On Liberation and Contempt: The Origin of a Nasty Myth

22 12 2011

I had the great pleasure, just a few weeks ago, of delivering a talk at Limmud Oz Fest, entitled “Enemies of the State”. In this talk, I presented the range of attitudes that exists throughout the Haredi world (the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” world), vis-à-vis Zionism and the State of Israel. While many people view the Haredim as opponents of the state (as per the title of my talk), the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

We spoke about Hardal: Haredi Dati Leumi (“Haredi Religious Nationalism”, for want of a better translation), which is modelled on the philosophy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, Rav Kook understood the State of Israel (even as a secular entity) as constituting “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption”. At least in theory, proponents of this philosophy serve proudly in the army and support Israel’s government, although the relatively recent withdrawal from Gaza did much to create a certain degree of factionalism within the Hardal camp.

At the other end of the spectrum, we looked at the breakaway group of Neturei Karta international, who split from Neturei Karta in Jerusalem after the death of its founder, Rabbi Amram Blau. Their very visible presence at Israel rallies, their vocal and financial support of Arab leaders who call for the destruction of Israel, and their attendance at Ahmedinajad’s Holocaust Denial Conference in Tehran have all done much in the way of fostering the misapprehension that Haredi Jews wish to see Israel disappear. (If you are interested, you can read transcripts of their speeches in Tehran on their website, where you can also find much information about their ideology.)

Between these two extremes, we spoke of a range of other groups: Shas, the two Ashkenazi political parties (chiefly Agudas Yisroel), the Edah haChareidis of Mea Shearim, and various groups (primarily Hasidic) who express views that align themselves with the Edah or with the mainstream faction of Neturei Karta. We looked at some historical background, particularly concerning the demographic nature of the Old Yishuv, as well as some of the religious Zionist settlement, but then followed the formation of key political groups and ideologies from 1912 until today. In so doing, one of the most important groups and ideologies centred on a key individual: Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the former president of the Edah and the first Rebbe of Satmar.

Published in 1961, the Satmar Rebbe’s VaYoel Moshe (“And Moses Consented”, from Exodus 2:21) outlined his perspectives on Zionism and the State of Israel in the form of three essays, each of which had a formative impact on the philosophy of the Edah haChareidis. The second and the third deal with the impermissibility of returning to the land of Israel under the bureaucratic Law of Return (“מאמר ישוב ארץ ישראל”), and with the impermissibility of using the holy tongue for profane discourse (“מאמר לשון הקודש”). The first, and most important, essay is entitled “The Three Oaths” (“מאמר שלש שבועות”), and deals with his opinions concerning Zionism as a philosophy.

As with many religious Jews who opposed the State of Israel, the political philosophy of Zionism was understood by the Satmar Rebbe to have no basis within the traditional literature. An historically aberrant offshoot of the non-Jewish, post-Enlightenment philosophy of Nationalism, Zionism was seen to be a secular, European phenomenon that had no place within the hallowed halls of Jewish tradition, and no home on Israelite soil. What is more, its very existence was construed as being harmful to the continued survival of the Jewish people around the world. While these particular indictments do not necessarily impact upon apolitical Zionist models (such as the cultural philosophy of Ahad haAm), they were certainly related to the prevailing Zionist model, and the one that was formally instituted in 1948.

In demonstrating this idea, the Satmar Rebbe provided an exegesis on a midrash that is related in the Babylonian Talmud:

שלש שבועות הללו למה אחת שלא יעלו ישראל בחומה ואחת שהשביע בקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל שלא ימרדו באומות העולם ואחת שהשביע הקדוש ברוך הוא את אומות העולם שלא ישתעבדו בהן בישראל יותר מדאי… בצבאות או באילות השדה אמר רבי אלעזר אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל אם אתם מקיימין את השבועות מוטב ואם לא אני מתיר את בשרכם כצבאות וכאילות השדה

This section, which occurs near the end of Tractate Ketubot, appears in the context of a discussion between Rabbi Zeira (who wanted to return to the land of Israel) and Rav Yehuda (who wanted to stop him). Rav Yehuda’s contention is that the exile can only end at such a time as God declares it to be over, and this is asserted in a back-and-forth fashion with the aid of various scriptural passages. The midrash that appears above, and that I translate below, relates to Song of Songs 2:7 – “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!” (NRSV). Based on the idea that this poem represents a highly-coded love song between God and Israel, the rabbis present the following interpretation:

Why are there three oaths? [ie: why is there a reference to making an oath in Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4?] One is that Israel should not ascend [to their land] by force, one concerns the Holy One’s adjuring Israel that they not rebel against the nations of the world, and one concerns the Holy One’s adjuring the nations of the world that they not oppress Israel too much…

“By the gazelles or the wild does” (2:7). Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation: The Holy One told Israel, “If you keep these oaths – good. But if you do not, I permit your flesh like the gazelles and the wild does.”

