Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Train

The Train

By Steven Plaut

Jewish Press (NY) July 19, 2012

The Train
By: Steven Plaut
Published: July 18th, 2012

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.

* * * * *

Rudolf Kastner was a pompous, arrogant and irritating person. He was
born and raised in the largest city in Transylvania, the
Hungarian-speaking territory now in Romania that has passed back and
forth between Hungary and Romania due to the frivolities of war and
politics. He rose to importance in the Hungarian Jewish community and
had the reputation of being an aristocratic "fixer" with ties to the

When war broke out, Hungary allied itself with Hitler's Germany.
Kastner served as a journalist and community leader, moving from
Transylvania to Budapest. Later, as a head of the Hungarian Judenrat,
he was able to move about freely throughout the war. His residence and
offices stood on Vaci Avenue, three blocks from my office today at
Central European University in Budapest, where I teach when I am not
in Israel.

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

* * * * *
Dr. David Kohn is alive thanks to the Kastner train.

It sounds bizarre today, but most of the surviving Jews in Budapest
were reluctant to sign up for the Kastner rescue train. Until 1944
Hungary was an independent, if oppressive, state allied with Hitler.
It was headed by Miklos Horthy, head of the Iron Cross fascist party.

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.

* * * * *

When the train reached the border with Germany, rumors again spread
that the train was going to be detoured to Auschwitz. But it continued
in the direction of Hannover, stopping at a station near the
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Originally built as a "stalag" camp for prisoners of war, this was to
be home for most of the inhabitants of the Kastner rescue train for
the next six months. It is still not clear why they were interned
there; it may have been because of internal disagreements within the
German regime about what to do with them. The original plan of sending
the train to Barcelona was no longer an option, as the Allies were
bombing rail tracks throughout German and France.

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.

* * * * *

Today Dr. Kohn is retired but still works many a long hour as one of
Israel's leading specialists on geriatric medicine. He sits opposite
me in our little Haifa neighborhood synagogue. We have a running joke:
when he goes to the bimah to say the priestly blessing, I guard his
shoes against any potential thieves. He lectures and consults. Every
Shavuos he gives a talk to our synagogue's late-night tikkun that
combines medical ethics with rabbinic sources and traditional Jewish

Whatever one thinks of Rudolf Kastner, David Kohn survived the Nazis
and has lived a rich, accomplishment-filled life thanks to the train
odyssey that will forever bear Kastner's name.


Fast afterword. Two brief items were removed from the original
article in editing. The first is the fact that David Kohn, hero of
the piece, is evidently the only person who kept and preserved a
journal of the train and the trip to freedom. The article is largely
based upon it.

In addition, one important segment was removed by the editor on
grounds that it might be offensive. I attach it here and you can
decide yourself how offensive it is:

'The Satmar Rebbe ended every Sabbath prayer service by singing the
"Ani Maamin" song, bloody tears in his eyes, about the anticipated
arrival of the Messiah. Kohn had the "opportunity" on several
occasions to share the latrine with the Rebbe, and jokes today that
many a Satmar Chassid is green with envy at the boy who was blessed
with the chance of observing the majestic bottom of the famous Rebbe.'

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