“NOBODY CARED ENOUGH TO TELL US. DON’T GO.” — Elie Wiesel
Whereas U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt consistently allowed his minions in the War Department — most notably Assistant War Secretary John J. McCloy, who was handling much of the responsibilities of the aging War Secretary Henry Stimson [see DESK MURDERER section] — to do next-to-nothing to help Jews in Europe throughout World War II, Sir Winston Churchill expressed revulsion immediately upon being told of the contents of the ground-breaking Vrba-Wetzler Report. “There is no doubt,” Churchill said, “that this is possibly the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
Directly prompted by Vrba’s reportage, Churchill urged other leaders—most notably Pope Pius XII, FDR, King Gustaf V of neutral Sweden and the governments of Turkey, Spain and Switzerland—to pressure Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya to curtail the deportations of Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (The Pope’s appeal on June 25 did not specifically mention Jews but instead only referred to “a large number of unfortunate people.” FDR appealed on June 26; King Gustav appealed on June 30.)
It was a leading member of the Jewish Council, Ernő Pető, who can be credited with first bringing the Vrba-Wetzler Report to the attention to the regent Horthy by taking advantage of his connections to the regent’s son, Miklós Horthy Jr. Many years later, Horthy Sr. would righteously claim he had stopped the deportation of Jews from Hungary on his own volition, as a direct result of reading the Vrba-Wetzler Report, while also being pressured by friends and confidants that included Count István Bethlen de Bethlen (Prime Minister from 1921 to 1931) and Count Moric Esterhazy de Galantha et Frakno (briefly Prime Minister during WW I).
Any notion that Admiral Horthy took a moralistic stand cannot be taken seriously. While it’s true that Horthy Sr. had once formally renounced the notion of a German occupation of Hungary and stated, “I shall not tolerate this any further! I will not permit the deportations to bring further shame on the Hungarians!”, at the same time the German forces directly controlled by Adolf Eichmann and the Sonkerkommando in Hungary were less than 200 men. It would have been easy for Hungary to overpower those 200 German troops. Privately, Horthy had acceded to Hitler’s blackmailing compromise: In essence, Horthy could serve as head of state as long as the Nazis held sway in terms of policies regarding Jewry, as managed by Eichmann. Consequently, the mass deportation of rural Jewry from Hungry had commenced on May 14, 1944 in the Kassa district where 3,200 Jews from Nyíregyháza and 3,169 Jews from Munkács boarded the first 45 cattle trucks.
Perhaps the true prejudices of Horthy are evidenced by this quote from Horthy in Raphael Patai’s The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology (Wayne State University Press, 1996):
“As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theatre, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad. Since, however, one of the most important tasks of the government is to raise the standard of living, i.e., we have to acquire wealth, it is impossible, in a year or two, to replace the Jews, who have everything in their hands, and to replace them with incompetent, unworthy, mostly big-mouthed elements, for we should become bankrupt. This requires a generation at least.”
It is seldom noted that Horthy, a Catholic-raised Nazi-puppet, only agreed to cease Eichmann’s mass deportations of Jews on July 9, 1944 after he had been threatened with aerial bombings of government and industrial facilities in Budapest. This was not an idle threat. The 461st Bombardment Group (H) had already bombed Hungary’s Komarno Oil Refinery on June 14, 1944. Then American and British forces dropped bombs and leaflets on German-occupied Budapest during an unusually heavy air raid on July 2, 1944, as part of the British and American strategy to lay mines in the Danube River. Some 31 Allied aircraft attacked the Shell Oil refinery and Allied leaflets threatened harsh reprisals for failing to curtail the transports to Auschwitz.
Horthy knew that Budapest could also be targeted for the major refineries operated by Magyar Petrol, and Asvanyol-Fant, as well as the Duna Repülőgépgyár Szigentmiklos assembly plant that built Messerschmitt Me 210s and 410s. While these Allied bombing missions were militaristic rather than humanitarian, the leaflets dropped on Budapest threatened punishment for those who were responsible for the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. (Proof that there was a formal agreement between Nazi Germany and Hungary to expedite the eradication of Jews would only surface after the war in the form of a telegram that was sent by Döme Sztójay, a former ambassador to Berlin who Horthy had appointed as Prime Minister on March 23, 1944.)
While Roosevelt remained conspicuously silent, Horthy knew Churchill’s wrath was not to be taken lightly. “This [the Holocaust] was done with the aid of scientific devices and by a so-called civilized people,” Churchill would subsequently write to his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on July 11, 1944. “It is clear beyond doubt that everybody involved is this crime who may fall into our hands, including those who only obeyed orders in committing these butcheries, must be killed.” The moralistic outrage articulated by Churchill–directly fuelled by the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report–would be a crucial factor in Horthy’s cessation of the death trains.
