The confounding case of the Kastner trains and Kolozsvar ghetto

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The confounding case of the Kastner trains and Kolozsvar ghetto

A native of Jassy Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941.

In 1955, inside a courtroom in the young nation of Israel, a man by the name of Rudolf Kastner was said to have “sold his soul to the devil” due to the fact that he cut a deal with the infamous Adolf Eichmann to save Jews from concentration camps a decade earlier. Although it was deemed to be an undoubted act of good, many Holocaust survivors criticised Kastner for the way he went about and did it. Two years after the trial Kastner was found murdered in his home in Tel Aviv.

As the war was becoming increasingly harrowing and desperate for the Germans, Adolf Eichmann was given orders from Berlin to try and cut deals with Jewish agencies and local governments to exchange Jews for much needed goods and supplies to aid in the war effort. In fact, Eichmann has been quoted to have said that he would trade the lives of “10,000 Jews for that of one truck,” during intense negotiations with Joel Brand, the leader of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee. If Eichmann, one of the most horrible mass murderers and human beings in history was willing to even enter such negotiations when only years earlier he oversaw that mass killings of Jews and made it his mission to make them more efficient, then it is obvious that the Germans were in a desperate state as the Soviets were marching quickly from the East.

Rudolf Kastner, a journalist and lawyer from the town of Kolozsvar in then Hungary, today’s Cluj in Romania, cut a deal with Eichmann to free more than 1,900 Hungarian and Romanian Jews from certain death, and be sent to Switzerland for safety. They were transported in two separate trains, both known as the “Kastner trains.” However the deal was that each passenger would have to pay $3000 per head in order to get a “seat” on the train. The first group of passengers came from the lesser-known Kolozsvar ghetto, which was also Kastner’s home town. About 388 Jews were saved and taken to Switzerland. The second group, which consisted of 1,368 people would only be taken from Budapest on December 7th, months later.

The Kolozsvar ghetto, which is also known as the Cluj ghetto, was set up by the Nazis on May 3d, 1944, towards the end of the war inside a brickyard. The makeshift ghetto housed 18,000 Jews in the most deplorable conditions and was run by both Hungarian police and the S.S. There were no actual facilities which made life terrible for its prisoners. The Judenrat of Kolozsvar was particularly interesting as the leaders, like most other leaders in other ghettos in the Pale of Settlement, were distraught with the harrowing decision of who would be sent to the concentration camps first, and also how the few resources they were given would be distributed. The leaders were given no choice in the matter, but were forced to conduct the tasks at the behest of the Germans. In some cases, the choices were too much to bear which would lead some like Adam Czerniakow, leader of the Warsaw ghetto, to commit suicide. The Kolozsvar ghetto was liquidated in six major transports to Auschwitz. There were very few survivors.

Kastner has long been a point of contention among historians and the general public due to the fact that some believe that his intentions were for the purpose of self-preservation only, while others truly believed that his actions were indeed selfless. One of the very first things that some like to point out is that Kastner chose to save Jews from his home town of Kolozsvar first, many of which came from the ghetto. These of course included his family and friends, meaning that the transport was indeed “privileged.” Another issue, of course, that was brought up by Hungarian Jews that survived the Shoah, was that the only passengers in the transports were the few rich Jews that could afford the $3000 “right of passage,” which was an enormous amount in 1944.

Hansi, Joel Brand’s wife was later recorded to say that the way that Jews were selected for the transports depended on their wealth. Also that the most endangered refugees, Zionists, and intellectuals were given priority. Of course the fact that Zionists and intellectuals were also chosen as part of the transports should not be surprising as Kastner and Brand for that matter were both ardent Zionists from Transylvania, and thus their somewhat bias was evident.

One of the most heated accusations that was placed on Kastner however was the fact that he did not inform the Jews of Cluj, specifically the ones in the ghetto, of what their real fates were. Namely that they would be murdered at Auschwitz. It was, without a doubt, true that he was aware of the Nazi plan in Europe as a result of his implications with Brand’s Europa Plan, which aimed to save Jews from their certain end. Yet, as to why he never warned Jews, it was never truly clear. In the official report compiled by Lanzmann, it is stated that he might have expressed some guilt in regards to him never warning the Jews of Kolozsvar.

