Representatives of Zionist organizations led by two men, Dr. Rudolph Kastner and Joel Brand, had been active in Europe for some time prior to Hitler's occupation of Hungary. They pursued the task of saving as many Jewish lives as possible by any means at their disposal. They served as couriers transmitting messages between Poland, Slovakia and Turkey on the one hand, Switzerland and Hungary on the other hand. They were conducting negotiations with the occupying German power and saw to it that financial arrangements whenever they could be agreed upon, were carried out. They had done good work in Poland and in Slovakia. A small number of Jews there were released from concentration camps, and saved from deportation and the gas chamber thanks to their efforts.
In Hungary, Dr. Kastner and Joel Brand operated through an intermediary by the name of Joseph Winninger. A courier of the Reichswehr, Winninger also earned messages to and fro from Jewish organizations, and could be relied upon to implement banking operations. Through him, Dr. Kastner and Joel Brand contacted a liaison officer of the Reichswehr by the name of Dr. Schmidt. The latter informed them of an existing feud between the Reichswehr and the SS, and expressed the hope that the Reichswehr would gain they upper hand in the contest. This was of capital importance for the Jews, because the Reichswehr, the regular army, was known to be more humane than the SS, composed of Hitter's selected henchmen. Theretofore it was the SS that had planned the cruel persecution of Jews throughout Europe. It was under their supervision that their deportation had taken place.
Dr. Schmidt told the representatives of the Zionists that the Germans - meaning both the Reichswehr and the SS - would consider sparing the lives of Jews against a one-time payment of two million dollars. They would accept monthly installments, with a dawn payment of two hundred thousand dollars. This had been said to them prior to the German occupation of Hungary.
After the occupation, Dr. Kastner and Brand immediately got in touch with Winninger and Dr. Schmidt. In the beginning the negotiations were conducted in the presence of Winninger and Schmidt mainly through a certain Obersturmbannführer Krumey, an officer in the Reichswehr. However, the Jewish negotiators soon found out that they could do nothing without the consent of the SS, and that the fate of the Jews were principally in the latter's hands. From then on, representatives of the SS also participated in the negotiations in apparent harmony with the Reichswehr.
Parallel with the negotiations conducted by Zionists, other negotiations had been started by Phillip Freudiger, president of the Orthodox Jewish community in Budapest. Freudiger got in touch with a Baron Wysliceni, who was reputed to be a confident and adviser of Colonel Eichmann, head of the German administrative department in Hungary, dealing with the Jewish question.
It was intimated that a payment of two million dollars would actually save the Hungarian Jews from deportation. The first installment of two hundred thousand dollars was raised and paid by the Jewish Council, and it was hoped at that point that indeed the entire Hungarian Jewry would be saved. This hope was shattered by the sudden occurrence of two events.
The first was the confiscation of all Jewish assets by the Hungarian government. This edict was published unexpectedly. It was so drastic that it did not allow any Jew to possess more than three thousand penguins in cash, a very small sum. From bank accounts only one thousand pengös per month could be withdrawn, provided this withdrawal did not raise the limit of three thousand pengös at the disposal of the owner of the account. Information was received to the effect that the Hungarian government would not release even a fragment of the considerable Jewish fortunes for the purpose of the construction of Jewish labor camps or Jewish welfare organizations of any kind.
With one blow, this edict of the Sztojay government reduced the Jews of Hungary to a state of beggary. The treasury of Jewish welfare organizations was empty. Recent anti-Jewish laws had deprived many of their livelihood. The assistance given to these people had drained the financial reserves of the Jewish community. With the bank accounts frozen, the Jewish businesses closed or confiscated, Jews prevented from earning anything, they ceased to have any income. Jews only possessed whatever they had been able to conceal with the help of friendly, cooperative non-Jews. All valuables still possessed by Jews, gold and precious gems, works of art of any kind, Oriental rugs or anything else, could be sold by them only at prices representing a fraction of what they would have fetched before the occupation of the country by the Nazis. As most of the Jews were penniless, only small amounts of money could be raised for the purpose of the negotiations. Yet the plan of saving the Jews from annihilation by means of paying a ransom to their tormentors required a well-filled treasury.
