While the Nazis targeted all rabbonim for special treatment, they focused particular venom on prominent Chasidic leaders in Poland, Galicia, Hungary, Transylvania and Ukraine. These were marked men from the moment the Nazis overran their region.
The admorim from Ger, Belz and Satmar were at the top of the “wanted” list. Huge prices were put on their heads, and Nazi spies, informers and collaborators searched everywhere for them. As outlined in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, the Gerrer and Belzer rebbes managed in separate odysseys to escape the Nazis’ clutches, reaching the shores of Eretz Yisroel in 1940 and 1944, respectively.
The Satmar Rebbe’s fate was harsher; he fell into Nazi-Hungarian hands after being caught trying to escape Budapest following the Nazi invasion in March, 1944. Miraculously, he was not shot on the spot, but was herded into the Clug ghetto which was soon to be liquidated.
At the time of his capture, the rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, was 58 years old. He had served as the rov in the Transylvanian town of Satu Mare since 1934, and as the leader of the chasidim in the region since the death of his father, Rav Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum of Sighet (the Kedushas Yom Tov).
From 1942, when the first refugees reached Hungary, the rebbe was a driving force behind the rescue committee of Orthodox Jews in Transylvania and then in Budapest.
Witness testimony from Rabbi S.B. Sofer, who reached Eretz Yisroel in 1943, describes how the rebbe threw himself into helping refugees find housing, and into financing smuggling operations to bring larger numbers of Jews from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary. Sofer, who published his account in the newspaper Kol Yisroel in 1945, stated that many of these refugees were sheltered in Satmar mosdos and placed in Orthodox Jewish homes throughout the region.
The rebbe worked with HIJEFS (Swiss aid organization) activists in Switzerland, led by dedicated askonim Yitzchok and Recha Sternbuch, who viewed the rebbe as their representative and trustee. He also worked in cooperation with Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl and Rav Shmuel Ungar, the Roshei Yeshiva of Nitra.
Letters penned by the Satmar Rebbe describing the dire need for rescue funds arrived together with Rav Weissmandl’s passionate pleas, alerting Jews in the free countries about the extermination and begging for funds to save lives.
In a letter to the Sternbuchs from Budapest, the rebbe urged them to launch an emergency rescue network in the free world to provide massive aid for the refugees and to try to rescue prominent rebbes from Poland who were being hunted by the Nazis. The rebbe implored them to act quickly before it was too late, stressing that speed was critical in saving Jews from death. (Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder)
Last Surviving Jewish Community Confronts The Beast
The Hungarian Jewish community was the last surviving Jewish community in Europe at this time. Life in Hungary was fraught with anti-Jewish persecutions but the systematic deportations carried out in other Nazi-occupied lands had not taken place here.
[A single deportation of 25,000 refugees and Hungarian Jews caught without papers had taken place in Kamenetz-Podolski in 1941, where Einsatzgruppen aided by Hungarian soldiers and Ukrainian police had massacred 25,000 men, women and children.]
Then, in March 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary, deposing President Horthy who had resisted pressure to deport the Jews, and installing the violently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross regime. Led by top henchman Eichmann, the Gestapo immediately set in motion the deportation and killing machinery.
The Germans were losing the war when their tanks rolled over the Hungarian border but impending defeat did not deter the Nazi leadership in its depraved war to obliterate every last Jew. Ignoring pleas from the German front for trucks and trains to transport war supplies, Hitler instead ordered the SS to commandeer Hungary’s railway system to transport Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz.
The deportations were carried out with great violence over a period of two months. Forty-five trainloads of Jews left each day. On arrival in Auschwitz, 12,000 souls a day were gassed, almost half a million in total, including those who died from inhuman slave labor.
Manhunt for The Rebbe
As Satu Mare fell under the Nazi boot, word spread that a search for the rebbe was underway. Chasidim attempted to smuggle him to Romania with the help of a Hungarian officer, in a car supposedly under the protection of the International Red Cross. They were caught by Hungarian police at a checkpoint and interned in the Clug (Klausenberg) ghetto.
The Kastner-Eichmann negotiations were in progress at that time. These were talks initiated by S.S. Major Dieter Wisleceny, Eichmann’s assistant in carrying out the Final Solution in Hungary.
After the Nazis occupied Hungary, Wisleceny contacted the heads of two of Budapest’s key Jewish organizations, the Zionist Vaadah, and the Jewish Council, one of whose leaders was Phylip Freudiger, the head of the Orthodox community.
