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Perfidy, by Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht’s “Perfidy”1

With each passing year, the bureaucratically organized murder by the Nazis of six million Jews, because they were Jews, becomes increasingly harder to understand. The gigantic proportions of the catastrophe dwarf the puniness of the rescue. How was it possible, we repeat and repeat, for the Germans to have killed in cold blood millions of old men and young, grandmothers, mothers, and children? Why did no one in the world stop the slaughter?

Ben Hecht, who has often played the enfant terrible of our time, has a clear and ringing reply: perfidy. The complexities and ambiguities, the hesitancies and qualifications, fall away. There is nothing equivocal about perfidy. “Everyone,” writes Ben Hecht, “Great Britain, the United States, and the leaders of world Jewry—traitors all! Murderers.”

Hecht’s accusations against Jewish leaders recall Joe McCarthy’s charges of treason. According to Senator McCarthy, we lost China to the Communists because for twenty years the White House was occupied by traitors: it was this kind of simplified version of history that gave great satisfaction to the uninformed and the bewildered.

As McCarthy hated his political opponents, the Democrats and liberal Republicans, more than he hated the Russian or Chinese Communists, so, too: Hecht hates the Germans, but even more he hates Mapai and the Jewish Agency; most particularly he hates Weizmann, Ben Gurion, and Moshe Sharett. Yet to pursue the parallel—McCarthy’s irresponsible charges included some elements of truth, however scanty, and Hecht’s dreadful accusations against Zionism’s leaders contain a few grim truths, too—not enough, certainly, to sustain his wildly improbable charges of perfidy, but perhaps enough to arouse suspicion and dismay among the uninformed. McCarthy had Alger Hiss, and Hecht has the Kastner case in Israel.

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Perfidy is a scenario-like version of the Kastner case, with heroes, heroines, villains, and flashbacks. In 1954 in Jerusalem, Malkiel Greenwald went on trial for libel. He had, in an issue of the mimeographed political gossip-sheet he published, accused Rudolf Kastner, while a member of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency in Budapest, of collaborating with the Nazis and thus being implicated in the murder of Hungarian Jews. Kastner, a respected member of Mapai, was employed by the government and the Jewish Agency in various posts. Previous innuendoes by the seventy-two-year-old Greenwald about other worthies had gone unnoticed, but unexpectedly, the government decided to come to Kastner’s defense and sued Greenwald for defamation. With Greenwald as defendant, Kastner was the one really on trial; but the case became mainly a vehicle for the terrorist Irgun and rightist Herut to vilify the Jewish Agency and Mapai. The Revisionists had reached bottom in Israel’s political life, with only barely more support than the Communists or the Arab parties. Thus the Greenwald-Kastner case, which should have examined some facts of the great Jewish catastrophe in the light of the profoundest problems of morality, became the ground for a political duel between the ins and the outs. Greenwald, a member of the Mizrachi, was deeply sympathetic to the Irgun. His son had died fighting with the Irgun; his daughter had been in the Irgun underground. Greenwald’s talented young defense counsel, Samuel Tamir, at twenty-three had been acting Irgun commander of Jerusalem. Kastner stood for the Establishment—the Jewish Agency and Mapai. His counsel was Hayyim Cohen, Israel’s Attorney General.

Greenwald had accused Kastner of failing to warn the Hungarian Jews of the planned deportations to Auschwitz, of rescuing only his relatives and friends, and of sharing in the ransom the Nazis had collected from the Jews. The charges were not new. Back in 1946, the Zionist movement, Mapai, and the Haganah had held secret hearings on Kastner’s transactions with Adolf Eichmann, Kurt Becher, and Dieter von Wisliceny. Apparently none of Kastner’s detractors—as numerous as his defenders—had been able to make a conclusive case against him.

Joel Brand, who had worked with Kastner in the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee in Budapest, was a witness at the Greenwald-Kastner case. Brand, a quiet unassuming man, was catapulted into world view in May 1944, when Eichmann sent him abroad on a mission to offer the Allies Jews in exchange for trucks.

Early in the trial, Tamir succeeded in establishing without a shadow of doubt, after Kastner’s original denials, that Kastner had voluntarily given an affidavit to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg on August 4, 1957, on behalf of SS Colonel Kurt Becher, and that the Allies had released Becher on the strength of Kastner’s statement. This immediately provoked wonder as to why the Israeli government was supporting Kastner so loyally. From then on nothing went well for Kastner.