– Tractate Ketubot 111a

The nations of the world (according to the Satmar Rebbe’s utilisation of this midrash) are obliged to persecute the Jews, but they are obligated to do so only to a certain extent. That obligation, however, only rests upon them insofar as the Jews keep their side of the bargain: that they should neither attempt to reclaim the land of Israel by force, nor rebel in any measure against their host nations. Should they break their oaths then the nations of the world are absolved from theirs, and the flesh of Jews becomes as the flesh of wild animals: free for the taking.

It was the conviction of the Satmar Rebbe – and the opinion of the Edah haChareidis – that Zionism, insofar as it constituted an annullment of the two oaths imposed upon the Jews, was responsible for having caused the Holocaust. Nothing so devastating (nor so historically unprecedented) as the Shoah could have happened without the sanction of God, and no sin could have been so deserving of annihilation than the crime of prematurely terminating the exile. What is more, there were allegations made by the Satmar Rebbe that Zionist agencies were even financially and politically responsible for the fate of their coreligionists in Europe. You can see an example of such claims on this website, some of which constitute a bizarre internalisation of statements made by Hitler himself (see, for example, this page).

Where does this allegation originate?

As reported recently in Vos Iz Neias (and with a tip of the hat to Hirhurim), Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel, NY, recently celebrated the 67th anniversary of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s escape from Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1944. The anniversary of his departure is celebrated on the 21st of Kislev (which, in 1944, was December 7th), and was a key event in the formation of his own anti-Zionist philosophy, as well as in the philosophy of Rabbi Amram Blau’s Neturei Karta. Rather than see the fact that the Satmar Rebbe was saved by a Zionist committee as ironic, the very manner in which he was saved added fuel to his fiery hatred of Zionism. It is my contention that allegations concerning Zionist complicity in the Shoah all centre around the transport that saved the Satmar Rebbe’s life.

In order to understand how this could be so, it is necessary to consider the fate of Hungarian Jewry during the Shoah.

By the time that the Final Solution caught up with the Hungarians, the 750,000 Hungarian Jews were the last sizable Jewish community left in Axis-controlled Europe. In the east were the mass graves of Romania and the Ukraine; in the south, shipments of Jews from Serbia, Croatia and Greece were being sent by the trainload to Auschwitz; to the west, the Reich and its conquered territories were Judenrein; to the north were the killing centres of Poland. Prof. Raul Hilberg describes the situation as follows:

When the Hungarian Jews looked at a map of Axis Europe at the beginning of 1944, they could see that all around them Jewish communities had been attacked and destroyed… Conversely, when a German official looked at his map in Berlin, he could see that everywhere “the Jewish problem” had been “solved,” except in one relatively small area: Hungary. And when he looked at Hungary, he could see the largest concentration of Jews who still survived in the German sphere of influence. Truly, the Hungarian Jews were living in a land island, enclosed and protected by a political boundary. The Jews depended on that barrier for their survival, and the Germans had to break it down.

– Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Volume II (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1985), 796-797.

While Hungary’s government vacillated between being the willing and unwilling supporters of the Reich (both before and after the German intervention of 1944), the desperate Jewish community tried to bring their predicament to the attention of the West. In so doing, a Zionist committee was formed in 1943, known as the Aid and Rescue Committee (ועדת העזרה וההצלה). Headed by Dr Ottó Komoly, who was killed just before the arrival of the Red Army, and Dr Rudolf (Rezsö) Kastner, it aimed at rescuing those Jews who had escaped to Hungary from Poland, Slovakia and the Reich. These Jews, who were predominantly concentrated in the Carpathians, in Transylvania and in the countryside to the north of Budapest were all deported to concentration camps by July 1944. Ottó Komoly, who was the president, liaised with Hungarian sources in order to prevent their being sent to Auschwitz; Rudolf Kastner, his executive vice-president, liaised with the Germans.

Three distinct relief efforts were organised, each of which became legendary for different reasons: one for its failure, another for its implications, and the third for its success. As we shall see, the Satmar Rebbe owed his life to this third effort.