The second event was even more fateful from the point of view of the salvation of the unfortunate Hungarian Jews. Dr. Schmidt, who conducted negotiations with Dr. Kastner and Joel Brand, was of course aware of Wysliceni's parallel negotiations with Freudiger. Was he jealous of Wysliceni, or did he act out of other considerations? The fact is that he seemed to report to Eichmann that the two million dollars asked for ransom was too low, and that much higher amounts could be squeezed out of the Jews in Hungary. Wysliceni was thereupon dismissed as a negotiator and Eichmann took over the negotiations personally. He had Winninger and Dr. Schmidt arrested, and Krumey, the most decent among the lot, was bypassed.
Previously the negotiators agreed that six hundred fifty persons who had their immigration certificate to Israel would be allowed to leave. Later, this figure had been raised to seven hundred fifty. Shortly after Eichmann replaced the two other Germans, he reported that the immigration of these people to Israel became impossible because of an agreement the Germans had with the representatives of Arab states not to allow any Jews to emigrate to Israel. Thereupon another plan emerged, that of letting the Jews in unlimited numbers emigrate to South America, or in a roundabout way, to Israel. In exchange, the Germans were to receive important deliveries of war and raw materials.
This plan was probably prompted by the desperate need of the Germans to replenish their stores of war and raw materials depleted by the devastating bombardments by the Allies. Such materials had at that time much greater value for the Germans than cash or other valuables. Eichmann allegedly declared, "For each trick you can have one hundred Jews."
Around the middle of April in this year of 1944, the 3 northern, eastern and southwestern border areas of Hungary were declared areas of war operations. This coincided with the concentration of the Jews of those areas in ghettos.
The Germans had demanded the concentration of Jews in ghettos only in the areas of operations. Endre, the undersecretary of the Sztojay government, issued orders on his own responsibility to round them up everywhere in the country with the exception of Budapest, and to concentrate them in designated places as a prelude to their deportation.
We must repeat in this connection that the non-Jewish Hungarian population witnessed the suffering of their fellow citizens with complete passivity. To understand their attitude, one must refer to the anti-Semitic propaganda of the past fifty years which was further kindled and carried to a high pitch by the newspapers since the German presence in the country. Also to intimidation: whoever dared to put in a good word for his Jewish neighbor or friend, or for a relative who happened to be Jewish, was vilified and threatened. The members of the Hungarian Arrow-Cross Party, a counterpart of the German Nazi Party, watched with the vigilance of bloodhounds so that no help was extended to the people concentrated in the ghettos.
While these events secured in the provinces, Freudiger, representative of the Orthodox Jews in Budapest, asked Eichmann what the purpose of the concentration of the Jews was. Eichmann assured Freudiger that they would be transferred to Germany to work camps, and that this transfer would affect only three hundred ten thousand people (he spelled out the number) while the rest of the Jews could go free provided that the negotiations conducted by the Zionists and the Jewish representatives in Budapest were concluded in a satisfactory manner.
It is necessary to open here a parenthesis to occupy ourselves with the personalities of the two Zionist representatives, Dr. Kastner and Joel Brand.
I knew Dr. Kastner; he was an attorney and an editor of a daily newspaper, an idealist and gifted man of great qualities. He was ready to assume a personal risk for the accomplishment of a task he had set for himself. However, there was also a tendency in him to bypass anyone who would hinder his efforts. He was a stickler in keeping appointments and agreements. He was a Zionist of the utmost devotion and a politician of the first order, liable to see every occurrence from a political point of view.
In view of the above traits in his character, it is not unlikely that Dr. Kastner was anxious to be the principal artisan in the shaping of the destinies of almost one million Hungarian Jews. In order to hold all the affairs and concentrate them in his own hands, he took the work that several people would have been incapable of handling, upon himself.
Joel Brand was a man of smaller caliber whose abilities did not match those of Dr. Kastner, but he was perhaps more practical in certain areas than the latter.
These were the two men who negotiated with Eichmann at the critical moment when three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews faced the immediate prospect of deportation, and when the already mentioned plan of saving them by paying for their freedom with the deliveries of war materials and raw materials useful for the German war economy was discussed.
The negotiators asked Eichmann to order that the deportations of the Jews concentrated in the provinces be suspended till an agreement was reached. He refused. "I must get tough with the Jews or the Jewish organizations abroad will believe that they can get concessions from me anyway," he allegedly declared to Joel Brand.