The letter presented by Wisleceny to Freudiger was written in Hebrew by Rav Weissmandel and Gisi Fleishman of the Working Group in Slovakia. It stated that the Hungarian community faced imminent deportation and suggested that a ransom of 2 million dollars might neutralize the decree. Freudiger tried to negotiate this ransom but his efforts failed when the Nazis confiscated all Jewish bank accounts, turning most Hungarian Jews into paupers. (Heroine of Rescue, Friedenson/Kranzler)
Negotiations with Eichmann were then taken over by Rudolph Kastner, the representative of the Zionist Jewish Agency. Kastner promised a huge sum of money for the release of 750 Zionists in addition to about 300 of Kastner’s friends and relatives, and a further payment after the transport reached Spain or another neutral country.
In addition to money, Eichmann demanded another form of “currency”—validation. Kastner was expected to validate the Nazis’ lies to Hungarian Jews, who had been herded into ghettos and plundered of their possessions, that they were going to be peacefully “relocated.” Although Kastner knew the truth—that they were being taken to their deaths—he had to keep the ghettos calm so that the Jews would not resist deportation.
The terms of Kastner’s “pact with the devil” were divulged to no one in the Jewish community, even to Kastner’s Zionist friends. They surfaced, however, after the war at the Kastner-Greenwald trial in 1955.
In the meantime, Freudiger, with the help of wealthy businessman Gyula Link, bribed Wisleceny to allow eighty Jews from the Orthodox community to join the transport. This group included the Satmar Rebbe, the Rov of Debrecin (Rav Shlomo Zvi Strasser), and Rav Yonoson Steif. Freudiger demanded that these Torah leaders be included as a condition for the Orthodox community’s significant contribution to the ransom money for the transport.
In the end, 1684 Jews left Budapest on this train, believing they were going to Spain, as promised. Instead, they were taken first to Austria, and then to a special section of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where for nine months they subsisted in an environment of filth and abuse. Despite the beatings and abuse, they were treated less murderously than the rest of the inmates at Bergen-Belsen where brutality, starvation and illness killed 50,000 people.
Prisoners in Bergen-Belsen
“We found out that there had been no technical glitch. This was not a temporary stop—we were prisoners in Bergen-Belsen,” wrote survivor Peska Friedman in Going Forward (Mesorah Publications). She described different aspects of the ordeal, including the daily appel, when women prisoners in the Kastner transport stood at attention at roll-call every morning for hours at a time, in sun, rain, snow and sleet.
“The German women who counted us carried wooden clubs and would pick on people at random, beating them for nothing,” recalled Friedman.
“Throughout this ordeal, we had no idea how lucky we were [in comparison with the other Bergen-Belsen inmates]. Just across the fence from us we caught glimpses of the Jewish prisoners from Holland. We still looked like human beings, but they did not. They were musselmen, emaciated prisoners walking on their last legs. They all had the same black, sunken eyes, lifeless holes…
“And yet these Dutchmen had faith. They had a Chumash, a shofar and even a machzor. How they kept these things in Bergen-Belsen is impossible to fathom…They lent the shofar to the Satmar Rebbe for Rosh Hashana and there was a minyan in his barracks. About two hundred people from the transport came to daven … Some of the main tefillos had been copied by hand. We women listened with our hearts swelling with emotion, threatening to burst…”
Yom Kippur in Bergen-Belsen
“On Yom Kippur we assembled again and the rebbe spoke at length before Kol Nidrei,” the author continued. “He spoke in Yiddish…I can still see in my mind the people in the barracks listening and crying. They discussed his words for days afterward, you could see how heartened they were. In the cesspool of the German death machine, before the gates of Hell, we had heard words of chizuk from a tzaddik that would carry us to the end of our ordeal.” (Friedman, Going Forward)
Other survivors recorded similar memories. “I knew that the rebbe through his prayers was arousing and fighting against the dreadful verdict. It strengthened us and gave us renewed trust in G-d.” (Kraus, Divrei Shalom)
A captivating account of his encounter with the Satmar Rebbe was written by survivor Ferenz Kennedy and published in the Hungarian newspaper, Oj Kelet in 1959. The memoir was translated into Yiddish and published in Dos Yiddishe Vort.
