Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Some Hero


I have just come from an mind altering experience of a lecture at the Central European University about Renso Kastner, the Hungarian lawyer who in 1944, heading a Jewish aid agency, with the head Rabbis of Budapest made a deal with the SS officer Adolph Eichmann to save 1,000 selected rich famous, important, for a thousand dollars each while about 400,000 others, told they were going for resettlement, were transported to Poland and three quarters killed upon arrival. Neither the aid agency nor the Rabbis warned the people getting on the trains they were going to their deaths, though it is certain that the leaders knew. Eichmann later said making the deal he explicitly demanded the silence for the sake of transport efficiency.

The lecturer was himself on the train of the saved 1,000 or so that eventually ended up in Switzerland. He said Kastner is a hero.

For Kastner to be a hero he would have to have done something good for good reasons. But it is unlikely that he was good. He was not only a politician, who hypocritical and self-interested are the opposite of heroic, but also had a reputation of being extremely arrogant and dishonest.

Did Kastner act for good reasons, do something good? He did save 1,000. Didn't he? We are playing philosophers here, not politicians, so let's slow down, look at this carefully. Could those 1,000 have used their millions of dollars to bribe their way out, without Kastner's organization? Almost certainly they could have. And note here that Eichmann did not keep his bargain with Kastner: the special train of the saved went to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and only months later, after additional negotiations and bribery got to Switzerland.

From this we can see that Kastner exchanged a "maybe save" of 1,000 rich, who probably could have used their money to save themselves anyway, as others had done already, for the certain deaths of 300,000 to 400,000. He made a bad deal!

Still, to the audience in Budapest Kastner is a hero. 1,000 maybe saved is better than nothing. They assume the 300,000-400,000 were certain to die.

They assume that if the Jewish aid organization Kastner headed and the religious organizations the Rabbis headed told the people boarding the trains they were going to their deaths, 13,000 leaving Hungary each day, they would not have been able to save themselves.

This is the center of the argument. I am tempted to scream and yell at this point. I know almost everyone around me, I am at the University Library now, sees nothing strange here. Just a few minutes ago I discussed the question with the guard at the door coming in, and he saw nothing unreasonable in what Kastner did. He kept asking me about the numbers. How many saved on the train to Switzerland. How many killed in Poland. How many Germans were in Budapest.

The lecturer, the 11 year old on Kastner's train, says that Kastner did not have to say where the trains were going because people suspected. Certainly they did.

But what a difference there is between suspecting you will die one day and knowing you will be dead in 48 hours!

The lecturer, a professor himself, and the audience of University professors, in their unreal lives of chasing money and academic position do not see this difference.

If they did, they would come to two conclusions:

1. The people about to die deserved the chance to make the choice themselves, the choice whether or not they should try to save themselves. They literally had nothing to lose by trying to save themselves. Some at least would have escaped, that is certain.

2. Kastner, again, an ugly and vicious man by all accounts, set up an organization to deal with Nazis of similar character. As the rich could have bribed on their own without Kastner, other kinds of organization could have been set up to help people escape, and could not have done a worse job. The rich would have bribed their way out one way or another, and Kastner lost all the rest.

Some hero.