The Kasztner Controversy

If Reszo Kasztner saved Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, why was he put on trial and assassinated?

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Reszo Kasztner (also known by the first names Rudolf and Yisrael) was a Transylvanian Jew who rose to fame, and later to infamy, for his role in saving Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Born in 1906 in Cluj, then capital of the province of Transylvania, Kasztner was a Jewish activist who served as editor of the region's leading Zionist paper, as leader of a Zionist youth group, and later as secretary of the National Jewish Party in the Romanian Parliament. In 1940, he moved to Budapest and became deputy chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Association.

reszo kasztner

Kasztner in radio studio, Israel
(courtesy Kasztner family)

In 1942 Kasztner helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee, which smuggled Jews from Nazi-occupied Slovakia and Poland to a still-neutral Hungary. But in March 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary, and deportations to Auschwitz began almost immediately.

The committee changed its focus, and chose to use means previously unthinkable for Jews during the Holocaust: Kasztner and other members of the committee negotiated directly with the SS in the hopes of saving Hungarian Jewry.

Negotiations with the Enemy

Initially, the committee offered to collect two million dollars in exchange for a cessation of the deportations. When that didn't work, a new plan was hatched. "The blood for goods bargain," presented by Adolf Eichmann, stipulated that the deportations would stop if the United States and Britain would supply the Germans with 10,000 trucks and other equipment for use on the eastern front (this deal, too, would never materialize). In the interim, Kasztner devised a new rescue operation.

The Kasztner Train, as it became known, would save members of Hungary's Jewish community. Kasztner negotiated with SS officer Kurt Becher, who represented SS chief Heinrich Himmler. With the war on the east front escalating, German resources were nearing depletion and Himmler saw this train as a potential bargaining chip that could be used in negotiations with the Western Allies.

The Kasztner Train

Among those selected by Kasztner and the committee to board the train were rabbis (including the future Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, whose community was almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust, and which he would rebuild, practically from scratch, in Brooklyn), Zionist leaders, members of the Jewish intelligentsia, and Kasztner's friends and family--totaling 1,685 passengers.

The train left Budapest on June 30, 1944 ultimately reaching neutral Switzerland (after being held hostage at Bergen Belsen for several months) in two groups--in August and December.

Back in Hungary, Kasztner continued his work on behalf of the country's Jews for the duration of the war, and his negotiations led to 20,087 Jews being sent to work in Strasshof, Austria, instead of Auschwitz. Seventy-five percent of these Jews survived the war. In addition, he provided aid to Jewish prisoners in the camps, making it possible for many to survive.

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Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.