Kasztner's Train By Anna Porter
I have to admit that I had never heard of Rezso Kasztner until I read an excerpt from this book a few weeks ago. I was fascinated by what I read and wanted to know more. And more is definitely what you get in this big book about the fate of the Jews of Hungary and the efforts of Rezso Kasztner to save as many of them as he could. The Jews of Hungary were largely unaffected by the Second World War until 1944. By then the Nazi's had established their concentration camps - extermination camps for the murder of European Jews. But by 1944 the systematic ghettoization of the provinces of Hungary was underway - province by province - "four trains a day, every day, seven days a week." Hundreds of people in each train car, tortured, stripped of their possessions and identity. By July 1944, 475,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was the story of her friend, Peter Munk that got Anna Porter started on her research to discover the story of Rezso Kasztner. Peter Munk was seventeen years old in 1944, "living in a district of Budapest where the rich Jews lived, thinking they would be safe from persecution". His story is one of the most fascinating parts of the book, along with the stories of the lives of others who were saved and those who are their descendants.
Part of the problem for the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe was that no other country wanted them - even if they could escape, where could they go?
Immigration to Canada was limited - much to our shame as a nation – and many other countries around the world had the same policy. For a time Kasztner was able to use Palestine entry visas meant for individuals, to be used by whole families, but he had difficulty getting them into Palestine. This was at the time of the Zionist movement for a home in Palestine - there was confrontation with both Great Britain and the Arab rulers in the middle east - "the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had dined with Hitler in Berlin and has assured the Fuhrer of Arab assistance in the Middle East, but only if he could be sure of no further Jewish immigration." When Kasztner was finally able to convince Eichmann to allow trains to be diverted away from Auschwitz it was difficult to find a country willing to take the people on the trains - Switzerland became a destination on the condition that it was not the final destination - that the people would then go on to other countries as soon as they were able.
Budapest was under the control of Adolf Eichmann - a thoroughly despicable man quite apart from his Nazi beliefs. Kasztner became very skilful at negotiating with Eichmann despite his erratic behaviour.
Another threat to the Jews of Budapest were the brigades of "Arrow Cross boys - most of them under eighteen - who paraded through the streets, shot or arrested anyone wearing a yellow star, broke into Red Cross safe houses while wielding machine guns, entered the protected children's homes and murdered every child there."
Budapest had the misfortune to be on the Russian front - those left in the city might have thought that the defeat of the Nazis by the Russians would improve their lives - they were wrong. "By Christmas Day (1944), Budapest was encircled by Soviet heavy armour. Remnants of the German army were trapped in the capital and still not allowed to withdraw.
Crazed Arrow Cross gangs continued to murder Jews in the streets. Bodies were hanging from lampposts, lying in gutters, drifting down the Danube." Then, as we all know, Hungary came under Russian control. Anna Porter, a Hungarian by birth, left the country with her family in 1956.
Kasztner and his wife and many of those who had worked with him in Budapest immigrated to Palestine after the war. There the Jews who had survived the Holocaust were building a nation and wanted to put the war years behind them. Kasztner worked as a journalist and lived a quiet life, until he was accused of being a Nazi collaborator. Kasztner defended himself - asserting that he had had to work closely with the Nazi's in order to ensure that he could divert trains bound for the extermination camps. He also claimed that he had managed to add old men and women and children to trains heading to Vienna, supposedly carrying only able-bodied men as labourers. The trail became the sensation of the day, Kasztner was convicted, and some months later shot in front of his home. Kasztner was legally exonerated after his death, a decision based on "knowledge gained in hindsight".
No matter what one thinks of Kasztner, this is a fascinating book about the city of Budapest during the Second World War. Budapest has recently become a tourist destination again. Some buildings are being restored but most are much the same - the beautiful art deco bar in the Astoria Hotel where the SS officers drank in 1944 is as it was then. The Great Synagogue on Dohany Street has been restored and the side yard now a memorial to the Jews of Budapest and those who attempted to save them - Rezso Kasztner among them.