a 1994 conference on Hungarian Jewry and his words from the Lanzmann interview are permanently inscribed in the Museum’s exhibition at a pivotal point just when one exits the box car. They are nothing less than poetic.
There was a place called the ramp where trains with Jews were coming in.
They were coming day and night,
Sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day
From all sorts of places in the world.
I worked there from August 18, 1942 to June 7, 1943.
I saw those transports rolling one after another,
And I have seen at least 200 of them in this position.
Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing,
And they were arriving to the same place,
With the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport.
I knew that within a couple of hours after they arrived there 90 percent would be gassed.
Linn’s anger, however justified, seems quite innocent and quite naïve. For decades now, a new generation of Israeli historians have challenged the “preferred narrative” — to use the term developed by Edward Linenthal in his masterful work “Preserving History: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Memorial” — developed by earlier historians who sought to present the past in a manner that is conducive to creating a national future. If anything, the historian that Linn criticizes so intensely, Yehuda Bauer (and to a lesser extent Gutman), has been more open and more willing to stray from the Zionist historiography than the generational that preceded him.
The Psalmist proclaimed: “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.”
The place from which we remember an event shapes the manner in which it is recalled.
For the past two decades, the divergence of national historiography relating to the Holocaust has been the subject of intense historical scrutiny in Germany, Austria, the United States, France, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. In the 15 years since the demise of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary in particular — have rewritten their history of the Holocaust to better serve a free people and to better comport with the evidence. Even as this review is being written, Romania is going through that agonizing task as an international commission — chaired by Wiesel and featuring the work of Radu Ioanid, a Romanian immigrant to the United States — investigates Romania’s role in killing its Jews.
Anger has its place. Linn shakes up the Israeli status quo. She reminds us — within months of the opening of the new Yad Vashem Museum that will retell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation of Israelis who now are more than a 60 years from the event — that the Israeli perspective, however important, is limited and must be balanced by other presentations of the very same history. Linn points out that the decision not to translate certain books into Hebrew such as Vrba’s memoirs, Hilberg’s masterpiece “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Holmes and Meier, 1985) and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (Penguin, 1994) limits what an Israeli public can understand of the Holocaust. Still, to a younger generation of Israelis whose English is fluent — and to Israeli scholars who want to make their reputation by writing in English for the international community — there is a press to present a broader history.
Her role in understanding the importance of the Vrba report is also limited. She does not seem to know the way in which it changed a June decision of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem not to press for the bombing of Auschwitz since that would result in the death of innocent Jewish non-combatants incarcerated there. Yet one month later in London, Moshe Shertok (later Sharret) and Chaim Weizmann were pressing for the bombing and secured the support of Winston Churchill who told Anthony Eden “get what you can out of the Air Force and invoke my name if necessary.” She also does not seem to know the role that it played in the U.S. War Refugee Board forwarding a request to bomb Auschwitz to the War Department, which led to the famed — infamous — reply by John J. McCloy in August 1944. The full text of the report was not available in the United States until November.
The work is interesting. Her passion is genuine. Her disappointment is apparent throughout. Righteous anger fuels her work, righteous anger, but still limited learning.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and the co-editor of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?”
Newsletter — November 2004— Vol. X, no. 11
Ruth Linn, Escaping Auschwitz. A culture of forgetting. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 2004. 154pp. ISBN 0-8014-4130-7
(The following is not a book about ecclesiastical history, but its relevance to the subject of the previous review is obvious, and so I believe it will be of interest to many of our list-members.)
Sixty years ago, in April 1944, Fred Wetzler and Rudi Vrba escaped from Auschwitz. They were two of the only five Jews who succeeded in doing so and survived. A few days later they managed to cross the border to their homeland, Slovakia, and quickly contacted representatives of the Jewish Council. Their dramatic feat was made all the significant by the momentous information they brought with them, comprising details of the mass murder procedures in Auschwitz, the record of numerous transports arriving from countries all over German-held Europe, sketches of the annihilation facilities, and an overall estimate of the total number of Jews murdered in the gas chambers during the previous two years. Their eye-witness account, they insisted, should be shared at once with the Jews of Hungary, for whose arrival in the camp and subsequent murder, preparations were being actively speeded up. But in fact, this information, later referred to as the Vrba-Wetzler Report or the Auschwitz Protocols, never reached its intended audience. A month later, nearly half a million Jews were deported to their deaths. None of them knew what was in store for them. As a result, Vrba and Wetzler concluded that their information had been suppressed. Vrba, for one, remains convinced that if the intended victims had been warned, they would have resisted or hid or fled. The tragedy of the Hungarian Jewry would have taken a very different course.
