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Distorting the Holocaust in Hungary

Seventy-four years to the day after Nazi Germany’s occupation of Hungary, we are not done defending the truth of what happened in Budapest, of how Otto Komoly carried himself in the war, and whether Rudolf Kasztner’s ‘Blood for Goods’ rescue train was a noble or morally abhorrent act

Thomas Komoly
March 19, 2018
Photo courtesy of The Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, Safed, Israel.
Kastner train passengers, travelling from Budapest, via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to Switzerland, August or December, 1944.Photo courtesy of The Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, Safed, Israel.
Photo courtesy of The Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, Safed, Israel.
Kastner train passengers, travelling from Budapest, via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to Switzerland, August or December, 1944.Photo courtesy of The Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, Safed, Israel.

As a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, I was horrified to discover a recent book by a right-wing journalist called Paul Bogdanor, titled Kasztner’s Crime, in which he accuses the Labor Zionist leader of collaborating with the SS. I’m not a journalist or politician, but I was there! It also happens that Otto Komoly, president of the Budapest Jewish Rescue Committee (JRC), was my uncle, and I have access to his wartime diary, and through it a well-grounded understanding of the heroic work of the JRC. I wish to correct the falsification of history that I lived through before it spreads any further.

The cornerstone of Bogdanor’s argument is the assumption that, had it not been for Rudolf Kasztner’s feigned acceptance of Adolf Eichmann’s proposed Blood for Goods deal, in which the Nazis promised to exchange a million Jews for 10,000 trucks and various supplies needed by the German army, an entirely different situation could have materialized, and hundreds of thousands of Jews could, in fact, have been saved. He says outright in places, and implies often between the lines, that there could have been a mass exodus or armed Hungarian Jewish resistance to the oppressors, on the model of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. But latter-day sophistry will not turn a Hungarian Jewish revolt into reality.

Anyone who has not lived through those days must tread very, very carefully if he wants to venture an opinion or criticism. If you were not there, you cannot imagine the fears, the uncertainty, the illusory desire to find some magic solution to our predicament. Feigning acceptance of the Blood for Goods deal was a desperate attempt to salvage something, or gain time for survival, however small the chance. Some of us were lucky that the time ran out for the murderers and we slipped through the net. Most did not.

It is not surprising that Bogdanor picks Kasztner as the target of his book. For a start, Kasztner survived while Otto Komoly died a martyr’s death. The latter was respected by every historian and researcher; he is remembered as the one person who managed to generate a consensus amongst the different fractions and opinions with his considered and powerful arguments. The former was a subject of controversy in postwar Israel both in contrast with Hannah Szenes (who ultimately was herself a victim, but who failed to save anyone) and also as a target of the right (in the famous Kasztner Trial and Hecht’s book Perfidy). As a witness, and as a possessor of historical materials that are crucial to understanding this argument, I want to address these questions about the past from the vantage point of historical truth as filtered through my lived experience, and the experience of my uncle.

Hungary fought on the side of Germany in the last war. Hungarian Jews, with their huge contribution to the industrial, scientific, commercial, and cultural life of the country, could not understand the Damocles sword hanging over their existence when Hitler came to power. In part to appease Hitler, the Hungarian government introduced its own anti-Jewish laws, and in 1943 my father and all Jewish men aged between 18 and 50 were called up into forced labor units of the Hungarian army, doing hard and dangerous work under inhuman conditions.

The German Army physically occupied Hungary in March 1944, and Eichmann arrived with only about 200 SS men. In June 1944 the Budapest government designated around 2,000 apartment buildings for Jewish occupation, each building marked with a yellow star. My home in the suburbs was taken over with all its contents by neighbors and my father’s business by his foreman. We were allowed to go out between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. wearing a yellow star, and the concierge was to report to the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Fascist organization, which toppled the government of Miklos Horthy, which had refused to transport Hungarian Jews to death camps) on all our movements. People committed suicide. Supervision and enforcement of these edicts were taken overenthusiastically by the 22,000 Hungarian gendarmes and later the Arrow Cross.

The prewar Jewish leadership was out of its depth in the face of these developments. In his book “Dealing With Satan,” Ladislaus Loeb introduced a very useful extension of the classical psychological choice of “fight or flight” that of “freeze.” The freezing is associated with a sense of the utter impossibility of escape, which may lead to total submission. This is what happened. At each of the stages of the Holocaust in Hungary, you can see obedience, falling into line, following orders and self-subjugation.

