Hungary, Auschwitz and rewriting the holocaust

In his third article on Zionism, Tony Greenstein continues his examination of collaboration and denial

Because the Nazis did not occupy Hungary till March 1944, "the country became an island of safety in an ocean of destruction" for about a third of a million Jews from neighbouring countries. On April 17 1944 the Hungarian regent, Miklà³s Horthy, visited Hitler to discuss Hungary's role in the war. Hitler was not best pleased with Hungary's Jewish policy.

According to Dr Paul Schmidt, "If the Jews there [Poland] did not want to work, they were shot. If they could not work, they had to be treated like tuberculosis bacilli, with which a healthy body may become infected ... Why should the beasts who wanted to bring us Bolshevism be spared more? Nations who did not rid themselves of Jews perished."

Schmidt felt that this practice should be implemented everywhere, but by 1944 the one country in German-occupied Europe with a major Jewish community left untouched by the holocaust was Hungary. It was the only Axis country to send Jewish troops to the eastern front. That might account for reports that the Hungarian army had stopped an action by local police against the Jews and that Einsatzgruppe paramilitaries had cleared an area of Jews "except for a small area occupied by Hungarian forces."

Some three-quarter million Jews were living in Hungary when Adolph Eichmann and 300 Gestapo men arrived on March 15 1944. The same evening Eichmann summoned the Jewish leaders to a conference to persuade them to form a Judenrat (Jewish council). This was a time when, according to the papal nuncio, "the whole world knew what deportation meant in practice."

The Nazis also formed a 'rescue committee' whose de facto leader was Rudolph Kasztner of the minority Mapai (Labour Party) faction amongst the Zionists. When they met the Zionists, Eichmann did not try to lie or deceive as to the fate of the deportees. However, the Zionists were allowed greater privileges than those normally accorded members of a Judenrat: they were "free to come and go practically as they pleased". They were exempt from wearing the yellow star and received permits to visit concentration camps in Hungary. Kasztner "could even travel about Nazi Germany without any identification papers showing he was a Jew".

The bargain that Kasztner and Eichmann struck resulted in a train carrying 1,684 members of the Zionist elite going to Switzerland. Eichmann also offered to send 15,000-18,000 Jews to Vienna to be kept on ice (auf Eis gelegt) pending negotiations with the Allies. These Jews were actually sent to the Vienna-Strasshof concentration camp. It was only the Nazis' military collapse that prevented the women and children being subject to 'special treatment'.

Rudolph Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz five weeks before the deportation of Hungary's Jews (see below), wrote in the Daily Herald in February 1961: "I accuse certain Jewish leaders of one of the most ghastly deeds of the war. This small group of quislings knew what was happening to their brethren in Hitler's gas chambers and bought their own lives with the price of silence. Among them was Dr Kastner "¦ I was able to give Hungarian Zionist leaders three weeks notice that Eichmann planned to send a million of their Jews to his gas chambers "¦ Kasztner went to Eichmann and told him, 'I know of your plans; spare some Jews of my choice and I shall keep quiet.' Eichmann not only agreed, but dressed Kasztner up in SS uniform and took him to Belsen to trace some of his friends."

Even Hungary's Zionist chief rabbi Freudiger admitted that half the Jews could have been saved if they had ignored the instructions of the Jewish councils. He also admitted that he received the Vrba report about Auschwitz on May 10-11 and immediately arranged his own escape. Unfortunately the rest of Hungarian Jewry was not let in on the secret.10  Eichmann described his relationship with the Zionists in an interview he gave to a Dutch Nazi journalist, Willem Sassens, in 1955:

"This Dr Kasztner "¦ agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation - and even keep order in the collection camps - if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain. For keeping order in the camps, the price of 15,000 or 20,000 Jews "¦ was not too high for me ... With his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.

"Dr Kasztner's main concern was to make it possible for a select group of Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Israel ... As a matter of fact, there was a very strong similarity between our attitudes in the SS and the viewpoint of these immensely idealistic Zionist leaders "¦

"I believe that Kasztner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goal. He was not interested in old Jews or those who had become assimilated into Hungarian society. But he was incredibly persistent in trying to save biologically valuable Jewish blood - that is, human material that was capable of reproduction and hard work. 'You can have the others,' he would say, 'but let me have this group here.' And because Kasztner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape."11 

In 1953 Malchiel Greenwald, produced a news sheet in Israel accusing Kasztner, by then a senior functionary of the ruling Mapai party, of being a collaborator. The government sued for libel on Kasztner's behalf in the Jerusalem district court. Judge Benjamin Halevi found against Kasztner on all but one point. By three to two the supreme court overturned the lower court's judgment, but it upheld the finding of facts by the lower court. It was an explicitly political judgment.