Even if he had acceded to the requests of the Jewish representatives, the lives of the Jews of the Hungarian provinces would have remained threatened just the same, because Endre and Baky worked at that time at cross purposes with the Germans. They were not concerned about bargains benefiting the German war machine. In their implacable hatred, they wanted to complete the extermination of the Jews within the shortest possible period. Nevertheless, Eichmann's refusal to suspend the deportations sealed the fate of those unfortunate people.
Meanwhile, the negotiations with Eichmann had advanced to the point where he understood the necessity to send representatives of the Jews abroad to contact the world Jewish organizations with a view of obtaining from these, binding agreements concerning the delivery of war materials. Eichmann still had in his cards the lives of six to seven hundred thousand Jews.
He designated Joel Brand to go to Turkey for the purpose just mentioned, and he was to be accompanied by a certain Bandi Grosz, a man of the Hungarian Intelligence Service who was supposed to keep an eye on Brand's activities.
The members of the Jewish Council informed of Eichmann's decision were greatly upset. They believed that he, Brand, did not have the qualities necessary to carry out such a grandiose mission, the saving of seven hundred thousand lives through diplomacy. They thought that they could have proposed to Brand, had Kastner kept them informed of the progress of his negotiations, men more capable to carry the negotiations to a successful conclusion. It was generally believed that Eichmann had chosen Brand and not Dr. Kastner, because he thought that he could get a better bargain through him than he could through Kastner. Little did the members of the Jewish Council know about the international situation, or about the mentality of the Allied leaders and the factors that influenced the latter's decisions in the matter of the saving of the Jews of Europe.
Brand departed on May 15, 1944, just about the time when the first deportations in the northeastern areas of Hungary took place. Perhaps the coincidence of the two facts had been planned.
By the 10th or the 12th of June, the entire contingent of three hundred ten thousand people had been deported. At the end of May, the concentration of the Jews of Budapest was ordered. The council was given the assignment to prepare a plan of concentration.
It was generally assumed that the British and the Americans would not bomb the parts of the city inhabited by Jews. They established therefore, so-called Jewish houses in all sections. The Gentile residents had to move out of those houses. The Jewish population of the capital numbered about two hundred thousand which meant that they had to move into three thousand five hundred houses. This mass moving was to be completed within six weeks.
Undersecretary Endre, found this delay too long and wrote across the document, without reading the plan to the end, "2500 houses, 2 days." It was only with the greatest effort that the Council obtained an extension to seven days, with the number of houses increased to two thousand seven hundred. Even the five extra days did not suffice to carry out the mass transfer of people, and a further delay of three days was conceded out of necessity.
In the first days of July, the deportation of the Jews was begun in the outskirts of Budapest. These industrial suburbs had a relatively large Jewish population. About twenty-three thousand of them were taken to a brickyard in Békásmegyer, after being robbed of their possessions. For five days these people, who had spent their days and nights without shelter, received not a piece of bread nor a drop of water. Characteristic of the sadism shown by the gendarmes toward their helpless victims is the following, testified to by the survivors of those horrible times.
The large cemeteries, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, of the capital were situated outside of the administrative district of Budapest, in Rákoskeresztur. One day, the entire personnel of the two Jewish cemeteries were arrested and interned. Those were the days when, as a result of the tremendous bombardments of the city, hundreds of bodies were awaiting burial since there were not enough gravediggers to attend to the job. People who came to the cemetery for the funeral of their relatives were admitted to the cemeteries. Then when they left, they were arrested by the gendarmes who were waiting for them. They were immediately taken to the internment camps to be deported.
The deportations and the brutality with which they were carried out could not be concealed from the non Jewish population. One could not let hundreds of thousands of people disappear without a trace in a small country go unnoticed. The people who had traveled in the provinces and returned to Budapest were talking. The incidents they related, often from eyewitness accounts, coupled with the reports of steady progress by the Allies in the war, provoked great nervousness in the capital. People began to understand that no self-respecting nation can deny responsibility for such cruelty as was shown by the Hungarian authorities in the execution of the German orders. The occupants, with their small forces, would never have been able to bring about the rapid concentration and deportation of so many people had the Hungarian authorities not shown their zeal and enthusiasm for this plan. People were afraid of the reprisals of the victors after the war. Rumors circulated to the effect that Budapest was destined to be erased by Allied bombers as a punishment for the crimes against the Jews.
