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Kasztner, Rezső

(Also known as Rudolf Kasztner; his Hebrew name was Yisra’el; 1906–1957), Zionist activist in Hungary during the Holocaust; later accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Born in Cluj (Kolozsvár), Kasztner worked for the leading Zionist newspaper of Transylvania, the Új Kelet (New East), between 1925 and 1940. A leader of the Zionist youth movement Aviva-Barissia during the 1930s when Transylvania was under Romanian rule, he became the secretary of the National Jewish Party in the Romanian Parliament. The president of this party was his father-in-law, Dr. József Fischer, head of the Neolog Jewish Community in Cluj. Kasztner moved to Budapest in 1940 after Hungary, an independent ally of Nazi Germany, annexed northern Transylvania. There he worked in the office of Keren Hayesod, and in 1943 became the deputy chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Association.

Kasztner’s name is associated with several rescue operations during the Holocaust. In 1942, with fellow Zionist activists Hansi and Joel Brand and Samu Springmann, he helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee (Va‘adat ‘Ezrah ve-Hatsalah), a clandestine group that smuggled Jews from Slovakia and Poland to Hungary, where they were relatively safe. Kasztner brought copies of the so-called Auschwitz Protocols from Slovakia to Hungary at the end of April 1944.

After the Germans occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944, the danger for Jews became acute. Deportations from the Hungarian provinces to Auschwitz began in mid-May. The Relief and Rescue Committee consequently changed its tactics: now it tried to rescue Jews by negotiating directly with the SS. In the beginning of April 1944, Kasztner entered into negotiations with Dieter von Wisliceny: the Germans demanded a sum of $2 million from the Hungarian Jews to stop the deportations. Even though a large part of the money was collected and paid, this so-called Europe Plan came to nothing. Then Kasztner helped broker a “blood for goods” bargain: the SS would stop deporting Jews if Britain and the United States were to supply Germany with 10,000 trucks and other items for use on the eastern front. German authorities were hoping to negotiate a separate peace with the western Allies, allowing the Nazis to concentrate their war effort against the Soviets. Joel Brand was dispatched to Istanbul to present the offer to British and American diplomats.

When Brand failed to return because the British arrested him, Kasztner attempted a new rescue operation that became known as the Kasztner Train. Aiming to rescue prominent members of the Jewish intelligentsia and the Zionist movements, he held talks with SS-Obersturmbannführer Kurt Becher, who negotiated in the name of Himmler. Himmler desperately needed contacts with the Allied Forces and schemed to use the passengers of the Kasztner Train as a basis for his negotiations. The Rescue Committee and the Central Council of Hungarian Jews prepared lists of passengers, among them rabbis, community leaders, scientists, artists, journalists, ḥalutsim (pioneers) on the their way to Palestine, and refugees from Poland and Slovakia. Wisliceny also altered these lists. Kasztner managed to increase the numbers, and in the end, 1,685 passengers boarded a train that left Budapest on 30 June 1944. They arrived at Bergen-Belsen on 8 July 1944 and ultimately reached Switzerland in two groups, on 21 August and 7 December 1944.

In mid-June 1944, when deportations of Jews from the Hungarian provinces were in full swing, Kasztner attempted another rescue effort. Responding to the fact that Hans Blaschke, the Nazi mayor of Vienna, urgently needed workers, Eichmann announced that he would accept a payment of 5 million Swiss francs to send 30,000 Jews to work in Austria. As a result of Kasztner’s negotiations, 20,087 Jews were sent that month to Strasshof (near Vienna) instead of Auschwitz. Three quarters of these Jews survived.

With the cooperation of Obersturmbannführer Kurt Becher, Kasztner assisted thousands of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi camps, helping them survive to the end of the war. During the Nuremberg Trials he testified on behalf of Becher, who was acquitted mainly as a result of Kasztner’s testimony.

Immigrating to Palestine in 1947, Kasztner entered Israeli political life, serving as an important figure in the Mapai Party and as a government ministry official. He edited Jövő, the Hungarian weekly of the Mapai Party, and was on the editorial board of Új Kelet, which was reestablished in Israel.

In 1952 an Austrian Jew living in Jerusalem, Malkiel Grünwald, accused Kasztner of collaborating with the Nazis: Kasztner was said to have agreed not to inform Hungarian Jews about what awaited them in Auschwitz in return for being allowed to save the 1,685 Jews who were permitted to travel to Switzerland. The Israeli government prosecuted Grünwald for defaming a government official. Following a sensational trial lasting from January to October 1954, in which the behavior of the entire Zionist leadership during the Holocaust was called into question, the presiding judge ruled that by negotiating with the Nazis Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.” According to the judge, Kasztner could have and should have warned Hungarian Jews that they were about to be killed; the fact that he did not do so was a contributing reason to the fact that half of Hungarian Jewry was deported to Auschwitz within seven weeks. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned most of the original verdict in January 1958. However, in March 1957 Kasztner was assassinated by three men associated with the Israeli extreme right.

Kasztner believed that neither armed revolt nor mass escape had been a feasible option for Hungarian Jews. He had hoped that negotiation with the Nazis would save a significant number. Israeli society continues to debate whether Kasztner was a hero or a villain.

Suggested Reading

Shlomo Aronson, “Israel Kasztner: Rescuer in Nazi-Occupied Europe, Prosecutor at Nuremberg, and Accused at Home,” in The Holocaust: The Unique and Universal, ed. Shmuel Almog, pp. 1–47 (Jerusalem, 2001); Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági, Aranyvonat: Fejezetek a Zsidó vagyon történetéből (Budapest, 2001); Judit Molnár, “Embermentés vagy árulás? A Kasztner-akció szegedi vonatkozásai,” in Csendőrök, hivatalnokok, zsidók, pp. 183–197 (Szeged, 2000); Yechiam Weitz, Ha-Ish she-nirtsaḥ pa‘amayim: Ḥayav, mishpato u-moto shel Yisra’el Kastner (Jerusalem, 1995).