Ruth Linn, now Dean of the Faculty of Education at Haifa University, had never heard of Vrba's exploits. Despite the centrality of Holocaust remembrance in Israel's national consciousness, she only learnt about this escape while viewing Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah. Several years later, however, she had an opportunity to meet Vrba personally and to read his autobiographical memoirs, written in English in 1963. This made her all the more curious as to why, fifty years after the Holocaust, the unique actions and memories of these Auschwitz escapees had remained completely unfamiliar to the average Hebrew reader.
It was only when she realized that the silence about Vrba's life and writings was no accident that her curiosity turned to dismay and then to indignation. She made it her mission to break a thirty-five year silence by encouraging the publication of a Hebrew version of Vrba's autobiography, and to urge Haifa University to grant him an honorary degree. These endeavors were opposed by Israeli scholars. But with this short book, she now seeks to restore Vrba's name by probing the mystery of his disappearance not only from Auschwitz but from the Israeli textbooks and the Israeli Holocaust narrative.
This is not, as she admits, a balanced account. But her succinct and hard-hitting chapters seek to trace how Israeli historians have conspired to remove these participants from the Holocaust story by misnaming, misreporting, miscrediting and misrepresenting the secretive tale of their escape from Auschwitz.
The reason is simple. Vrba's belief was and is that the information about Auschwitz was suppressed in order that leading members of the Slovakian and Hungarian Jewish Councils, could do a deal with Eichmann and his henchmen. In return for their silence, these men purchased survival for themselves, their relatives, a coterie of Zionists, and a number of wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs. In June 1944 these fortunate individuals boarded a train which eventually carried them to freedom in Switzerland. Many went on, subsequently, to hold prominent positions in the newly-established state of Israel. They were also responsible for the formulation of the heroic myth of Zionist resistance and rescue from their Nazi persecutors. Official Israeli historiography had no place for alternative interpretations of what had happened in Hungary, or for any analysis of the role of the Judenrat and their collaboration with the Nazis.
Ruth Linn incisively analyses how unwelcome critics, such as Vrba, have been silenced, and how the process of repressing, denying, or avoiding the charges they make has been put in place.
In the first place, the escapees from Auschwitz were reduced to anonymity and their names were never mentioned. As late as 1994, more than half a century after they fled from Auschwitz, Israel TV in a commemorative programme to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust did not give their true identity. To be sure, a version of their Report is displayed in the entrance hall of the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, but the names of its authors are not provided, and the Hebrew label on the wall refers only to "two young Slovak Jews". The Report itself is not available in Hebrew to visitors, since the Museum only has a version in German or Hungarian.
Secondly, the credibility of the Report is challenged, and its factual accuracy disputed. Particularly the carefully-calculated total number of Jewish victims is considered by many Israeli historians as greatly inflated, though they have failed to provide convincing evidence of this contention.. Above all, Vrba's legitimate questioning as to whether widespread distribution of the information about Auschwitz could have disrupted the deportations is dismissed as unrealistic. And his accusation that the Hungarian Zionist leaders' failure to warn the Jews in the provinces made them complicit in the subsequent mass murders is dismissed as an outrageous calumny. For these reasons, energetic steps were taken for more than thirty years to prevent Vrba's version of events from appearing in Hebrew.
