He was having trouble getting up from the platform and into the cattle car. After all, he was only twelve years old and there was no ramp leading inside. An SS thug saw him “dawdling” in front of the car and aimed a boot at the boy’s posterior. The boy jumped out of the way just in time and the SS man fell to his face from the violence of his own kick.
Fearing the German would take his fury out on him, the boy scampered into the train. He hid himself from the Nazi inside a crowded, filthy car until the train pulled out of Budapest’s Nyugati station.
And thus began David Kohn’s participation in what many regard as the most dramatic and controversial train journey in history. For this was the train organized by Dr. Rudolf Kastner, head of the Hungarian Judenrat, on which 1,685 Jews rode to safety.
Kohn, today a well-known medical doctor and expert on geriatric health problems in Haifa, Israel, is one of the diminishing number of survivors from the Kastner train. And he may be the only one who kept and preserved a journal of that journey to freedom.
He was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia, in a region where many of the residents and most of the local Jews spoke Hungarian. After the destruction and division of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich accord, the area passed to Hungarian rule.
The problem was that David’s father had been a patriot and had taken Czechoslovak citizenship, which was frowned upon by Hungarian authorities. The boy was quickly expelled from school there, supposedly because of the father’s citizenship but more likely because they were Jews.
The family moved into Hungary proper, looking for work and a place to live. Then Slovakia was detached from the Czech state by Germany, so for a while they moved back there. The father worked as a forestry manager, a public service job that kept the family safe as deportations of Slovakian Jews commenced.
In 1942 rumors reached them that they were on a list of Jews to be deported. The family stole across the border into Hungary. There they were hosted by relatives who managed to obtain forged residency papers for them.
By 1943 Hungarian Jews were being moved into “concentration” areas – not yet internment camps but rather buildings in which the Jews of a town would be segregated. David was staying with his uncle, a prominent Neolog rabbi, in Czegled, a town outside Budapest near what is today the city’s international airport. They were locked up in a single building, and later moved into the town’s synagogue. Then twenty-three of those in the building were selected to be sent to Budapest for internment. The rest were deported.
David and his uncle were among the twenty-three.
In Budapest they were marched down Andrassy Boulevard, the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue with its luxury stores, many owned by Jews at the time. They were taunted by Hungarian anti-Semitic youths along the way and eventually were held inside the Rumbach Street synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.
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Rudolf Kastner was a pompous, arrogant and irritating person. He was born and raised in the largest city in Transylvania, the Hungarian-speaking territory now in Romania that has passed back and forth between Hungary and Romania due to the frivolities of war and politics. He rose to importance in the Hungarian Jewish community and had the reputation of being an aristocratic “fixer” with ties to the regime.
When war broke out, Hungary allied itself with Hitler’s Germany. Kastner served as a journalist and community leader, moving from Transylvania to Budapest. Later, as a head of the Hungarian Judenrat, he was able to move about freely throughout the war. His residence and offices stood on Vaci Avenue, three blocks from my office today at Central European University in Budapest, where I teach when I am not in Israel.
Kastner was renowned for hatching assorted schemes, some rather hair-brained, during the war years. He tried to recruit support from Jewish Agency leaders in Tel Aviv for negotiating different rescue schemes with the Nazis, including the notorious “Trucks for Jews” deal, which never came to fruition. In 1944 he met several times with Adolf Eichmann to negotiate the escape of Jews in exchange for bribes or ransom payments.