Engrossing account of Joel Brand’s desperate attempts to save the Hungarian Jews from Nazi extermination.
Novelist and historian Florence (Lawrence and Aaronsohn: T. E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2007, etc.) ably chronicles the multilayered story of the bargaining for Hungarian Jews in the spring of 1944 and the aftermath. Brand was a leader in the Budapest-based secret rescue organization, Vaada, which aided Jews in occupied Slovakia and Poland to arrange safe routes to the relative security of Hungary and elsewhere. By March 1944, Hungary still possessed the largest remaining Jewish community in Europe, mainly because Hungary was Hitler’s early cooperative ally. However, Eichmann, chief engineer of the “Final Solution,” was entrusted with the job of stripping the 800,000 Hungarian Jews of their wealth, ghettoizing them and eventually deporting them to concentration camps. He summoned Brand and made his offer: “blood for goods,” or one million Jews for 10,000 heavy-duty trucks that the Germans needed on the Eastern Front. Brand was given a few weeks to travel and meet with Western officials, but he was in an impossible position, as the Normandy landing was getting underway and the Allies refused to barter with the Nazis. The so-called Auschwitz Protocols, an eyewitness account by two camp escapees on what was really happening to the Jews there, was disseminating that spring, and Jews as well as Allied officials, while incredulous, were grasping the truth. While Brand was held in limbo in Cairo, his colleague back in Budapest Rezsó Kasztner was negotiating with the enemy, extorting enormous sums from Hungarian Jews for safe transits to Palestine.
The whole sordid tale would not emerge fully until the postwar trials of Kasztner and Eichmann, and Florence does a fine, thorough job bringing the period to life.