Kennedy, a Hungarian-Jewish author, writes that he was far removed from Jewish faith and tradition and had never heard of the Satmar Rebbe before meeting him on the “Kastner train.” Later, they were placed in the same barracks in Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
“Fifteen years ago, on July 2, 1944, I first met the Satmar Rebbe at the Hungarian-Slovakian border in Madiarovar, where our train was stopped for two days,” wrote Kennedy. “There was confusion among the guards over whether our train was supposed to go to Auschwitz (in Poland) or to Auschpitz (Austria).”
Panic set in when the passengers heard the word “Auschwitz.” They were forced to spend two full days inside the cattle cars in despair, completely in the dark as to the intense negotiations being conducted over their fate.
“Outside, along the side of the tracks we noticed a Jew with a nearly gray beard pacing back and forth, murmuring his prayers or melodies, moving around like a wounded lion with his head bowed. When I asked one of my friends about this man, he replied, ‘He’s the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Teitelbaum.’”
Eventually, the train proceeded to Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany and Kennedy found himself placed in the same barracks as the rebbe. “I lived with the Satmar Rebbe for five months in Men’s Block E in Bergen-Belsen,” related the author. “I do not know how to explain this, but it is a fact that the Germans permitted him to keep his beard, which the rebbe concealed with a kerchief around his face, pretending to be suffering from a toothache.”
The Hungarian writer was fascinated by the rebbe. He describes what he observed of his daily regimen.
“As far as I know, he fasted two or three days a week… He did not eat the camp food but lived on water and cooked potatoes. You could hear his voice in the barracks almost all day long and into the night…praying and studying in a mournful tune, praying for mercy. He fought against the decree and prayed for rescue… For years afterward I could hear that melody in my head… And I remembered his gestures, his sobbing…”
“Several of the barracks held prayer services, and in our barrack the Satmar Rebbe led the Yom Kippur service,” the writer recounted. “Bela Zholt and Aladar Komlosh (two famous Jewish Hungarian novelists) passed by outside. I approached them and invited them to listen to the prayers of Rabbi Teitelbaum. He was wrapped in his tallis, rocking back and forth with all his limbs and pouring out his soul to his Creator.
“When we left the barrack, the cynical Bela Zsolt had tears welling in his eyes. And Aladar Komlosh replied that if prayer truly existed in the world, it was this true prayer service of the Satmar Rebbe. Although far from religious faith and tradition, we all felt the power of something holy, and we could not remain indifferent to it.”
“We Need Rachamei Shomayim To Be Liberated Alive”
Kennedy goes on to relate that in exchange for bribes, he cajoled newspapers from one of the guards including “…Goebbels’ newspaper, Das Deutsche Reich, as well as the Völkischer Baobachter, the Pressburg newspaper Grenzbote, and other German newspapers. This is how we found out about the Allied invasion of Normandy. We heard the news about the capture of Warsaw and Paris, and we also learned about the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler.”
The writer recalls that in contrast to the excitement the inmates felt at the news that Germany was losing the war, “the rebbe received the news about the Allied victories with indifference. He commented that no matter how close to victory the Allies were, ‘we still need great mercy from Heaven to be liberated from here alive.’
“Only once did I see him lose his composure,” commented Kennedy about the rebbe. “It was on a Sabbath afternoon when he was deep in study with Rabbi Shlomo Zvi Strasser of Debrecin. They disagreed heatedly about some matter. The rebbe’s eyes flashed as he made his point, and the 90 year-old Rabbi Strasser yielded to his forcefulness.
“I admit that I was affected by an aura he exuded,” reflected the author. “Surrounded by barbed wire, in the dirt and vermin of that dreadful place… it seemed the shadow of the Angel of Death was weakened and I began believing in Heavenly forces.”
During the nine months of the passengers’ incarceration in Bergen-Belsen, the Weissmandl-Freudiger-Sternbuch network frantically colluded to bribe the Nazis into releasing the transport. As the threat of Auschwitz mounted, the Swiss-based askan Yitzchok Sternbuch, who had no further rescue funds at his disposal, placed a personal deposit for a letter of credit for forty trucks, to be turned over to the Germans in Switzerland.
Historical documents archived in Washington attest that the desperate bribes and ruses employed by Weissmandl, Freudiger and Sternbuch kept the ransom negotiations going to the point that the transport was not diverted to Auschwitz.