The Budapest Jewish Council (Judenrat or “Zsido Tanacs”) was formed March 21, by order of the Gestapo. The president of the Council Samu Stern recalled that the Nazis nominated the body’s members, from the former circle of Jewish leaders, and it remained entirely under German command. Its members came from the Neologue and Orthodox religious, at least three different alignments of Zionists, the Palestine Office/ Jewish Agency and a representative of the 100,000 (!) converted Jews. Their role—defined by adherence to law and loyalty to the oppressors—remains disputed.

The members could achieve small compromises and agreements, but at worst there was outright animosity and competition. Understandably some just tried to further their own and their families’ survival. How could they be an example and lead the masses? Cooperating smoothly with the staff of Eichmann, they issued decrees, summoned meetings, sequestered property, organized ghettos and collecting camps, and delivered people for deportation.

Their best efforts included trying to influence the German and Hungarian authorities to obstruct and halt the deportations.

When the Arrow Cross seized power in October, and after the ghetto for 70,000 was set up in Budapest, the Council worked to protect and feed Jews forced into the ghetto. In summary, we can say that the Jewish Council was fundamentally well-intentioned but faced an extreme moral dilemma, without acceptable alternatives. If one accepted membership on the Council, he facilitated the smooth execution of the deportations in accordance with German plans and became morally implicated in the death of his people. If the Council had failed to execute orders, another council would have taken its place without the close ties to various political circles maintained by the traditional leadership. They decided poorly because it was impossible to decide well. Almost the entire rural Jewish population of 500,000-600,000 were deported by July 1944.

The Hungarian Zionist movement was divided along the same lines as in Palestine. On the left were the Ihud (later the Mapai) Hashomer Hatzair, Maccabee Hatzair, Bné Akiva, Gordonia and the Dror. On the right was Betar amd Klal, and the religious Mizrachi. Their open animosity among the various groups was difficult for even the Jewish leadership to understand, and it continued during the German occupation.

My uncle Otto Komoly stepped into this quagmire, as leader of the Hungarian Zionist Association, in 1940. Born as Nathan Kohn (March 26, 1892) into a Zionist family, he was educated as an engineer and drafted in the Hungarian Army in WWI. He was injured in action and subsequently decorated. After the war, his military honors gave him credibility with government and the military. He wrote two books on Zionism: A zsidó nép jövője (The Future of the Jewish People; 1919), and Cionista életszemlélet (Zionist View of Life; 1942). His family was considering emigration to Palestine in 1939, but he decided to stay in Hungary to help local Jews escape persecution by using his status and influence. He was exempted from discriminatory anti-Jewish laws.

Seeing the hopeless antagonisms among Zionists and within the Jewish Council (which at this point he refused to join), Komoly joined together with Rudolf Kasztner, Joel and Hansi Brand and others to create the Aid and Rescue Committee (Va‘adat ‘Ezrah ve-Hatsalah), which provided assistance to Jews fleeing from Poland and Slovakia, as well as Hungary. After the Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, Komoly also became the head of the International Red Cross department in charge of helping Jewish children. With the help of the embassies of Switzerland (Carl Lutz), Sweden (Raoul Wallenberg) and other neutral countries, they created 35 refuges for about 6,000 children and 600 volunteers, and safe houses for tens of thousands of others. These (including myself) were ultimately saved from deportation and possible extermination.

Komoly’s committee initiated and carried on negotiations with both German and Hungarian authorities. He negotiated with the Hungarians (the so-called Line A), carrying on discussions with members of the Hungarian government and with associates of the political and ecclesiastic elite, using his connection with the son of the governor and military leaders. Under his leadership, the Aid and Rescue Committee organized non-Jewish protests against Nazi policies in Hungary, especially among the clergy and politicians. Brand and Kasztner concentrated on the German Line B.

Some interesting facts emerge from Komoly’s 1944 diary, which starts with the sentence: “I wonder whether these pages will ever be filled?” After hundreds of references to meetings and individuals, there are notes such as “terribly tired, not least because of the news of deportations,” “had little sleep, can hardly stay awake at the meeting” and (about the train’s passenger list): “unceasing flow of people, I and Szilagyi despair at the task of selecting people and the associated unavoidable injustice.” And when being asked by Mester (the minister for justice and religion) to consider joining a future government: “God forbid that a Jew should ever get involved in Hungarian internal politics.”

By the winter the JRC operated indirectly nine offices, together with 31 children’s refuges, eight kitchens, 14 food stores and supported 21 hospitals. Although Otto supposedly had at his disposal a government driver, he often did not turn up, and on a typical day, he would have to walk over 6 miles. He still wanted to maintain his family life, and after a tiring day he would return home late and sit down to play chess with his daughter Lea. When his brother Lajos was rounded up in October he managed to rescue him, but despite every effort, he was despairingly unsuccessful in finding either my aunt Ilona or my father in November, and they perished.

