On December 7, 1944, the train carrying Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder of the Satmar Hasidic dynasty, departed Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on the so-called Kastner Train. The train, carrying some 1370 Jews, took them to Switzerland and safety – unlike most of Teitelbaum's followers in Hungary, who died in the Holocaust.
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Teitelbaum (1887-1979) grew up in Sighet, then in Romania, and was the son of the town’s grand rabbi. As a young man he moved to Satmar, a town that went back and forth between Hungarian and Romania control (today it is part of Romania, and is known as Satu Mare), and in 1934 became its chief rabbi.
After the war, Rabbi Teitelbaum and his wife, Alte Feige, lived briefly in Jerusalem, but by 1947, he moved to the United States, and established his community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The Rudolf Kastner affair remains one of the more controversial espisodes of Jewish rescue during the Holocaust, and the role played by the Satmar Rebbe is but one still-vexing chapter in the saga. Kastner (1906-1957) was a Hungarian Jew and Zionist official. During World War II, he was a leader of the Aid and Rescue Committee, which before the German occupation of Hungary, in 1944, helped Jews escape into that country, and after that tried to smuggle them from there into non-occupied Europe. The situation of Hungary’s approximately 700,000 Jews was unusual in that, although the government ruling the country was virulently anti-Semitic, and sent many of them to labor camps within the country, it resisted Nazi attempts to deport them, so that they were relatively safe until very late in the war. But when Germany actually occupied Hungary, in March 1944, deportations were quickly arranged, and within four months, more than 437,000 Jews had been put on trains, most of them headed for Auschwitz – an operation that Winston Churchill described as “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
Kastner was criticized principally for the efforts he invested in rescuing a relatively small number of Jews, some of them family members, some of them wealthy Jews who paid for their place on his train, while acting to suppress distribution of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, which provided detailed information about what was happening in Auschwitz several weeks before the deportations began.
An interview given in 1960 to a Dutch Nazi journalist by Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who had the principal responsibility for organizing the Jewish deportations to the concentration and death camps, gave some credence to this charge. Eichmann said that Kastner had “agreed to help 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 to Palestine. It was a good bargain."
Nonetheless, there is no consensus among Holocaust historians that much could have been done, by the time the Vrba-Wetzler Report became available, to save the Jews of Hungary.
Kastner was actually proud of the diverse group of Jews he and his committee assembled for rescue. He called the train a Noah’s Ark, because it had people of all ages and of all social classes, Zionists and non-Zionists, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, 972 females and 712 males. It’s true that 150 seats were auctioned off to well-off Jews, but their payments were used to cover the $1,000 per head ransom for the rest of the passengers on the train.
The train departed Budapest in July 1944, and instead of heading directly to Switzerland, it was taken to Bergen-Belsen on July 9, where the Jews were made to deboard. They were held at Bergen-Belsen until December 7, but were kept in quarters separate from the other inmates, and given a subsistence diet. Some died, 17 were not permitted to leave Bergen-Belsen, but approximately 1,670 passengers survived and left for Switzerland on this day 68 years ago.
Rabbi Teitelbaum had made an attempt at fleeing Hungary for Romania, but was caught by Hungarian police and sent to the Klausenberg (Cluj) ghetto. Satmar lore has it that Kastner’s father-in-law had a dream that told him that if the Rebbe were not included in the train to freedom, none of its passenger would survive. In any event, Teitelbaum remained ideologically and theologically opposed to Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state til the end of his life, and was unwilling to testify in Kastner’s behalf in a 1956 libel trial in Israel. The defendant was Malchiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian survivor who had published a pamphlet accusing Kastner of collaboration with the Nazis, and of selling out the vast majority of Hungary’s Jews in order to save a few people close to him. Gruenwald was found not guilty, in a court decision that was damning to Kastner. Although most of the judgment was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1958, Kastner was already dead, having been assassinated on March 4, 1957, by a squad of veterans from the pre-state Lehi underground.
Teitelbaum died in 1979, by which time he had overseen the founding of Kiryas Yoel, a totally Haredi town in Orange County, New York, that today has some 20,000 residents. To this day, his followers celebrate Kislev 21, 5705 – which in 1944 fell on December 7 – for the “miraculous” rescue of their rebbe.