It is also important to note that a member of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, Richard Lichtheim, had sent a telegram to England on June 26 in which he requested the Allies to hold members of the Hungarian government criminally liable for prosecution if they failed to curtail the shipments of Jews. When this telegram was intercepted by the Hungarian government, it was passed onto Prime Minister Döme Sztójay who showed it to Horthy. Whether it was Churchill’s threat, Lichtheim’s telegram or the leaflets that swayed Horthy, all these various communications and threats were prompted by the creation of the Vrba-Wetzler Report. (Horthy would later lie in his memoirs, published in 1953, while he was in exile in Portugal, and claim, “Not before August did secret information reach me of the horrible truth about the extermination camps.”)
More bombings ensued on July 6. Hitler’s representative in Hungary, Edmund Veesenmayer, was ordered to threaten Admiral Horthy in order to continue the Hungarian transports of Jews to Auschwitz, but Horthy ultimately relented to pressure from the Allies and ordered the cessation of transports on July 7. The actual cessation did not take effect until July 9. There was nothing moralistic about Horthy’s decision. The Nazi forces in Hungary were stretched thin on the ground and the Allied bombers were taking aim on Hungarian infrastructure. The tide of war was turning and Horthy turned with it.
The Allies showed Horthy they meant business even after he relented when the 461st Bombardment Group (H) made good the Allies’ threat to bomb selected targets near Budapest on July 14, 1944. Mission #61 targeted the Petfurdo Oil Refinery and a nitrogen fertilizer plant. A record 82 percent of the bombs were dropped within 1,000 feet of the centre of impact on the refinery complex near Budapest. Only two enemy airplanes were seen, and only slight flak was experienced at the target.
To this day, a controversy persists among Jews and scholars-at-large as to the extent to which prominent Jewish and Zionist leaders should be held accountable for failures to adequately inform Jews about the lethal dangers of boarding the trains.
Specifically and most famously, it was Rudolf Vrba who laid the blame for the failure to adequately inform approximately 800,000 Jews in Hungary about the Holocaust chiefly on the duplicitous lawyer Rudolf (Rezső) Kasztner, a Zionist leader from northern Transylvania who had settled in Budapest after his native territory was acquired by Hungary in 1940.
As one of the Vice-Chairmen of the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest, it was primarily Kasztner who eventually chose not to publicize the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report to Jews at large while he was engaging in private negotiations with Adolf Eichmann, the foremost Nazi primarily responsible for transporting Jews to the world’s most infamous death camp.
But the story is not clear cut.
Rudolf Kasztner was possibly the first non-Slovakian to receive a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report. After Vrba and Wetzler had dictated the contents, Oskar Krasnansky, a chemical engineer who was also president of the Zionist Organization of Czechoslovakia, gave the original report to typist, Gisi Farkas, who made several copies. Krasnansky hastily travelled to Bratislava from Zilina to meet Kasztner and give him a copy on April 28, 1944.
Astonished, Kasztner met with the Jewish Council of Budapest at their headquarters on Sip Street the following day. The Council president Samu Stern was incredulous, as were others who feared they would be arrested if they dared circulate its contents. Essentially, these Jewish leaders resolved to do nothing to save their own skin. “By then,” Vrba later wrote, “Kasztner and his colleagues in the Zionist leadership in Hungary were already committed to their negotiations with Eichmann, and to the dispatch of their colleague, Joel Brand, to Istanbul. They therefore gave no publicity whatsoever to the facts about Auschwitz which were now in their possession. It is my contention that a small group of informed people, by their silence, deprived others of the possibility or privilege of making their own decisions in the face of mortal danger.”
A few days later, still feeling burdened by what he knew, Kasztner went to the opulent home of the Swiss vice-consul in Budapest, Carl Lutz, a man who would soon be responsible for saving far more Jews than the much better-known Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Galvanized by what he read, Lutz drove in his car with Kasztner to immediately make contact with the head of the Hungarian Zionist Organization, Otto Komoly, who wanted to spread the news and initiate a self-defence initiative.
