Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Holocaust's foremost unsung hero

Moshe Kraus was behind one of the largest rescue operations of the Holocaust • Using his wits, initiative and unparalleled courage, Kraus saved between 40,000 and 100,000 of Budapest's Jews • So why has no one ever heard of him?

Moshe Kraus
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Photo credit: Beit Haedut Museum
In 1986, a 78-year-old man named Moshe Kraus died in Jerusalem. You probably don't recognize the name. He was never commemorated in any way. He is not mentioned in any Holocaust encyclopedias. But Moshe Kraus is responsible for the largest rescue operation during the Holocaust, on a huge scale. German industrialist Oskar Schindler, with his resourcefulness and courage, managed to save 1,200 Jews; Kraus saved tens of thousands.

Historians are divided on the exact number, but the most conservative estimate talks about at least 40,000 people, and some estimates are even as high as 100,000 Jews who escaped the Nazis in Hungary thanks to this daring man.

The year is 1944. The Nazis are stepping up the pace and sending more and more Jews to their deaths in efforts to quickly complete the extermination of Hungary's Jewry. A spacious glass factory located at 29 Vadasz Street in Budapest is granted extraterritorial status under the auspices of Switzerland. Some 3,000 Jews barricade themselves inside this building, dubbed the Glass House, for three months.
More and more homes in Budapest are turned into Swiss "safe houses," barring entry to Germans and the local complicit Hungarian authorities, and housing thousands of Jews. The Swiss embassy grants 40,000 Jews certificates making them foreign Swiss nationals. Tens of thousands of additional documents are forged while the Swiss turn a blind eye. Young, brave Jews disguised as Nazi officers roam the streets handing out these documents to Jews, and all of this is orchestrated by Kraus.
Among the Glass House survivors are many prominent Jews, including Moshe Shkedi, the father of former commander of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi. "My father lived because of the Glass House," Shkedi says. "His parents and all his brothers were murdered. The important message is that not only Christians saved Jews during the Holocaust. Jews also managed to save thousands."
The story of the Glass House is one of the most fascinating historical events of that era. Much like the man behind the operation, Kraus, this event has somehow evaded public attention and never received the recognition it deserved. The Beit Haedut museum in Nir Galim has recently built a replica of the Glass House, in efforts to right this historical wrong. The forgotten story is now beginning to shed its anonymity thanks to the initiative of Ariel Bariach, the head of the museum. Bariach is not a European Jew, in fact his parents hail from Tunis. "Some people at other Holocaust remembrance facilities didn't like it that someone of Mizrahi descent was running a Holocaust museum, but the Holocaust happened to Jews, and I'm a Jew."
A mathematical trick
For Hungary's Jews, the Holocaust started long after Europe's skies became saturated with smoke from crematoriums. Some 20,000 Jews who fled the Nazis in occupied countries sought refuge in Budapest, which was considered safe. But in March 1944, after the German invasion of Hungary, the Nazis began sending Jews from outlying Hungarian towns to extermination camps in Poland. Within the span of eight weeks, about half a million Jews from the Hungarian periphery were sent to their deaths, at a pace of about 12,000 per day. Entire communities were wiped out, one after another.
In April 1944, two Slovakian Jewish prisoners managed to escape from Auschwitz. Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler met with the head of the Slovak Jewish Council, Oscar Krasniansky, and gave him a detailed account of what was happening at the death camp. Krasniansky translated their account and compiled a 32-page report (the Auschwitz Protocols) providing, for the first time, accurate and detailed information on the methods and dimensions of the Nazi extermination efforts. Vrba and Wetzler said that at that point 1.75 million people had been killed at Auschwitz, and that the camp was preparing for the arrival of 800,000 Hungarian Jews, slated to be killed.
By the end of May that year, Moshe (Miklush) Kraus had gotten his hands on the Vrba and Wetzler's report. Kraus was one of the heads of the Zionist movement in Hungary and he directed the Palestine Office in Budapest. He added his own report to the Auschwitz Protocols detailing the transport and extermination of the Jews in the outlying Hungarian towns. The report named every individual from every city and district. He then did everything in his power to disseminate the two reports.
