Emissary of the Doomed: Bargaining For Lives in the Holocaust
by Ronald Florence
(Viking, 336 pp., $27.95)
March 18, 1944 was an unusually pleasant spring day in Budapest, with crowds filling the outdoor cafés: it was difficult to tell that Hungary was at war. Rumors were spread about the government’s secret negotiations with the Western Allies, and all surmised that an unspoken agreement existed according to which the Hungarians would not fire on American and British aircraft overflying the country and the enemy aircraft would not drop any bombs. Hungary, of course, was still Germany’s partner in the military campaign against Bolshevism, but ever since the annihilation of the Hungarian expeditionary force at the Don River in the winter of 1942, the troops did behind-the-front duty only, fighting the partisans, and only some of them. Ukrainian and Polish nationalist guerrillas were tolerated and sometimes even supported in their struggles against the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.
At home, more food was to be had in the stores, and on the black market, than in Berlin, not to speak of Paris. Amazingly, while 60,000 Hungarian Jews had already died either at the front as unarmed labor servicemen or as victims of various atrocities, and while the rights and livelihoods of the remaining 800,000 persons who were Jews by religion or by descent had been restricted in many ways, they could still go about their daily business, live in their own homes, send their children to public schools, rent a room in most hotels, eat in any restaurant, go to the theater and the swimming pools, and sit on a park bench. Less than two hundred miles away, in Vienna, all this was out of the question; in fact, thousands of Austrian Jews had long since been gassed.
On the evening of March 18, one of Hungary’s wealthiest businessmen, a nobleman of Jewish descent--as were many of the industrial captains, bankers, and great businessmen--gave a lavish party in honor of his daughter at which even a few young army officers in uniform made their appearance. It was on the way home, in the early hours of the morning, that some guests learned of German tanks crossing the Hungarian border. In a few hours the country’s occupation was complete, and with the exception of a single democratically minded parliamentary deputy who fired his pistol at the Gestapo men who came to arrest him, no one resisted the takeover. Admiral Regent Miklós Horthy, who was Hungary’s uncrowned king, and who a few months earlier categorically rejected Hitler’s request that the country’s Jews be handed over to Germany for extermination, now appointed a cabinet from the right wing of the conservative so-called Government Party.
The new government immediately went into high gear so as to finally “solve the Jewish question.” While the regent washed his hands of the whole affair, the authorities--from the prime minister down to the superintendents of apartment buildings--proceeded to humiliate, rob, and isolate the Jews. The same police officers who, a few months earlier during the High Holidays, directed traffic in front of the great Dohány Street Synagogue, resplendent in their shining gala helmets and white gloves, now grabbed Jews in the street and handed them over to the Gestapo, or dumped them into internment camps. Even though the Red Army was nearing the Hungarian frontier and mass mobilization was proclaimed to fight the enemy, the administrative apparatus spent most of its energy and time confiscating Jewish buildings, apartments, bank accounts, jewelry, telephones, radios, cars, bicycles, dogs, horses, and stamp collections. Jews in the countryside were herded into walled ghettos, where their stays turned out to be shorter than the amount of time required to devise the cruel rules regulating their existence: in May and June, about 420,000 of Hungary’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Two-thirds were gassed immediately on arrival, while many of the rest perished subsequently.
Yet all were not lost: in early July there were more than 200,000 Jews alive in the Hungarian capital, and well over 100,000 Jewish men between the ages of eighteen and forty-eight doing labor service for the Hungarian army. Surprisingly, the military had just then decided to declare the labor servicemen prisoners of war--a declaration profoundly degrading to the highly assimilated and patriotic Jews, thousands of whom had fought for the country during World War I. In reality, however, their POW status would prove to be an effective protection--at least until the SS/Arrow Cross putsch in October 1944--against the Gestapo, the SS, and the Hungarian civilian authorities. Why the once wildly anti-Semitic high command of the army chose to act this way, and why it went so far as to pull young men off the deportation trains, is still a mystery. But the overfilled cattle cars carried mainly women, older men, and children to Auschwitz. The majority of them were killed; but the majority of ablebodied Jewish men survived the war.
