If ‘luck’ is a relative concept I can call myself lucky. I lost the majority of my family in the Holocaust. I was persecuted in antisemitic Hungary. I spent five months in Bergen-Belsen as a child of 11, but I was spared Auschwitz and granted asylum in Switzerland while Nazi Germany was still trying to win the war it had started.
I was born on 8 May 1933 in Cluj (or Kolozsvár), the provincial capital of Northern Transylvania, which belonged to Romania at the time (and to Hungary from 1940 to 1945 and at other times). My father, Izsó Löb, was a small businessman. My mother, Jolán Rosenberg, died of tuberculosis in 1942. We were Hungarian-speaking, middle-class Neologues (Hungarian Jews who were not Orthodox). We lived in a shtetl (small town) called Marghita (or Margitta), which had 8,600 inhabitants – including 2,600 Jews before the Holocaust, and 6,000 inhabitants – with no Jews – after.
Antisemitic harassment was endemic in Hungary. From 1938-1941 three sets of anti-Jewish laws were enacted, eliminating Jews from public life and severely restricting their social and cultural activities. On 19 March 1944 Hitler’s troops invaded the country even though it was Germany’s ally. With them came Adolf Eichmann and his Sonderkommando, in a hurry to obliterate the last Jewish community in central Europe, eagerly assisted by Hungarians from all walks of life. There was a final outburst of lethal legislation. Between 16 April and 8 July 440,000 Jews from the provinces were confined in ghettos and deported to Auschwitz, where 330,000 were gassed on arrival – among them my grandparents, uncles and aunts, with only some cousins surviving.
I was one of 18,000 Jews imprisoned in the ghetto of Kolozsvár, a disused brick factory, in conditions unfit for human beings. It took only three weeks, in May and June, to deport them. A rare exception was my father, who was determined to survive. He forged a certificate of exemption, bribed a policeman and led me out of the ghetto. On a train crawling with agents in search of Jewish fugitives we reached Budapest undetected. A brave Christian doctor hid us in his clinic for a while. As a more permanent solution, we were invited to share a hideout constructed in one of the universities by a group of students. My father declined, and later a bomb hit the building, killing everybody in it. The alternative he opted for was the ’Kasztner train’.
Rezső Kastner was a Zionist activist from Kolozsvár and the leader of an illegal ’Relief and Rescue Committee‘, formed to save Jews from the Nazis. Through tortuous negotiations, and a large ransom, he obtained Eichmann’s agreement for nearly 1,700 Hungarian Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Thanks to my father’s persistence, the two of us were allowed to join them.
We left Budapest on 30 June 1944. The journey was traumatic. About 70 of us were crammed into each cattle truck with two small buckets, one holding drinking water and the other serving as a toilet. At Mosonmagyaróvár, still on Hungarian soil, the train stopped for four days. It was reported that we were being redirected to a place called Auspitz. Somebody misheard this as 'Auschwitz', and there was panic. Another panic followed when we were taken to be disinfected in Linz and fifty women were shaved by attendants who thought that we were going to Auschwitz. I also know now that many adults were terrified of being gassed there and then.
On 9 July the train finally stopped on the Lüneburg Heath near Hannover. Shattered both physically and emotionally, we were driven by cursing SS men towards a complex of huts, watch towers and barbed-wire fences of a kind we had never seen before – a concentration camp. We had left Budapest for Palestine and we had arrived in Bergen-Belsen. Eichmann was probably trying to extort a higher ransom from Kasztner.
Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp, although its reputation for evil is second only to that of Auschwitz. The captives were not systematically murdered, but some 50,000 died during the last three months of the war of starvation or diseases due to ruthless overcrowding and criminal neglect. We were fortunate to be released before these horrors began.
As a valuable merchandise we enjoyed some special privileges. We wore our own clothes without the yellow star. We were spared slave labour. To some extent we ran our own administration without being hounded by the SS. We even organised makeshift entertainments, lectures, acts of worship and lessons for the children.
But conditions were grim. In our two huts up to 140 persons were packed into each dark, damp, smelly room with its three-tier bunks infested by bedbugs and lice, its leaking roof, and its single toilet. We were always hungry. The daily ration - coffee substitute, soup made of what seemed like cattle feed, bread that might have contained sawdust – left us severely undernourished. There was no outbreak of any major disease, but we all suffered from minor illnesses. One of the worst ordeals was the daily Zählappell, or roll call, when we had to stand outdoors in all weathers to be counted by SS, which could take hours.
The psychological effects of our situation were even worse than the physical discomforts. The worry about our future and the fate of friends and relations we had left behind; the sense of isolation from the world outside and from the other groups in the camp; the relentless pressure of a crowd and the lack of any privacy; the claustrophobia of imprisonment – all this generated either aggression, which erupted in arguments and fights, or apathy, which sapped the will to live. Perhaps typically of a child, I was alternately afraid, bored and heartened by the illusion that my father could protect me. The adults knew and suffered more.
