Thoughts on Rudolf Kastner

My maternal grandparents were an elderly, very gentle couple, low-key and low-profile, who had been subjected to virulent antisemitism for many years.

December 27, 2016 21:36
3 minute read.
A WORLD War II memorial of Holocaust and Nazi crimes on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest.

A WORLD War II memorial of Holocaust and Nazi crimes on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Almost six decades after his death, controversy about Rudolf Kastner (Rezso Kasztner)’s role in the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry remains unresolved.

His accusers contend he collaborated with the Nazis and facilitated the deportation and subsequent murder of 435,000 Hungarian Jews. His apologists allege that he saved as many Hungarian Jews as possible. My parents and I were among the 1,684 passengers on the Kastner train. I strongly support the second view.

Those who label Kastner a Nazi collaborator blame him for preventing escape to Romania by withholding news of deportations and killings in the gas chambers and misleading Zionists the world over about the realities in Hungary.

Additionally, they accuse him of saving his family and friends on the so-called VIP train and providing testimony favorable to Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials.

Someone who did not live in Hungary under the horrors of Nazi persecution can neither understand nor evaluate human behavior at that time. Whereas some analyses of Kastner’s activities tend to be black and white, our situation at that time and in that place was not so. The reign of Nazi terror to which we were subjected was another world, a tragically unfamiliar one, in which people lived from day to day, if not hour to hour. Transmission of information was slow and frequently incorrect. We learned to trust no one and often did not even trust our own judgment. The fears of imminent deportation and ensuing death changed our perception of right and wrong. Nothing was obvious. We desperately grabbed at every opportunity to survive.

Kastner rose to prominence in this surreal environment. He was human like the rest of us and, as a human, had serious character flaws. Traits such as megalomania, excessive self-confidence and garrulousness enabled him to embark on the dangerous mission to save Jewish lives, as many as possible. To me, a frightened seven-year-old in Bergen-Belsen, he was larger than life, our potential savior, which I still believe he was.

My maternal grandparents were an elderly, very gentle couple, low-key and low-profile, who had been subjected to virulent antisemitism for many years.

Sadly, they were convinced their fellow countrymen would never allow harm to befall them. As small-town Jews, they had been conditioned to “go with the flow,” to suffer in silence and to offer no resistance. Their hometown of Bekes, in southeast Hungary, was not far from the Romanian border. In all likelihood, my grandparents – and a multitude of Hungarian Jews with a similar mind-set – would not have fled across the border into Romania had the opportunity presented itself.

Was the Kastner train a VIP train? Perhaps, but only partly. Certainly my parents did not fit that category. My father, Dr. Bela Gondos, was a physician and a lifelong Zionist, with no particular influence or financial resources. An aunt, who owned a small Jewish bookstore, was also in the group. She and my young cousin did not qualify as VIPs. There were rich and influential people in the Kastner train group, but it also accommodated such ordinary individuals.

My parents had no illusions about joining the Kastner group. They considered it our least negative option. The time we spent in Bergen-Belsen, though not as oppressive as other camps, was debilitating and demoralizing. Many Bergen-Belsen inmates, including my father, did not expect to leave the camp alive.

Kastner’s testimony in favor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials defies contemporary reason and explanation.

As we reflect on the actions of Jews during the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry, we need to think within the context of that time and place. Survival was the primary goal. Morality as we currently define it may have been absent during that period. To judge human behavior by any contemporary standards seems inappropriate. How can one assess the actions of terrified individuals who desperately fought to survive on what seemed to be hell on earth? Kastner’s judgment was often flawed, but I believe his intentions were mostly honorable. Under extremely trying and seemingly hopeless circumstances, he did his best to save Jewish lives, including mine and those of my parents. I shall forever be grateful.

Perhaps the time for ultimate appraisal of all of Kastner’s deeds has not yet arrived. Historians in the future may be better able to provide an evaluation.

The writer, PhD, was born in Budapest in 1937. She survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and has lived in the US since 1946.

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