In another good turn of events, on July 7, Regent Horthy, yielding to the entreaties of neutral countries and his conservative aristocratic advisers, as well as to his own fear that the Allies would bomb a Judenrein Budapest into rubble, forbade deportations from the capital. It turned out to be a temporary but still valuable reprieve. Nor was this all: well before the beginning of the deportations--in fact, a few days after the German invasion of Hungary-curious negotiations began between the newly arrived Gestapo, led by SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, and a handful of Jewish Zionists. The subject of the talks was the sale of Hungarian Jews to the Western Allies. Or as Eichmann himself liked to say, the issue was “blood for goods.” Although the protracted negotiations saved the lives of only a few thousand Jews, the fact that the talks occurred at all led to the postwar belief--or better, the postwar illusion--that much more could have been done.
It is one of the many ironies of history that while at the end of the war 500,000 men, women, and children, or about two-thirds of the Hungarian Jews, were dead, the Gestapo itself did not kill any of its Zionist negotiating partners, some of whom brazenly defied even the terrible Eichmann. The few Zionist negotiators who did not survive the war fell victim not to the Germans but to the Hungarian authorities. No less astonishingly, the vague promises, half-truths, and outright lies that the brave but totally powerless and not particularly brilliant Zionists produced for their Gestapo, SS, and Abwehr partners led to the eventual involvement in the negotiations of many other Nazi leaders, including Heinrich Himmler, and indirectly even the Führer. The Hungarian government and police, the Turkish government, the British high command in the Near East, the Jewish Agency in Palestine, the world Jewish organizations, the British foreign secretary, the American War Refugee Board, and the intelligence and counter-intelligence services of numerous countries were all eventually involved in the talks as well.
The incredibly complex discussions between a few ordinary-looking middle-class Jews and the strutting, arrogant, and contemptuous uniformed mass murderers of the SS form the basis of Ronald Florence’s eminently readable history. His is not the first book on the subject, but it is definitely the easiest to absorb by anyone wishing to gain an overall impression of these dark and remarkable developments. In addition, the book offers specific information on one particular individual, Joel (Jenő) Brand, who is its central character. Unfortunately, the book contains many misspellings, especially of Hungarian names and place-names, as well as numerous factual mistakes, none of them devastating, but still including assertions such as that Stalin was present at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference attended by Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle. Perhaps painstaking accuracy is too much to ask from an author who has published quite a few novels as well as writings on such diverse topics as T.E. Lawrence and Aaron Aaronson, two heroes in British service during World War I in the Middle East; the Damascus blood libel trial of 1840; two great American astronomical observatories; the daughters of Karl Marx; and the Austrian Social Democratic leader Friedrich Adler. So it is worth pointing out that in addition to Florence’s useful book, there are also such impeccable scholarly works on the subject as Yehuda Bauer’s Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945 and Randolph L. Braham’s The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, both published in 1994.
As Bauer demonstrates, contacts between Nazis and Zionists dated back to at least 1933. At that time the two enemies perversely shared a common goal: the massive departure of Jews from Germany and, if possible, from the entire European continent, as well as the creation of a Jewish national home outside Europe. The two disagreed on where that national home should be: the Germans, like the British, had no desire to alienate the Muslims in general and the Arabs in particular by settling the Jews in Palestine. Instead the Germans had a big plan for sending the Jews of Europe to the island of Madagascar, a harebrained project which other countries as well as the Zionists rejected.
At first, as Bauer shows, there was genuine cooperation between the two partners, allowing wealthy German Jews to leave for Palestine by taking as many German goods with them as they could afford and hoped to be able to sell, thus opening the market for German products in the Middle East. But until the beginning of the Final Solution in 1941, one can hardly talk of a concrete, unified German plan regarding the Jews: whatever pleased the SS, for instance, was automatically opposed by the German Foreign Ministry. What made any concerted action possible was that the Nazi leaders, no matter how much they disagreed among themselves on Jewish policy, were united in believing in their own propaganda regarding Jewish world domination. They saw in the Zionists the representatives of world Jewry, and in world Jewry the real rulers of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. As Florence richly proves, reality was vastly different: Jewish political influence on the great powers was very limited, even non-existent.
