January 24, 2019

Wartime Deals Couldn’t Save Hungary’s Jews

At one strange and terrible moment in 1944, a conversation took place in Nazi-occupied Budapest between Adolf Eichmann and a charming rogue named Joel Brand, a man who preferred to spend his time in cafes while his wife ran the family’s little glove-making business. Eichmann offered Brand a deal — 1 million Jewish men, women and children would be set free in exchange for 10,000 trucks. “Blood for goods” is the phrase that Eichmann used to describe the deal he was proposing to make.

Like much else in Ronald Florence’s “Emissary of the Doomed: Bargaining for Lives in the Holocaust” (Viking, $27.95), the scene is like something out of a novel by Eric Ambler or John le Carré. But it all really happened, as Eichmann himself testified during his war-crimes trial in Jerusalem, and Florence’s book is an important and well-documented work of history. At the same time, however, it is an authentic page-turner that I simply could not put down even though I knew something about the story Florence tells before I picked it up.

Brand was a marginal figure in the Jewish community of Budapest, whose leadership included wealthy figures of rank and title. “He preferred meeting women, drinking, playing cards and cafe talk,” according to the author, but Brand also found it exciting to work with the Zionist underground, a task that put him in touch with Nazi counterespionage agents. So it was that Eichmann singled out Brand to receive the fateful offer and carry it back to the official Jewish leadership.

So far, Hungary had been spared much of the carnage of the Holocaust, but word had reached Budapest that Auschwitz was being prepared for the arrival of more than 850,000 Hungarian Jews, “the largest intact Jewish population in Europe.” Indeed, that’s why Eichmann showed up in Budapest in 1944 — “Now it is Hungary’s turn,” he told Brand — and that’s why Brand resolved to put away his playing cards and take the full weight of history on his own back.

To his credit, Brand worked courageously and tirelessly to persuade the organized Jewish community of Budapest, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, the British and American authorities in London and Washington, and anyone else who would listen to make a counteroffer to Eichmann, if only to keep 1 million Jews alive while he negotiated with the man who was ready and able to send them to Auschwitz to die. Brand made his way to Istanbul and then Aleppo, but ended up in British custody in Cairo, where he went on a hunger strike to demonstrate the urgency of his mission.

Significantly, Florence is both an historian (“Blood Libel”) and a novelist (“The Last Season”), and he describes the exploits of Joel Brand in colorful and compelling detail, thus reminding us that history is made and experienced by flesh-and-blood human beings. We see the secret pleasures that were available to powerful men and women in the midst of war, the intrigues and the tradecraft of spies and secret operatives, and even the sexual betrayal that Brand was forced to endure as he struggled to discharge his duties to the Jewish people.

At the same time, the exploits of Joel Brand serve as a kind of prism through which we can see flashes of the larger history of the Holocaust. He describes how the first eyewitness accounts of what was happening behind the electrified fences at Auschwitz reached the West, and how the so-called “Auschwitz Protocols” changed the calculus of decision-making for rescuers and war-planners alike. Oskar Schindler shows up in these pages and so do Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved Jewish lives by handing out visas in Budapest, and Hannah Senesh, the poet-commando who parachuted behind enemy lines and ended up a victim of the Gestapo.

One of the narrative threads in “Emissary of the Doomed” focuses on a man named Rezso (also known as Israel or Rudolf) Kasztner, a member of the Zionist underground who participated in the negotiations with Eichmann and other Nazi officials while at the same time taking up with Brand’s wife. After Brand’s mission ended in failure, Kasztner was able to ransom some 1,600 Jews by paying bribes in cash, gold and jewelry, and he was later accused of collaboration with the Nazis after choosing to spare only the lives of his own friends and relations. (Brand’s mother and sisters, for example, were left to die in Bergen-Belsen.) The Kasztner affair, as Florence shows us, ended with a libel trial in postwar Israel that impugned the wartime conduct of Zionist officials, and Kasztner himself was assassinated on the streets of Tel Aviv.

For all of its attention to the intimate moments in the life of Joel Brand, “Emissary of the Doomed” is ultimately a book about the moral culpability of both the Zionist leadership and the Allied high command. We cannot know with certainty why Eichmann offered to barter Jews for trucks, a baffling notion then and now, but the most plausible of several explanations offered by Florence is that Heinrich Himmler, master architect of the Holocaust, was using Eichmann to open a back channel through which Himmler hoped to negotiate a separate peace with the Americans and the British.

The rejection of Eichmann’s offer by the Allies only underscored the ultimate powerlessness of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The Allies were unwilling to do anything to save Jewish lives, whether it meant trading 10,000 trucks for a million Jewish lives or merely sending a few B-24s to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz. Indeed, the Allies were unwilling to accept more than a small number of Jewish refugees into their own countries during the war, and Britain agreed with Nazi Germany that they should not be allowed into Palestine: “The Reich government cannot lend its hand,” Himmler told Eichmann, “to the ousting of such a noble and valiant people as the Arabs from their Palestine homeland by the Jews.”

“Emissary of the Doomed” ends in postwar Israel, where both Brand and Kasztner reprised their wartime experiences in courtrooms and the media for both personal and political reasons. The author includes a telling anecdote in which Ben-Gurion scoffs at Eichmann’s cynical offer — “Where could we find 10,000 trucks?” — but cannot recall Joel Brand’s name. It’s an ironic and wholly appropriate closing note, because the author has now reminded us of Joel Brand’s name and why we ought to know and remember it. l

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of 13 books, blogs at