Ruth Linn's work is a long overdue act of reparation to rectify a historiographical injustice. But she also raises the wider issue of how to evaluate the rival interpretations, on the one hand of expert historians, or on the other of survivors whose testimony was derived from being eye-witnesses to the Nazis' crimes in Auschwitz. She equally and rightly questions how the Israeli historical establishment has built up its own layers of national myths and explanations. They have succeeded in laying stress on certain events and individuals, but also have created a culture of forgetting others, like Vrba, whose witness they find not to be convenient. She seeks to pay tribute to an intrepid participant in the whole tragedy of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the same time, we can surely agree that her book is, as Professor Stephen Feinstein, Director of the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, commented, "a first-rate treatment of a crucially important event that might be called an emerging black hole: Vrba's escape from Auschwitz and the aftermath within the context of Holocaust history. The book is exceptionally important in its discussion of how a country can engage in critical thinking about a morally problematic past and its analysis of the political forces that try to control that past". This still remains one of the most controversial chapters in the traumatic history of the Nazis' war against the Jews.
London, August 23, 2000
Rudolph Kasztner cut a $1.5m deal with the architect of the Holocaust, to allow hundreds of privileged Jews to escape death. But was he a hero or a collaborator?
By Adam LeBor
IN the summer of 1944 in wartime Budapest, two men, a Nazi and a Jew, sat negotiating through a fog of cigarette smoke. One was notorious: Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust. The other was less well known: a Hungarian lawyer and journalist called Rudolf Kasztner, leader of the Zionist Vaad (or Rescue and Relief Committee). The topic of their discussion was a train to be filled with Jews. Not a cattle train, but something more comfortable: a train which would take 1,685 privileged passengers out of the Holocaust to the safety of neutral Switzerland -- for a price of $1,000 a head, or a total of more than $1.5m.
The money was paid to Himmler's envoy, an SS officer called Kurt Becher. It was a deal which was to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his days; in the end, it cost him his life. The VIP train duly left Budapest, on the night of 30 June 1944. All the passengers on board were saved -- eventually reaching Switzerland, after a long stop-over in Bergen-Belsen, in a special "VIP" annex. Kasztner helped draw up the passenger list, which included many of his family and friends, as well as community and Zionist leaders.
But even as Kasztner and Eichmann agreed their terms, the Hungarian Holocaust still proceeded at a ferocious pace. Every day thousands of Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices, and sent to Birkenau. The VIP train truly was a deal with the devil, demanding macabre choices in the darkest of days. Was Kasztner a hero, or a collaborator? A Jewish Schindler or Quisling?
Either way, the train's departure exacted a heavy cost. Its ghosts still haunt both Hungary and Israel, where Kasztner settled after the end of the war, and its legacy still bitterly divides Hungarian Holocaust survivors. The Kasztner episode, until now little known in Britain, raises questions -- about moral choices, the grey area between compromise and collaboration, and courage in extremis -- that are as relevant now as they were 56 years ago. Why did the Nazis even bother negotiating with a wartime Jewish official? Nazis gave orders usually, Jews followed them. But those were the dog days of the Second World War: the Allies had landed in Normandy, the Russians were advancing from the east.
In Berlin, Eichmann's boss Heinrich Himmler plotted behind Hitler's back, spinning crazed schemes to split the Allies and bring about a separate peace between Germany, the United States and Britain. Rudolf Kasztner was not part of the Jewish Council, the official leadership of the once powerful Hungarian Jewish community. But as head of the tiny, rival Zionist movement (most Jews were not then Zionists), Himmler believed Kasztner could be a conduit to the West to try and negotiate a separate peace in exchange for stopping the Holocaust.
Perhaps he was right. In November 1944, the SS officer Kurt Becher travelled to Zurich. There he met Saly Meyer, leader of the Swiss Jewish community, and Roswell McClelland, who represented President Roosevelt on the US War Refugee Board. The discussion was in total contravention of official Allied policy, to demand unconditional surrender. Kasztner and his colleagues in the Vaad were certainly mavericks, operating outside the usual channels, running courageous rescue missions over the Slovak mountains, bringing Jews in from Poland.
Eichmann professed himself quite taken with Kasztner, as an interview he gave, published in Life magazine in 1960, reveals:
"This Dr Kasztner was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. . . We negotiated entirely as equals. People forget that. We were political opponents trying to arrive at a settlement and we trusted each other perfectly. With his great polish and reserve, he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself. As a matter of fact, there was a strong similarity between attitudes in the SS and the viewpoint of these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders, who were fighting what might be their last battle. As I told Kasztner: 'We too are idealists, and we too had to sacrifice our own blood before we came to power.' I believe that Kasztner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand. . . to achieve his goal."