The trial dragged on for nearly nine months, and then Judge Halevi took another nine months to write a 300-page judgment that almost completely upheld Greenwald’s charges. In negotiating with the Nazis, Kastner “had sold his soul to the devil,” Halevi ruled. Only one charge was not proved, that Kastner had shared in the loot paid to Becher to rescue the Hungarian Jews. Sidestepping the Herut-Mapai argument, Halevi addressed himself to the question of individual morality in the negotiating for Jewish lives with the Nazis. But he could scarcely have been unaware of the political effects of his decision. The next day the Attorney General announced that the government would appeal the case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Thereupon, Herut and the Communists each brought motions of non-confidence before the Knesset for the government’s handling of the case. The General Zionists abstained from voting; the government failed to obtain enough votes for confidence, and Prime Minister Sharett submitted his resignation.

On March 4, 1957, while the Supreme Court was deliberating his case, Kastner was shot in the street by assassins and died some days later. Another nine months elapsed before the five judges of the Supreme Court issued their decision on the appeal by the government: all upheld Halevi’s finding on Kastner’s guilt for testifying at Nuremberg on behalf of Becher, but only two upheld the lower court’s verdict that Kastner had been guilty of collaboration with the Nazis and had acted in bad faith with regard to the Hungarian Jews.

Had Kastner not been murdered, the case would have come to court again and the moral issues been confronted head on. For it was Kastner’s moral wartime behavior that was, in reality, sub judice. No one can know how Kastner would have emerged, whether legally cleared or blackened. If Moshe Sharett should choose some day to write his memoirs, he might reveal to the world why the Israeli government so stoutly defended Kastner.

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A court of law is perhaps not the place for deciding the kind of questions involved in Kastner’s behavior. The law is the embodiment of a code of morality in normal society. To what extent can that code apply to human behavior in extreme situations? We have ample evidence of how variously morality expressed itself in the will to survive in such institutions as the ghetto, the concentration camp, the places of hiding. Between the extremes of self-sacrifice so that another could survive and the sacrifice of another so that the self might survive, there was a range of action that the law was not prophetic to foresee or subtle enough to particularize as right or wrong. Yet this ought not to preclude judgment; nor should it be precluded by the popular notion that no one can judge who has not been similarly tested. Hecht is right in wanting to render judgment on Kastner, morally and politically. He can find support in Lord Acton and Isaiah Berlin who have spoken about the historian’s need to apply moral standards. But he should have been a better historian and a fairer judge. It is important to consider what limits on action and freedom of choice the Nazis set for the Jews, and how this affected the moral decisions of men like Kastner.

The Nazis had demanded the creation in each ghetto of a Judenrat (Jewish council), through which they were to manipulate the fate of the Jewish community. At the outset, there were among decent and honorable Jews two points of view. There were those Jews who opposed participating in the Judenrat because it could only be an instrument of Nazi policy, and there were those who believed responsible Jewish participation might alleviate the situation. We know now who were right. The lesson was bitterly learned by Adam Czerniakow, the first chairman of the Judenrat in Warsaw, who committed suicide when he realized he could not halt the mass deportations to Treblinka. But there were others with abnormal self-confidence and a near messianic belief in their own capabilities to save the Jews. Jacob Gens, whom the Nazis appointed governor of the Vilna Ghetto, was such a one. On the lowest level were the Jews who joined the ghetto or concentration-camp police, perhaps only to gain immunity (did they know how brief?) from deportation, and whose self-justification was that they would be kinder to the Jews than Polish, Ukrainian, or German overseers.

Kastner was one who believed that “nothing was unholy in a holy struggle,” as one observer noted. Until German troops occupied Hungary in March 1944, the situation of Hungarian Jews had been wretched but not desperate. Limited rescue activities were possible. An underground Jewish committee in Budapest worked with church agencies, the International Red Cross, and the neutral foreign embassies. The Swedish government gave Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman, diplomatic status in Budapest, where he conducted a rescue program conceived and supported by the War Refugee Board and the Joint Distribution Committee. Bribery and graft had been used with some success on the Hungarians and Slovakians. When Eichmann arrived with the German troops, Kastner was among those who favored negotiating with him to try to rescue the Jews. His outstanding talents for negotiation, granted by even his detractors, were, to be sure, inflated by an enormous vanity and self-assurance.