These documents made their way to the regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, Miklos Horthy, and to all the important political figures in Hungary. An international news agency picked up the story and distributed it, and the reports created quite a stir in Switzerland. Swiss public opinion applied enormous pressure on Horthy. The pope, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Swedish King Gustaf the fifth all sent letters of protest to Budapest. Roosevelt's letter to Horthy included a military threat. As a result, Horthy put a stop to the deportation of Jews.
Between July and October of that year, before Horthy was deposed and the Arrow Cross Party rose to power, Kraus gave his all to try to include as many Jews as possible in the mathematical trick he had devised with the help of the Swiss. How did so many thousands of Jews manage to evade the Nazis' awareness? At the core, it was a feat of bureaucratic sleight of hand on a massive scale.
At the time, a British-issued immigration certificate, simply referred to as a "certificate," granting entry to Palestine, was viewed as a protective shield. Anyone in possession of such a certificate was considered a British citizen protected by the Swiss legation in Hungary, because Switzerland represented Britain's diplomatic interests in Hungary at the time. At the end of 1943, the Hungarian government recognized the rights of 1,500 holders of such certificates.
Kraus, together with other Palestine Office workers, approached Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, who was stationed in Budapest as vice-consul and headed the office that represented British interests. Lutz was sympathetic to the Jews, having served in the Swiss consulate in Jaffa. He and Kraus had the idea to turn the 1,500 individual certificates into family certificates, including the families of 1,500 Jews in these protective documents -- 7,800 people in all.
A month and a half after the Nazi occupation, when ghettos were at their peak in the outlying towns, Kraus and Lutz, with the help of anti-Nazi Hungarian foreign office workers, thought up yet another manipulation: They turned the 7,800 certificates back into individual documents, applying them to families as well, allowing them to save about 40,000 people, all of whom now possessed immigration documents issued by Switzerland. The International Red Cross, Britain and Switzerland recognized the 40,000 documents. The Nazis officially recognized only 7,800, but Kraus continued his efforts to get Nazi recognition for the full 40,000.
"The wait (for a reply) was long, and we didn't know the reason," Kraus wrote in an article, "until we found out something very strange: Someone had informed the German legation that the 7,800 documents applied to individuals, not families. That someone was one of us -- Dr. Kastner."
Lutz gave the certificate holders protective passports or "Schutz-Passes" -- which identified the bearers as Swedish subjects awaiting repatriation and thus prevented their deportation. The documents issued by the Swiss consulate in Budapest stated that the Swiss embassy's department of foreign interests confirms that so and so appears in a collective Swiss passport, and should be treated as having a valid passport. The collective passport included tens of thousands of names. In order to disguise the fraud, Lutz numbered the individuals in question between 1 and 7,800 -- the number that had already been approved by the local authorities.
Five hundred Glass House employees who handled these documents were made into Swiss embassy employees, enjoying all the consular benefits: they were exempt from wearing the yellow star, and some of them were allowed to use the embassy vehicles and the consular telephone as part of their "consular" work. Kraus himself traveled in a car bearing the Swiss flag, driven by a Swiss driver.
The Swiss consulate in Budapest was too small to take on such an enormous operation. Arthur Weiss, the Jewish owner of the Glass House, gave Kraus the keys to his enormous factory, and Lutz issued Swiss diplomatic immunity to the building. A Swiss flag was hung at the entrance. "I chose the Glass House because I feared that there would be a lot more trouble and I knew that this building could hold a lot of Jews in a time of need," Kraus wrote years later.
Stepping up the rescue efforts
In October 1944, Horthy is deposed and the Pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party takes power. A ghetto is established in Budapest and all the city's Jews between the ages of 16 and 40, excluding foreign nationals, are told to report to work camps. Hungary's national radio station announces three times a day that individuals holding Swiss documents are exempt from reporting for duty and can move freely during all hours of the day (Jews were forbidden from exiting their houses for more than two hours each day).
Thousands of Hungarian Jews clamor to the Glass House in search of Swiss papers, including Jews already slated to cross the border into Germany. A photo taken by an unknown photographer during that time depicts masses of people crowding the building's doors holding out their arms.
Lutz and Kraus step up their rescue efforts. Beyond the 40,000 certificates, now tens of thousands are issued forged documents, printed both inside the Glass House and elsewhere on paper stolen from the same printing house that printed the valid documents for the Swiss. The documents provide a sense of security, but in some cases they are recognized as forgeries by the authorities and their holders are sent to the extermination camps.