But now it was Kasztner who urged caution. As friends and rivals, Rudolf Kasztner and Joel Brand were leading figures in the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee, aka Vaadah, established in 1943. As Randolph L. Braham makes clear in The Politics of Genocide, “The SS preferred to negotiate with the Vaadah rather than with the Jewish Council leadership, as they valued the international contacts and foreign currency sources of the Zionists.” The Vaadah leaders established contacts with SS occupation forces in consort with Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel of Bratislava. Weissmandel believed he had successfully halted the deportation of Jews from Slovakia in June of 1942 by bribing the Nazi administrator Dieter Wisliceny. Therefore, the Vaadah leadership believed it was reasonable to attempt to rescue Hungarian Jews through financial dealings with the SS. [In fact, by the autumn of 1944, it would become tragically apparent that the Nazis had only suspended the deportations of Slovakian Jews and the bribes paid to Wizliceny were irrelevant.]
On April 5, the first day that Hungarian Jews were forced to wear the telltale Star of David [Jews had been forced to oversee, and pay for, their manufacture], Kasztner and Brand had their first meeting with the SS whereupon Wisliceny gave them assurances that Hungarian Jews would not be ghettoized or deported. Naively unaware that SS still didn’t have the manpower necessary in Budapest to implement large-scale round-ups of Jews, and that Wisliceny and Eichmann had no independent power concerning the Final Solution, and that these two Nazis were subject to the dictates of Himmler and the Nazi regime in Berlin, the Vaadah leadership agreed to pay $2 million dollars [roughly 6.5 million pengő in Hungarian currency] to Wisliceny as proof of Zionist good will and liquidity. It was Kasztner who delivered the first instalment of 2.5 million pengő on April 21. By then, ghettoization was well underway. As compensation for this broken promise, the SS freed some prominent Jews and began to pose the possibility of special emigration opportunities for selected Jews, with transit to either the United States or a neutral country that would accept them.
On April 25, Eichmann met with Vaadah’s Joel Brand and suggested bartering the safety of one million Jews in exchanges for goods that would support the German war efforts. Brand would gain the personal freedom to travel abroad and seek the financial backing of world Jewry. Meanwhile, Kasztner’s backroom dealings with Eichmann–which were separate from the protracted ‘Blood for Goods’ or ‘Blood for Trucks’ backroom meetings mainly with Brand–succeeded for both parties: While retaining his own freedom of movement and not being required to wear the yellow star, Kasztner was able to organize and finance safe passage to Switzerland for a trainload of approximately 1,684 Jews, many of whom were of Kasztner’s own choosing, including many wealthy Jews who paid enormous sums for safe passage out of Hungary. The Nazis received approximately $1,000 for every Jew on the Kasztner train and Kasztner kept the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report limited to a coterie of Jewish leaders who never told Jews to resist deportation. Trouble was, the privileged trainload of Jews that left Budapest on June 30 was halted by Eichmann en route and on July 8 all the passengers were forced to remain in a camp for privileged inmates (Bevorzugtenlager) in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; some passengers never made it to Switzerland until December of 1944, on after Himmler had authorized their departure.
While constantly delaying negotiations with both Kasztner and Brand, Eichmann was able to efficiently murder a majority of Hungary’s mostly pliant and uninformed 800,000 Jews. Kasztner’s first meeting with Eichmann had occurred on April 25, 1944, with a second meeting on April 28, around the same period that he was made privy to the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report.
In Randolph L. Braham’s The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, revised and updated in 1998, we learn that most Hungarian Jews, although subjected to harsh discriminatory practices since 1938, had continued to believe that Miklós Horthy would continue to protect them until the war was over. “Influenced by their leaders,” Braham writes, “Hungarian Jews never believed they would befall the same fate as Polish Jews after four years or relative security during World War II. They knew Allied forces were advancing towards Hungary. Soon Hungary would be liberated from the yoke of Nazi constraints. Hungary would never be made judenrein. Everything would soon revert to normal again.”
Even when German occupation led to the ghettoization and deportation of Jews from parts of northern and eastern Hungary, Jews in Budapest believed that such catastrophic events in the countryside would never be replicated in the much more sophisticated arena of the capital “in full view of foreign diplomats.” Soviet troops were approaching the Carpathians. It was only a matter of time before the relatively small contingent of Nazi soldiers in Budapest would be routed, or forced to flee. The huge contingent of Jews in Budapest were reassured by the head of the SS-Sonderkommando, Adolf Eichmann, who promised that nobody would be harmed unless they were foolish enough to support, or join, the partisan rebels or Tito’s units.
A cabinet minister in Horthy’s administration assured the public they would never consent to planning “the extirpation, destruction, or torment of the Jews” when the liberation of Hungary was imminent. It would not make sense militarily for the Nazis to divert their outnumbered troops from counteracting the Russians and partisans in order to rid Budapest of its many thousands of Jews. Jewish leadership completely failed to anticipate that the Nazis would choose to re-double their efforts to win their campaign against the Jews when they knew they would be simultaneously unable to vanquish the incoming Soviets.