Kasztner went to Nuremberg after the war in an attempt to exonerate Nazi leaders, including SS colonel Kurt Becher and SS general Hans Juttner. In all Kasztner tried to save seven of Eichmann's Gestapo colleagues. In his trial, Kasztner even stated that Himmler had helped him save Jews.12 

Kasztner was described by Robert Kempner, a senior official at the Nuremberg trial, as "running around at Nuremberg looking for Nazis he could save".13  Kasztner's testimony was given on behalf of the Jewish Agency.

The Eichmann trial in 1961 was a response to the Kasztner trials. Thus began the Zionist attempt to mould the history of the holocaust into a Zionist pattern. Missing from history would be the anti-Zionist Bund and the communists, the two largest parties of the resistance. The Bund had led the resistance in Warsaw but Marek Edelman, deputy commander of ZOB, the Jewish Fighting Organisation, was deliberately not called to give evidence at the trial.14  As Linn notes, Edelman "remained alive and kicking and refusing and, therefore, extremely inconvenient for the creation of a heroic Zionist condensing and compensating myth".15  Neither was Rudolph Vrba called. He was not a Zionist.

The strange case of Rudolph Vrba

On April 7 1944 two Slovakian Jews, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz, having learnt of the preparations being made to receive Hungary's Jews. Two weeks later they began dictating what became known as the Auschwitz protocols (AP) to the Slovakian Jewish Council. By April 28 the AP was in the hands of Rudolph Kasztner. Yet there is no disputing that those few who returned alive from the deportations were wholly ignorant about what 'resettlement' meant.16  News of the death camps was deliberately kept from all but the 'rescue committee' and Jews on the privileged train.17 

Kasztner even travelled to his home town of Kluj to reassure the Jews living there that they would be safe where they were going, even though Kluj was but a few kilometres from the border with Romania, which actually was a refuge for Jews. However, it was not the case of the weakness of one man. Kasztner was the official representative of the Jewish Agency. It is little wonder that on October 15 1945 all the survivors who trickled back to Kluj, whatever their political complexion, tried Kasztner in absentia in a people's court and pronounced him a war criminal.18 

On May 15 1945 the deportation of Hungary's Jews to Auschwitz began (there was one train of a thousand Budapest Jews on April 28).19  Some 440,000 of Hungary's 750,000 Jews were exterminated.

The AP had not only been given to Kasztner and the Hungarian Zionists but to the papal nuncio in Slovakia, who forwarded them to the Vatican, and also to rabbi Weissmandel, as well as having been translated into several languages. Kasztner also sent the AP to the Zionist representatives in Istanbul and in Switzerland, Nathan Schwalb. Schwalb's primary interest was to prevent the Vrba-Wetzler report from being published so as not to disrupt Kasztner's negotiation with Eichmann.20  However, the report had been through too many hands for the Zionists to silence. A copy reached the representative of the Czech government in exile, Dr Kopecky, on June 10, as did the 'Polish major's report' from a Polish medical student who had escaped from Auschwitz on March 24 1943. Kopecky acted at once, realising that the Czech 'family camp' in Auschwitz was in danger of liquidation. By June 18, the contents of the Vrba report were broadcast on the BBC.

Weissmandel ran a one-man rescue campaign. He was a man of many contradictions. An orthodox rabbi, he had been a philosophy student at Oxford and did everything he possibly could to prevent the holocaust, but politically he was naive, working closely with Zionists like Gizi Fleischmann on the Slovak Jewish Council. On May 15 1942 a constitutional law had been passed which exempted categories of Jews from deportation, including all those baptised before 1939.21  By June 1942 the deportation of Slovakia's Jews had stopped after all but 35,000 of the 88,000 had been deported.

