He was having trouble getting up from the platform and into the cattle car. After all, he was only twelve years old and there was no ramp leading inside. An SS thug saw him “dawdling” in front of the car and aimed a boot at the boy’s posterior. The boy jumped out of the way just in time and the SS man fell to his face from the violence of his own kick.
Fearing the German would take his fury out on him, the boy scampered into the train. He hid himself from the Nazi inside a crowded, filthy car until the train pulled out of Budapest’s Nyugati station.
And thus began David Kohn’s participation in what many regard as the most dramatic and controversial train journey in history. For this was the train organized by Dr. Rudolf Kastner, head of the Hungarian Judenrat, on which 1,685 Jews rode to safety.
Kohn, today a well-known medical doctor and expert on geriatric health problems in Haifa, Israel, is one of the diminishing number of survivors from the Kastner train. And he may be the only one who kept and preserved a journal of that journey to freedom.
He was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia, in a region where many of the residents and most of the local Jews spoke Hungarian. After the destruction and division of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Munich accord, the area passed to Hungarian rule.
The problem was that David’s father had been a patriot and had taken Czechoslovak citizenship, which was frowned upon by Hungarian authorities. The boy was quickly expelled from school there, supposedly because of the father’s citizenship but more likely because they were Jews.
The family moved into Hungary proper, looking for work and a place to live. Then Slovakia was detached from the Czech state by Germany, so for a while they moved back there. The father worked as a forestry manager, a public service job that kept the family safe as deportations of Slovakian Jews commenced.
In 1942 rumors reached them that they were on a list of Jews to be deported. The family stole across the border into Hungary. There they were hosted by relatives who managed to obtain forged residency papers for them.
By 1943 Hungarian Jews were being moved into “concentration” areas – not yet internment camps but rather buildings in which the Jews of a town would be segregated. David was staying with his uncle, a prominent Neolog rabbi, in Czegled, a town outside Budapest near what is today the city’s international airport. They were locked up in a single building, and later moved into the town’s synagogue. Then twenty-three of those in the building were selected to be sent to Budapest for internment. The rest were deported.
David and his uncle were among the twenty-three.
In Budapest they were marched down Andrassy Boulevard, the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue with its luxury stores, many owned by Jews at the time. They were taunted by Hungarian anti-Semitic youths along the way and eventually were held inside the Rumbach Street synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.
Kastner was renowned for hatching assorted schemes, some rather hair-brained, during the war years. He tried to recruit support from Jewish Agency leaders in Tel Aviv for negotiating different rescue schemes with the Nazis, including the notorious “Trucks for Jews” deal, which never came to fruition. In 1944 he met several times with Adolf Eichmann to negotiate the escape of Jews in exchange for bribes or ransom payments.
But one of those schemes did succeed. Eichmann agreed to allow a rescue train to leave Hungary with 1,685 Jews aboard, bound originally for Barcelona in Spain. The ransom price was estimated at 8.6 million Swiss francs.
After the war, Kastner became one of the most controversial figures in modern Jewish history. Regarded as a hero and savior by many, including Prof. Yechiam Weitz from my own University of Haifa, he was condemned by others as a collaborator and traitor.
The enmity of his detractors was fanned when Kastner agreed to keep a promise and testify in defense of an SS officer who had murdered Jews but who was reported to have saved other Jews from death in the closing weeks of the war.
Kastner was also accused of hiding the true dangers of extermination from Transylvanian and Hungarian Jews, making them complacent, and of playing favoritism in the rescue train saga. In the Kastner libel trial in Tel Aviv in the 1950s, the court’s judge, Shimon Agranat, later a chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, denounced Kastner and his behavior during the war, accusing him of having “sold his soul to Satan.”
In 1957 Kastner was assassinated in Tel Aviv by three men who had been active members of the underground LEHI (the Stern Gang) before independence.
There were atrocities and some deportations carried out against Hungary’s Jews, but massive deportations and extermination did not commence until 1944. The end of the war was clearly approaching. The Allies were heading toward Normandy. The Soviet Red Army was not too far off east, and everyone could see Germany would lose the war.
The Hungarian dictator Horthy cautiously entered into negotiations with the Soviet Union and the West concerning Hungary’s abandoning the Axis and switching sides. Hitler quickly learned of these overtures and ordered the Wehrmacht to occupy Hungary and assume direct control, retaining Horthy as a figurehead. Eichmann was dispatched to solve Hungary’s “Jewish problem.” Horthy was shipped off within a few weeks to internment in Bavaria.
