Double-Crossed by Eichmann: New Lists from the Kasztner Train Revealed

Rudolf Israel Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann directly to transport nearly 1,700 Jews from Hungary to Switzerland.

רכבת קסטנר

Kasztner train passengers, travelling from Budapest, via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to Switzerland, August or December 1944

When the atrocities of the Holocaust began to unfold, many attempts were made by both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and individuals to influence and bribe powerful officials in the hopes of sparing as many human lives from the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, the efforts of one man bore fruit and, while the number of those rescued was small in comparison to the number of Jews in danger, those who were included were spared the gruesome deaths that claimed so many others.

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner was a Jewish Hungarian journalist and lawyer who helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest that worked to smuggle Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary in the hopes of escaping the Nazis. With the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, the Committee refocused its efforts to negotiations with the Nazis – in the hopes of exchanging human lives for military supplies and trucks. This effort came to be known as “Blood for Goods.”

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner

In the summer of 1944, as a part of his efforts, Kasztner met repeatedly with Adolf Eichmann who was charged with deporting Hungary’s Jews. In late June, Kasztner succeeded in convincing Eichmann to spare the lives of some 1,700 Jews. Kasztner, along with a committee of other prominent Jews, drew up the list of those to be included in a transport that would leave Hungary for the safety of the neutral state of Switzerland.

On June 30, 1944, 1,684 Jews boarded a transport that was dubbed “Noah’s Ark.” The group was largely Hungarian and consisted mostly of Jews of prominence – those with money and influence – and close acquaintances of Rudolf Kasztner, including his family, friends and many people from his hometown of Cluj (Transylvania). This fact eventually brought tremendous backlash on Kasztner following the war.


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A page from the list of the 318 who boarded the transport to Switzerland. Image courtesy of the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Unsurprisingly, Eichmann did not stay true to his word and instead of arriving in Switzerland, the transport stopped at Bergen-Belsen where the passengers were detained. A month later, following a new round of intensive negotiations, a new list containing the names of 318 people from among the original passengers was issued and those fortunate enough to be included boarded a new transport for Switzerland in late August 1944. It was only on December 7, 1944, that the remaining 1,354 passengers were released from Bergen-Belsen and sent to their original destination.

These never before published lists of the two transports which departed from Bergen-Belsen were given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People by Rabbi David Moses Rosen. Rabbi Rosen served as the Chief Rabbi of Romania during the Communist period. A copy of the lists was kept by the Bucharest office of the Romanian branch of the World Jewish Congress, along with additional important documentation of Romanian and Transylvanian Jewry from the Holocaust period. A significant portion of the branch’s archive was eventually passed on by Rabbi Rosen to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where it was recently reregistered by Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who is in charge of the Romania collection in the archives. Among other things, this collection includes important evidence regarding the survivors of the camps in Transnistria, in Northern Transylvania and the Iași pogrom.


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This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

In contrast to lists published in the past which revealed the early stages of this process and the original transport, these lists reveal the names of those who arrived at their intended destination and even include the Swiss addresses of the passengers’ new homes. Included on these lists are the names of Kasztner’s family members and the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty.

These lists not only attest to the tremendous efforts made by Jewish communities and organizations to rescue their brethren, they are also critical in properly understanding the full unfolding of these events, shedding new light on the plight of the Jewish community of Hungary which saw over 400,000 perish in the Holocaust.

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This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the names of the Kasztner family members. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Following the war, Kasztner immigrated to the Land of Israel. In 1953, his negotiations with the Nazis in general and Eichmann, in particular, made headlines when a journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald published a pamphlet accusing Kasztner of being a Nazi collaborator, stating that he negotiated for his own personal benefit and contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Kasztner sued Gruenwald for libel, an act that eventually transformed these accusations into an indictment. The presiding judge determined that Kasztner had in fact contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry by selecting his friends, family, and acquaintances as those who would be spared from horrors of the gas chambers.

This decision was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in January of 1958, however, before the new decision could be announced, Kasztner was assassinated near his home in Tel Aviv on the night of March 4, 1957. He died of his wounds twelve days later.

The lists from the Kasztner Train have been digitized and can be viewed online here.  


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Sensing the dangerous sparks in the air, Miriam smuggled her family to Russia where they were forced to fend for themselves in a Siberian labor camp.

Hecht family

משפחת העכט (פירר) אחרי שהגיעו בשלום לניו יורק. משמאל נראים מרים וישרואל. יחיאל בשורהה העליונה, לצידה של מרים. באדיבות רו אורנים

We don’t know how old my grandfather was when he died in 2014.

