Ladislaus Lob – rescued from Bergen-Belsen in 1944 by Rezso Kasztner

Has it ever happened to you that you’re browsing through your local library and a gem jumps off the shelf at you – you end up wondering how it is that although you’ve been a member of the library for so long, you haven’t found this one previously? That happened to me recently and the book was Ladislaus Lob’s Dealing with Satan. And that is how the golden thread of humanity tweaks us through literature. 

Ladislaus Lob is Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Sussex in England.  He is also one of 1700 people  saved from the Holocaust at the age of eleven by Rezső Kasztner who was later accused of collaboration and assassinated before he could hear that his name had been cleared.

Ladislaus Lob in his 70s

Lob’s book (variously known as Dealing with Satan / Rezső Kasztner’s Daring Rescue Mission (Jonathan Cape) and Rezső Kasztner: The Daring Rescue of Hungarian Jews (Pimlico and Kindle) tells the poignant, personal, in parts touching and always astounding story of this rescue.

Two months and a day after my eleventh birthday the gates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp closed behind me. It was 9 July 1944. Five months later, with the Second World War still raging, I crossed the border into neutral Switzerland, stunned but alive and safe.”

Orchestrating our interview across the continents has had its challenges and Prof Lob has been refreshingly friendly, professional and courteous with me.

 It’s my pleasure to bring you this interview from which I hope you may extract much to enrich your life today.  History must never be forgotten. 

I believe that the world is in the state it’s in today partly because people either don’t know, or don’t remember, or choose not to remember things that have happened in history before us. Was the will to inform people – and perhaps to prevent similar atrocities – part of the reason for writing your book? If not, what was the motivation behind it?

Having spent many years on academic writing, when I retired I could no longer resist the urge to try and write something more personal. Any doubts I had about the relevance of my personal experiences dissolved when I realised that what happened to me at age eleven was part of something much bigger, if I may say, of world history. World history is often a history of anti-semitism. It was so during World War II, it was so when I started on the book and it is so today. The history of the Holocaust is full of misunderstandings or worse: some deny it, others try to profit from it, many misrepresent it. I often lecture on the Holocaust and am asked what we can do to prevent it happening again. I am not sure that there is anything we can do, but if there is it must be trying to discover and face the truth about it. Kasztner’s story is one of the most extraordinary episodes of the Holocaust but also one of the most illuminating. All this came together when I decided to try and write my book.

Ladislaus Lob aged 11, December 1944 shortly
after arrival in Switzerland

You do come across as someone with a lot of energy. In your book, you describe your father as a street smart very energetic man. Would you say that this is a trait you have inherited from him?

To some extent, yes. I can be very determined when I know what I want or what is right. 

You’ve described some of your pre war or pre camp experiences with lucid detail. I hate it when adults bully children and find the image of soldiers stealing your toy dog and watch quite upsetting.  Did you find that those happier memories became harder to hold on to as time went on?

No difference between happy and unhappy memories in that respect. I try to remember and compare my memories with the recollections of others. There are memoirs and interviews written down relatively close in time to the events, and even a diary written in the camp itself. These have helped to fill gaps in my memory and to confirm or correct my own recollections. This reassures me that while total objectivity is impossible my account is even-handed and gives a true picture.

Was camp life made difficult by other residents who lived in a less ‘privileged’ camp or was communication between the groups so limited that this was prevented?

Although communications were strictly forbidden we managed to exchange some information (by word of mouth across the barbed wire, scribbles on the wall of the shower block etc.) but the opportunities were limited. On one side next to the “Hungarian camp” was the larger “Star camp” with Dutch Jews who were less privileged, having to do hard labour, wearing the yellow star, getting even less and worse food than we did, and being abused and beaten by the SS. We could see all this across the barbed wire and feel sorry, and the people in that camp could see that we were better off and probably resented it. Incidentally, in October 1944 we saw transport of women in a very bad condition arriving in the “Star camp”. We now know that they had come from Auschwitz and one of them was Anne Frank, who died there some time after we had left for Switzerland. 

Yours is the first book I’ve read which ever mentions anything like entertainment or cultural activities within the camp. I realise that living among a group of intellectuals facilitated this. Did you have an inkling at the time of the high calibre of person you were living amongst?