Moreover, the Jews disagreed among themselves about their own interests. Some believed that they should gain security through patriotism and faithful service to their home countries. Some, especially in the Yishuv in Palestine, went so far as to consider the British occupier and not the Nazis their main enemy. And some, who were in British service, bitterly combated the radically nationalist Jews. On the question of how best to help fellow Jews in the grip of the Third Reich, the confusion was even greater. The two great Western powers would not hear of a policy specifically designed to save Jewish lives: all individual and group interests were to be subordinated to the supreme goal of total military victory. As for the Soviets, they perceived no particular Jewish tragedy, only the tragedy of peoples subjugated by fascist Germany and other capitalist-imperialist powers. Liberation from the fascist yoke was to be accomplished through the united struggle of progressive peoples under the leadership of the communist parties and the Soviet Union.
Only the powerless Zionists in Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest, and elsewhere were keen on taking immediate steps to save Jewish lives, including their own. What made these steps possible was that by 1944, unlike in the first years of the Final Solution, the Nazis were divided on their policy toward the Jews. As executors of the Final Solution, the SS were split between those who continued to advocate total annihilation and those who preferred periodic negotiations, so as to help the German war effort and to line their own pockets, and--in the last stage of the war--to save their own skin. Sometimes the division seemed to exist within the same person--Himmler, for example, pursued the goal of annihilation together with a plan to use Jews as hostages in his planned negotiations with the Allies.
The period of massive Nazi-driven Jewish emigration culminated with the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, when Eichmann and his Jewish working partners accomplished wonders in arranging the departure of 126,000 Austrian Jews against the obstruction of much of the German bureaucracy and of nearly all the countries to which the Jews tried to emigrate. Famously, only a few minor Latin American countries and the Japanese-controlled city of Shanghai were open to Jewish immigrants.
The German attacks on Poland and the Soviet Union, as well as the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, closed the door to emigration and presented the Germans with the dilemma of what to do with the millions of East European Jews under their sway. In conformity with their ideology, the Nazis devised a project for the extermination of all of European Jewry. Why that same ideology had earlier allowed the deportation of thousands of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews outside of the Nazis’ reach is a question that not even Bauer seems to be able to answer.
The fact is that in March 1944, when Eichmann arrived in Budapest, the major part of the Final Solution was behind him: as the organizer-in-chief of the Holocaust, he had sent millions of German, Austrian, Czech, Polish, Slovak, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, and French Jews to their deaths, while the German army and police had exterminated most of the Jews in Serbia, Greece, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and other occupied Soviet territories. Hungary was to be Eichmann’s crowning achievement, and he threw himself into it with gusto; but once again he left a door open to forcible emigration. Or perhaps he was ordered by Himmler to do so. In any case, it was Eichmann who, on April 25, 1944, summoned Joel Brand to his presence, offering to exchange a million Jews, to be sent to Spain, for some money as well as ten thousand heavy trucks, two hundred tons of tea, eight hundred tons of coffee, two million cases of soap, an unspecified quantity of tungsten, and other military-related material.
The absurdity of it all cried out to heaven: where were one million Jews to be found who were capable of traveling? How were they to be transported through France to Spain? The Nazis considered the route to the Near East and thus to Palestine unacceptable; as did, incidentally, the British. What would Spain and the rest of the world do with the Jewish arrivals, and, most important of all, why would the Allies give the Nazis the crucial military materials that Eichmann had requested?
Florence, Bauer, Braham, and many other scholars have struggled with the question of whether Eichmann was playing a game or whether he truly believed in the power of world Jewry to convert the Allies to his proposition. Or maybe he meant his offer to be a first step in the direction of a more realistic discussion. It could also be--and all our authors mention this possibility--that Eichmann’s offer was but an excuse for a greater purpose: Himmler’s plan to offer the Western powers an alliance against Bolshevism. After all, Eichmann had made it clear from the beginning that the trucks would not be used against the Western allies, and that they should be winterized for the Russian front. The answers provided by historians to these many questions are highly debatable. What is certain is that the Nazis lived in a dark dream-world: they failed to fathom the determination of the three great allied powers to fight the war until the total defeat of the Third Reich.