U.S. Ambassador Harrison wrote to the State Dept on August 21, 1944:
“…The offer of the 40 trucks which Sternbuch brought to our attention was part of the deal which [Gyula] Link, with Freudiger of the Orthodox groups in Budapest, negotiated and relayed to Sternbuch. On the basis of these offers, the Gestapo in Budapest refrained from sending to Auschwitz the following groups totaling 17,290 souls: 1690 were sent to the camp of Bergen-Belsen, approximately 15,000 [actually 18,000] sent to an unknown destination in Austria to be kept “on ice,” and 600 Jews still confined in Budapest.”
Reception in Switzerland
In the beginning of December, 1944, 1300 people from the Hungarian transport including the writer, Ferenz Kennedy, were released. In the article he wrote for the Hungarian paper, Oj Kelet, Kennedy recalled the reception they received in Switzerland after disembarking.
“In Switzerland, one cold December night, we marched along St. Galen Street to the barracks that had been prepared for us. On the corners of the street we were met by fellow Jews who were not permitted to approach us, but tossed apples and sweets our way. We caught them with both hands. The Jews who threw us gifts had one question: “Where is the rebbe?” [Rav Teitelbaum and 300 people from the transport were still imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen.]
“Bela Zsolt strode alongside me, observing in agitation, ‘You see, Ferenz, I am nothing! No one knows me even though hundreds of thousands of people have read my novels and poetry. No one is waiting for me; they only know the rebbe. They are only waiting for him!’”
“Zsolt and other celebrities in our group were very disappointed at the reception. They had expected great honor after their liberation but here in Switzerland, almost no one paid any attention to them,” wrote Kennedy. “The person everyone was interested in was the Satmar Rebbe. ‘Where is the rabbi? How is he feeling?’ everyone asked. We came to realize it was not the professionals and academics who were considered indispensable, but rather the quiet, haggard holy man.”
The rebbe and most of the remaining passengers on the Hungarian train finally reached Switzerland on December 7, 1944, four days before Chanukah.
Snatched from the inferno, the rebbes of Satmar, Ger and Belz began gathering survivors together and forming the nucleus of communities even before their own wounds had healed. Their grief over the horrors and tragedies of the Holocaust ignited the passion and energy to rebuild what was destroyed.
The unceasing toil of these spiritual giants brought forth from the ashes the flourishing present-day kehilos of Satmar, Ger and Belz with their renowned Torah mosdos and communal institutions in Israel, the United States and the world over.
The Kastner Affair
Rudolph Kastner, a name infamously linked with Adolph Eichmann and the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry, was celebrated as a hero of rescue after the war, but later unmasked as a Nazi collaborator in a sensational 1955 trial in Jerusalem.
The trial started out as a low-key libel lawsuit aimed at silencing allegations by an elderly Hungarian Jew who claimed that Kastner was a traitor to his people, and had helped top Nazi war criminals escape justice. Due to shocking disclosures, it became a riveting drama that transfixed the nation.
Witnesses in the trial accused Kastner of having knowingly misled his fellow Jews about the Auschwitz crematoria and the Nazis’ true intentions. They said he had deceived the masses into believing they were being relocated to a city called Kenyermaze in Hungary, where families would remain together.
Survivors, some of them from Kastner’s own home town of Clug, stated they had been lied to by members of the rescue committee who were under Kastner’s authority. They told of how they, along with countless family members and friends, allowed themselves to be rounded up and herded into walled ghettoes, putting up no resistance because they believed Kastner that their lives were not in danger.
Once they were sealed into ghettos, the Nazis dropped all pretenses. Men, women and children were clubbed and bayoneted into cattle cars and shipped, not to Kenyermaze but to Auschwitz to be murdered.
About 450,000 of Hungary’s Jews were deported in this manner, after the Jews had been lulled into accepting the myth of “relocation” to Kenyermaze.
The trial ended with the chief justice, Judge Binyamin Halevi, condemning Kastner for collusion with the Nazis, saying he had “sold his soul to the devil.”
Immortalized by Perfidy
“The Kastner Affair” might have been largely forgotten by now if not for a 1961 book by renowned author Ben Hecht that brought it lasting infamy. Hecht gave a searing account of the trial that made it front-page news in its day. His book, Perfidy, the tragedy of a man who set out to rescue Jews and ended up becoming an accomplice in the genocide of his people.
The trial had exposed not only Kastner but the ruling Zionist power clique, including top officials of the Jewish Agency of Palestine, for knowingly abandoning the Jews of Hungary to their fate. As a result, Ben Gurion and the Mapai Party were toppled from office in the next election.
