A war hero credited with saving thousands of lives during the Holocaust was actually a Nazi collaborator, a new book has claimed.
New research, based on Holocaust survivor testimonies, suggests that Rezso Kasztner (also known as Rudolph) helped the Third Reich murder almost half-a-million Jewish men, women and children.
Until now, the Hungarian was considered a hero for rescuing fellow Jews from the clutches of the Gestapo.
It is thought he smuggled them out of Budapest on a secret train bound for the free world following the German invasion.
But an expert on Kasztner, Paul Bogdanor, claims he has uncovered disturbing new evidence he says presents a different picture of the man.
He says newly scrutinised testimonies of Holocaust survivors suggest that Kasztner struck a ‘horrifying’ deal with SS officer Adolf Eichmann to lure his fellow Jews to their deaths.
Mr Bogdanor says he can prove he only managed to secure the agreement in return for helping Eichmann to deport the rest of Hungary’s nearly 800,000 Jews to Auschwitz.
Only a fraction of the Jewish men, women, and children who boarded the Nazi trains were heading for safety, as he told them. The rest had to endure a one-way journey to Auschwitz and the gas chambers.
Rumours and unsubstantiated charges that Kasztner sacrificed the lives of Jews are not new. The claims led to a controversial libel trial in Israel in the 1950s.
But it is the first time that he can be shown ‘beyond all doubt’ to have played a role in the genocide and to have knowingly betrayed his people.
Mr Bogdanor uncovered what he calls the ‘grim truth’ whilst researching his new book, Kasztner’s Crime, out now.
He said: ‘This is the true story of Schindler’s List in reverse. Schindler was a Nazi who became a hero. Kasztner was a hero who became a Nazi tool.
‘Kasztner has always been a controversial figure, with a minority calling him a collaborator, but most people have believed that he did what he could to help save lives in an extremely difficult and bleak situation.
‘The more evidence I uncovered, however, the more I realised to my grave surprise that the accusations against him had been right. Sadly, I am certain of it.’
Kasztner became the de facto leader of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee in 1942.
Under his leadership, the committee claimed to have saved as many as 25,000 Jews who had been smuggled into Hungary from Nazi-controlled countries like Poland.
His reputation was such that the Nazis began bargaining with him and made him their key Jewish contact when Hungary came under German power in March 1944.
He tried at first to save his fellow Jews by offering to pay for their emigration.
But when he received proof of the Nazi plan to massacre the country’s Jewish population, Kasztner – a ‘ruthless megalomaniac’ – negotiated a sinister pact with Holocaust mastermind Eichmann.
It granted the safe passage of 1,684 named individuals – including his own friends and close family – out of Hungary.
But shocking new evidence suggests that Kasztner only managed to secure the agreement in return for helping Eichmann to deport the rest of Hungary’s nearly 800,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Eichmann and Kasztner called this their ‘rescue secret’.
Mr Bogdanor, who spent ten painstaking years researching Kasztner’s connection with the Nazis, uncovered the terrible truth after examining a number of unequivocal – and until now overlooked – testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
He also delved into Kasztner’s own post-war report and other documented evidence, much of which has never been translated into English before.
These include an account from Holocaust survivor Yosef Reiss, who described how Kasztner, who was assassinated in 1957, tricked the Jewish community in Kolozsvor into believing that they would be resettled and given farming jobs elsewhere in the country.
Instead, those 18,000 men, women, and children were sent to the gas chambers.
The testimony, ‘totally ignored by historians thus far,’ said: ‘Kasztner was well aware that the young people wanted to escape and he spread it among the people that they should not escape and cause trouble for their families, that they would all be sent to southern Hungary and families would remain together and work in agriculture.’
Another testimony, given by Ruth Landau, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, read: ‘Like many others, my mother personally heard Kasztner in his home town, in the Kolozsvor Ghetto, assuring the town’s Jews who were collected there before being sent to Auschwitz that they were going to work.’
The case against Kasztner is strengthened by his own admissions. Under orders from the Nazis, for instance, he lied to his fellow Jews about an escape route to Romania being blocked.
In fact, the route wasn’t blocked and those Jews who had used it lived to tell the tale.
Previously unscrutinised testimony from Kasztner said: ‘[A Nazi officer] asked me to tell my friends in Kolozsvar that they had increased the guard at the Romanian borderâEuro ¦
‘I had to tell those who wanted to escape to Romania to be more careful and to use other ways.’
Historians estimate that 437,000 people – more than half of Hungary’s Jewish population – boarded the Nazi death trains.
Mr Bogdanor says that many of them were victims of Kasztner’s treacherous ties with Eichmann and he believes the history books will now be rewritten.
He explained: ‘Kasztner had always been ruthlessly ambitious. He decided to work for the Nazis as a route to power and importance.
‘He was a megalomaniac who saw dealing with the Nazis as a safer bet than going underground, so he betrayed his own community.’
‘The memory of the victims and survivors of Auschwitz is being insulted by the continued portrayal of Kasztner as a hero when in reality he is the last traitor from the Holocaust era to be exposed. It’s a great injustice and the truth must be told.’