By the time Eichmann made his blood-for-trucks offer, the Gestapo and the organs of the SS had arrested or thrown into internment camps thousands of Jews and hundreds of non-Jewish, anti-Nazi Hungarians. The massive deportation of Jews from Hungary began on May 15. It was at this point that the vast differences became clear in the status of the handful of Zionist negotiators and the rest of the Hungarian Jews; and this caused a lasting Jewish suspicion toward Joel Brand and his colleagues. While even members of the Jewish Council--all well-known and respected leaders of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Neolog (or Reform) communities--had to wear the Star of David, Brand and company were exempted from the regulations. They wore no star, were free to use a telephone, to hail a taxi, to check into a hotel, to go to a restaurant. The Zionists could travel without risk of arrest at the railroad stations. For his flight to neutral Turkey on May 17, with the purpose of transmitting Eichmann’s offer to the Allies, Brand was provided with a German passport bearing a Christian-sounding name, and a round-trip ticket to Istanbul in a German courier plane. (But the Germans forgot to secure, or to forge, a Turkish visa for him, which seriously delayed his further travel.)
The story of Brand’s adventures, as well as that of the Zionists who remained at home, forms the essence of Florence’s book. It reads both as an adventure yarn and a profound tragedy made up of hope, suspicion, fear, and confusion; all this against the background of the deportation trains leaving daily for Auschwitz. While not really trusted by the Jewish leaders in Palestine, Brand was deeply distrusted and soon imprisoned by the British authorities as a German spy. How to explain the British suspicions? The latent anti-Semitism of some British officials must have been one reason; another was their ignorance of the true extent of the European Holocaust. Yet the British were quite correct in believing that a good number of Jews were in the service of Nazi intelligence agencies: Brand’s traveling companion, Bandi Grosz, also known as András György, was such a person, although he is said to have also been in the employ of Japanese, Polish, Hungarian, British, Jewish, and other secret services.
Both Brand and Grosz failed in their mission. The Western Allies were not willing even to pretend that they were taking Eichmann’s offer seriously. This would have risked alienating the Soviets at a time when the help of the Red Army was most needed for the Allied forces in Normandy. Let us remember that two weeks after the Allied landing in Normandy, in June 1944, Operation Bagration, mustering 2.3 million Red Army soldiers, twenty-four thousand artillery guns, four thousand tanks and assault guns, and over five thousand aircraft, smashed the German Army Group Center, driving its remnants back to the Vistula in Poland. Had the Allies delivered even a hundred trucks to the Germans, Stalin might have ordered a halt to the Soviet offensive until the British and American troops were driven back to the sea.
Bandi Grosz, whom all sources describe as short and ugly, with protruding teeth and red hair--a veritable Stürmer caricature--was not even allowed, upon his arrival in Istanbul, to present his case. Yet his mission seems to have been to announce, first, that Hungary was prepared to leave the German alliance, provided that the Red Army would stop at the Hungarian border (another pipe dream), and second, that German SS agents were ready to meet with American intelligence agents to prepare a truce and a joint military campaign against the Soviet Union. His fate was to be imprisoned by the British in Syria. (Thereafter he faded from the scene and allegedly died in Munich in the 1970s.) But in the case of Grosz, everything, including his true name and true role, is a matter of speculation.
Brand himself went through many months of imprisonment near Cairo, a hunger strike, and sporadic meetings with British, American, and Jewish representatives. Released at last, he was not permitted to return to Hungary. Even after the war, he continued to believe that he would have succeeded in his sacred mission if only more officials had heard him out. In reality, it is hard to see how he could have achieved anything with his impossible assignment. All in all, the mind boggles at the thought of Brand, an habitué of Budapest coffee houses and a great card player, and Grosz, a convicted smuggler, approaching the great Western powers in the name of the high Nazi leadership: one to offer history’s greatest extortion scheme, and the other a political, diplomatic, and military volte-face that, if accepted, would have forever changed the world.
While Brand was away, the leadership of the Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee--and the affections of Brand’s wife, the Zionist activist Hansi Brand--were transferred to Rezső Kasztner. He was the most controversial, and most successful, Hungarian Zionist. Killing Kasztner, a recent documentary film by the New York director Gaylen Ross, helps us to understand why Israelis both hate and revere Kasztner. Calm, highly attractive to women, self-controlled, contemptuous, often abrasive, Kasztner bravely faced danger both in wartime and in the postwar years. He dared to treat the SS officers as his equals; he defied the Hungarian officials who had arrested him trying to get some information on what the Germans were up to. (He was soon freed by orders of the Gestapo.) He befriended SS officers, especially Kurt Becher, with whom he visited nightclubs in Budapest, Vienna, and Switzerland, and on whose behalf he later wrote an affidavit to the Nuremberg international court. Some say that his affidavit was designed to prevent Becher’s indictment and thereby the revelation of Kasztner’s association with crimes that Becher had committed. Others prefer to see the affidavit as a decent gesture on behalf of a former friend. In any case, the affidavit became a strong reason for Kasztner’s assassination in 1957.
