Dr. Israel Kastner, former head of the Hungarian Jewish Rescue Committee who has been accused of collaborating with the Nazis during the war–and whose case precipitated the dropping of the General Zionists from the Israel Cabinet–made a lengthy report today on his role in Hungary during the Nazi occupation. He said that he hopes to clear his name when he appears in court on July 31 to testify on a complaint against him.
“It was not I who collaborated with the Germans, but some Germans, particularly the Nazi leader Col. Kurt Becher who collaborated with me,” he stated. He insisted that not only had he and his colleagues “done nothing against Jewish interests, but (we) wrote an heroic chapter of devotion and sacrifice which deserves great appreciation.”
Noting that some newspapers–chiefly the organs of the Mapam and Communist Parties–had demanded he be tried as a Nazi collaborator, he said that he had planned to write a book on the Jewish tragedy in Hungary but had postponed it for ten years to enable him to have a better perspective of events and to allow other people time to develop a similar perspective. The recent Gruenwald trial–at which he was a witness, not a direct party, although his role in Hungary was the essence of the case–had proved that the time was not yet ripe for such a book, he said.
He declared he was raising only the “simple question”: “Could not the Germans exterminate all the Jews they could grab#” The Jews who remained alive at the end of the war in such camps as Belsen, Terezin and others, he said, had survived because Col. Becher, Himmler’s deputy, was a “realist” who foresaw Hitler’s collapse and therefore intervened because he wanted an alibi. Nevertheless, Dr. Kastner credited Col. Becher with having saved many thousands of Jews.
Dr. Kastner said that he had “great ambitions to save the Jews,” therefore he had joined the rescue underground as early as 1941. This underground, he noted, had helped Jews in all parts of Europe to find shelter somewhere. Many thousands of Polish, Slovakian and Czech Jews had been saved by this movement, he added. It was “natural” that when the Germans occupied Hungary that he–a member of the Mapai Party–should be added to the rescue committee which represented most of the Zionist parties.
This committee, Dr. Kastner said, decided to negotiate with the Germans on the basis of trading Jewish lives for money. This approach permitted the committee to gain time for its other activities, such as forging documents and providing funds for refugees from other countries.
The situation under the Nazis in Hungary differed from that in Poland or Russia, Dr. Kastner insisted. The Hungarians in the rural areas were hostile to Jews and waited for the moment when they could loot the Jews’ property. In addition, there was no underground with which contact could be maintained.
According to Dr. Kastner the rescue committee’s activities–specifically the negotiations with Becher and Himmler–were responsible for the saving of 15, 000 Jews through their transfer to Vienna, the saving of 80,000 of Budapest’s 170,000 Jews through forged documents and shelter in friendly homes, the saving of 1,600 more on a train heading for the Belsen camp and the saving of many thousands in various camps.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.