But one of those schemes did succeed. Eichmann agreed to allow a rescue train to leave Hungary with 1,685 Jews aboard, bound originally for Barcelona in Spain. The ransom price was estimated at 8.6 million Swiss francs.
After the war, Kastner became one of the most controversial figures in modern Jewish history. Regarded as a hero and savior by many, including Prof. Yechiam Weitz from my own University of Haifa, he was condemned by others as a collaborator and traitor.
The enmity of his detractors was fanned when Kastner agreed to keep a promise and testify in defense of an SS officer who had murdered Jews but who was reported to have saved other Jews from death in the closing weeks of the war.
Kastner was also accused of hiding the true dangers of extermination from Transylvanian and Hungarian Jews, making them complacent, and of playing favoritism in the rescue train saga. In the Kastner libel trial in Tel Aviv in the 1950s, the court’s judge, Shimon Agranat, later a chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, denounced Kastner and his behavior during the war, accusing him of having “sold his soul to Satan.”
In 1957 Kastner was assassinated in Tel Aviv by three men who had been active members of the underground LEHI (the Stern Gang) before independence.
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Dr. David Kohn is alive thanks to the Kastner train.
It sounds bizarre today, but most of the surviving Jews in Budapest were reluctant to sign up for the Kastner rescue train. Until 1944 Hungary was an independent, if oppressive, state allied with Hitler. It was headed by Miklos Horthy, head of the Iron Cross fascist party.
There were atrocities and some deportations carried out against Hungary’s Jews, but massive deportations and extermination did not commence until 1944. The end of the war was clearly approaching. The Allies were heading toward Normandy. The Soviet Red Army was not too far off east, and everyone could see Germany would lose the war.
The Hungarian dictator Horthy cautiously entered into negotiations with the Soviet Union and the West concerning Hungary’s abandoning the Axis and switching sides. Hitler quickly learned of these overtures and ordered the Wehrmacht to occupy Hungary and assume direct control, retaining Horthy as a figurehead. Eichmann was dispatched to solve Hungary’s “Jewish problem.” Horthy was shipped off within a few weeks to internment in Bavaria.
Eichmann began the mass deportations to Auschwitz. At first they were mainly of provincial Jews from outside Budapest. Within Budapest, life was difficult for Jews but they retained a sense of safety and anticipation of the arrival of the Red Army as liberators. Kohn’s father was taken off to a “work camp” as a “volunteer,” the price paid for the rest of the family being allowed to remain in Budapest.
By this time Kohn was being held with his mother, uncle, and grandmother in an internment camp inside Budapest on Pavo Avenue, where Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Museum today stands. Among the camp’s inhabitants were 300 Transylvanian Jews, whose escape to Hungary had been earlier orchestrated by Kastner. These included some Kastner relatives, a point of later contention, but also ordinary Jews of all different ranks and stations in life – including, perhaps most famously, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum.
When word came through that a rescue train was being organized, anyone in the camp could sign up for it but most preferred to remain in the “safety” of Budapest. They were skeptical and suspicious about where the Germans would actually send the train and what the fate of its riders would be.
One did not need any special “pull” or clout to get on the train. And since there were two trainloads being planned, those willing to chance the trip preferred the second one, after news would arrive regarding the fate of those on the first train out. So the first train was undersubscribed and persuasion was needed to get people to sign up. Apprehensions and fears notwithstanding, Kohn and his relatives signed up for that first train out.
The cattle car leaving Budapest was crowded and hot. The air was stifling and there was no toilet on the train. No one knew exactly where the train was headed. It made stops along the way. One was in Auschpitz, whose name was similar enough to another train stop to trigger dread among the passengers.