In June 1944, Kasztner persuaded Eichmann to permit the emigration to Switzerland by rail of what finally became 1,684 Jews--as a gesture of goodwill toward the Allies, and as a source of rich profit for some SS officers. The way he selected the passengers became another point of accusation against Kasztner after the war. Yet it seems clear that, rather than being biased in favor of his family and friends as well as favoring the wealthiest Jews, the selection process was a chaotic affair over which Kasztner exercised limited control. Naturally, he put members of his family and some friends--though not himself--on the train, but the hundred-odd wealthy Jews whom he selected were obliged to pay not only for themselves but also for others. In addition, Kasztner’s train contained Zionists, and Orthodox and Neolog community leaders, and Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the head of the bitterly anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim, together with his family and court, and Polish and Slovak Jewish refugees, and several dozen orphaned children, along with many unknowns, including those who sneaked onto the train when no one was looking. There was no Zionist bias in favor of healthy young people, and most of the cost of bribing the SS was covered by international Jewish organizations. It is true that instead of being sent directly to Switzerland, the passengers were forced to spend several months at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but they were kept in a special compound for privileged prisoners. All of them survived the war.
Kasztner later claimed that he had also been responsible for the rescue of some twenty thousand other Hungarian Jews whose railroad cars had been disconnected on the way to Auschwitz and redirected to the family camp at Strasshof in Austria, where most of them survived. This might be true in part, but it seems that their ultimate “savior” was the SS security chief--and major war criminal--Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who, in order to please his fellow Austrian Nazis, ordered that twenty thousand deportees be dispatched to Austria for industrial and agricultural labor. In addition, Kasztner’s most ardent admirers claim that the several hundred thousand other Hungarian Jews who survived should also be grateful to the memory of Kasztner--but marshalled against this claim are similar claims by the admirers of Raoul Wallenberg; the Swiss Consul Karl Lutz and other consuls of neutral countries; the Vatican legate Angelo Rotta; and the Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy. One might even argue that the person ultimately responsible for the survival of several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews was Heinrich Himmler, which does not of course render this monster a good man. In any case, it is unlikely that the truth about all this will ever be known.
Besides being accused of having defended Kurt Becher and of filling his train with protégés and big payers, Kasztner was publicly accused, after the war, of having profited materially from his SS connections. This is a charge that was manifestly untrue. But the most devastating charge--aired in the Knesset as well as in newspapers opposed to the government, of which Kasztner was a member--was that, in order to have his train, Kasztner had agreed with Eichmann not to publicize plans for the deportation of all the other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. But as Bauer, Braham, and Florence all convincingly demonstrate, practically all the Jewish community leaders in Central Europe, and not only Kasztner, were aware of the unfolding of the Final Solution, especially after the arrival in Slovakia in April 1944 of two Jewish escapees from Auschwitz. The fact is that while their famous “Auschwitz Protocols” soon reached Western diplomatic representatives in Switzerland, neither the Jewish Council in Budapest nor the Zionist leaders tried to notify their fellow Jews in Hungary of the danger.
The reason for this could not have been Kasztner’s “gentleman’s agreement” with Eichmann. Rather, as all our historians believe, there was the impossibility of printing such a warning in the single Jewish newspaper that was permitted by the Hungarian authorities. Nor would the Jewish Council, made up of some of the country’s most respectable and most successful citizens, advocate anything other than obedience and faith in the beloved fatherland, the regent, and the Hungarian authorities. And even if Kasztner had been able to reach those in the countryside, no one would have believed him, just as no one would believe the handful of young Zionists who somehow managed to travel from Budapest to some country towns in order to raise the alarm. And there would have been nowhere for the Jews to hide--so the counter-argument runs--in the generally flat, treeless, orderly, and anti-Semitic Hungarian countryside. It is true that the massive sheltering and hiding of Jews began only in the late fall of 1944, following Regent Horthy’s attempt to surrender to the Soviet Union. On October 15, the SS arrested Horthy and put the leader of the extreme rightist Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi, in power; all this while the Red Army was rapidly approaching. Now even Christians in the Hungarian capital had good reasons to fear the terror of the Arrow Cross hoodlums. But again, there certainly would have been some Christians, even in spring 1944, willing to hide, or even to adopt, Jewish children.
