What Did Really Happen in Hungary?

"Into the Inferno: The Memoir of a Jewish Paratrooper Behind Nazi Lines" by Yoel Palgi, Rutgers University Press, 279 pages, $29.

Judith Tydor Baumel
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Judith Tydor Baumel

"Into the Inferno: The Memoir of a Jewish Paratrooper Behind Nazi Lines" by Yoel Palgi, Rutgers University Press, 279 pages, $29

Who hasn't heard of Hannah Senesh? Even young people today who identify Zionist leaders or Palmach heroes with the names of important Israeli streets recognize the name of the brave woman parachutist from the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Israel), who was executed in Hungary in 1944. Since the end of World War II, Senesh has come to symbolize that courageous operation in which dozens of young people from the Yishuv, almost all of them European-born, were parachuted into Europe to help their Jewish brethren under Nazi rule. The names of some of the others who fell in this operation are also still known to the public, such as Enzo Sereni, Haviva Reik and Abba Berdichev, who have had streets and settlements named after them.

And what about the other participants in the operation, especially those who were not killed during their mission but managed to return to this country safe and sound? Many of them continued to serve in the ranks of the army and the state, in the kibbutz movements and the secret services. Over the years they embarked on secret and public diplomatic and economic missions, but during the course of the 1950s and the '60s, most of them disappeared from the public eye. This is not true of Yoel Palgi, the author of this book, which first came out in Hebrew in 1946 and in two further editions, and has now been published in an English translation.

In fact, a large part of the information we have about the last months of Hannah Senesh's life in the Hungarian prison has come to us by means of Palgi's book, which describes his mission in Europe in the context of the parachutists' operation. Yoel Palgi was born in the city of Cluj (Klausenburg) in Transylvania, under the name Emil Nussbacher, immigrated to Palestine in 1939 and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Ma'agan on the shore of Lake Kinneret. In the early 1940s he enlisted in the Palmach and was among the first of the young people to be chosen to participate in the operation of parachuting into Europe under the auspices of the British army.

The British mission included the operating a wireless communications system and helping British pilots who parachuted into enemy territory. Their mission for the Yishuv was to help Jews in Europe and to reconstruct the crumbling Zionist youth movements there after the war.

Plans gone awry

Palgi, Senesh and a third parachutist named Peretz Goldstein, also a native of Cluj and a member of Ma'agan, were supposed to go to Hungary for these purposes but their plan went awry because of the occupation of Hungary by the Germans in March, 1944. After spending several months in Yugoslavia with Tito's forces, the three parachutists crossed the border into Hungary, first Senesh and afterward Palgi and Goldstein, who were supposed to meet her in Budapest. Here, too, their plans went awry. Senesh was arrested shortly after crossing the border, and the two remaining parachutists found themselves alone in Budapest, without knowing what had happened to her. Their liaison man had disappeared and finally they decided to turn to one of the few Jews they knew in Budapest, who was one of the leaders of the Committee for Help and Rescue, and who also came from Cluj. His name was Yisrael Kastner.

Kastner was in shock when the two of them came into his office and told him about their mission. How would he hide them? What would he do with them, especially as Senesh had already been caught? As it was clear to him that the Gestapo already knew about their intention to come to the city, he made a plan for them. A few days earlier, his partner on the committee, Joel Brand, had gone to Turkey to present the British - and through them, the Americans - with the offer that was later called "Goods for Blood." In the framework of this plan, the Allies were supposed to provide the Germans with tens of thousands of trucks loaded with food and medicines, and in exchange Adolf Eichmann would stop the killing of Hungarian Jews. As a kind of "advance" on the future deal, Eichmann allowed a group of Jews to leave Budapest by train, in what would later be called "the Kastner train." The Jews, about whom it was not at all certain at the time that they would be taken to a safe place and not to Auschwitz, were chosen from all over Hungary by a committee and were at the time confined in Budapest, awaiting their exit.

Kastner suggested to the two parachutists that they pretend that they had been sent by the British to check the reliability of the proposal, and Palgi went with him to the Gestapo headquarters and introduced himself as a British officer who had been sent on that mission. Even though it appeared that he had convinced the Germans, the parachutist was arrested in the end by the Hungarian secret police. His young partner, Goldstein, who knew of his friend's arrest, turned to Kastner, who first proposed that he join the passengers on the train and even brought him to the camp where the Jews were waiting, among them Goldstein's parents.

