Zionists Debate Rescue of Hungarian Jews
(May 25, 1944)
Minutes of Meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive, Jerusalem, May 25, 1944
On the agenda: Rescue of Hungarian Jews
(Mr. Zeev Pomerantz, who had previously come from Turkey, entered.)
The matter on which I am about to report is extremely grave and extremely sensational. On March 19, 1944—the day the Germans entered Hungary, with no Hungarian resistance whatsoever (they talk about one shooting only)—persecution of the Jews began. The first to be interned were leaders of the leftist party and Polish and Hungarian Jews. Within the first three weeks, about 6,000 persons were removed from Hungary. Today, 300,000 Jews have been concentrated in Carpathian Ruthenia and Transylvania. The concentration camps are run by the Germans and the Hungarians.
Eight thousand Jews have been deported to Poland to date, and starting next week another 12,000 will be deported every day.
Several Hungarian Jews have been in contact with the German authorities. As we know, these contacts also took place in Slovakia and the deportations from that country were occasionally delayed because of them.
Now, three weeks ago, two of our comrades in Hungary, Mr. Joel Brand and Mr. R.Kastner, were summoned for a talk with the commander of the Gestapo, the well-known Eichmann. Krumi (Scherzer) Schreber, and Willi, whom we know from Slovakia, took part in this talk for the Gestapo. Eichmann bragged that he had executed three and a half million Jews. If the Jews wanted, he would now be willing to make a “deal” with them: goods instead of blood. Churchill, he said, wants to save the Jews. Roosevelt argues that the Jews are his. So, he said, the Gestapo is willing to give them the Jews, on the condition that they head for Portugal or Spain and not be routed to Palestine. In return, they want ten thousand trucks, to be used exclusively on the eastern front; eighty tons of coffee, twenty tons of tea, twenty tons of cocoa, and two million bars of soap. They are also willing to exchange Jews for German POWs.
This talk was followed by another three or four talks. They are willing to deliver the Jews to the border of Spain or Portugal. One of them blurted that they would also want a little money. They would release one hundred Jews for each truck delivered to them.
On Wednesday, we received a cable from Constantinople signed by Joel Brand, in which he advised that he would reach Constantinople on Friday. He asked to be provided with entrance visas. Indeed, on Friday afternoon, Joel Brand came to Constantinople with a German passport in the name of Eugen Band. From Budapest they took him to Vienna, where he slept in the Gestapo building. By Friday evening he had come to Constantinople, where he gave us the details. They also told him that, for the purpose of this offer, he would be allowed to visit Lisbon, Switzerland, and—by special permit—Palestine, too.
We asked him how he knew for sure that the proposal had come from the army. Eichmann, for example, said he was willing to be the first and to release ten thousand Jews, with payment to follow. Mr. Brand also reported that they had obtained a permit for six hundred Jews, who would be taken away as if for deportation but would be removed to Palestine en route . The unanswered question is whether Brand can come to Palestine with permission from the British authorities, on the condition that he can exit again. We made inquiries in Constantinople and reached the conclusion that we must first hand the matter over to the Executive, which will decide what to do next. Brand cabled Budapest this past Saturday, advising that he is coming to Ankara and that the negotiations are continuing.
In the meantime, the deportations from Hungary are proceeding. We decided to send one of our people to Palestine to report the matter to the Executive and to ask a member of the Executive to come to Turkey at once.
We asked whether they would allow one of us to visit Hungary, and they replied that it was not out of the question.
Brand was accompanied to Constantinople by a Hungarian who had been in our service and, with him, a group of important Hungarians. He also worked for the Germans and took part in the talks with Eichmann. The Germans told this Hungarian that a financial ransom might also be relevant, and when Brand asked about the price, he was told $500 per person. He—the Hungarian—offered $100. They forbade him to tell this to Brand.
On Sunday, they were about to make inquiries with the comrades in Budapest about the state of the deportations and concentrations. We also asked if it were possible to arrange to have the Swiss consul supervise the transports out of the country. There was also talk of a delegation of Gestapo people—Schroeder (this is not evidently his real name)—to continue the negotiations. It is not clear whether all the talks were conducted at the instructions of the high German authorities. The Hungarian, for example, advised that they had been authorized to conduct the talks at the highest echelons.