For some -- mostly passengers on the train or their relatives -- Kasztner was a hero, a man who repeatedly risked his own life to save hundreds of others. Whatever Eichmann told Life magazine, he and Kasztner were never "equals". We can only imagine the depths of courage on which Kasztner must have drawn to negotiate with a man who could have, at any moment, despatched him to Auschwitz.
For many others though -- those who could not get on the train -- he was a collaborator. And possibly something even worse, for Eichmann also claimed: "He [Kasztner] agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation -- and even keep order in the collection camps -- if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate to Palestine. It was a good bargain." Eichmann is doubtless being disingenuous here. It is doubtful whether anyone apart from the SS could "keep order in the deportation camps". Kasztner and the Vaad were not well known in the provinces where the deportations were taking place.
But it is well documented that by the summer of 1944, both the Vaad and the official Jewish Council knew and understood the reality of Auschwitz, that Jews were being deported to their deaths. At the end of April, fully two months before the train left, Kasztner had received information about the "Auschwitz Protocol". This was an extremely detailed report, compiled by Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, left, two prisoners who had escaped from Auschwitz. They had seen the preparations being made for the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry -- by then Eastern Europe's last remaining Jewish community -- and hoped that once alerted, Hungary's Jewish leadership would organise resistance or encourage Hungary's Jews to flee into the countryside.
Yet nothing happened; no national warning was issued. Kasztner's defenders argue that as he was comparatively unknown, nobody would have listened to him anyway. Paradoxically, they also claim that the Vaad did send emissaries to the provinces, who were ignored. Either way, why 450,000 Hungarian Jews went meekly to their deaths when their leaders knew their coming fate is one of the Holocaust's great mysteries. Some Hungarian Holocaust survivors charge that the price of Eichmann's agreement to let the VIP train leave was high indeed: that Kasztner and the Vaad would remain silent about Auschwitz and allow a quiescent Jewish population to board the other, non-VIP trains, that led not to Switzerland, but the gas chambers.
For Budapest-born Ernest Stein, a fighter in the Zionist resistance now living in Miami, Kasztner was "less than a rat". "Kasztner received the Auschwitz Protocol," says Stein, "but he never showed it to anybody. I am sure he did a deal with the Nazis. . . He did everything for that train. For him the rest of the Jews were not important. He figured that if he took out the 1,500 or 2,000 people, the rest can go to hell."
To Kasztner, only the train mattered. When two Hungarian Jewish parachutists arrived in Budapest from Palestine, he refused to help them in their mission of organising armed resistance. But he was no coward. In early 1945, he travelled to Germany on a bizarre and dangerous mission, in the company of SS Officer Becher. Himmler had ordered Becher to prevent the destruction of the concentration camps as the Allies advanced -- partly to construct a humanitarian alibi. Becher had a murky record serving on the Eastern Front, but the two men, the Hungarian Jew and the Nazi, worked well together.
After Germany's surrender, Becher was arrested as a suspected war criminal, which he almost certainly was. Kasztner came to his rescue, and testified to his good character, describing him as "cut from a different wood than the professional mass murderers of the political SS". This, even more than negotiating with Eichmann, would taint him forever in the eyes of many Jews.
After Kasztner's deposition, Becher was released and became an immensely successful businessman. As for Kasztner, he settled in Israel, where he worked as a civil servant. Then in 1952, Malchiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian Jew living in Israel, published a newsletter accusing Kasztner of collaboration with the Nazis and stealing the wealth of Hungarian Jews with Becher. Kasztner sued for libel, but the case turned into a trial of his own wartime relationship with Becher.
The judge, Benjamin Halevi, accused Kasztner of having "sold his soul to the devil" by negotiating with the Nazis. In March 1957, Kasztner was shot dead outside his home. His killer, an Israeli with connections to the secret service, was caught and imprisoned. "Kasztner was caught up in events which were so much bigger than an ordinary -- or even an extraordinary -- person could handle. How can we judge what was right and wrong in such a situation?" said Israeli journalist Uri Avnery. "In the end I must say I tend towards Kasztner. I don't believe he was a traitor."
