Emis­sary of the Doomed: Bar­gain­ing For Lives in the Holocaust

Ronald Flo­rence
  • Review
By – September 26, 2011

The stan­dard schol­ar­ly work on the Holo­caust in Hun­gary remains The Pol­i­tics of Geno­cide: The Holo­caust in Hun­gary, 2 vol., by Ran­dolph L. Bra­ham. But for the gen­er­al read­er, Ronald Florence’s Emis­sary of the Doomed is a com­pelling his­to­ry of the trag­ic cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the Nazi depor­ta­tion of more than 400,000 Hun­gar­i­an Jews to their death in Auschwitz. Flo­rence, both a his­to­ri­an and a nov­el­ist, retells this cat­a­stroph­ic event through the tra­vails of Joel Brand, a Hun­gar­i­an Jew and a mem­ber of Budapest’s Jew­ish Res­cue Com­mit­tee, who was select­ed by Adolf Eich­mann for the pur­pose of send­ing him to the West to nego­ti­ate the barter of one mil­lion Jews for heavy duty trucks. 

Although the depor­ta­tion of Jews to the death camps from much of Ger­man-occu­pied Europe took place through­out the course of World War II, the some 800,000 Jews of Hun­gary seemed rel­a­tive­ly untouched by the war until 1944. Hun­gar­i­an Jews did not wear yel­low stars, were not con­fined to ghet­tos, and did not have their per­son­al prop­er­ty and res­i­dences expro­pri­at­ed, as was the case in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties under Nazi dom­i­na­tion, until March 1944, when Ger­many occu­pied the coun­try. Under Ger­man rule, the Jews of Hun­gary were sub­ject­ed to the same cru­el oppres­sion as were the Jews in the rest of Nazi-con­trolled Europe. Although the war was already turn­ing against Ger­many, the Nazis were deter­mined to imple­ment the Final Solu­tion in Hun­gary. Eich­mann, who was respon­si­ble for the effi­cient depor­ta­tion of Jews to the death camps, left his admin­is­tra­tive post in Berlin to per­son­al­ly super­vise the depor­ta­tion of the Hun­gar­i­an Jews to Auschwitz. Enter Hein­rich Himmler. 

Sens­ing that Ger­many would be defeat­ed, Himm­ler, with­out the knowl­edge of Adolf Hitler, secret­ly sought to open up peace nego­ti­a­tions with the Allies. Himmler’s strat­e­gy appar­ent­ly was to also divide the Unit­ed States and Great Britain from their Sovi­et allies. Hence the ori­gins of the noto­ri­ous trucks for Jew­ish lives’ offer, where­in Himm­ler promised not to use heavy-duty trucks against the West. In exchange, Himm­ler, through Eich­mann, promised to halt the depor­ta­tion of Jews to Auschwitz, thus sav­ing the lives of mil­lions of Jews des­ig­nat­ed for the gas cham­bers. Himm­ler, like most Nazis, believed that Jews were pulling the strings behind the Allied gov­ern­ments and thus was con­vinced that sav­ing the lives of mil­lions of Jews was a pri­or­i­ty among the Allies. Joel Brand’s mis­sion was to approach the Allies with Himmler’s pro­pos­al. Brand’s mis­sion, how­ev­er, was futile from the begin­ning because of the Allied pol­i­cy of Vic­to­ry First,” which not only demand­ed Germany’s uncon­di­tion­al sur­ren­der, but also pro­hib­it­ed under any cir­cum­stances the use of mil­i­tary means (includ­ing the bomb­ing of Auschwitz) for res­cue, aid, or barter for those, like the Jews, who faced death at the hands of the Nazis. The Allied pol­i­cy was imbed­ded in the refrain that the quick­est way to save lives was to win the war. Jews were not only not a high Allied pri­or­i­ty, the sav­ing of their lives was not even a seri­ous consideration. 

As the emis­sary of the doomed, Brand is depict­ed by Flo­rence as a trag­ic fig­ure and every­one else (not only the Nazis, but the Allies as well as the Jew­ish Agency in Pales­tine, which refused to chal­lenge Allied pol­i­cy) emerge as cal­lous to the fate of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ry. Final­ly, Flo­rence weighs in on the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing Rezsö Kaszt­ner, Sr. who, like Brand, dealt with Eich­mann and oth­er Nazis in Hun­gary in an effort to res­cue Jews from their impend­ing depor­ta­tions to Auschwitz. Kaszt­ner was assas­si­nat­ed in Israel in 1957 by a gun­man who believed that he had betrayed the Jews of Hun­gary by not warn­ing them of the Nazis’ inten­tion to deport Hungary’s Jews to the gas chambers.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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