In the final analysis, it was wrong to make Kasztner responsible, as the right-wing press and politicians in Israel later did, for the tragedy of the springtime deportations. What greatly weakened Kasztner’s status in the public eye was that he lied at the libel trial of one of his main journalistic accusers, in Jerusalem in 1955, about the affidavit he had given to the Nuremberg court on behalf of Kurt Becher, and that his lie was easily unmasked. Still, Judge Benjamin Halévy’s opinion--written at the conclusion of the trial--that “Kastner had sold his soul to the German Satan” was grossly unfair. The judge’s opinion was surely a factor in Kasztner’s assassination. Kasztner’s murderer and two accomplices were sentenced to life by an Israeli court, but they spent only seven years each in jail and became, for many, national heroes. Kasztner’s rehabilitation by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1958 had no effect on public opinion.
No doubt, practically all the Jews of Hungary would have survived if the Hungarian authorities had refused to cooperate with Eichmann in the spring of 1944. This was a perfectly feasible option in view of the smallness of Eichmann’s staff--less than two hundred persons, including secretaries. Yet non-cooperation with the Nazis was far from the minds of the Hungarian bureaucrats, city officials, gendarmes, policemen, and the thousands of others involved in the great task of ridding Hungary of its Jews and acquiring their wealth.
The negotiations regarding the Hungarian Holocaust, one of Jewry’s greatest catastrophes, often assumed the character of a tragicomedy. Its cast of awful and colorful characters would be incomplete without a brief depiction of SS officer Kurt Becher, who began his career as an officer in the Waffen SS and police units that massacred Jews and Poles in Eastern Europe. Later he turned to economic activity--that is, organized looting on behalf of the SS; and in spring 1944 he negotiated the purchase by the SS of most of Hungary’s heavy armaments industry from its Jewish owners. He achieved this in return for some money and the flight of more than forty family members to Portugal in Lufthansa passenger planes, with Hungarian exit visas and Portuguese entry visas forged by the Germans. In this deal the Hungarian government was the main loser, because the SS property immediately became Soviet booty following liberation in the winter of 1944. It took some time for the Hungarians to retrieve what had been theirs. And while it is clear that Becher profited materially from the deal, it remains a mystery why he and the SS command spent so much energy acquiring industrial plants that within a few months would inevitably fall into Soviet hands.
After the war, and partly thanks to Kasztner, Becher suffered only a brief imprisonment and ended up as one of the wealthiest citizens of the German Federal Republic. But many of the Abwehr officers who had genuinely turned against Hitler and saved quite a few Jews were tortured to death by their rivals in the SS Security Service and the Gestapo. All this, and much more, is well told by Florence; he also establishes clearly, together with Bauer and Braham, that despite their modest successes Kasztner and the other Zionists achieved more in terms of lives saved than anything the Jewish Council in Budapest, the Jewish agencies in Palestine, and the Allies could claim to have done. It is conceivable that, in the very last months of the war, Becher, and behind him Himmler, would have given up even more Jews had the Western side proved less inflexible. “We can only speculate,” writes Florence, “how many lives might have been saved if Britain and the United States had been willing to pursue serious negotiations, paying part or all of the modest sums the Germans were [at the last minute] demanding.”
The convoluted story of the ZionistSS negotiations might also answer a fundamental question: when outright resistance is hopeless, are negotiations with the devil a legitimate course of action? On the basis of the Zionists’ experiences, the answer must be a tentative yes. I would not call their negotiations collaboration--the word implies the collaborator’s fostering of the interests of the stronger country, whereas Kasztner’s negotiations were intended only to benefit the Jewish minority. We must not forget that one side had at its disposal a vast machinery of terror while the other side could muster only a few million dollars painfully extracted from some Western sponsors. What they could muster as well was a lot of bluffing, and the uncanny ability to make themselves acceptable, at least to a certain degree, to ruthless men who had been trained to loathe them and to kill them. We should indeed pay tribute to the handful of Hungarian Zionists whose unjust postwar rewards were public humiliation, ostracism, and--in the case of Rezső Kasztner--death.
István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia and the author, most recently, of Essays on Hitler’s Europe.