Their first plan was in consultation with the British, and involved the training of Hungarian Jewish paratroppers, living in Palestine, who could drop into Europe and form a partisan operation. The three paratroopers whom the British trained were Yoel Palgi, Peretz Goldstein and the poet, Hannah Szenes. They landed in Croatia on April 14th, 1944, and learning that Budapest was already occupied by the Nazis, the two men aborted their mission. Hannah Szenes continued on alone and was arrested on the 8th of July, tortured, tried for treason and then executed. She was 22 years old.

The second attempt occurred in May of 1944, when the Aid and Rescue Committee received detailed information as regards the number and the routes of the trains that were shuttling Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. With the aid of a branch in Bratislava, the Aid and Rescue Committee had this information wired to Switzerland, with a request to bomb two or three railway junctions and disrupt the whole operation. While they were met with silence from the Allies, their tactic did succeed in temporarily slowing down the transports nonetheless. As Raul Hilberg notes, “history plays strangely with its participants”. Although the Allies showed no interest in disrupting those transports, the relaying of the message from American and British agencies in Bern to their respective countries was intercepted by Hungarian counter-intelligence. Not knowing where the message had originated, the Hungarians were nonplussed as to how its authors knew the exact location of all Hungarian and German agencies in Budapest, as well as the number of trains going to Auschwitz, and their respective routes. In fact, the Hungarians became so frightened of Allied bombing as a result of this interception that, for the next three months, their cooperation with the Germans could only be described as “reluctant”.

In October, however, the Germans deposed the Hungarian prime minister (the sixth, since the war began), and appointed the leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party: a man by the name of Ferenc Szálasi. By this stage, Auschwitz was already in its liquidation stage, the train lines were no longer operative, and the remaining Jews of Budapest (itself, the only Hungarian Jewish community that was left) were either marched towards Austria, or ghettoised in the capital. By the time that Hungary surrendered to the USSR, over 180,000 of its Jewish inhabitants had been murdered. Almost all of the survivors were from Budapest.

That the number wasn’t higher is due to a number of factors: the fact that the Final Solution only reached Hungary at such a time as Germany had already lost the war, the concentration of Jews in the capital city, who – for various reasons – were saved until the end, and at least three wartime Hungarian prime-ministers who resented the Germans and whose intentions it was to delay the Final Solution of the Jewish problem as long as possible. Alongside these larger issues stands the heroic work of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews at great risk to himself. Among them were my grandmother and her mother, who were spared the fatal march from Budapest to Austria as a result of his “discovering” that they held Swedish passports. By all accounts, it would appear that Raoul Wallenberg perished in a Soviet prison.

Smaller in its overall importance than these factors was the third rescue mission conducted by the Aid and Rescue Committee, which succeeded in saving the lives of just over 1,600 Jews – one of whom was Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. Organised by Dr Rudolf Kastner, who liaised with Eichmann, a trainload of Jews (“Kastner’s Train”, as it came to be known) was sent to Switzerland instead of Auschwitz. The question is: what was Eichmann given in return?

Answering this question has proven to be tremendously difficult. After the war, Rudolf Kastner composed “The Report of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Budapest” (“Der Bericht des jüdischen Rettungskomitees aus Budapest”), in which he testified that Eichmann had agreed to the release of 600 Jews in exchange for 6.5 million pengö (= approximately 4,000,000 RM), who would then all be given safe passage to Palestine. Subsequently, Eichmann raised the number to 1,600 Jews, and although he sent them all to Bergen-Belsen instead, many of them subsequently arrived in Switzerland late in 1944. It was hypothesised, during Eichmann’s trial, that he raised the number on the suspicion that he may one day stand before a tribunal. In April of 1944, that was hardly a prophecy.

In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was interviewed by a former Nazi journalist, Willem Sassen. In this interview, which was subsequently published in Time Magazine, Eichmann recalled the events of the Kastner Train differently: according to Eichmann, Kastner made the additional promise of maintaining order in the camps, the better to facilitate the regular deportations to Auschwitz that were already underway. The last thing that the Nazis wanted was a second Warsaw Ghetto uprising, so in Eichmann’s words, “it was a good bargain”.

