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Title: He sipped the devil's soup with a short spoon  •  Size: 17871
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He sipped the devil's soup with a short spoon


Judy Stoffman, Toronto Star, October 7, 2007


Kasztner's TrainFew Canadians know the story of the `Hungarian Oskar Schindler' – he saved thousands, but it cost his life in the end, His canny relationship with top Nazis saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the camps.


Some 62 years after it ended, we are still trying to understand the Holocaust, still trying to come to terms with its causes, moral quandaries and ongoing political, social and personal side effects.


The strange story of Rezso Kasztner, told by Anna Porter in her new book, Kasztner's Train, is well known in Hungary, but for English-speaking readers hers is the first full account.


An energetic Jewish lawyer and journalist, he saved more Jewish lives than anyone else using only bluff, chutzpah, instinct, raw courage and friendship with a high-ranking Nazi. The bitterest irony was that he was vilified for this during a post-war trial in Israel and subsequently assassinated in front of his apartment building in Tel Aviv in March 1957, as he was returning home from work.


His "crime"? He had supped with the devil without using the proverbial long spoon.

The Hungarian-born Porter places Kasztner's story in the context of Hungary's complicated history – a history she brought to life in her previous book, The Storyteller. Porter's starting point is the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Under its terms, Hungary, as a loser in World War I, was deprived of two-thirds of its territory including Transylvania, where Kasztner was born in 1906. The national desire to regain the lost territories drove Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ruled Hungary as regent, into an alliance with Hitler, who promised to restore them.


The 1930s were marked by rising anti-Semitism in Hungary and the introduction of laws to deprive Jews of their rights and property, yet most Jews remained unconcerned, considering these measures temporary. As Porter writes, they did not take the extreme right seriously, even in 1939 when more than 150,000 Jewish men were forced into military service without uniforms or weapons as members of labour battalions.


The traditional leaders of the Jewish community put their faith in Admiral Horthy to protect them; the aged Samuel Stern, president of the Budapest community, viewed the labour camps as a necessary evil. Kasztner knew they were a prelude to much worse.


As a young journalist for the Jewish newspaper Uj Kelet, Kasztner honed his grasp of international affairs and read Hitler's Mein Kampf in German when it came out. He understood the danger Jews were in, and his views were confirmed in December 1942, when Oskar Schindler traveled from Cracow to Budapest to describe the systematic violence already beginning in Poland.


A month later Kasztner – with his Zionist friends Joel Brand, Joel's wife, Hansi, and several others – formed a relief and rescue committee, called by its Hebrew name, Va'ada, to try to get as many Jews as possible out of Hungary to Palestine. The problem was that the British, to placate their Arab allies, were letting in fewer than 1,000 Jews a month. No other country would have them.


The desperate efforts of Va'ada to save the Jews of Hungary, who once numbered 800,000, reached a fever pitch after March 1943. Germany, dissatisfied with Horthy's anti-Jewish measures, invaded Hungary. The deportation to concentration camps began. It was the last of Europe's Jewish communities to be liquidated, and by then the Nazis were highly efficient at it. By June, Hungary's Jewish population had been cut in half.


While the self-deluded leaders of the Jewish community continued to implore the Hungarian government to intercede, the leaders of Va'ada went directly to the headquarters of Adolf Eichmann at the Majestic Hotel to propose a deal to halt the deportations. Eichmann demanded payoffs – not of money, but trucks, coffee, sugar and other scarce goods – which Va'ada promised him, knowing that the chances of obtaining them were low.


Joel Brand was permitted to leave the country and go to Istanbul to negotiate with world Jewish leaders. He ended up in a British jail and never returned to Hungary, leaving Kasztner in charge. By then it was obvious that Kasztner's ability to read people's motives and weaknesses, his grasp of political realities, his command of German, and his sharp intelligence and sheer courage, made him the best negotiator of the Va'ada group.


Porter recounts almost day-by-day Kasztner's ceaseless efforts to persuade the Nazis to halt the deportations. When that proved impossible, the mission became to save any Jews who could be saved. He argued that if the Nazis left none alive, they would have nothing to trade for the money or goods they needed.


In October, Horthy was forced to step down to make way for the puppet government of Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the Arrow Cross, Hungary's Nazi party.


Kasztner, who mistrusted the volatile Eichmann, found a more reliable negotiating partner in Kurt Becher, SS commander Heinrich Himmler's Budapest representative. Becher shrewdly realized Germany was losing the war and that he might later need Kasztner as an alibi. The two formed a calculated friendship, gambling and dining together and calling each other by the familiar "duo."


It was Becher who guaranteed Kasztner's train – in return for large sums of money, jewellery and art collected from the Jews and from the Jewish Agency abroad – which carried 1,673 Jews to Switzerland in December 1944. Wealthy Jews were charged large sums for a seat, but many others paid nothing.


(One of the subsequent slanders against Kasztner was that he filled the train with his family and friends. Porter shows this to be untrue; the passenger lists were drawn up by local Jewish councils. While Kasztner's wife, Bogyo, and her family were aboard, his own birth family was not and neither was Kasztner himself, nor his lover, Hansi Brand and her two sons.


Kasztner was also able to finesse a deal, with Becher's help, to divert 17,000 Jews bound for Auschwitz to Austria in June 1944. Most of the so-called "Jews on ice" survived.


He facilitated the procurement and distribution of food and clothing to Jews in labour camps, obtained the tacit agreement of the SS to allow the International Red Cross to shelter 3,000 Jewish children in Budapest, and had Va'ada forge and distribute Christian identity papers that saved another 3,000 Jews.


After the war, Kasztner, nearly destitute, moved to Israel. It did not sit well that his post-war testimony saved the life of Kurt Becher, who became went on to become one of West Germany's most successful businessmen.


In 1952, the owner of a seedy Jerusalem hotel named Malchiel Grunwald published a libellous pamphlet against Kasztner. Grunwald's subsequent trial, mishandled by the prosecution, is the most appalling and fascinating part of the book. Grunwald's grandstanding defence counsel turned it into a trial of Kasztner's wartime actions.


As one of Porter's sources points out, Kasztner was one in a long line of "fixers" who had assured the survival of the Jewish people, individuals who knew how to talk to the Jews' enemies. But fixers were scorned in the infant state. Israelis thought it preferable to have fought back and be killed, like the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, than to have negotiated for Jewish lives.


The judge's decision shattered Kasztner.


"The verdict had not only painted all he had done in Hungary as worthless," Porter writes, "but accused him of crimes against his fellow Jews." By the time the decision was overturned on appeal, Kasztner had been shot dead.


Porter, who is not Jewish, tracked down scores of people in Hungary, Israel, Canada and the U.S. who remember Kasztner.


One of them is Toronto gold miner Peter Munk, who was a teen on Kasztner's train – his story inspired Porter to cut through thickets of conflicting and contentious testimony to produce a gripping work of popular history.


Judy Stoffman is a Toronto-based literary journalist, born in Budapest.


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