Eichmann began the mass deportations to Auschwitz. At first they were mainly of provincial Jews from outside Budapest. Within Budapest, life was difficult for Jews but they retained a sense of safety and anticipation of the arrival of the Red Army as liberators. Kohn’s father was taken off to a “work camp” as a “volunteer,” the price paid for the rest of the family being allowed to remain in Budapest.
By this time Kohn was being held with his mother, uncle, and grandmother in an internment camp inside Budapest on Pavo Avenue, where Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Museum today stands. Among the camp’s inhabitants were 300 Transylvanian Jews, whose escape to Hungary had been earlier orchestrated by Kastner. These included some Kastner relatives, a point of later contention, but also ordinary Jews of all different ranks and stations in life – including, perhaps most famously, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum.
When word came through that a rescue train was being organized, anyone in the camp could sign up for it but most preferred to remain in the “safety” of Budapest. They were skeptical and suspicious about where the Germans would actually send the train and what the fate of its riders would be.
One did not need any special “pull” or clout to get on the train. And since there were two trainloads being planned, those willing to chance the trip preferred the second one, after news would arrive regarding the fate of those on the first train out. So the first train was undersubscribed and persuasion was needed to get people to sign up. Apprehensions and fears notwithstanding, Kohn and his relatives signed up for that first train out.
The cattle car leaving Budapest was crowded and hot. The air was stifling and there was no toilet on the train. No one knew exactly where the train was headed. It made stops along the way. One was in Auschpitz, whose name was similar enough to another train stop to trigger dread among the passengers.
When the train reached Linz in Austria, west of Vienna, the Jews were ordered off the train. Panic spread when they were told they would be sent to showers for disinfection. By that time they had heard about the “showers” in the death camps and feared they were about to be murdered. But showers they indeed turned out to be.
At Bergen-Belsen there were no horrific insects to afflict the Kastner passengers as there had been in the Budapest camps. For the first few weeks they refused to eat the awful camp food, living off provisions they had brought with them from Budapest among their belongings. Instead, they passed their rations to Dutch and Polish POWs in neighboring sections of the camp. Once their own food from home was gone, they had no choice but to live off the camp rations, and hunger was rampant.
The passengers split themselves into different camp “communities” and “movements.” There were “congregations” of every religious stripe, from the Satmars to the Neologs, Hungary’s analogue to the Reform and Conservative movements of the West. Even the communist atheists had a “congregation” that held its own Yom Kippur service. The Satmar Rebbe ended every Sabbath prayer service by singing “Ani Maamin,” a song about the anticipated arrival of the Messiah, with tears running down his face.
The Zionist movements were also represented in the camp. Kohn joined the Marxist Hashomer Hatzair for three days, thanks to an attractive girl who was leading it, but left in anger when she threw his cap onto a sand mound. While retrieving the cap he spotted a group of young people in the yard studying Talmud.
He introduced himself and joined their group, spending much of the remaining time in the camp with them, studying, playing chess, getting into mischief. One member of the group was Yehuda Blum, later to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
They gave each other “classes” in different subjects. The boy who taught the others physics, Joachim Joseph, would become one of Israel’s leading atomic scientists. (Joseph kept a Torah scroll from the camp when he was released and later gave it to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon to carry with him into space; billions of people saw it in the broadcast from the rocket.)
Strangely, Kohn felt safe here. His worst fear was to be alone, but here he lived with his uncle, mother, and grandmother. Allied bombers could often be seen overhead.
One evening, they were ordered to gather their belongings and report to the assembly yard. Again panic spread, as they feared they were to be sent off for extermination. They were loaded onto a train and told it was going to Switzerland. The train reached the Swiss frontier the next day and simply stopped. Earlier trains carrying refugees had been turned back after being refused admission by Switzerland. But, perhaps due to Western pressure, this train was eventually allowed through.
In Switzerland, warm clothing and food and blankets awaited the passengers, even some Swiss chocolate. They were shuffled about from camp to hostel inside Switzerland. Eventually they were sent to Italy by train and allowed to board a ship to Palestine. Kohn’s happiest moment was when the ship pulled into the port of Haifa. They could see Hebrew on the signs, flags with a Jewish star, and the port workers tossed Israeli oranges onto the ship.
It was in Israel that year that he celebrated his bar mitzvah. It was also where the family received word of the fate of his father. On a death march from Linz to Vienna, the exhausted man could walk no farther and dared to sit down. An SS guard shot him to death.
Kohn became an Israeli. He served in the army, then went to medical school in Zurich. He did his residency in a Tiberias hospital, where he would listen to the proceedings of the Eichmann trial over a transistor radio.
Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.