When Eichmann and the S.S. seek to bring all the Jews in the Budapest ghetto to prepare them for transportation to extermination camps, Kraus approaches Lutz and asks him to grant additional houses extraterritorial status. Lutz purchases 76 houses in Budapest and gives them Swiss immunity. Thousands of Jews possessing Swiss documents are given refuge in these safe houses. These houses are seen as Swiss territory in every respect, and their inhabitants are protected from being deported or taken to work camps. The Red Cross provides them with food and basic supplies.
Lutz's daring plan is adopted by other diplomats hailing from neutral countries. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg turns 28 houses in Budapest into Swedish territory, housing 4,500 Jews. The Spanish, Portuguese and Vatican legations arrive at a similar agreement with the Hungarian authorities: Spain is allowed to hand out 1,500 certificates, Portugal 700 and the Vatican 3,000. Signs are posted on the safe houses declaring that they are under the protection of the legation and that foreigners are not allowed to enter. All the houses protected by foreign legations are dubbed an "international ghetto".
Kraus purchases another factory, a textile mill, and rents the football association headquarters that shares a wall with the Glass House in order to house the thousands of Jews he aims to save. Some 3,000 people crowd into the Glass House alone, sleeping side by side, head to toes, not daring leave the building for any reason. They sleep in every available space, in cellars, hallways, on tables, in attics. On Shabbat they all hold a collective Kiddush.
Youngsters belonging to the Zionist youth movement become Kraus' assistants. Pinhas Rosenbaum, a young Hungarian Jew at the Glass House, gets his hands on an Arrow Cross uniform and goes out in disguise every day to hand out dozens of Schutz-Passes to Jews. Tova Singer, a 12-year-old girl, takes a forged document stating that she is Christian, and helps transport orphan children from the ghetto to Red Cross orphanages.
Meir Friedman, a Glass House survivor recalls how the document disseminators became bolder and bolder as time went by. "Dr. Shendor Unger, one of the Zionist bureaucrats, took a consulate vehicle and drove alongside the death march from Budapest to Vienna. Those who were able to say their names were provided with documents on the spot, in the car. They filled out a form and handed it to them. In 90 percent of the cases, the Hungarians had no choice but to honor these papers. Another car that followed the march took those people back to Budapest."
In November 1944, the systematic extermination of Jews left outside the safe houses begins. Death marches to the Austrian border take 2,000 Jews to their deaths each day, in the blistering cold. Kraus and Lutz debate whether or not to continue issuing Schutz-Passes, because if they were to issue more papers than they were allotted the trick would likely be discovered, jeopardizing the entire operation. In the end they decide to keep going.
Clerks and youth movement members work entire nights signing certificates. Kraus' people and members of the Swedish and Swiss legations go out into the streets, handing out life-saving papers with the ink still wet. They go to the death marches and hand out Schutz-Passes. The Hungarians are forced to release another group of people every time.
Holocaust researcher Dr. Ayala Nadivi explains that "it made no difference who received [the documents]. Young, old, men, women, they gave them to whomever they could."
According to Kraus' own account, up to 60 or 70 thousand people were in the safe houses. "It emerged that only 32,000 Jews were in the ghetto, while there were some 150,000 Jews in Budapest at the time," Kraus wrote after the war. "That is when the authorities decided to start looking for the missing Jews."
The attacks against the remaining Jews become worse. The Nazis start taking Jews to the banks of the Danube River, stripping them of their clothes and shooting them to death. Their bodies are then thrown into the river.
"We slept on the tables"
The Arrow Cross try to enter the Glass House and the other safe houses several times, under the pretext that they are looking for forged documents, but they retreat after Lutz steps in, asserting the buildings' diplomatic immunity.
Meir Friedman was 18 years old when he entered the Glass House. In the spring of 1944 he and his family fled from northern Hungary and headed to Budapest. "Lutz was a true righteous gentile. After all, he would have had to be blind not to see through the maneuver that Kraus and the Zionist youth movement had undertaken. Lutz pretended not to know," Friedman recalls.
"It was a miracle from above that 3,000 people were able to fit inside that building. The conditions were not good, but it was Holocaust deluxe compared to what the people on the outside were going through. I lived in a niche between the office and the top floor, together with several other people. Everyone tried to keep themselves occupied, so they wouldn't go completely crazy," he says.