He did not remember his birthdate and his birth certificate was destroyed along with everything else during the war. All he remembered was that it was warm out during his birthday celebrations as a child and that the celebrations always took place during the week when the Torah Portion of Bereshit would be read after the Jewish New Year. These memories seem to contradict – especially if you have ever examined the weather patterns in Poland.

Yechiel Hecht, my grandfather, was born to a religious Jewish family in Tsanz, Poland. His family moved to the town of Zagosh where his father, Yisroel Hecht-Firer, served as a well-respected community rabbi and worked as a Shochet, a ritual slaughterer. His wife Miriam was a strong, independent and intelligent woman who ran the home and worked alongside her husband as a Shochtke, a job not typically held by a woman, though she certainly did not let that affect her choices.

A street in Krakow before 1915, a postcard from the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In the early 1930s, with the rise of the Nazi party, Miriam felt a dangerous spark in the air. She felt instinctively unsettled by the extreme shifts in the political climate and could sense that it was only a matter of time before life would change forever in her hometown of Krakow.

Her intuitions proved undeniably correct when she was out in town running errands and faced a violent altercation with a Polish police officer. The officer shoved Miriam to the ground and shouted anti-Semitic slurs at her as she struggled to right herself.

That same day, Miriam decided her family was no longer safe in Poland and took it upon herself to remove them from the unknown dangers that lay ahead. She gathered every valuable she had in her possession and arranged for a truck to take her family from their home in Krakow over the Russian border to what she believed would be a safe location.  She begged her eight siblings who were also living in Europe to join her, to escape from the horrors that lay ahead but they refused, believing that it was just a passing phase that would fade into the pages of history.

Miriam, her husband, and five of their six children set out to start their new life in Russia. Leibish, their eldest son, was left behind to continue his religious studies in Yeshiva, a decision that ultimately led to his untimely death. When the Nazis invaded, the students were taken out to the courtyard, where they were shot. Leibish was among them.

The family made their way across the border, believing they had left their troubles behind – but trouble caught up with them when the war reached the Russian front. Over 200,000 Jews in Russia, Miriam, Yisroel and their children among them, were torn from their homes and sent to a Siberian work camp.  In this desolate, wintery wasteland, they were forced to fend for themselves. Hundreds of people found themselves living in the same building with nothing but a sheet to divide the spaces between families.

Yisroel was immediately singled out for suspicious activity as a practicing rabbi. He was separated from his family, imprisoned, and forced into a prison work crew where he was subjected to physical labor: chopping and collecting wood for the military.

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Miriam took the remaining valuables she had left after paying for passage to Russia and used them to barter with the local officials for wood to feed the fire in the stove in their building. That fire was the only thing that prevented the people living under that roof from freezing to death.

Yechiel, as the oldest remaining son, quickly became the man of the house.  With a mother and four siblings to protect and feed, he put his looks and talent for languages to work for him. Yechiel would wake up at the crack of dawn, put on what little warm clothing he had and hike for hours to a food distribution point where he would pose as a Russian citizen, standing in endless lines in the cold in the hopes of bringing home a hunk of dry bread to feed his starving family.

On the days when he actually managed to get a piece of bread, he faced a treacherous walk back to his building where he was forced to contend, not only with the freezing temperatures but also with muggers and vandals on the road who would accost him and steal his meager rations putting his hours of effort to waste. Beyond the stale bread, the family only ate what they could scrounge up from the fallow fields, usually a lone potato or forgotten onion that they would use to make a watery soup that could feed the crowd living in their shared space.

The Hecht (Firer) Family after their safe arrival in New York City. Miriam and Yisroel are on the left. Yechiel is in the top row standing next to Miriam. Courtesy of Ro Oranim

It was in this way that the Firer family survived the war – on instinct, with endless determination and resistance against those who had left them for dead. After the war, the family managed to reconnect with Yisroel and, after a few months in a displaced person camp where Yechiel and his brother were treated for exposure to Tuberculosis, with their papers proving their Polish citizenship, the Firer family was offered passage to either Palestine or America. Miriam was through with the idea of pioneering and the family chose to join her brother who had emigrated from Poland to New York City in 1920. When they arrived in America, grieving and broken from the horrors they had faced, the family changed their surname to Hecht, Yisroel’s mother’s maiden name, to avoid the associations the word Firer could bring up.

Yechiel Hecht and his new bride, Judith. Courtesy of Ro Oranim

The Hecht family reestablished themselves and built a new life in America. Yechiel got married, had five children, 26 grandchildren and an ever-growing number of great-grandchildren. He never forgot his experiences in the war and, until the day he died, he held a great appreciation for a basic piece of bread and a simple potato which graced his table at every meal so he could say a blessing on the very items that spared his life in the frozen tundra of Siberia.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

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What Would You Serve at a Passover Seder During the Korean War?