Kastner was indeed a more complex human being than the caricature of a traitor that Hecht has made of him. Hecht is neither a historian nor a chronicler, he has little respect for the accuracy of a date, a name, or a quotation: it is too much to expect that he should have placed Kastner in historical context. But as a novelist and playwright, Hecht might have been expected to show more compassion for the plight of men put in intolerable situations. Kastner, it is true, in accepting Eichmann’s conditions and bargaining for some Jews on those terms, betrayed the trust of his position. Can we therefore condemn him as a traitor, perfidiously leading Jews to their death, in exchange for the comforts and luxuries of his position as chief negotiator with the Nazis? Or can we see him as a self-deluded egotist, obsessed with the sense of his historic mission to save some Jews? Kastner, it seems to me also, does in the end stand condemned. But since Hecht does not prove his particular case against Kastner, I cannot accept his particular judgment. No one, I am afraid, will ever learn what Kastner did for good or evil, to what extent he was acting for the Jewish Agency, and how deeply the power of his position corrupted him. Hecht condemns Kastner for trying to bargain with the Nazis for Jewish lives. But he describes Joel Brand’s mission to the Allies on behalf of Eichmann as a “savior mission.” Hecht justifies Brand’s negotiations on Eichmann’s offer of “a million Jewish lives for a few thousand trucks,” as Hecht artfully puts it, only in order to discredit Jewish and Allied leaders for not having consummated the deal.

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Would it really have been possible for the Allies to accept the Eichmann proposal? Eichmann had promised that the 10,000 trucks would be used only on the Eastern front. Did Hecht expect Britain and the United States to trade Jewish lives for Russian lives? Besides, Eichmann never kept his promise to Brand to hold off the deportations, but kept sending Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers at Auschwitz without respite. The Brand mission was meant also to feel out the Western Allies about a separate peace. In his innocence, Brand had no idea of what the whole drama was about and how small a part he was playing in a great spectacle. Didn’t Hecht know, for instance, that the Western Allies informed the Russians of Eichmann’s proposal and their own rejection of it; that, nevertheless, efforts were made by the Jewish Agency and the Allies to maintain contact in case something might develop on the rescue of the Jews; that the Germans sent out new feelers for negotiations through Kastner and Eichmann’s assistant, Becher, proposing discussions with the Joint Distribution Committee, to pick up where Brand had left off? It is also well known that with the approval and knowledge of the State Department and War Refugee Board, the JDC arranged to have their Swiss representative, Saly Meyer, negotiate with Becher; that the British and Russian governments were kept informed, and that promises of Allied postwar aid to the Germans were made in an effort to halt the mass murder.

Hecht tells none of this. Obsessed with the notion of perfidy and sellout, he sees only that Britain refused to buy the Jews from Eichmann’s agent because Britain wanted most of all to halt Jewish immigration into Palestine, and Weizmann, Sharett, and Ben Gurion acquiesced. We are back to the Haganah-Irgun quarrel; and even further back to the time when Weizmann opted for partition, with a small state having a Jewish majority, whereas the Revisionists, among others, wanted all of Palestine. This is the real reason that Hecht hates Weizmann, and accuses him of unimaginable, but quite imaginary, callousness toward the European Jews.

Surely Weizmann must have been as much concerned for the European Jews as Ben Hecht. Even Menachem Begin, head of the Irgun when its chief contribution to the war effort was killing British soldiers in Palestine, is more charitable toward Weizmann. Begin quotes Randolph Churchill as saying that his father used to avoid Weizmann during the war. “Whenever I see him,” Winston Churchill was supposed to have said, “I can’t sleep at night.” It was Weizmann who proposed to the British that they bomb the gas chambers of Auschwitz, a fact which Hecht suppresses. Auschwitz was not bombed, but not because Weizmann didn’t try or care.2

The fact remains that the Jews were not rescued. Nothing was done or, to be precise, nothing substantial enough to stand up against the stark statistics of six million murdered.

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Perhaps the Jews were not rescued because no one, not even Ben Hecht, realized until it was too late how final was to be the solution of the Jewish problem. Even the Jews in Warsaw who lined up at the railway station for bread and jam rations to take on their “resettlement” trip did not know or did not believe the reports of eyewitnesses about Treblinka. So, a fortiori, the Jews in London or New York. The Joint Emergency Committee for Jewish Affairs, consisting of all major Jewish organizations in America, was formed in March 1943. Its first important business was to submit a memorandum to the Anglo-American Refugee Conference, which opened in Bermuda on April 19. That was the day the 50,000 surviving Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, one-tenth of the original population, rose up against the Germans. It was too late then for most of the European Jews. Four months later, Peter Bergson set up the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, another in a series of Irgun fronts to raise money for arms to fight the British. Its one accomplishment, so far as I know, was that its proposal to establish a United States Commission to rescue European Jews brought about the creation of the War Refugee Board. Synchronizing intergovernmental and private agency programs for relief and rescue, the Board worked together with JDC, the Orthodox Vaad Hatzalah, the Bricha (the Jewish Agency’s underground rescue teams), HIAS, and others. Nevertheless, it was too late. The war was an effective barrier against negotiations, bargaining, large-scale rescue, and substantial relief. The only way, it seemed then, to halt the murder of the Jews was to defeat the Germans as rapidly as possible.