The Bratislava Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee, including Weissmandel, believed they had stopped the deportations by bribing Wisliceny with $50,000. However, the Jews left belonged to the exempted categories. Weissmandel drew up a scheme, the Europa Plan, to save all Jews outside Poland with a $2 million bribe.

The deportations in Slovakia had been stopped, but primarily due to the intervention of the Vatican. Vrba is undoubtedly right when he says that the Nazis were "amused by these unrealistic, ridiculous, and truly childish ideas" but that, as long as Auschwitz continued to function and the deportations continued, then no harm would be done.22 

At the end of July, the papal nuncio informed the ruler of Slovakia, a catholic priest, father Tiso, that the Jews in Lublin were being murdered. The German ambassador, Hans Elard Ludin, reported that the deportations had become very unpopular. By September 1942 the deportations had ceased.23  When in June 1944 the Nazis demanded the remaining Slovakian Jewish community be included in the Hungarian deportations, Tiso refused.24 

Weissmandel's strategy was that of the Jewish leadership through the centuries. Bribe your enemies. Unfortunately the Nazis' Jewish policy was not susceptible to monetary payment. The ideology of Lebensraum permeated all Nazi operations in the east. Himmler's response to those who counterposed extermination to the war effort was withering: "The argument of war production, which nowadays in Germany is the favourite reason for opposing anything at all, I do not recognise in the first place."25 

The reasons why the Nazis persisted until the end in perpetrating the annihilation of the Untermenschen will long be debated. Undoubtedly the extermination of the Jews had its own momentum. But it is a profound mistake to suppose that the extermination of European Jewry was wholly or mainly ideological, regardless of material factors. It is not just that the colonisation of the east was itself based on material factors. The amount of money obtained from the dead of the 'Action Reinhard' death camps - Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec - amounted to nearly 200 million marks. In Auschwitz, "the profits were far more extensive".26  The existence of these large concentrations of inmates were ideal for industries such as IG Farben which built factories at Auschwitz 3 (Monowitz). Labour costs were minimal.

And there was the wealth left behind by the deportees. The property confiscated from the Jewish deportees provided the incentive for a whole class of quislings and collaborators, which freed up the Germany army for the war in the east. The extermination of European Jewry was in no sense purely ideological.27 

During the latter part of June 1944 a dissident Zionist, Moshe Krauss, obtained a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report and disseminated it to the embassies of neutral countries in Budapest. As a result some 33,000 Jews in Budapest were able to live in special Red Cross houses under the protection of the neutral countries.28  Gerhard Riegner of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva also sent the report to London and Washington and the Swiss papers now publicised them. On July 5 Anthony Eden, British foreign secretary, threatened Horthy with reprisals if the deportations were not stopped, as did Roosevelt's War Refugee Board. On the night of July 2 1944 there was an especially heavy air raid on Budapest 29  as a warning and on July 9 Horthy stopped any further expulsions (though Eichmann managed to deport a further 1,500 Jews in mid-July). As even Yehuda Bauer observed, "Clearly, if Horthy stopped the deportations in early July, he could have stopped them earlier as well."30 

At the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem there is no mention of Vrba or his fellow escapee, Wetzler, by name. When I visited the Washington Holocaust museum in 1992, it too had no reference to Vrba and his book (it had also removed reference to communists from Pastor Niemöller's famous saying).31 

Yad Vashem and its historians play a key role in the Zionisation of the holocaust. They produce kitsch holocaust memorabilia. At one point they even sold key rings bearing the yellow star of David.32  Israel Shahak, the Israeli human rights activist and survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and Belsen camp, condemned it as a worthless propaganda outfit after the museum welcomed apartheid prime minister John Vorster, who was interned during the war for Nazi sympathies, and Franz-Joseph Strauss, a rightwing German leader and Nazi Party activist in the 1930s.