Beginning Oct. 22, 1944, Komoly decided to become a member of the Jewish Council, to try to influence their activities. The threat made some Jewish leaders work closer together, while in other cases, antagonisms deepened. Although the Zionist Komoly and the anti-Zionist Stern were gradually able to cooperate, the relationship with Fülöp Freudiger, the Orthodox member of the Jewish Council, had its ups and downs. As for Miklós Krausz, secretary of the Palestine Office, his talks with Komoly and Kasztner were always tense. The tension was heightened among the Zionist leaders by the escape of Freudiger and his family and friends to Romania, and by the role Krausz played. Stern eventually went into hiding.

Gaining time was about the only objective on which there could be agreement between Zionists and anti-Zionists. Knowing from his diary and many other sources about the difficulty of achieving even a small compromise and agreement within the Jewish Council, it is appropriate to ask who could have achieved anything in the way of the rescue of the majority.

In the midst of all this, the position of the Jewish Rescue Committee became abundantly clear: There was no hope of receiving assistance from abroad or from domestic sources. Eichmann launched the Blood for Goods deal to Kasztner and Brand on the basis of the release of 1 million Jews to neutral territory in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies. The Rescue Committee bluffed and pretended to subscribe to the deal, knowing full well that whatever international connections they could muster, they would never be able to persuade the Allied leadership to bring forth the goods. It was never more than a high-stakes poker game, to gain time.

The Germans, on the other hand, wanted to test whether this was an avenue to gain something material for their fight on the Eastern front, and to generate an anti-Soviet coalition (as in 1917-21). All of this was, of course, totally unrealistic, but nonetheless, it was also the only hope for the possible rescue of Hungarian Jews. Following the Allied landing in France, and the Red Army advances, the Germans could feel the heat and had every reason to try to create alibis.

In June 1944, the so-called Kasztner Train was allowed to leave as a test of the scheme, with 1,684 Jews departing Budapest for the safety of neutral Switzerland. Neither Kasztner nor Komoly were amongst the passengers. Most historians argue that Kasztner’s negotiations saved another 20,000 Hungarian Jews by diverting them to an Austrian labor camp instead of Auschwitz. (Hailed by some as a Holocaust hero and reviled by others as a collaborator, Kasztner was assassinated in 1957 in Israel.)

When the Hungarian fascists took over the government in October 1944, they enthusiastically restarted the deportations that had been suspended in July (my aunt Elvira committed suicide on Oct. 17). In November they ordered the setting up of a ghetto. The decree of the Minister of Defense issued Oct. 22, 1944, ordered all remaining Jews, men between 16 and 60 and all women between 16 and 40, to report for forced labor. By then the Allies led day and night bombing raids while we were squatting in the cellars, engaged in a strange wishful thinking, hoping that the bombs reached their targets while at the same time knowing that we could equally be the victims. If we got hit too, so what? That was our fighting chance for survival.

So at which point does Paul Bogdanor suggest that we should have started resisting? Who could have risen to the challenge? Uncle Fisher, the blind friend of my grandmother? The Jewish concierge of our yellow star house, who betrayed my father to the Arrow Cross when he came home to see my mother from forced labor? The rich Jews who tried to bribe their way onto the Kasztner train? The mothers who aborted their children? My aunt, Elvira? The 100,000 converted Jews who didn’t believe themselves to be Jewish?

People like Bogdanor can glibly speak about Jews taking a chance to escape or fight. But is he serious? Perhaps most illustrative example I know of concerns my mother, who at one point found herself among a group of 200 women rounded up by four Arrow Cross men and being marched toward a collection camp. When my mother made a run for it, the young recruits took shots at her but missed. The ensuing confusion was the perfect opportunity for some or even most of the others to try and do likewise—make a run—but instead, they stayed put and awaited their fate.

In neighboring countries, there was a natural if sporadic resistance to the German occupiers, but the Warsaw and Slovak uprisings were quashed in August, notwithstanding local support and the Soviet Army within reach. Who would have supported a mass uprising of Hungarian Jews, had such an event somehow occurred? There were no partisans in Hungary. The Hungarian population was 90 percent aligned with the Fascists, both out of anti-Semitism and for personal gain. Only Protestant priests visited some Jewish families and christened their children in the vague hope of ensuring their survival.