The government of Hungary, cognizant of the atmosphere created by the stunning tragedy of the Jews, started a propaganda campaign to reassure the population. The newspapers were informed that the Jews who had been deported were taken to places of settlements, and that they were given the opportunity of doing work useful for the community. Reports from villages and cities which had been cleared of their Jewish residents, declared that the deportation of the Jews had been carried out in the most humane manner. There were pictures of the villagers overjoyed at being freed from the Jews who had exploited them. In spite of this propaganda, the nervousness of the people increased, especially after the forces of General Eisenhower opened the second front and advanced in Brittany.
Days and weeks passed and the Jewish Council, and indeed the entire. Jewish population still alive, awaited with great anxiety the outcome of the negotiations between Eichmann and the Jewish organizations abroad. From Joel Brand came news that things were going well, and that he would soon, in possession of the necessary authorizations, return with binding engagements on the part of the Allies. The mood of hope was soon followed by one of the greatest pessimism, as the deportations continued unabated, as no Jewish family was not mourning some or several losses of beloved members, as every Jew in the country trembled for his life, as every hour, every minute brought them closer to certain annihilation.
Telegrams and letters came, but no Brand!
Rumors continued to follow in frequent succession. Brand was allegedly in Palestine. Brand was on his way to Budapest via Lisbon. He was unable to come and had sent a delegate from Istanbul in his place who was bringing with him contracts specifying the places of delivery of war materials in exchange of Jews.
The rumors were flying, and the deportations continued inexorably. Brand was supposed to have reached England to discuss the emigration of Hungarian Jews with British and American authorities. Brand had left and was waiting in Lisbon for his return visa to Hungary.
The confusion and anxiety of the people increased. They felt entrapped, helpless. As each, day passed, they believed less and less in their eventual salvation.
Kastner, who had taken everything upon himself without being authorized to by the Hungarian Jewish leaders, now had to admit that sending Brand abroad was a disaster for the Jews of Hungary. Anxious to save what he could, he made Eichmann the offer of raising money, and securing precious stones and foreign currency in case he, Eichmann, ordered a suspension of the deportations. Eichmann refused, still maintaining the deportations would spur the Jewish world organizations to hasten the deliveries he needed.
Blood for money, money for blood, was his motto.
Nevertheless, he consented to operate on the basis of an "open account," that is to say, to release a given number of Jews against a given amount of money or valuables. Dr. Kastner thereupon, in cooperation with the Jewish Council and Mr. Freudiger, concentrated on saving the lives of prominent Jews, or their families interned in the camps of the provinces. These people were to be taken out from the camps and brought to Budapest. Kastner himself hailed from Cluj, the Hungarian Kolozsvár. After long bargaining with Eichmann, he succeeded in saving three hundred eighty persons in that city. It was agreed that these people would be taken to a special camp in Budapest, administered by the Jews themselves. In case negotiations with foreign Jewish organizations were successfully concluded, they, the inhabitants of these special camps, were to be the first to be allowed to depart.
I pieced this information together after my return to my native town. Of course, all this was conjecture for I knew nothing certain at that time about the whereabouts of my family. I had only the rumors that they were included in the special arrangement worked out by Dr. Kastner with Eichmann. To communicate with the outside world, perhaps even to leave the country, I had to get to Bucharest, capital of Rumania.
I could do nothing without money, and I had none. I contacted a Rumanian physician, a friend of our family, to whom we had entrusted same jewelry for safekeeping. He showed me his house; it had been looted by the Russians of anything that had the slightest value. The drapes had been removed, the wardrobes emptied, the lingerie vanished. He and his wife had been left with nothing but the clothes on their bodies.
"My dear friend," he said embarrassedly, "we have become partners in poverty."
He examined me and gave me medical aid, as much as was possible under the circumstances. He could not even invite me for dinner; there was hardly enough food for him and his family.
I left him more sorry for him than for myself. I knew that whatever the obstacles, T would get some money to go to Bucharest, capital of the country, in order to obtain a passport, to leave the country, to search for those who must be waiting for me and whom I longed so much to clasp to my heart.