Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
by Jim Allen
Hitler's invasion of Hungary in March 1944 was the trigger for the greatest single massacre in history. In less than two months, between 15 May and 8 July, more than half of Hungary's 800,000 Jews were deported. Of the 437,000 deportees only 20,000 survived. Most were murdered immediately after they arrived at Auschwitz, where the Nazis installed special makeshift sheds to gas their victims. In all, nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed before the Russian liberation of Budapest in February 1945.
The architect of this slaughter was Adolf Eichmann, who years later provided the Israeli secret service with their proudest moment when they captured him in Argentina and brought him back for trial and execution. But Hungary has haunted Jews and the Israeli state because it also raised fundamental questions about the behaviour of the leadership--the Jewish Council in Budapest, which cooperated with the Nazis, and the international Zionist leadership which remained silent when it had detailed information about what was happening at Auschwitz.
For the fact is that it was only possible for the Nazis to put their plans into effect so quickly and without resistance because the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were kept in ignorance. The efforts of the Jewish Council were devoted to bribing the Nazis to let a select few escape to Israel. To achieve that, they were forced not merely to cooperate with Eichmann but in effect to collaborate with the Nazis in preventing the community from knowing their fate.
It is the behaviour of the Jewish leadership that is the theme of Jim Allen's play Perdition, recently revived at the Gate Theatre in London 12 years after its first showing. In 1987 the play was subjected to an orchestrated campaign of abuse, with leading Zionists denouncing Allen (and his supporters) as anti-Semitic. The pressure forced the Royal Court Theatre to cancel the play, which eventually had its first and only performance at the Conway Hall. Twelve years later the protests have been much more muted, a few letters and a fairly polite lobby by the Union of Jewish Students outside the theatre--perhaps a reflection of the fact that many Jews have become more critical of Zionism and its record.
As the play demonstrates, Zionism as a political philosophy is based on the notion that anti-Semitism is inevitable. The reaction of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzi, to the witch hunt of Captain Dreyfus in France was that he 'recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism'. Chaim Weizmann, who was in charge of selecting which German Jews should be allowed to emigrate to Palestine and was later to become Israel's first president, argued repeatedly that when it came to a choice between establishing a Jewish national state and the rescue of the Jews from the Nazis then the Zionist state came first.
Allen's play argues that it was this approach which typified the Hungarian Jewish leadership, most notably Rudolf Kastner, who was in charge of organising the trainload of 1,684 Jews which Eichmann allowed out in the summer of 1944. After the war Kastner became a prominent figure in Israel, but then found himself involved in a libel case in 1955 which rocked the state to its foundations, when a fellow Hungarian emigrant accused him of collaboration with the Nazis. The play is set in a London courtroom, with the Kastner character (Miklos Yaron in the play) forced to defend himself against the accusation of collaboration, which in this case comes not from a fellow Hungarian but from a young Israeli woman who has discovered the evidence of his behaviour.
Allen's play is powerful and deserves to be widely shown. The script has undergone some modification in its latest version, which recognises quite rightly that many Zionists did fight the Nazis, despite the rotten ideology of their leaders. The new version also provides more scope for Yaron/Kastner to justify his behaviour.
In the real trial in Israel in 1955 the judge in effect found Kastner 'guilty'--three of the four accusations of collaboration were found to be true. The Israeli government, which had pursued the libel case on Kastner's behalf, then appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1957 overturned the earlier ruling on legal rather than factual grounds--but also called for a public inquiry. Before the Supreme Court hearing took place Kastner was shot dead by gunmen who turned out to be former employees of the Israeli secret service. The secret service had been tipped off about the murder but took no action to avert it.
So the truth of how the Hungarian Jews were betrayed by their leaders never came out. Allen's play links their fate entirely to the Zionist project. It is a persuasive argument but it is not the whole story. The tragedy of the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in Eastern Europe is that the backward looking traditions of community separatism, the ghetto, were deliberately exploited by the Nazis. Eichmann himself had made a careful study of the Jews and of Zionist ideology. As one of the leaders of Hungary's orthodox Jews, Philip Freudiger, wrote later, 'We should never have allowed ourselves to be herded into the ghetto.' Yet for the orthodox Jews just as for the Zionists the ghetto appeared to be a haven. For the orthodox Jews from the villages it seemed to make sense: their whole way of life was that of a tightly knit community--the shtetl. The culpability of the Zionists is that from the start they fought against the integration and assimilation of Jews into wider society all in the name of a homeland which today has many of the characteristics of a ghetto--a rich, protected and heavily armed ghetto, but a ghetto nonetheless.