The soldiers who participated in Operation Matzo were probably grateful both for the welcoming service and for the food that reminded them of home.

Soldiers celebrating Passover in Seoul, South Korea, 1952. Photo courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Soldiers celebrating Passover in Seoul, South Korea, 1952. Photo courtesy of: The American Jewish Historical Society.

If you were hosting six hundred people at a Seder during the Korean War, what would you serve for the Seder meal? According to a menu that appears in a Haggadah printed for American troops in Korea in 1952, the correct answer is matzah, kosher wine, gefilte fish, chicken soup with kneidlach (matzah balls), and finally, macaroons for dessert.

It’s not so hard to imagine the challenges in providing an elaborate, traditional Jewish meal to hundreds of soldiers in the middle of a remote war zone. This festive meal was made possible by a coordinated effort of Jews and gentiles, soldiers and civilians, and people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

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Haggadah used for the Passover Seder by the Jewish American troops in Korea in 1952. From the National Library of Israel Collections.

The Chaplains: The Seder was organized and officiated by two Jewish chaplains, who also were the authors of the Haggadah. Herbert Chanan Brichto, a recently ordained Reform rabbi who began his rabbinic career as a chaplain in Korea, dubbed their efforts “Operation Matzo.” His colleague, Harry Z. Schreiner, also a Reform rabbi, had served in two congregations before becoming a chaplain. Schreiner would go on to an illustrious career in the military, receiving several awards for his service. But in a 1951 interview with a Jewish newspaper, he proudly reported that he had become “the biggest scrounger in Korea”, which was probably his most relevant skill for this particular operation.

The Jewish Organization: Back home in the United States, this Seder was business as usual for the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), founded in 1917 to serve Jews in the military. According to a JWB document from World War II, the organization had already sent supplies and educational materials to chaplains organizing Seders in dozens of countries all over the world, many of them large-scale events.

The General: The Seder efforts enjoyed the full support of the United States Army, which has a policy of accommodating the diverse religious needs of its troops. The US Army granted Jewish soldiers time off for the celebration, moved army operations out of the abandoned schoolhouse in Seoul that the chaplains chose as the location for their Seder, and transported the soldiers from all over Korea to that location. But they also showed their encouragement in ways that went well beyond mere accommodation. The Haggadah begins with two pages of Passover greetings from the top military brass stationed in Korea. Many high ranking officers also attended the Seder.

הגדה קוריאה

It’s possible that some of these enthusiastically supportive officers felt a connection between Passover as a holiday of freedom and their larger mission in the Korean War. The Korean War (1950-1953), in which American and other troops helped South Korea repel an invasion by Communist North Korea, was seen by Americans as part of a global struggle against Communism – a fight for values of democracy and freedom.

The highest ranking officer to attend the Seder was General F.F. Everest, the commanding general of the US Fifth Air Force, who delivered an address to the soldiers as part of the festivities. We have no record of what he said at the Seder, but in his greetings inside the Haggadah he wrote:

Even as the Ancient Hebrew people answered the call of freedom symbolized by Passover, we too must heed its voice and stand fast in preserving freedom’s principles for the world of our time.

A Unique Haggadah

The Haggadah compiled for this event by Rabbis Brichto and Schreiner is the only Haggadah in the National Library of Israel’s vast Haggadah collection to be written and published in Korea. The 32-page booklet contains photo offsets of Haggadah texts from other Haggadot, but there are also various songs and dedications typed in by the chaplains. The Haggadah’s cover is decorated with hand-drawn insignias of the main military units involved in the Seder, with the insignia of the Jewish chaplaincy in the middle. A schedule printed on the back mentions only one Seder on the first night but shows that prayer services took place for three days, from Passover Eve until the second day of the holiday.

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A page inside the Haggadah used by the Jewish American troops in Korea in 1952. The Hebrew text was printed upside down. From the National Library of Israel Collections.

Preparing a Haggadah in Korea must not have been simple: a page in which the Hebrew text appears upside down illustrates the challenges of working with local printers who were not familiar with Jewish text. However, in his recollections in the 1962 book “Rabbis in Uniform,” Brichto describes the Seder, and the Haggadah, as a great success:

The Seder began with the Cantor’s magnificent rendition of the Kiddush. Thanks to the Haggadah which we had specifically prepared and published in Korea, the service was smooth, dignified, and inspiring. Although the power failed, the service continued without interruption. From the stage we were awed by the sight of that huge auditorium, extending almost without end in all directions, ablaze with the light of thousands of candles.