Whether he was a saviour, a collaborator, or something of both, Rudolf Kasztner would talk no more about the secret deals between Budapest's wartime Zionist leadership and the Nazis.
Between Auschwitz and Manhattan : Vrba meet Arendt
On September 8, 1963, parts of Hannah Arendt’s report on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem appeared in the English Sunday newspaper Observer, conveying to her readers what she saw as the lessons the trial transmitted: “ The trial was supposed to show them [the younger generation] … how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep.”
Arendt believed she was merely reporting what she witnessed in the trial: perpetrators, bystanders, and victims, all of whom were normal human beings. She saw the Holocaust as a phenomenon that had been perpetrated on our planet by “ordinary people”, not even by a particular group of “ordinary Germans”, let alone by monsters. Arendt could see other potential Eichmanns in future genocides and totalitarian regimes, something later social psychologists would corroborate. She feared that human banality had become the instrument of the inhuman and based her conceptualization on Raul Hilberg’s 1961 monumental study of the destruction of the European Jewry.
Arendt questioned the obsession displayed at the trial with the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which was less connected to the Eichmann trial than to the question of the wartime Jewish councils, known by German pejorative Judenrate (s., Judenrat). Hoping to avert the draconically anti-Jewish measures, the elected, self-chosen or directly imposed but always German-approved Jewish councils often lulled the masses into a false sense of security by keeping them in the dark regarding the real intention of the deportations. To achieve this, the Judenrate were presented with baits for collaborating, which for many would prove hard to resist: some amount of knowledge regarding the deportations and their destination, authority to compile the lists for “resettlement” of the Jews, and the ability to protect their families and close friends from deportations. Under admittedly impossible conditions, Judenrate activities were not without instances of protectionism, favouritism, and misuse of positions of public trust for personal advantage – all of which naturally resulted in bitter accusations levelled against them by the community. Not without reason, Arendt saw this scenario as “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.”
And of resistance was the issue, Arendt argued, then it was imperative to study the connection between the functioning of the wartime Jewish leaders and the lack of Jewish opposition or to what extent the Jewish leaders might have contributed to the “sheep-to-the-slaughter” state of mind. In certainly ought to have interested the prosecutor, who relentlessly kept asking the witnesses: Why did you not resist?
On September 15, 1963, a week after the publication of Arendt’s thesis in the Observer, Jacob Talmon, a Hebrew University history professor who at the time was a visiting fellow at Oxford, responded:
Miss Arendt’s dissertation on Jewish “co-operation” is a display of atrocious bad taste. If that “collaboration” was such a very significant fact, all one can do is to hang one’s head in silent shame and grief, while the courts do their job, and not gloat over it. But the whole argument is a piece of inflated nonsense. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Jewish history knows that whenever and wherever a few Jews found themselves together their first reflex was to get organized, especial in an hour of trial.
Miss Arendt does not accuse even the most ambitious of the Jewish “collaborationists” of deliberate treason. She condemns them for letting themselves be duped out of a lack of that insight into the nature of totalitarianism which has been vouched to her – and only to her – in her Manhattan apartment Post Factum…
I was told of inmates of Auschwitz who while observing everyday the smoke from the gas chambers would still not believe the truth. Gradually and systematically the Nazis took away from the Jews not only the power to resist but even the will to live, and when the Judenrat grasped what the real aim of the Nazis was they were no more than helpless and benumbed hostages.
In the end, they all went down to a man to death with their brethren, Judenrat or no Judenrat, it would not have made the slightest difference in face of the unshakable resolve to track down and to send to the gas chambers the last Jewish baby of men like Eichmann – a “banal” type on whom Miss Arendt expends all those philosophical acrobatics and psychological profundities…”
Talmon was quick to sign the letter “Professor of Modern History, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Visiting Fellow, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.” He denied Dr. Arendt her own academic title, referring to her as “miss” and questioning the credentials of this brilliant American political philosopher.
