The Kaszt­ner Report: The Report of the Budapest Jew­ish Res­cue Com­mit­tee, 1942 – 1945

Rezső Kaszt­ner; edit­ed by Lás­zló Kar­sai and Judit Molnár

  • Review
By – March 19, 2015

Rezső (Rudolph) Kaszt­ner was one of the most con­tro­ver­sial Jew­ish lead­ers to emerge from the Shoah. A vice-chair­man of the Budapest Jew­ish Res­cue Com­mit­tee, the Zion­ist Kaszt­ner became dur­ing the last year of the war a key per­son in the nego­ti­a­tions with the SS, par­tic­u­lar­ly Adolf Eich­mann and his deputy Dieter Wis­li­ce­ny, to save Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ry. Ger­many occu­pied Hun­gary on March 19, 1944 and soon ini­ti­at­ed a mas­sive and rapid depor­ta­tion of Hun­gar­i­an Jews to Auschwitz, 437,000 peo­ple from May 14 – 15 to July 9, 1944 (57 days). Kaszt­ner is either glo­ri­fied as a coura­geous Jew­ish leader who man­aged to save over 1,600 Jews cho­sen by a com­mit­tee head­ed by him and Chair­man Ottó Komoly on the Kaszt­ner train” that spir­it­ed them from Hun­gry to Bergen-Belsen and even­tu­al­ly to Switzer­land, or a trai­tor who nego­ti­at­ed with the Nazis to save his own fam­i­ly, wealthy Jews, and Zion­ists. In addi­tion to mak­ing this deal with the SS, he is accused of not inform­ing the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion that the des­ti­na­tion of the depor­ta­tion trains was Auschwitz and there­by not encour­ag­ing escape or resis­tance. In the 1950’s many in Israel vil­i­fied him as a col­lab­o­ra­tor. Kaszt­ner was mur­dered in Tel Aviv in 1954 fol­low­ing a spec­tac­u­lar post­war libel tri­al in which he had tried to defend his good name. The Israeli Supreme Court was debat­ing Kasztner’s appeal when he was killed. Its final ver­dict exon­er­at­ed him from all accu­sa­tions except that he helped Nazis escape from justice.

Today schol­ars rec­og­nize the impos­si­ble moral choic­es and dilem­mas that lead­ers like Kaszt­ner faced and see him in a more nuanced light and his report, pub­lished in Ger­man in 1946 and now pre­sent­ed for the first time in Eng­lish with a schol­ar­ly intro­duc­tion, is one of the main rea­sons for that re-eval­u­a­tion. The con­tro­ver­sy will remain, but the report will now give a wider Eng­lish-read­ing audi­ence access to his per­spec­tive and pro­vide bal­ance. It is not with­out bias and cer­tain errors but it does pro­vide a win­dow into those treach­er­ous months and a per­spec­tive on the process of nego­ti­a­tions of the Budapest Res­cue Com­mit­tee with Eich­mann, Wis­li­ce­ny and oth­ers that deter­mined the com­po­si­tion and fate of the pas­sen­gers on the Kaszt­ner train.” On the train were Kasztner’s fam­i­ly and friends from Cluj, but in the main the group con­sist­ed of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all polit­i­cal and reli­gious fac­tions, urban and rur­al Jews, as well as wealthy peo­ple who paid large sums to help sub­si­dize the others.

Was he a trai­tor or a hero? Kasztner’s Report is an impor­tant and indis­pens­able source for those who want to make an informed judg­ment on what hap­pened in Hun­gary in the spring and sum­mer of 1944, on what was pos­si­ble and what prob­a­bly was not. As Kaszt­ner wrote in the report, rather than hav­ing the courage to die, it was nec­es­sary they have the courage to assume respon­si­bil­i­ty. For us, there could be no high­er reward than the sat­is­fac­tion of keep­ing alive a part, albeit a small part, of Euro­pean Jew­ry con­demned to death…”

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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