Had Kastner and the government simply ignored Greenwald, much of this sordid story would never have come to light. But Ben Gurion and his clique overplayed their hand by suing him for libel. As testimony from one survivor after another drove home the enormity of Kastner’s betrayal, the once-proud plaintiff became a sweating, beleaguered defendant.
He was forced to admit he had ignored orders to take the Rescue Committee underground to organize effective resistance and rescue because he preferred to conduct direct negotiations with Eichmann. As a result of these negotiations, the Nazis agreed to allow a trainload of 1684 Jews to leave Hungry for Switzerland—for a staggering price.
Keeping the Secret of Auschwitz Under Wraps
The price was Kastner’s promise to keep order in the ghettos, making sure the masses of Jews did not know they were being sent to their deaths. According to survivor testimony, Kastner guarded the ghastly secret; he actively kept such information secret from them and from the wider Jewish world.
The Nazis needed this collaboration because Eichmann had been dispatched to deport the country’s 800,000 Jews to Auschwitz with a skeletal force of a few hundred officers, bolstered by about 5000 Hungarian Arrow Cross policemen. This force was too small to put down a second “Warsaw ghetto uprising” which might erupt were the Jewish population to realize they were being shipped to death factories.
Eichmann thus sought a means of lulling the Jews into passivity by hiding from them their coming murder. One strategy was to hold out the possibility of his allowing a handful of Jews freedom in return for “assistance” from Jewish leaders
One form of assistance was the ill-fated “Blood For Goods” mission in which a Jewish activist, Joel Brand, was sent abroad by the Nazis to propose the “sale” of 1,000,000 Jews for 10,000 trucks. Eichmann promised that the deported Jews would be “put on ice” at Auschwitz until he heard word from Brand that the deal was accepted by Allied leaders.
This was proven to be nothing more than a depraved Nazi ruse to raise hopes of rescue among the Jews, as well as drive a wedge between the Allies while the gassing of 12,000 Jews a day in Auschwitz continued unabated.
A second strategy was to keep alive the illusion that the Nazis were open to “negotiations.” For this deception, Kastner was a perfect foil. The Nazis knew how to bait him to serve their ends; granting him and his Rescue Committee special privileges such as being allowed to drive their own cars, make telephone calls and not wear the Jewish star.
Saving Arch Murderers from Prosecution
Kastner’s crimes were not limited to aiding the Nazis during the Holocaust, claimed Malkiel Greenwald, the elderly Hungarian Jew whose memo ignited the Kastner trial. He also accused Kastner of shielding SS Colonel Kurt Becher, a top Nazi war criminal, from prosecution at the Nuremberg war trials.
Becher, former head of the Third Reich’s “Economic Department” who oversaw the bloody plundering and extortion of Jewish property, was set free and went on to become one of the richest men in post-war Germany.
[Eichmann and Wisleceny were later executed as war criminals, Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961; Wisleceny in Czechoslovakia, 1948.]
Kastner denied Greenwald’s allegations, only to be exposed as a liar when his signed affidavit, addressed to the Nuremberg War Tribunal justices, was read aloud in court. In his affidavit, Kastner defended Becher as a man of “honorable intentions” who “wanted to help Jews.”
That he felt compelled even in freedom to defend the mass murderers of the Jewish people demonstrated the depth of his treachery, Greenwald charged.
Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl who had observed Kastner up close during the war as he hobnobbed with Nazi leaders, advised Greenwald’s attorney, Shmuel Tamir, (who flew from Jerusalem to Nitra to consult with him) to “look for the money.” According to Tamir, Weissmandl suspected Kastner’s twisted loyalties were tied to mercenary motives.
While hiding in a bunker with other Jews, Rav Weismandl had received a surprise visit from Kastner and Nazi officials who proposed a deal: Weissmandl would solicit a large sum of money from Jews outside occupied Europe in exchange for the release of the “Kastner train” plus all occupants of Weissmandl’s bunker. (This was in addition to the suitcases of gold, diamonds and cash the Nazis had received up front before the train started out.)
Rav Weissmandl suspected that Nazi leader Becher and others knew the whereabouts of this massive fortune. Once freed from prison (with Kastner’s help), they and Kastner, too, would have access to it. (Shmuel Tamir interview with Claude Lanzmann, US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Kastner was ambushed and killed near his home by an unknown assailant as he awaited the verdict of a second trial, in which the government had appealed Judge Halevi’s ruling.