Mr. Brand explained that it was important to keep the negotiations going, because this would buy us time. And since it is important to play for time, it is essential for someone to travel to Ankara and for a member of the Executive to go to Turkey at once, because important things are happening there. Mr. Brand will return to Budapest over the next few days. If we advise him by cable that he should stay on for another few days, they will certainly let him do so. The comrades in Constantinople are demanding that Mr. Shertok go there at once.
We have to keep this game going as long as possible, although there is no doubt that nothing can possibly come of it. I consider it a satanic provocation meant to give them an opportunity to slaughter the Jews of Hungary. For this reason, we have to pretend that we are doing everything in this direction.
I believe Mr. Shertok should leave for Turkey at once and spend several days there; we should also state that one of our people is going to the United States. However, we must present one condition: the deportations have to stop immediately. And another: the first thousand Jews should be from Poland and not from Hungary.
They should also be allowed to negotiate for money and not for goods. I am sure the United States will not agree to this “trade,” but we must send someone to Turkey immediately, because that way we buy time.
The matter should be treated with the greatest urgency and boldness. The goal is not to buy time but to rescue Jews from Europe. We must also buy time, but that should not be the goal. Even though the scheme seems chimerical, there is no doubt that many Jews may be saved if we respond in the affirmative. Say hundreds of thousands of Jews reach Portugal—what will they do with them? With what will they feed them? But we have no choice; we are duty-bound to do everything to rescue the surviving remnant in Europe. We have nothing more to lose. If the last million is not saved, it will be annihilated.
None of us should go to Turkey at once; neither should our man meet in Constantinople directly with the Germans but rather through the mediation of the Red Cross. We should immediately report the matter to our comrades in London and Washington. Maybe somebody should go to London right now.
I accept Mr. Pomerantzs characterization of the whole matter as fantastic, but we should not belittle its seriousness. Nor should anyone speak now about satanic plots. The Nazis have one plot—to destroy Jews. If there is a hope of one in a million, we should cling to it.
I regret that action was not taken immediately and that they did not cable that a member of the Executive would set out for Turkey then and there, because it is essential to talk with the British and American envoys.
[Ben-Gurion favors sending Mr. Shertok to Turkey.]
We should also inform our friends in London and report the matter to the High Commissioner, because without assistance from the government we cannot move. We should ask the Commissioner to bring the matter to the knowledge of the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office immediately.
First of all, we should announce that the negotiations are continuing. [I] Second Ben-Gurions view on a mission by Mr. Shertok to Turkey. We should try to turn the negotiations into a matter of money, not of goods. We should also strive to send our envoy to Budapest at once. [I] doubt that we should turn the matter over to the British. For the time being, we should negotiate with the Americans, and afterwards with the British.
I concur with Mr. Ben-Gurion and Mr. Shertok. The comrades in Constantinople should be instructed to insist on a halt to the deportations. There is no point in dealing with the matter behind the authorities backs.
I consider this a plot and nothing more. I fear that if we hand the matter to the British and the Americans, we shall fail altogether. I support Mr. Dobkins proposal—not to send a cable and not to tell anyone about this matter until Mr. Shertok returns from Turkey. I agree, for lack of choice, that it should be reported to the High Commissioner in total confidentiality.
The whole thing is puzzling, but we should debate the action we are about to take, because it is our duty to spare no effort to rescue the Jews of Hungary. In the meantime, we should bring the matter to the knowledge of the comrades in England and the government. If there is even one straw to grasp, we must not let it slip away. There is no hope of buying time by concealing the matter.
I suggest that the government be advised at once and that our comrades be informed by cable that Mr. Shertok is setting out for Turkey.
I object to Mr. Dobkins proposal—to report first to the Americans and then to the British. We have to report this to the authorities at once. Of course, we will have to ask them to report it to the central government and to treat it confidentially.
All of us favor sending Mr. Shertok to Turkey.
The motion passes.
It is proposed to report these affairs to the High Commissioner, to ask him to forward the information to the central government and to Dr. Weizmann, and to add that Mr. Shertok is about to leave for Turkey.
three in favor (Messrs. Kaplan, Shertok, and Shmurak);
The motion passes.
We ask the comrades, especially Mr. Pomerantz, to keep these matters in total confidence and reveal them to no one. Meeting adjourned.