On September 22, 1963, Vrba, who was living in England at the time of the trial, wrote to the Observer:
As a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz from June 1942 until April 1944, it was not without amazement that I read last Sunday’s letter from J.L.Talmon, Professor of Modern History, Hebrea University Jerusalem. Professor Talmon asserts that “the Nazis took away from the Jews the power to resist.” Saying [this] he is besmirching the memory of those dead Jews, who not only in Warsaw but even in Auschwitz formed an underground movement together with other, non-Jewish prisoners and tried to fight from Auschwitz the Nazi death machinery, although it was not on equal terms they had to gight once they had been tricked into Auschwitz. Most Jews believed the Nazis when they said they were deporting the Jews to labor camps. And they thought that labor camps would be better than pogroms against their children in their homes all over Europe. Therefore, they went voluntarily to the new “reservations” in the “east”, but when they arrived they were suddenly in the watertight extermination factories and they could do nothing but die, whether they realized what was to happen to them or not.
Therefore the leaders of the underground in Auschwitz decided to send a warning to the Zionist leaders. Our underground leaders in Auschwitz cannot be blamed for the fact that most of the attempts to escape from Auschwitz and deliver the message failed. One of these leaders, Ernst Burger, from Vienna (who, incidentally, was not a Jew) ended with others on the gallows of Auschwitz for attempting to escape and to inform the world.
With my friend Fred Wetzler from Slovakia, I managed to escape from Auschwitz on April 7, 1944, and we headed straight for the Zionist leaders. In April 1944, we handed to a high representative of the Zionist movement, Dr. Oskar Neumann, a sixty-page detailed report on the fact that extermination of 1.760.000 Jews had taken place in Auschwitz and that preparations were complete for the annihilation of one million Jewish Hungarians during the very next weeks. Did the Judenrat (or the Judenverrat) in Hungary tell their Jews what was waiting them? No, they remained silent and for this silence some of their leaders – fro instance Dr. R. Kasztner – bartered their own lives and the lives of 1684 other “prominent” Jews directly from Eichmann. They were not “helpless and benumbed hostages” but clever diplomats who knew what their silence was worth. The 1684 Jews whom they bought from Eichmann included not only various prominent Zionists, not only relatives of Kasztner, etc., but also such Jews who were able to pay with millions, like the family of Manfred Weiss. At the same time they silently watched as mote than 400.000 Hungarian Jews, unaware of their fate, were tricked into Auschwitz, where thousands of their children were not even gassed but merely thrown into the pyre alive.
Professor Talmon says that “they all went down to a man to death with their brethren, Judenrat or no Judenrat.” Is he not aware that, for instance, Dr. Kasztner and his family were honoured members of an official Zionistic group in Israel until somebody on a dark night in 1957 shot Kasztner in the streets of Tel Aviv? Is he not aware that they were saved with the help of Eichmann and his deputy (Wisliceny)? Professor Talmon considers that “Miss Arendt’s dissertation on Jewish co-operation is a display of atrocious bad taste” and that “if that “collaboration” was such a very significant fact, all one can do is to hang one’s head in silent shame and grief”. Now Professor Talmon is an historian, and he should understand that if we ponder and speak about the past it is because we think about the future. This historical phenomenon has to be faced if we are to understand mankind.
This exchange of letters is not found in Israeli Hebrew history textbooks. Nor do we find the fact that the Vrba-Wetzler report was submitted in evidence as documents under NG-2061nt at the Nuremberg trials. Vrba was not invited to testify at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. The court’s position in the latter case is quite interesting if we consider that actually 56 of the 121 prosecution witnesses whose testimony dominated the trial were nor concerned with Eichmann, who was the accused. We know that at least one judge, Halevi, voted in favor of bringing Vrba to testify. This proposal was rejected by the other two judges. The attorney general, Gideon Hausner, argued that the government could not cover the travel expenses for its witnesses. More than thirty-five years later, on the eve of Vrba’s visit to Israel, a prominent Israel Holocaust historian explained to me that “Vrba was probably not invited since the state of Israel had no money to sponsor the flight to Vancouver, Canada.” But Vrba was then living in London and larger sums were spent bringing in witnesses from more distant places. His whereabouts was known to the Slovak community in Israel, who, like other survivors, tried to affect the selection of the witnesses from her community and eventually the nature of the trial. Vrba ended up giving a deposition against Eichmann at the Israeli embassy in London. The court appeared content with data “that reveal what was known.” It is this tension – among the voices of the informants, the inbormed, and the uninformed – that lies at the heart of this book.