When leaders forget they are mortal

Reading recently a novel, I came across a reference to an incident that took place in Transylvania in 1944. Of course, my curiosity led me to check whether the incident was a true historical incident or one created to support the plot of the novel. Much to my chagrin, I found out that the story was absolutely real.

In 1944, Adolph Eichmann was in Budapest trying to organize the mass massacre of Hungarian Jews. Transylvania was at the time, by Nazi decree, part of Hungary - so the fate of Transylvanian Jews was in Eichmann's hands. Jewish leaders at the time had already heard testimonies from escapees from Auschwitz and other death camps describing in excruciating detail what was the fate of those deported in the cattle trains. They could not pretend not to know.

One of those Jewish leaders was Rudolph Kasztner, who presented himself as a representative of the Jewish Agency, but that based on available information was in fact just the leader of one of the Zionist movements in the area. He was able, however, to catch Eichmann's attention with a proposed deal that I will mention later in detail.

Another one of the leaders of the Transylvanian Jewish community was Rabbi Joel Taitelbaum, better known as the Szatmarer Rebbe. He was an uncompromising anti-Zionist who went to the extreme of expelling members of his congregation for even talking to Zionist Jews. At a time when Jews were looking for ways out of Europe, he even instructed some of his congregants to tear up their Palestine immigration certificates and stay in Szatmar and deny support to the Zionists.

In 1944, Kasztner approached Eichmann with a proposal. If Eichmann would let a few hundred or even a thousand Transylvanian Jews leave for Palestine, Kasztner would ensure that those left behind "do not make trouble". Years later, during his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann would praise Kasztner as a "True visionary" and would call the deal "a very good deal".

Kasztner organized the trains and selected those who would be on board. The Szatmar Rebbe, according to testimonies that came up in the 1950s trial of Kasztner in Israel, begged for his inclusion. The train carried the leadership of the Transylvanian Jewish community and it became known as the train of the "Prominenten" ("The Prominent ones"). As an insurance against a deception by Kasztner, Eichmann instructed those to be on the train to be taken to Bergen Belsen and wait there until Eichmann could be sure that Kasztner followed through with his promises. The train eventually left, under Nazi custody, and it arrived in Genoa from where the passengers were taken to British Palestine. Among them, Joel Taitelbaum, Rabbi of Szatmar, who stayed for about a year in Jerusalem before emigrating to the US.

When the affair came to light in the 1950s, Kasztner was put on trial in Israel but he was shot by a Jew before the end of the trial. During the trial, the court called on witnesses from all over the world, including the Szatmar Rebbe. Rabbi Taitelbaum's response was that "Kasztner didn't save me - God did" and refused to testify. In the Szatmar community, the story of the Rebbe's miraculous salvation says that a dream came upon the organizer of the train while the Rebbe was interned in Bergen Belsen awaiting execution. In the dream God told the organizer that "he had to take the Szatmar Rebbe or the enterprise would fail".

This story should serve as a mirror for all Jewish leaders to see the ugliness of what happens when leaders put their own personal welfare or agenda in front of that of the community. Kasztner and the Szatmar Rebbe should serve all those who take leadership roles in the Jewish community as a warning.

We Jews rarely have to be reminded that we are mortal in the way Roman generals needed the reminder. We do need, however, to be reminded that when we take a leadership role in the Jewish community, it is not about us - it is about the responsibility we have taken; our agenda and personal feelings need to take second row to the welfare of the community. We Jews don't hold Triumphs nor do we ride on charriots through the streets of our communities - but stories like the one of Kasztner and the Szatmar Rebbe should serve a similar purpose, whispering in our ears "remember you're here to serve"


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