In August a contingent of some 320 left for Switzerland. There was no sign of a further departure for months and we had almost abandoned hope when we were suddenly ordered to get ready. With war damage all the way, it took the train – this time one designed for human passengers – three days to reach Lake Constance. Early on 7 December 1944 we crossed the Swiss border at St Margrethen and were led to a barracks in nearby St Gallen. We had almost forgotten what friendly soldiers, a hot meal and a comfortable matress are like. But the euphoria did not last long. We had been through too much to celebrate.
Our next stop was in Caux, above the Lake of Geneva, where two hotels closed for the duration of the war were used to hold refugees. Soon after the end of the war on 8 May 1945 about 700 committed Zionists emigrated together to Palestine. The rest returned to Hungary, stayed in Switzerland – as did my father and I – or settled elsewhere. I spent a few weeks at a ’Youth Aliyah Home‘ in Bex, being prepared for life in a kibbutz, and two years at the Ecole d’Humanité, a boarding school in the Alps where I was cured of many anxieties. From 1948 I lived with my father in Zürich, where I attended secondary school and university, obtaining a degree in English and German, and working as a teacher and journalist. In 1963 I moved to Brighton as a tutor in German language and literature at the University of Sussex, where I eventually became a professor; I was a visiting professor at the University of Constance and Middlebury College. I have published numerous books and articles on academic topics and several volumes of translation. I tell the story of my survival in Dealing with Satan. Rezső Kasztner’s Daring Rescue Mission (London 2009), which has appeared in five other languages and won the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Award 2012. I am married and have two daughters by my first wife. Having been a Romanian and Hungarian citizen, I am now Swiss and British by naturalisation. My own life is inextricably linked with the life and death of Rezső Kasztner.
Kasztner emigrated to Palestine in 1947. In the new state of Israel he immediately became an important member of the Government. In 1952 an elderly survivor called Malkiel Grunwald, who had lost his family in the Hungarian Holocaust, published a confused pamphlet blaming Kasztner for the death of half a million Jews. The Government sued Grunwald for criminal libel, which triggered one of the most sensational political trials ever held in Israel.
The district judge, Benjamin Halevi, restated the case against Kasztner as follows: the Hungarian Jews had boarded the trains to Auschwitz in complete ignorance of what awaited them. Kasztner alone knew, and if he had raised the alarm thousands would have resisted or escaped. He failed to do so because Eichmann had promised him to allow our group – all VIPs and Kasztner’s cronies – to emigrate to Palestine as a reward. Consequently Kasztner was a collaborator who had betrayed his fellow-Jews to the Nazis.
In fact many Hungarian Jews – including my father – knew that something terrible was happening in Poland. However, deprived of their rights and possessions, they were helpless. Our Bergen-Belsen group contained many VIPs, but also ordinary people who were able to join according to certain guidelines or – like my father – by grasping an opportunity when they saw it.
Grunwald was defended by Shmuel Tamir, a brilliant but unscrupulous advocate and a member of the militant Revisionist (Israeli opposition) block, who, by demonstrating the treachery of Kasztner, hoped to demonstrate the treachery of the Mapai (Workers' Party) establishment. Halevi found Kasztner guilty of collaboration, adding that he had 'sold his soul to Satan'. The government appealed, and in January 1958 the Supreme Court cleared Kasztner of collaboration because he had honestly intended our rescue to lead to the rescue of thousands more. But by that time Kasztner was no longer alive. In March 1957 he had been murdered in Tel Aviv by a young Israeli fanatic called Zeev Eckstein.
However, Kasztner was not cleared of another charge: saving a German war criminal from punishment. Kurt Becher was an SS officer and favourite of Heinrich Himmler who had been involved in atrocities in Poland before being sent to Hungary to misappropriate Jewish assets. He assisted Kasztner’s rescue attempts in order to secure an alibi for himself. After the war Kasztner provided him with a certificate of innocence which resulted in his release without a trial. Beher soon became one of the richest business men of West Germay. Kasztner’s reasons are uncertain, but he was probably hoping to recover the Jewish fortunes stolen by Becher himself and to catch Eichmann, who had disappeared. He was encouraged by the Jewish Agency, the future government of Israel, which needed aid from all possible sources. But when Kasztner revealed the embarrassing truth in court the Government’s representative denied any knowledge of Becher.
Many people still believe Kasztner to be guilty. I am of course biased, but having thoroughly studied the evidence and considered the pros and cons, I am confident that he acted in good faith and deserves to be admired rather than vilified for his achievement.