"There was a cellar for Orthodox Jews. They studied Torah in there without stopping. There was an attic for the Hapoel Hamizrachi party. There was a cellar for Hashomer Hatzair with counselors for children and lectures for adults. There was no shortage of lecturers, professors and doctors among us. I remember someone handing out fliers about choir rehearsals."
Friedman helped affix photos to printed certificates. "The documents didn't provide absolute protection, but most of the Nazis honored them. There were instances, however, when they tore the paper into pieces and took the Jew."
Didn't the Nazis notice that tens of thousands of Jews became Swiss nationals right under their nose?
"Maybe they did notice, but they couldn't change extraterritorial laws. They wanted to show the world that they respected international law."
"On December 31 members of the Arrow Cross entered the Glass House compound in order to take us to the Danube. I will never forget it, because of the bitter cold. We were outside for two hours, until the Swiss embassy intervened and they were forced to let us go back in. Apparently the ruling rabble wanted to be seen as a legitimate government so they respected the Swiss."
Friedman's wife, Vera (Zipora) arrived in Budapest from Vienna at the age of 5, shortly after Kristallnacht. Her father was taken to a work camp and she and her mother hid with relatives in the city. When she was 11, the Arrow Cross rose to power.
"One day, Pinhas Rosenbaum came to us dressed as a Nazi officer. We were startled. We didn't know who he was. After the guard left the building, he immediately started speaking Yiddish so that we wouldn't be scared. He took my mother and me to the Glass House," she recounts.
"The front of the building was impressive and unusual. It was made entirely of glass. Inside were offices, a yard and warehouses. People slept on huge tables, and beneath them. Twenty people on the table and another ten below. There were families in every corner. We lived on the ground floor."
"On Shabbat we would hold a collective Kiddush and everyone sang. During Hanukkah we lit candles. We weren't sad together, but each one of us was sad by himself. Everyone had one suitcase that served as a closet as well as a partition from the person sleeping on the other side."
"The youngsters who were out dressed as Nazis also made sure there was food, and we got food from the Red Cross. Peas, mushrooms, cans. The sanitary conditions were rough -- there were only four or five bathrooms for 3,000 people. People stood in line for the bathroom for hours. We bathed once a week. Men bathed in the yard in subzero temperatures, and the women used one pail filled with ice water in a corner. Once a week it was obscured with a curtain."
"Every day in the afternoon we had a Bnei Akiva meeting. We sang and talked about Eretz Israel. We heard that all the Jews in Europe had been murdered. All my relatives in Poland and Vienna. My mother's eight siblings. We never knew if we would survive. Every day was a surprise. We asked ourselves questions. We knew that we had a job -- to keep the fire burning and go to Israel to build a Jewish life."
Meir Friedman met his wife after the war, at a Bnei Akiva chapter in Hungary. Together they moved to Israel as part of the youth movement, and later married and had three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In February 1945, with the liberation of Budapest, it became clear that more than 100,000 Jews in the city had survived. Several days before the liberation, the owner of the Glass House, Arthur Weiss, was caught and murdered by the Nazis. His wife and son survived, and moved to the U.S. after the war.
Carl Lutz was one of the first to be awarded the title "righteous gentile" by Yad Vashem. In 1965, Israel issued a medal in his honor, and a street in Haifa was named after him.
Moshe Kraus moved to Israel and ran an institution for young boys. He married a Holocaust survivor from Budapest. The two had no children.
The Swiss government honored Kraus for saving 30,000 Hungarian Jews. But when Dr. Nadivi began her doctoral research on the Palestine Office in Budapest, she could find no information about Kraus in the Yad Vashem archives.
"It's sad. He was an enormous rescuer. There was no one like him. There was no other rescue operation during the Holocaust that saved so many Jews thanks to the initiative of one person. Thousands followed in the path that he paved -- members of youth movements, who also saved others," Nadivi says.
At the end of the war, when the Jewish Agency told Lutz that he would be inducted into the Jewish National Fund's "Golden Book" of honor and that a ceremony would be held to honor him, he thanked them, but informed them that it was Kraus who should receive the honor, because without him, the operation would have never succeeded. As the ceremony neared, Lutz wrote the JNF again asking them to recognize Kraus' contribution. But then, at the lavish ceremony, no one mentioned Kraus. Only Lutz praised him again and again.

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