Just as the purpose of the Eichmann trial was to show that "whatever resistance there had been had come from Zionists",33  so the role of the Yad Vashem 'historians' is to produce a sanitised version of the holocaust, in which non-Zionists and anti-Zionists are erased from memory. In the words of Gila Fatran, "because Vrba is a non-Zionist, his testimony can never be as credible as Neumann's."34  Eric Kulka even tried to claim that the escape from Auschwitz was a Zionist enterprise (!)35  and that Vrba's criticism of the Slovak Judenrat could not be justified, "since they were, after all, good Zionists who lived and worked for more than 30 years in Israel."36 

Lucy Dawidowicz has explained that "strategic remembering is a matter of group pride rather than historical truth".37  The question asked by Gideon Hausner of the survivors at the Eichmann trial - "Why did you not rebel?" - was a smokescreen for another question: "Why did the Jewish leadership in the ghettos collaborate?"38 

Vrba and Wetzler were erased from the Zionist history of the holocaust and their post-war memoirs not translated into Hebrew,39  nor did their escape feature in any Hebrew holocaust textbooks.40  "We were reminded of the case of Hannah Arendt", whose Eichmann in Jerusalem remained unpublished in Israel for nearly 40 years.41 

The obliteration of Vrba's and Wetzler's names took two forms. Either limited technical references to anonymous escapees or no reference at all.42  For example, Livia Rothkirchen quotes Vrba by name in a 1961 book,43  but by 1974 he has become one of "two young men". The Hebrew inscription on the walls of Yad Vashem refers to "two young Slovak Jews".44  Similarly, in the 1990 edition of the Israeli Encyclopaedia of the holocaust, the escapees are mentioned by name. By 2001, however, they had become "two Jewish prisoners".45 

The holocaust deniers also noticed what was happening. If Vrba's affidavit was rejected by the Eichmann trial and they are absent from Zionist history books, their conclusion was that this was 'proof' that the Auschwitz protocols were an American forgery and the gas chambers did not exist. Butz noticed that Oskar Neumann's 1956 autobiography Im Schatten des Todes neither mentions the names of the escapees nor the report itself. David Irving likewise seized on the treatment of Vrba and Wetzler.46 

Bauer and the others found it "regretful" that Vrba was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1998 by Haifa University. Linn describes how "some Israeli scholars, even within my own university, made a desperate last-minute attempt to belittle the hero and his memoirs. This included letters of defamation to the press "¦ bizarre phone calls to my home."

Bauer worried as to what might have happened if Israeli high school students had read Vrba's memoirs. But when the controversy blew up, Bauer "truly regret[ted] that Yad Vashem did not publish the book in Hebrew "¦"47 

Vrba was first given academic recognition by a German magazine in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte. In his reply to Vrba, Bauer agreed that Hungarian Jews were ignorant of their fate and admits that "the protocols were an important factor in stopping the deportations".

When Arendt's reports of the Eichmann trial were published in The Observer on September 15 1963, Jacob Talmon, a professor at the Hebrew University Jerusalem attacked her for raising the issue of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis. In reply Vrba recalled how in April 1944 Oskar Neumann of the Zionist movement was handed his report into the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz.

Did the Judenrat (or the Judenverrat) in Hungary tell their Jews what was awaiting them? No, they remained silent and for this silence some of their leaders - for example, Kasztner - bartered their own lives and the lives of 1,684 other "prominent" Jews directly from Eichmann.48 

This exchange of letters is not to be found in Israeli Hebrew holocaust textbooks.49  Nor is the fact that the first escapee from Auschwitz, Ziegfried Lederer, passed information to the leader of German Jewry and Zionism, rabbi Leo Baeck, who blocked that information because "living in the expectation of death by gassing would only be harder".50 

Yad Vashem's understudy in London, David Cesarani, described Vrba's allegations as a "calumny [that] can now be finally laid to rest".51  However, after the publication of Vrba's memoirs and the AP in Hebrew in 1998, Yisrael Guttman acknowledged that "Kasztner was given a copy of the report on April 29 1944 "¦ together with other Jewish leaders, choosing not to disseminate the report in order not to harm the negotiations with the Nazis."52  This was defended by Kasztner's deputy, Andre Biss. Because of the need to safeguard the elite train, "It was therefore necessary that the object of the deportations should remain unknown."53 

A year after his dialogue with Vrba, Bauer too accepted that the AP had been kept from the Jews of Hungary to protect the train. "The month of September [1944], the last period of the working group, casts a dark shadow over all of them, and on Gizi as their leader. They could have no illusions by then - but they acted just like many of the Jewish councils in Poland."54 

Raul Hilberg faced the same problems. Yad Vashem refused to publish Destruction of European Jewry, even though Bauer accepted it was a "monumental, brilliant "¦ unsurpassed analysis of the Nazi bureaucracy."55.