Kasztner’s Train: The True Sto­ry of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust

Anna Porter
  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

This is a sto­ry Shake­speare would have loved, full of dan­ger, dar­ing, and art­ful deceit. Once a hero, its pro­tag­o­nist ends up dis­graced. Although it is non-fic­tion, it has the res­o­nance and imme­di­a­cy of fine fic­tion. In A Note to Read­ers,” the author explains that she has allowed her­self to recon­struct scenes and dia­logue based on the diaries, notes, taped inter­views, court­room tes­ti­monies, pre­tri­al inter­ro­ga­tions, and mem­oirs both writ­ten and oral,” includ­ing more than sev­en­ty-five interviews. 

Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish activist Rez­so Kaszt­ner, a bril­liant, self-con­fi­dent lawyer and jour­nal­ist, was direct­ly respon­si­ble for lib­er­at­ing 1,684 Jews on a train to Switzer­land, for the stor­age” of oth­ers who were kept for trade under bet­ter con­di­tions than oth­er inmates, in Birke­nau and also in Aus­tria where they worked as labor­ers. Strug­gling to save the Hun­gar­i­an Jews, by the war’s end he had pre­served some 100,000 more lives by bar­gain­ing with the Nazis, includ­ing Adolf Eich­man and Kurt Bech­er, among oth­er offi­cers. This he did by exploit­ing the Nazi weak­ness­es of greed and need — blood for goods.” Kaszt­ner offered mon­ey, jew­el­ry, and the promise of war matériel he knew could nev­er be deliv­ered, in exchange for Jew­ish lives. He and the oth­er activists were able to save only a frac­tion of their peo­ple, as near­ly a half mil­lion Hun­gar­i­an Jews were sent to Auschwitz in just a few months. The selec­tion of those who were saved, espe­cial­ly on the train, has haunt­ed Kaszt­ner ever since. After tes­ti­fy­ing at the Nurem­berg Tri­als, Kaszt­ner and his fam­i­ly emi­grat­ed to Israel, where he expect­ed to be wel­comed as a hero. Instead, they found ten­sion between set­tlers and refugees and because Kaszt­ner had to pre­tend to frat­er­nize with Nazis, he was attacked as a Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tor. When he charged one of his accusers (a man who was jeal­ous of him back in Hun­gary) with libel, the judge, who had a polit­i­cal agen­da, ruled against him main­ly because of the strug­gle for pow­er between the polit­i­cal par­ties in Israel. As the author states, the real Rez­so Kaszt­ner [was] an extra­or­di­nary man who played a high-stakes game of roulette with the dev­il. And won in the only game he cared about, that of sav­ing human lives; he achieved more in his way than any oth­er indi­vid­ual in Nazi-occu­pied Europe. In the end, all he lost was his own life…” Exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photographs.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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