Something might have been done sooner, before Pearl Harbor and even before September 1, 1939, to rescue Jews wishing to escape Europe, had the United States been more receptive. But economic depression, anti-Semitism, and isolationism were prevalent. Whispering campaigns spread the rumor that refugees in the U.S. were taking the jobs away, and the Jewish defense agencies were busy publishing statistics to show it wasn’t true. Patriotic organizations and Congressmen rallied round to prevent passage of a bill to admit 20,000 refugee children from Germany. Ships, unable to land their human cargo, wandered over the seas until they found a watery grave. Why were we Jews not more energetic? Some were fearful, for themselves and for the good name of American Jews. Others construed the rescue of Europe’s Jews in terms of Palestine and Palestine in terms of a Zionist political solution. And so Europe’s Jews were ground between the defensive self-interest of American Jews and the more boisterous Zionist politics. If Hecht’s charges against Jewish leaders are generally admissible, his specific reasons for their inaction are the wrong reasons, his facts not always factual, his quotations usually out of context. The great Jewish outcry was stifled because it was not thought politic for American Jews. Wouldn’t we agree now that there should have been marches on Washington? A hunger strike of thousands of Jews around the White House and the Capitol might have had a response. The Irgun’s wasteful full-page ads in the daily papers that Hecht wrote did shock people out of their torpor, even if only to contribute to the Irgun. As I now read the newspapers of those days, I find myself preferring the yellow journalist to the political Zionist. On December 2, 1943, Stephen Wise, on behalf of the American Jewish Conference, at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complained about the proposal for a United States commission to rescue the European Jews: it was “inadequate” because it didn’t recommend unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Hecht distorts this, charging Wise with outright objection. I myself think Wise’s actual statement sufficiently cynical. Certainly the Zionist leadership of the American Jewish Conference tried to bully all the Jewish organizations into support of their program by using the European Jews as a counter. At that late date when the major organizations were beginning to shake off the lethargy and fear, they might have been persuaded to undertake some great compelling action to save the still surviving Jews in Hungary and Rumania. But the Zionists forced the endeavor into a loyalty test on Palestine. Hecht accuses the Jewish Agency and the Zionist parties of having sold out the European Jews to Britain for some trivial advantages in power and prestige in a small partitioned state. It might perhaps be more accurate to say that, gambling for a Jewish state, the Zionists gambled away one chance to save the Jews. It was not the first nor the last, but certainly the most important time that Zionist interest did not coincide wih Jewish interest.

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Hecht is just as partisanly political as the people he accuses of partisan politics. The Kastner case was conducted in this spirit, and even Joel Brand finally realized it. Withdrawing earlier accusations of treachery against Sharett and Weizmann which Tamir had wrung from him, Brand cried out that Tamir wanted “to help one party by exploiting the spilt blood of the Jews.”

This is precisely what Ben Hecht has done. Underplaying the German murder of six million Jews, with the active collaboration of Poles, Ukrainians, Baits, Hungarians, and Rumanians, he overplays the British and American failure to provide haven for the Jews or to undertake some effective military action to stop the operations of the gas chambers. Finally, he ascribes to the Jewish Agency the greatest crime of all—of having acquiesced in the partition of Palestine on British terms, and betrayed the Irgun’s dream of a Greater Palestine.

Hecht exploits the mistakes, the fears, the timidities and stupidities, the political bickerings among the Zionists, and indeed among all the Jewish organizations during the holocaust, in order to disgrace Mapai and the Jewish Agency and to glorify the Revisionist movement. He has converted ideological differences into savage personal defamation, and equated Zionist mistakes and expediency with German murder.


Footnotes

1 Published by Julian Messner, 281 pp., $6.00.

2 The British were not alone to blame. There is reason to believe that the Russians rejected the idea of allowing their fields to be used by British bombers to take off against Auschwitz, and also vetoed a plan to blow up the rails leading to the death camps.

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