The chilling truth became decipherable only when gendarmes were suddenly patrolling the civilized streets of Budapest.
Braham recounts the fate of a young Budapest physician, Dr. Imre Varga, who led a delegation of leftist and resistance-oriented Jews. In early June, as soon as the Nazis exhibited signs of shifting their repression of Jews from rural parts of Hungary to “Zone III, in Trianon Hungary proper” where urban Jews would be rounded up, Varge pleaded with the Jewish Council to discontinue it’s policies of conciliation and passivity in order to obviate complete annihilation. Varge was told that Jewish resistance would be futile and failure to comply with Nazi directives would “unimaginably aggravate the situation of others.” In despair, Varga committed suicide the following day.
For the rest of life, Vrba claimed Kasztner’s duplicity included giving Eichmann knowledge of the Vrba-Wetzler Report. “As soon as he received our reports,” Vrba said, “Kasztner had shown them to Adolf Eichmann in Budapest; and Eichmann, who was responsible for getting the Hungarian Jews into Auschwitz ovens without undue fuss, knew that the whole operation was in jeopardy while we were alive and at liberty.” In essence, Vrba believed Kasztner had used his Vrba-Wetzler Report as a bargaining chip in his private negotiations with Eichmann. Rudolf Vrba first raised this matter in print, in English, in London’s Daily Herald in February of 1961:
“I accuse certain Jewish leaders of one of the most ghastly deeds of the war. This small group of quislings knew what was happening to their brethren in Hitler’s gas chambers and bought their own lives with the price of silence. Among them was Dr Kasztner … I was able to give Hungarian Zionist leaders three weeks notice that Eichmann planned to send a million of their Jews to his gas chambers … Kasztner went to Eichmann and told him, ‘I know of your plans; spare some Jews of my choice and I shall keep quiet.’ Eichmann not only agreed, but dressed Kasztner up in SS uniform and took him to Belsen to trace some of his friends.”
As a senior official in Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Kasztner was eventually found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis in 1955. After the Supreme Court of Israel reversed the lower court’s decision, Kasztner was assassinated on a Tel Aviv street by an enraged Israeli citizen on March 4, 1957.
A few years later, in his memoir, Vrba would not relent. He wrote, “It is my contention that a small group of informed people, by their silence, deprived others of the possibility or privilege of making their own decisions in the face of mortal danger. In the fifth year of the war, there were some Kasztners who were thinking that the Nazis could be negotiated with. Only an idiot would believe that–or else a traitor covering up something…”
“I am a Jew. In spite of that, indeed because of that, I accuse certain Jewish leaders of one of the most ghastly deeds of the war. This small group of quislings knew what was happening to their brethren in Hitler’s gas chambers and bought their own lives with the price of silence. Among them was Dr. Kasztner, leader of the council which spoke for all Jews in Hungary.
“While I was prisoner number 44070 at Auschwitz – the number is still on my arm – I compiled careful statistics of the exterminations . . . I took these terrible statistics with me when I escaped in 1944 and I was able to give Hungarian Zionist leaders three weeks notice that Eichmann planned to send a million of their Jews to his gas chambers . . .
“Kasztner went to Eichmann and told him, ‘I know of your plans; spare some Jews of my choice and I shall keep quiet.’ Eichmann not only agreed, but dressed Kasztner up in S.S. uniform and took him to Belsen to trace some of his friends. Nor did the sordid bargaining end there. Kasztner paid Eichmann several thousand dollars. With this little fortune, Eichmann was able to buy his way to freedom when Germany collapsed, to set himself up in the Argentine.”
The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer have subsequently sought to limit awareness of Rudolf Vrba in Israel because Vrba would not remain silent about the transgressions of Jewish and Zionist leadership in Hungary. Vrba’s memoir was kept from the Israeli /Hebrew-reading public for decades. “This failure to acknowledge Vrba,” Wikipedia states, “has played into the hands of Holocaust deniers who have tried to undermine his testimony about the gas chambers.”
Recognition of Vrba has also been limited in his second homeland where Canada’s “None Is Too Many” approach to would-be Jewish immigrants during World War II remains shameful. In 1992, Sir Martin Gilbert teamed with one of Canada’s foremost human rights lawyers, Irwin Cotler—a former Attorney General of Canada who became the primary force behind the Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal—to nominate Rudolf Vrba for the country’s top honour for a private citizen, the Order of Canada, but their efforts fell short.
Hence this website.