Been thinking about the lessons of history,
In the aftermath of yet another attack.
And that looming warning of George Santayama that one who doesn’t remember history is doomed to repeat it.
Been thinking over a moment in the darkest years of our Jewish history – in the midst of the Holocaust.
In Hungary, last of the European countries to be occupied.
When Hungary invaded, immediate devastation.
Deported at a rate of 12,000 Jews a day – to Auschwitz.
Rudolf Kastner, a Zionist involved in a small, not partic powerful group known as the Vaada, put himself forward to negotiate with Adolf Eichman, one of the most significant architects of the Holocaust.
He succeeded in getting 1,685 Jews – men, women and children out of Hungary, to escape the gas chambers. He got them to Switzerland and most arrived in Israel. They survived.
Sounds like a good news story, right?
Here’s where it gets more complicated.
Kastner’s negotiations at the SS Headquarters in Bucharest didn’t go down well with everyone. What’s he doing wandering in and out of this place of evil? And then these 1600 souls, Eichmann didn’t just give Katzner these Jews. They were bought, at the cost of $1,000 a head – in 1944 prices – some $14,000 a head in today’s money. Katzner, knowing that most didn’t have these sums auctioned off the first 150 seats on the train to raise the funds to pay for the others.
Eventually the money was paid off, replete with leaders of the Hungarian community, a famous psychologist, an opera singer and a group of Polish orphans. How would you have allocated your notional 1600 tickets. What would you have done if told you needed to raise over $20,000,000 dollars to get 1600 of your fellow Jews out from under the shadow of the death camps?
Eventually a train left, the first 600 souls. Eichmann broke his word, sent the train to Bergen Belsen, but Katzner went back in to negotiate –members of his own family were on the train. Eventually Eichmann relented, the train left Bergen Belsen for Switzerland. The passengers survived. And another train followed.
Step forward 8 years, 1952, now living in Israel, Rudolf Katzner – now known as Israel Katzner – is working for the Labour Government as a spokesperson in the Dept of Trade when a article accusing him of cosying up to the Nazis was published. The Government sued, in Katzner’s defence, for libel. The trial became a cause celebre and the allegation of libel was defeated. In other words the attack on Katzner was allowed to stand.
The judge, held [and I quote]
The temptation was great. Kastner was given the actual possibility of rescuing, for the time being, 600 souls from the imminent holocaust, with some chance of somewhat increasing their numbers by payment or further negotiations. Not just any 600 souls, but those he considered, for any reason, most prominent and suitable for rescue...But timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts). By accepting this present Kastner had sold his soul to the devil.
Katzner sold his soul to the devil.
When the Israeli Labour government elected to appeal the ruling, the several right-wing parties brought a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister Moshe Sharett’s government and Sharrett resigned. It took David Ben Gurion to bring stability back to a rocked country.
Eventually the appeal succeeded. In part. In 1958 Katzner was absolved of sleeping with the devil. But not of some other elements of his behaviour, most notably writing a reference for on of the SS Officers with whom he negotiated which helped the officer, Kurt Becher, escape prosecution for Crimes Against Humanity.
There is also a huge question over whether Zrazner and his colleagues would should have put their efforts not into saving a few individuals, but instead doing everything they could to make known what they knew – that the relocating of Jews was simply a front for their being sent to death-camps.
But by the time the Appeal was decided, Katzner was dead. He was assassinated, by a Lechi hit squad – a Jewish hit squad. In January of this year previously confidential documents were released by Shin Bet which confirmed that Israel’s secret service agency knew Katzner was being targeted. The documents also reveal how a Shin Bet guard protecting Katzner was pulled off that duty days before the assassination, and have created even more confusion – was Shin Bet itself complicit in killing Katzner?
Is this getting difficult enough?
Let me do just one more layer of complexity.