After having escaped from Auschwitz in April of 1944, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler drafted a report that described the layout of the camp and its use of gas chambers. Controversially, Rudolf Kastner has been accused by some of having suppressed the report, which would have otherwise led to tremendous unrest amongst the Jews and the possible escape of many. Indeed, it would appear that Rudolf Kastner received a copy of this report on the 28th of April, but that it was not something that he brought to the attention of regular Hungarian Jews. By the 7th of June, the Nazis had finished deporting the Jews of the Carpathians and Transylvania. Sturmbannführer Walter Höttl, who was one of the SS officers surpervising the forced evacuations of those two zones, describes them in the following way:

Without resistance and in submission, they marched by the hundreds in long columns to railway stations and piled into the trains. Only very few gendarmes were supervising the operation; it would have been easy to flee. In the Carpatho-Ukraine, which contained numerically the strongest Jewish settlements, the forbidding mountains and forests offered an opportunity for prolonged hiding. But only few removed themselves in this way from their doom.

– Raul Hilberg, Destruction, 841 – citing Walter Hagen (Höttl), Die Geheime Front (Zurich, 1950), 39.

Was Rudolf Kastner, in his efforts to release 1,600 Hungarian Jews, complicit in the Nazi atrocities? In 1953, an amateur Israeli journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald, accused Kastner (who was at that time a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry) of collaboration with the Nazis. What is more, it was revealed that several spaces on the train were filled with Kastner’s relatives and friends.

Some of the judges on Israel’s Supreme Court were scathing, accusing him of having been a knowing accomplice to the Nazi destruction of Hungarian Jewry, who acted out of desire for personal gain. While the overriding sentiment, on which the court decided, was that he had been an unwilling and unknowing accomplice, he resigned from his job in disgrace. A thorough and fascinating description of the case was composed by Akiva Orr: “The Kastner Case, Jerusalem, 1955”, in Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 81-116. The book can be downloaded from this link.

In 1958, the courts overruled their former opinion and acquitted Rudolf Kastner, but it was too late for him. A year earlier, in 1957, Kastner had been gunned down outside his house in Tel-Aviv. His killers (Ze’ev Eckstein, Dan Shemer and Yosef Menkes) served seven years each.

While this is not the only instance in which Jewish organisations “bartered”, for want of a better term, with the Nazis, and while Raul Hilberg demonstrates innumerable instances of near-complicity in the interest of self-preservation, the very central nature of a Zionist agency in this particular incident, and the fact that it fell in the direct experience of the Satmar Rebbe himself, makes it a viable candidate for the origin story to the Satmar and Neturei Karta myth: that the Zionists were not only responsible for the Shoah on a supernatural level, but that they were directly involved in the machinations of the Reich.

So far as Kastner is concerned, for whom I cannot help but feel a weight of regret, I would echo the sentiments of Judge Benjamin Halevy, whose indictment of 1955 was so beautifully expressed. Quoting Homer Virgil, he declared that

timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (“I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts”). By accepting this present Kastner had sold his soul to the devil.

– Akiva Orr: “The Kastner Case, Jerusalem, 1955”, in Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 81-116 (91).




6 responses

23 12 2011
Daniel Lipman Lowbeer

Great article. Interestingly, the first time I heard the name Kastner was when I was already living in Israel – he seems to be relatively well known here (at least the name and that he was killed, if not the niceties of his story).

23 12 2011

I know it’s trite, but I can’t help, more and more, to feel so absolutely incredibly lucky to live the life I do, in the world I do.

As a younger man I think I had a far more stark view of history and how I would behave if it I had been dropped into a less desirable part of it, but these days I can only be thankful.

I genuinely, truly, cry when I think of the everyday decisions such people were forced to make. Their “punishment” was surely having to live with those memories.

23 12 2011
Simon Holloway

Kastner suffered a great deal, it would seem, for his decisions. Others too, whose names are too many to recount. I was particularly interested to discover the connection between him and Hannah Szenes, which I glossed over here but plan on revisiting. Nowadays, there’s a lot more respect for such people, and a greater understanding of the difficulties they faced. At the time of Kastner’s trial, people still knew very little about such things, and it was easy to lump all collaboraters into the same group.

In fact, Hilberg (whose three-volume study is a masterpiece) devotes a lot of time to the individual Judenraete of different countries, and it’s interesting to see how they differed. While some really earned the contempt that they were to receive for their actions, there were a lot of good people too, whose complicity was made without knowledge of where it would lead and which resulted in their own demise as well – occasionally at their own hands.

27 12 2011

Great post. By the way it is Virgil (Aeneid II, 49), not Homer.

3 01 2012
Simon Holloway

Thank you: corrected.

25 06 2013
Laine Frajberg

Whether Kastner was a saviour or collaborator is hard to say.What can be said without reservation is that Joel Teitelbaum was an ungrateful jerk.

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