From the world's press


Quick navigation

summer 1999


Dramatic Irony

Adam LeBor takes his old organisation, the Union of Jewish Students, to task over its plans to disrupt performances of a controversial play


IT WAS an easy victory, but ultimately a costly one. The battle was fought at Leeds University student union in the early 1980s. [Website note: In fact early February 1981]. On one side, the controversial far-right historian David Irving. On the other, the massed ranks of the student left, and the cadres of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), including myself.

David Irving had come to speak. But this was the time of the "no-platform" policy that denied freedom of speech to alleged racists, neo-Fascists or other extremists. The historian was howled down, and we voted to stop his lecture being delivered.

I still recall the stony, contemptuous look on his face.

We UJS activists believed we had just struck a blow against the forces of darkness - until our erstwhile allies on the left later rounded on us and tried to shut down the Jewish society, on the grounds that "Zionism equalled racism."

Far-left logic proclaimed that no platform for racists also meant no platform for UJS, because of its support for Israel.

Looking back, that moment was, perhaps, one of nemesis - and therefore embodied a kind of justice - yet Jewish students look set to make the same mistake again. The Union of Jewish Students has threatened, "if necessary," to disrupt performances of Jim Allen's play, "Perdition," which opens later this month at The Gate theatre in Notting Hill.

"Perdition" is a dramatisation of a real-life 1954 libel trial in Israel. Rudolf Kastner, the head of the Zionist Rescue Committee in Budapest during the war, sued a fellow Hungarian Jew who accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Kastner lost his case, and the trial judge even accused him of having "sold his soul to the devil" in his dealings with Adolf Eichmann and the SS.

In March 1957, Kastner was shot dead outside his flat in Tel Aviv. A year later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the verdict.

Even now, they still remember Kastner in Budapest, and not always with admiration. The libel trial accusations against Kastner centred on the secret deal he made in June 1944 with Eichmann in order to save 1,685 Hungarian Jews, the community's economic élite, who could afford to pay $1,000 each for a train journey to Switzerland.

Everyone on board survived - a fortunate minority among the some 500,000 Hungarian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Opinions remain sharply divided over the Kastner train: relatives of the passengers think of Kastner as a saviour, up there with Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

Rudolf VrbaOther Holocaust survivors, however, are less enthusiastic, accusing him of having abandoned the rest of the community. For Kastner had seen a copy of the "Auschwitz Protocol" compiled in early 1944 by two Jews - Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba - (right, recent picture) who were among the very few who had managed to escape from Auschwitz.

The protocol was a detailed report on the Nazis' preparations for the Hungarian Holocaust that summer. Vrba and Wetzler hoped that the Hungarian Jewish leadership would use it to organise active or passive resistance, or just to encourage Jews to flee into the hills.

But Kastner and his colleagues failed to warn the community about the coming genocide and the Hungarian Jews meekly went to their deaths.

Was that silence part of the price for allowing the Kastner train to leave?

"He [Kastner] did everything for that train. For him, the rest of the Jews were not important. He figured that if he took out the 1,500 or 2,000, the rest could go to hell - it was his friends and his family," says Ernest Stein, a fighter in the Budapest Jewish resistance.

Certainly Adolf Eichmann professed himself impressed with the wartime Zionist leader, describing him, in a 1960 interview with Life magazine, as "an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist."

Eichmann recalled that: "He [Kastner] agreed to keep the Jews from resisting deportation - and even keep order in the collection camps - if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine."

A dark and controversial episode then, and one clearly open to differing interpretations. Was Kastner a saviour, or collaborator, or both?

The episode is an inconvenient irritant in the annals of Zionism, touching on one of the rawest nerves in Holocaust historiography: the role - some survivors say acquiescence - of some Jewish community leaders in the Hungarian Holocaust.

"Perdition" was originally planned to open at the Royal Court Upstairs in January 1987 but was cancelled - 36 hours before it was due to open - after protests by Jewish scholars. The play has now been revised and will be directed by a Jew, Elliot Levey, and a Jewish actress, Osnat Shmool, will take a leading role.

Opponents of the play, such as UJS, are due to be invited to attend a performance to assuage their fears. I have not read the script of "Perdition" but I do know that this sombre, complex and deeply controversial episode must be freely discussed, whether by historians or playwrights.

Jewish students, of all people, have no business threatening to disrupt artistic performances that disturb the cosy historical consensus about the tangled web that once bound Zionists and Nazis.

More than anyone, Rudolf Kastner embodies this relationship. Disrupting a play about a Hungarian Zionist leader who was admired by Eichmann, is remembered by his fellow Hungarians with both admiration and loathing, and who was killed by a Jew (who was certainly not acting alone: in fact, three Israelis were imprisoned for the crime) will not help us to understand the Holocaust or the terrible pressures that make men act as they do.

Adam LeBor's book, "Hitler's Secret Bankers: How Switzerland Profited from Nazi Genocide, " is published by Simon & Schuster.

summer 1999
|Return to Clippings Index |

©Focal Point 1999 e-mail:  write to David Irving