Tradition and Innovation

The Korean Haggadah is designed to appeal to soldiers from a variety of Jewish backgrounds. While some prayers and songs, such as the Kiddush at the beginning, appear in the original Hebrew, the bulk of the readings and many of the prayers are in English. The chaplains typed in popular Hebrew Seder songs transliterated into English so everyone could join in.

הגדה קוריאה
Passover Seder menu from inside the Haggadah used during the Korean War by  Jewish American troops. From the National Library of Israel Collections.

The soldiers who participated in Operation Matzo were probably grateful both for the welcoming service and for the food that reminded them of home. But like so many Seders, often the most special part is the opportunity to be with family. Brichto recalls:

There were many highlights to this first Seder, not the least being the superb meal… but the heartwarming scenes were the reunions. Captain Dunn of the 45th division came up to the platform to ask that an announcement be made, “Is Captain Dunn’s brother here tonight?” Came the ecstatic answer from the rear of the auditorium, “Here I am, Jimmy!” And there were other equally moving reunions. Brother met brother and uncle found nephew at that Passover Seder in Korea.


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A look at Passover Haggadot written for the blind and the visually impaired


A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

The ancient Biblical command, “Tell your child,” led to the appearance of the “Haggadah,” the text which is traditionally read at the Passover Seder (“Haggadah” is derived from a Hebrew root word which means “to tell” or “to say”). The Haggadah, one of the most ancient and central texts in the Jewish culture, apparently first took shape in the Second Temple period, and its form has largely remained stable from the Middle Ages to the present day. While originally the command “to tell” was interpreted as an instruction to recite the Passover story out loud, in public, today no Seder is complete without a written Haggadah.

Haggadot in Braille

As such, it is no surprise that the blind and the visually impaired also have need for a Haggadah  and are unwilling to make do with reciting the texts aloud. The National Library of Israel is in possession of seven Passover Haggadot written in Braille. Six of these were printed in Israel in recent years by various institutions that provide services to the country’s blind citizens, while another was printed several decades ago in the United States.

A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

This American text produced in the early 1950s and acquired recently by the National Library, is likely one of the first Braille Haggadot ever printed.

How is a Braille Haggadah Printed?

The Passover Haggadah is an essential ritual item in the Jewish year cycle and there is naturally  great demand for Braille copies of the text among visually impaired Jewish readers. Ms. Esti Maouda from the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped located in the Israeli city of Netanya, shared some more details with us on this topic.


A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

First, as one would expect, Braille Haggadot are printed without illustrations. Braille is designed to transcribe text and does not relate to any other kinds of graphic elements. Maouda confirms that the Netanya Library has been in possession of a number of Braille Haggadot since its founding, sixty years ago. The library has many subscribers who are either blind, visually impaired or have other disabilities. All of them are in need of Passover Haggadoh. Therefore, ten years ago, the institution mounted a campaign to print numerous Haggadot and send them to all its subscribers, eliminating the need to maintain a large inventory of Haggadot and of having to deal with the lending and return process. Today, the library in Netanya offers a print-on-demand service. A subscriber interested in obtaining a Haggadah in Braille can contact the library and a Haggadah is printed for them.

What kinds of Braille Haggadot can be found at the Library for the Blind? There are three different versions available. The most popular is a regular Haggadah featuring the standard text. In addition, one can find Haggadot which feature the classic text alongside commentaries. The third type, perhaps the most intriguing and poignant, is a Haggadah which includes songs and stories for children. This version is used by blind parents who wish to read to their children as well as by blind children who prefer to take an active part in the Seder ceremony around the table. All the Haggadot in the Netanya library are in Hebrew.


A Braille printer. Courtesy of the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped in Netanya

A Braille Haggadah: A Perishable Book

As any collector or library with a collection of Haggadot will tell you, the Haggadah is a particularly perishable book:  signs of use are especially evident in an item used during the Seder, a culinary event that lasts for hours. Esti Maouda insists that a Braille Haggadah is no exception. It too absorbs wine stains, and food crumbs typically become stuck in between its pages. Therefore, every once in a while the Library for the Blind receives a request for a Haggadah from someone who is already in possession of a copy but whose Haggadah was either badly stained or torn. And, naturally, the same process of erosion that occurs with any Braille book is also evident in Braille Haggadot: the more a book is read, the more the raised Braille dots on the page become worn down, with the text then becoming more difficult to read.

Today, the use of Braille books is on the decline. New computer technology, which can convert onscreen text into Braille dots that a blind person can feel with their fingertips, has made the thick, heavy Braille book redundant. However, because of the ceremonial use of the Haggadah at the Seder, the demand for Braille Haggadot remains high and many blind celebrators of Passover continue to use these books to this day.


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