Bilsky, a prominent Shoah historian, who studied the Kasztner transports closely has quoted one of the judges from the trial that said that Kastner and the Aid and Rescue Committee made a “concession with the exterminator” to save prominent Jews, at the expense of the others. Whether this is true, demands far more evidence than just trial transcripts and a few testimonies.

The issue of whether Kastner did act out of his own self-interest, or for the good of others, at the expense of others is not in fact so “black and white” as many think. His self-interest and his interest for other Jews are not in fact mutually exclusive, but are part of the same understanding of the man. It is wholly in my opinion that Kastner was both acting out of his obvious self-interest, but also out of that for others. Of course, this is further complicated by another layer of convolution, namely that we are not aware of the boundaries of the negotiations he had with Eichmann. We are not fully aware, as of yet, of the actual fallbacks that he had when he was preparing the transports. Not so different from Joel Brand’s attempt to raise capital to buy trucks for the Germans in exchange for hundreds of thousands of Jews, as he initially believed and hoped, only to be stopped by the British in Istanbul who refused to give the funds, as not to get mingled into the issue of Palestine in 1944.

The truth remains that Kastner was guilty of favoritism, nepotism, and even egregious self-interest, but his efforts also saved the lives of 1,900 people. Israel, Jews, and historians are divided on whether Kastner was just another Schindler, or simply someone acting for his own interest. Yet, if one studies the history of the latter, it is obvious that the two men were far more similar than different from one another. Perhaps, the fact that Kastner was the first man to be assassinated inside the State of Israel for political reasons, only serves to show that his choices on who to save, however difficult and riddled with self-interest, were perhaps burdensome not just for him but for other Hungarian Jews as well.

The issue of choice has alway been a callous one when it comes to the Shoah. The Judenrats across Europe, as the one in the Kolozsvar ghetto were faced with the same decisions. Who would go on the transports first? Who would gain this week’s rations? Although putting oneself into the shoes of others as an exercise in empathy is exceptionally difficult, it is easy to see that such choices are simply beyond strenuous, and harbor elements that strike at one’s humanity. In fact, it is for this very reason that the Nazis instituted such choices inside ghettos. Some, such as the infamous Chaim Rumkowski who used his power to aid the Nazis in the murder of Jews for his own self-preservation serve as the most extreme examples.

The problem of human nature is inescapable when studying such topics, which is why the narratives of individuals must be the first on the list of any historian wishing to engage in understanding the Shoah, immediately followed by the art of interpretation, and that of cross-examination. It is, more often than not, easy to fall into the endless cycle of facile rhetoric. The kind that forces any historian to keep falling into endless analyses and interpretations, losing sight of the narratives of people on the way. Yet, with the need for understanding people’s stories it is also exceptionally important that we understand the social and cultural contexts that they lived in, which innately brings forth the need for interpretation. Balance therefore paves the road for any Shoah historian.

I have spent the last few months trying to amalgamate, and research the causes, reasons, and testimonies of numerous survivors and those of individuals at the trials, in order to come to terms with the exactitude of what happened, and perhaps more importantly find answers to the harrowing question of “why?” As I am about to enter my graduate studies at Simon Fraser University, with hopes of continuing my research on Kastner and Kolozsvar, I am grappled by the questions and dilemmas that come with the confounding nature of this topic:

What were Kastner’s intentions, and what were the difficulties of making such decisions? Were they in any way different from those made by the Judenrat in Kolozsvar? What were and are the moral implications of Kastner and Brand’s decisions? What was the reason behind Eichmann’s pragmatic decision to let the 1,900 Jews go free, as what he needed was not currency, but actual physical supplies, such as trucks?

These questions are only a few from the myriad that arise from Kolozsvar and Kastner, and they are, similar to the answers, namely exceptionally arduous to understand. Yet, through drudging research they will yield a much more thorough understanding of the social impacts of the Shoah on Jews and the state of Israel today.

Am Yisrael Chai.