However, here things fell apart. Within a short time, Kastner went back to the camp and after a conversation with Goldstein, the latter agreed to turn himself into the Gestapo. Eventually both the parachutists ended up in the same prison where Hannah Senesh was held.

Did Kastner persuade Goldstein to take this step on the grounds that the hunt for him in Budapest could endanger all the passengers on the train, including his parents, or did he threaten to turn him over to the Germans if he did not do so on his own initiative? Did he threaten to take Goldstein's parents off the train, or did he convince him that after a day or two in the Hungarian prison, he would manage to get both him and Palgi out? In the first and second editions of the book Palgi wrote one thing, whereas in the third edition he wrote something different. We will never know the truth.

Publishing problems

Further on, Palgi describes what happened during the months prior to the end of the war: the prison conditions, the transfers from one prison to another, the trial and execution of Hannah Senesh, with whom the two young men managed to make contact during the months before her death, his transfer together with Goldstein by train to Germany, his daring escape from the train and his return to Budapest, where he met up with members of the pioneering Zionist underground that had been working constantly to get Jews out of Hungary.

After Budapest was liberated, Palgi went to the city of his birth, Cluj, to see whether anything was left of his family, and helped Senesh's mother get to Palestine after she had escaped from the death march that set out from Budapest in November, 1944, and had found her way back to the Hungarian capital. The first edition of 1946 ends with his exit from Hungary in the direction of Cairo in the spring of 1945.

But the story does not end here. Nine years later, after he had been involved in illegal immigration, had returned to his kibbutz and had been appointed after the establishment of the state to a senior position in El Al, Palgi was called to the witness stand in the Kastner trial. Under the probing cross-questioning by Shmuel Tamir, the man who had been considered a national hero became someone who gave stuttering answers to petty questions about what he had done or not done when he left the Gestapo headquarters in Budapest. In his court appearance Palgi did not succeed in convincing those who had been "here" about Kastner's activities and the motives behind what had happened "there," and contradictions also emerged between what was written in the book, such as the matter of Goldstein and the Gestapo in Budapest and other matters afterward that were connected to the relationship between the two parachutists and Kastner during the war.

"So what is the truth?" the former parachutist was asked. "I wrote a novel, not a history," he replied, thus opening a Pandora's box of doubts about his reliability as a historical witness. The newspapers that covered his appearance at the trial reacted with scornful headlines such as "A great spirit comes - to El Al."

Menachem Dorman and the heads of the Kibbutz Hameuchad publishing house, who at that time were discussing a proposal to publish a new edition of his book, demanded clarifications from him about the different versions. His explanations - that at the time he was writing the original edition he was afraid of the British censorship and therefore did not give the precise version of the details concerning the military part of his mission - were not accepted and it was decided not to publish a new edition. Only more than 20 years later did Am Oved publish the second and revised edition of the book. Here Palgi corrected what he had claimed he had censored in the original book, especially concerning the handing over of Peretz Goldstein. He also added an epilogue in which he told about an internal trial of Kastner by associates in 1946 at the Zionist Congress in Basel and about his appearance at the second trial in 1954.

The English translation was based on this edition, with the addition of an introduction by David Engel and a historical addition by his widow, anthropologist Phyllis Palgi, about his biography since the writing of the book, both the first and the second editions, until Palgi's death a year later, in 1978.

In the Israeli collective memory Yoel Palgi's name is engraved both as the only parachutist who returned alive from the Hungarian mission (and therefore whose version of what had happened became the nearly canonical version of the Hannah Senesh's last months), and as someone who at the Kastner trial "was invited to bless and left cursed," to paraphrase the parable of Balaam.

What did really happen in Hungary? Was Palgi's first version of his book, published a year after the war was over, indeed censored by him because of the circumstances, as he claimed at the time of the trial? Or was the version given at the trial the result of "illuminations" he had after the war, and the first version is the one that more reflects the reality, as others claim? We will never know.

Did Palgi act with bad intentions? It is reasonable to presume that he did not. Had his inner world been shaken after he returned to Europe and discovered that while Peretz Goldstein's parents had been saved on the Kastner train, his own family had gone to their death along with most of Hungarian Jewry? Apparently. Did he become a somewhat tragic figure after his appearance at Kastner's trial? Perhaps. Was he a hero? Without a doubt.

Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel's book on the parachutists from the Yishuv during World War II and the shaping of the Israeli collective memory is forthcoming from the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute in Sde Boker.