I am often invited to schools to give talks and to answer questions from the young audiences. Some of the questions are naive, but time and again they force me to revisit my own views and restate them as clearly as I can. A popular question is “What can we do to make our bad world better?” I usually answer: “Fight for the truth” and by way of illustration I tell the – true – story of Rezsö Kasztner.
Rezsö Kasztner was a Zionist activist from Transilvania, who made an astonishing deal with Adolf Eichmann, the “architect of the Holocaust”, whereby 1700 Hungarian Jews (including me, aged eleven) were released from the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland in 1944. After the war Kasztner became the focus of a violent argument, which still continues. His supporters see him as a heroic saver of lives, while his enemies condemn him as an accessory to the murder of half a million Hungarian Jews, whom he failed to alert to their impending fate in Auschwitz to make it easier for Eichmann to deport them.
In a subsequent libel trial in Israel Kasztner was transformed from witness to collaborator and, with his wife and daughter, became the victim of a furious witch hunt. On appeal the Supreme Court cleared him but by that time he had been assassinated in Tel Aviv by a Jewish extremist.
When I retired from the University of Sussex I wrote a book of combined autobiography and history about my experience of Bergen-Belsen and the fate of Rezsö Kasztner. It was called Dealing with Satan. Rezsö Kasztner’s Daring Rescue Mission and followed by translations into several other languages. For this book I received the “Austrian Holocaust Memorial Award 2012”. I explain at the outset that I may seem biased in favour of the man who saved my life, but that I had tried to present the facts as objectively as I could, precisely because I was aware of that risk.
Most reviewers approved. One called the book “balanced and well written”. Another appreciated my “detached calm and appropriate empathy.” A third praised me for recording the facts accurately and at the same time “convincingly refuting the allegation that Kasztner saved only his relatives and associates.” Yet another stressed my impartiality: “The author clearly identifies with Kasztner . . . while even-handedly providing enough facts to enable readers to form their own judgement.“
There were also objections. For the press one particularly crude example may suffice: “Kasztner and his gang were the most hideous Hungarian Jews known to history. And the book belongs into a recycling bin“. Critical listeners to my talks included a professor who interrupted me to complain that the university whose guests we were had allowed a liar like me to speak; a well-known freelance researcher who claimed that my father and I were saved only because we were rich and could pay while others could not; and an angry man who tried to make me feel guilty by suggesting that my survival was causally linked with the death of thousands of other eleven year olds. An awkward student threatened to disrupt a meeting, but when I asked him to explain his objections in public he suddenly remembered that he had an urgent appointment somewhere else and left. Each time the chair supported me.
As for Kasztner himself, it is difficult to arrive at a fair judgment. Two trials and decades of bitter arguments have not produced any consensus. Whether he is seen as a traitor or a hero continues to depend on the preconceived notions, wishful thinking or vested interests of the speakers. Where an element of truth seems to emerge it is confounded by either involuntary or deliberate untruths. Kasztner himself, who preferred action to speculation, may at times have been unsure of his own motivation.
The impossibility of obtaining a clear overview created an atmosphere of disorientation, frustration and anger, in which anything was possible, including murder. But even after Kasztner was murdered the truth remained undiscovered. To this day nobody seems to offer, or even to look for, solid evidence or reliable conclusions. My own cautious efforts to disentangle Kasztner’s intentions from the distortions are ignored.
Kasztner died because too many people were acting on prejudice rather than making an honest attempt at establishing the truth. He was destroyed by a tragic combination of his own equivocations and the manipulations of others, all of whom believed that they were free agents, but who did not really understand the driving forces of their own conduct. Then as now humanity was unable, or unwilling, to face the truth about its own impulses.
The world has not become a better place since Kasztner’s death. We live in a dark age dominated by greed, ambition, self-interest, treachery and mendacity. Our rulers feed the masses with more and more blatant lies in order to advance their schemes, and the masses, whether dutifully producing votes or reluctantly obeying orders, allow themselves to be used for any purpose, good or bad. As we keep refusing to see the truth, the hidden violence in us is waiting for a chance to turn into unlimited genocide and global conflagration.
We shall probably never know the whole truth about Kasztner – or about any of the complex issues of our lives. But if we were prepared to question our own motives fairly and squarely we might halt the stampede into destruction and commit our energies to more positive uses. Where possession of the truth is impossible the quest for it alone may bring about a more satisfactory existence. I must confess that I see little hope for such a change happening under our old establishments. But if we are to be saved perhaps we shall be saved by the young generations who ask what we can do to make the world better than it is.