The train swap: Strasshof – Auschwitz
Featured image: With yellow star on the Révfalu bridge (1)
Since our childhood, people of my generation (70+) in Győr have known the story of the fateful swap of trains between Auschwitz and Strasshof, or some of its fragments. Even among friends of my parents, survivors met who had travelled on the trains they considered later ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ as in the story told here.
Yet again, I was shocked by László Zöldi’s recent article on the net entitled “The walking pawns” (3).
I quote from it the excerpt that so seriously affects the Győr deportees:
“In May 1984, the Washington correspondent of Magyar Nemzet, János Avar and I visited Professor Braham in his New York office. The renowned Holocaust scholar made up the name Randolph L. Braham from his Transylvanian name, Adolf Ábrahám, in America. He spent an hour with us. We had been chatting for about half an hour when I mentioned a documentary film made in Hungary, in which the inhabitants of the Győr ghetto are escorted by gendarmes to the cattle cars. I saw smiling faces in the procession and was wondering what they were happy about.
The professor became agitated and apologised for leaving us alone, but he would look into something. He returned an hour later. I summarise the results of the interview in Élet és Irodalom (a Hungarian weekly called Life and Literature) of 15 June 1984. Professor Braham linked the Győr waggon loading scene to the so-called Joel Brand action. He as one of the leaders of Hungarian Jewry visited SS-Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, who supervised the deportations from Budapest with a small unit and offered him 12,000 lorries for the life of the Hungarian Jews.
The German lieutenant-colonel took note of the unusual offer, and while Brand was trying to persuade the anti-Nazi Allied powers to make the exchange, he “blockaded” 30,000 Jews. The nearest ghetto to the Austrian province of the German Reich (where agricultural labour was needed – editor’s note) was the Győr ghetto. So ‘the walking pawns’ from here were meant to go to work in agriculture. The crowded train set off northwards in the direction of Érsekújvár, then turned eastwards instead of westwards. The train commander, SS-Scharführer (sergeant) Kassel, noticed the mistake and called his boss, who told him: `Once you’re there, take them on to Auschwitz, I’ll send other ones to Austria.’ (3)
Almost four decades have passed since the interview was published. Researchers have become more nuanced in their interpretation of the 1944 story, but the essence has hardly changed. As Professor Braham put it in 1984: ’It’s a tragic joke of fate that thousands of Jews from Szeged and Debrecen survived at the cost of the deaths of the Jews of Győr.’” (3)
So far, the quote.
During our exchange of letters, László Zöldi authorised our website to republish his article, but also drew our attention to his last lines, which indicateed that researchers were lately divided on what had actually happened in 1944.
Looking at some of the sources, it seems to me that, despite the contradictions discovered, the story is true, or could very easily have been true, because in those terrible times anything and its contrary could happen, so fateful were the unpredictable, irrationally insane and evil decisions by murderers and oppressors of the time carrying in all circumstances very grave consequences.
Of course, “from a more distant point of view”, considering the total number of victims, it „did not really count” in the tragedy of rural Jewry in Hungary as to deportees from a given gendarmerie district were sent to Auschwitz or to a “more lenient” concentration camp like Strasshof, while, of course, the train destination sealed individual fates.
Perhaps if some of the deportees from Győr had been sent to the Strasshof distribution camp in Austria, near Vienna to the north-east, they would have had a better chance of survival. But who knows: 21,000 Hungarian Jews were transported by Eichmann to Strasshof, often entire families. The ‘idyll’, however, did not last long. After the harvest of 1944, some of the slaves held here were sent to the notorious Bergen-Belsen, others to Mauthausen and Theresienstadt towards the end of the war. A total of 2,000 Hungarian Jews, i.e. 10 % of those deported, were liberated by the Red Army in Strasshof (7).
In the meeting with the Hungarian journalists, Professor Braham linked the Strasshof alternative to Joel Brand‘s action. Brand had indeed played a key role in the chaotic negotiations with Eichmann on the trucks-for-lives deal, and after Eichmann’s apparent approval, he tried unsuccessfully to convince the Allied representatives of this rescue operation. (6)
Nevertheless, in his own work “The Politics of Genocide: the Holocaust in Hungary” (2nd expanded and revised edition – Budapest: Belvárosi Kvk., 1997), the Professor refers to the event, which he calls “‘Setting aside’ for Strasshof”, as a result of the negotiations between Eichmann and Rudolf Kasztner. It was in the framework of this agreement that some of the deportees from the Szeged district were transferred to Austria. Here we quote Professor Braham directly:
“Kasztner expected the first shipment of Jews to come from Győr and Komárom, areas where deportations of Jews were in full swing. Although this plan appears to have been approved by Eichmann, all transports from Gendarmerie District II and III, including of course those from Győr and Komárom, were routinely diverted to Auschwitz, probably due to the clumsiness of one of the SS-Scharführers in charge of the transports. The Scharführer in charge of the Győr transport only noticed that the train number was not in the register when the transport had already arrived at the Slovakian border; he called Eichmann and asked for instructions. Eichmann, who was more concerned with ‘completing the plan’ than with moral duty, apparently instructed the Scharführer that if the transport was already at the Slovakian border, it should go on to Auschwitz. He decided to ‘compensate’ Kasztner with a transport from another part of Hungary”. (10)
Same story, different names.
Another twist: some researchers say the story is false, or even untrue, though in the upside-down world of 1944 it could have even been true.
Tímea Berkes, in her 1995 thesis (supervisor: László Karsai, a well-known historian), writes: “Braham adopts the story of the ‘train swap’ from Kasztner’s report; this is not tenable, since on the day of the agreement with the Germans the second deportation train had already left Győr.” (11)
So the train change never happened?
It did or it didn’t, as I said, it didn’t reduce the actual suffering, the number of victims and those subjected to persecution.
At this point, let me remind you of the Franco-Belgian-Dutch-Romanian film ‘The Life Train’, written and directed by Radu Mihaileanu from Romania.
“One night in 1941, Shlomo, the village fool, returns home with earth-shattering news: the Nazis are deporting all the Jews of the neighbouring villages to an unknown destination. Their village is next on the list. The council of elders, led by the rabbi, meets that evening to discuss how to save the community. After endless bickering, the best idea only pops out of Shlomo’s head at dawn: organise their own mock deportation. They pretend to be victims, train mechanics, Nazi officers and soldiers. The enthusiastic inhabitants tailor Nazi uniforms, buy a scrapped rusty locomotive, call their Swiss relative home to learn German from him, fabricate false documents and cobble together the train wagon by wagon. And one fine day, like Noah’s Ark, the train sets off with all the villagers on board.” (12)
And what is the end of the smile-inducing and yet terribly upsetting story told in the movie?
“… and there we see Shlomo in his striped cap and prison garb, standing behind barbed wire telling a story. How? What we have seen and heard of the miraculous rescue, could it be just a fairy tale?” (13)
In fact, to quote relevant words of János Arany, Hungarian poet of the 19th century, “no fairy tale is this, child”.
(1) Régi Győr a); (2) Régi Győr b); (3) Újnépszabadság, Médianapló, Zöldi László has been teaching media history in various higher education institutions for 30 years; 4) Mazsihisz; (5) Baross (6) Neokohn; (7) Wikipedia a); (8) Braham, Randolph L.: A népirtás politikája …; (9) Wikipedia b); (10) Braham, Randolph L; (11) The “Final Solution” in Győr-Sopron-Pozsony County, Diploma thesis by Tímea Berkes, supervisor: László Karsai, Szeged, 1995 (pdf); (12) Életvonat a); (13) Életvonat b)