On his train, arranged by a Zionist who bought the favours of senior Nazis was a Chasidic Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe – a man who opposed Zionism in the most brazen of terms. And a man who had only one message to the thousands of his Hungarian followers; don’t panic as the Nazis enter this country. Don’t lose faith and don’t believe anything the Zionists tell you. It’s just a test of faith and God will protect his people. Teitelbaum told thousands of his supporters to stay put. While he jumped on the train and was saved.
Sounds dodgy, but what would you do? Not even as question of the ethics of desertion, but also as a question of practicality. What would have happened if the Rebbe had terrified his followers with tales of an all-but inevitable death?
Can you, dare you judge?
Can you – of course you can’t – put yourself into the position of someone alive at that time.
Can you – of course you can’t – put yourself in the position of having only the knowledge that a person at that moment would have had. No 20/20 retrospective perfect vision.
I’m not entirely sure what has been bringing this story to mind, but I know when it came to mind. It came to mind when I heard the Israeli Prime Minister, evoking memories of the Holocaust to call on all Jews to move to Israel. ‘Yet again,’ PM Netanyahu noted this week, ‘Jews have been murdered on European soil just because they were Jews.’
When I do that most dangerous thing of turning to think about the Holocaust and the challenges experienced then, and then I think about what happened in Copenhagen, and Paris, and even those awful acts of antisemitism that occur in this country I just get struck by the absolute gulf between them. It’s not just that it was worse then and there than here and now. It’s that the issues are completely opposite. In Nazi occupied Europe the problem was institutional and state led. In England today the problem is the odd lunatic and the cancer of antisemitism is opposed in speech after speech and show of support after show of support at every level of government, the police and I could go on.
And as I struggle with this question – when do you leave, when do you hold fast to being part of a diasporah community and when do you flee in search of such safety as the one Jewish homeland can offer, I’ve been struck by this, well known, Talmudic story.
It’s a story about the failure of retreating behind a wall in a purely Jewish space. It’s a story about the importance of getting out among the nations. It’s the story of the destruction of the Second Temple. The Jews are besieged, surrounded by enemy forces. The Rabbis wanted to make peace with the Romans, but the zealots were so convinced that they must stand and fight; that they burnt their own food stores. It didn’t help. Jerusalem was plunged into famine. The leader of the Rabbis went to plead with the leader of the zealots – get me out of here so I can negotiate with the Romans. The Zealot leader felt he couldn’t back down in the face of his people.
Eventually the leader of the Rabbis is smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He negotiates for a future life for Judaism beyond the walls of Jerusalem. And as Jerusalem is destroyed a remnant survives and a Jewish life grows anew in Yavneh – the town Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai persuaded the Emperor Vespasian to give the Jews as the Second Israelite Commonwealth was destroyed and we were sent into exile.
What should I say about this story and its contemporary valence. Should I suggest that ‘yet again’ Israelite intransigence behind the walls is ratcheting up the tension between Israel and her neighbours to levels that threaten the survival of the Third Israelite Commonwealth? Should I say that Jews need to get beyond the walls to make peace even with their enemies before the walls of the Third Israelite Commonwealth are destroyed because of our own belligerence?
No, that would be an abuse of history. It would be a massive oversimplication of the relationship between then and there and here and now.
That phrase, from George Santayama, one who does not remember history is doomed to repeat it, it’s woefully inadequate. It’s not enough just to remember. To tell stories of the past where something has gone wrong for one reason or another.
You’ve got to go more carefully.
You’ve got to understand the ways that then and there is different from here and now.
You can’t evoke historical narratives, no matter how traumatic, and brandish them in a contemporary milieu and expect to be taken seriously.
The moral of the story is that there is no simple clear cut moral.
And a better slogan than Santayama’s is that of
HL Mencken, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’
The truth is that sometimes we have had to go.
Sometimes we have gone, and sometimes we have gone too late.
The truth is that Israel is a wonderful home for the Jewish people – but fear of the world outside isn’t the best reason to go and live there – it may even be a counterproductive reason.
There’s plenty to do, to learn from the lessons of history.
And the way in which we do, terrifyingly slip into repeating the past is terrible.
But oversimplification is not the answer.