By this time, Budapest Jewry consisted largely of older women and men, children, and the sick and disabled. Escaping to the hills, never mind fighting, was a daydream for half-a-million middle-class weaklings, for whom hiding and bribery were the furthest feats that they could imagine undertaking. The remaining miserable Jews of Budapest were waiting for a miracle. We were willing with a few exceptions to obey orders just because civilized members of society do so. The option was clear-cut: Behave yourself, follow instructions, lie low and you’ll have a small chance of survival—resist, and you’re sure to die. In the eyes of Hungarian Jewry, the only tradeoff was between following orders (including being loaded onto trains) or being subjected to the immediate physical brutality of the Nazis. Our resistance consisted of false papers, hiding valuables, cheating and lying, and conversion to Christianity. Some also made conscious attempts to preserve the history and communal life of the Jewish people despite Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jews from human memory. The only exceptions were the Zionist youth in hiding.

The young Zionists’ mentality differed from that of average Hungarian Jews; it never occurred to them to respect the law and obey orders. The Zionist youth was the only faction of our community that considered resistance, but they were basically toothless. Joel Brand wrote in his memoirs that by May 1944 they had a weapons cache of 150 pistols, three handguns, 40 grenades, and two machine guns.

Ultimately, the Zionists were only involved in secret talks, printing false documents, investigating secret routes out of the country (Romania—from the frying pan into the fire!), not taking up arms, but followed the tactics of bribery, hiding and forging high-quality official papers such as Palestine visas and Christian identity cards that were essential for staying alive, and assisting refugees. As one of them put it: “I do not wish to have a kibbutz in Palestine be named after me; I hope to live there myself.” The Zionist youth who tried in some of the ghettoes and collecting camps to spread the terrifying news about the death camps were received in most cases with animosity and incredulity. People called the information scare-mongering. In some cases, they were chased away, and in others, they were handed over to the police or gendarmes.

From October until the liberation, the Zionist headquarters was the “Glass House” in Vadász Street, Budapest. Dressed in German and Hungarian army uniforms and presenting fake orders, they fanned out across the city to rescue people from the hands of Arrow Cross gangs. This was the place where they produced for distribution documents proving Christianity, and an increasing number of forged protective Schutzpass. Members of Zionist youth organizations brought food and other provisions to the children’s homes, and they took an active part in efforts to supply the “large” ghetto of Pest with food.

Against this background, the decision by the Palestinian Zionists to drop three ill-trained volunteers into Yugoslavia with instructions to enter Hungary, and generate armed resistance seems retrospectively ill-judged. Hanna Szenes was arrested immediately as she crossed into Hungary along the southern border, and she was tortured and executed by the Arrow Cross in November. Two of her companions, Emil Nussbacher (aks Yoel Palgi) and Ferenc Goldstein were also nabbed. Nussbacher managed to escape from captivity, while Goldstein lost his life in a Nazi concentration camp.

With negotiations still going on but increasingly endangered, Otto moved into the Hotel Ritz where Hans Weyermann, the other representative of the International Red Cross, and many German officers lived, thereby enabling Komoly to maintain continual contact. On Jan. 1, 1945, just before the arrival of the Soviet army in Budapest, the Arrow Cross militia picked him up. Nothing else is known about him, and it is assumed that he was murdered by them. Komoly received posthumously an award from the Hungarian post-war President Tildy for his activities. The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and KKL-JNF held a ceremony at its Martyr’s Forest Scroll of Fire Plaza on April 8, 2013—Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day—to commemorate the rescue activities of Otto Komoly. Several letters from the surviving children were read out to the audience. In his honor, a moshav in southern Israel (Yad Natan), is named after him. A number of towns in Israel have streets named after him.

There was only one group of criminals in this story: the Germans and their Hungarian helpers. The accusations brought against Kasztner and others who worked to save Jewish lives, at enormous risk to themselves and their families, are therefore totally unacceptable.

David Ben Gurion once said:

The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not to presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived … and those of our generation who did not experience this hell would do best (in my view) to remain silent in humility and grief.

One only need turn to Otto Komoly’s diary, and his repeated comments about total impotence and helplessness, about the horror of making the choices between those who would or would not go, to have even the slightest understanding of the situation. None of us should go around accusing a fellow Jew for what he or she did in those times, and certainly nobody who has not participated and suffered through those months and years, or lost substantial parts of their family, has any right to pontificate on the matter, whatever their credentials may be, or the amount of paperwork they may have sifted. It is a great shame that some think otherwise and that others again give them the space to spread their groundless accusations. If you’re lucky enough to not have lived through such horrendous times, you record the facts, praise the noble, but otherwise bow your head in humility. You have no right to judge.

Thomas Komoly was born in Budapest in 1936.