Yes and no. I knew that Béla Zsolt the journalist, Leopold Szondi the psychologist, Dezsö Ernster the opera singer, Joel Teitelbaum the rabbi and others were important figures, probably because my father told me. I also enjoyed the satirical songs and sketches of “Radio Ojvé” even though I didn’t understand all the references. But I never thought that we were anything special.

I found your comment about the degeneration of the children’s behaviour interesting. If only humanity could actively learn from this??  It’s a profound comment on the degeneration of society as a whole and makes me think of Lord of the Flies.  Obviously in the camp circumstances the situation was not natural but why do you think that there seems to be such moral degeneration in the world in general?

I  am tempted to say yes, but I think that would be wrong. We are doing appalling things on a growing scale, but we have also made great progress, moral and other, since –say – the Middle Ages.

Whilst you were in the camp were you aware of the negotiations going on outside of the camp?

I knew that Kasztner was working to rescue us, but I didn’t know anything more specific.

Would you say at that stage in your life you had any full understanding of what it was all about?

Certainly not. Sometimes I was afraid, but had no clear idea of what could happen. For example I never imagined how it would be if the Germans decided to kill us. Beyond the immediate, I knew that we were being persecuted because we were Jewish, but I accepted that as a fact and didn’t ask why. Today I do ask, but still have no answer.

The journey from Bergen Belsen to Switzerland is a distance of about 850km, and you undertook it right in the middle of winter.  You had air raids and other wartime hazards to contend with. Could you describe that and the feeling of jubilation arriving in Switzerland?

There was the physical discomfort of too many people in the compartment, the heat, the thirst – but we were happy no longer to be in cattle trucks as we had been on the way to Bergen-Belsen and we didn’t mind the discomfort too much because we knew we were going to Switzerland. Having windows to look out of made a huge difference. I seem to have spent the three days of the journey either watching Germany (some pretty and rural, some urban and in ruins) pass by or dozing. I also seem to remember a great sense of relief. My first sight of Switzerland (lights across the Lake of Constance) was as described in my book. Changing into a more comfortable Swiss train, being taken to the barracks in St Gallen for a breakfast after midnight and bedding down on comfortable mattresses, with pleasant Swiss soldiers and women auxiliaries looking after us – through all this I seem to remember feeling slightly numb and happy, almost as if it was happening to somebody else.  

What was it like adjusting to normal life after liberation?

 Ecole d’Humanité, in the Swiss Alps

The greatest help was a school called Ecole d’Humanité, where I spent two years soon after liberation. It was a boarding school in the Swiss mountains, run by a couple of German refugees from Hitler, based on anti-authoriarian ideas of education. It stopped me being afraid of the world.

Have you been in contact with any other people he saved in recent years?

Since my book was published,  former members of the group have got in touch from many different countries. Mostly the common cause is to do Kasztner justice.

To me Reszo Kasztner’s life seems quite tragic.  He was assassinated at the relatively young age of 51 in 1957 after an Israeli court accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis. By saving the Jews on the Kasztner train, while failing to warn others that their “resettlement” was in fact deportation to the gas chambers, Kasztner had sacrificed the mass of Jewry for a chosen few, the judge said. How did this affect you as one of the people he assisted?

Reszo Kasztner

I don’t believe that Kasztner deliberately betrayed the Hungarian Jews to save his own cronies. I think he believed that the rescue of our group of 1670 could lead to the rescue of many thousands. I don’t believe that by raising the alarm about Auschwitz he could have saved many. The group of those saved may have been top heavy with rich and prominent people, but there were guidelines making it a cross-section of Hungarian Jewry, including poor widows, orphans, young pioneers and others who saw an opportunity and took the risk of joining, like my own father. Therefore, if people tell me that thousands had to die because I am alive, as they sometimes do, I reject any such idea. I was saved because my father was not willing to be deported to Auschwitz and made the most of a chance, without directly damaging someone else’s.

He is described as the “prototype of the snobbish intellectual” but showed “marvellous courage at critical moments”; “dictatorial” but “selfless and always willing to take personal risks” and very arrogant, and rightly so, because he was extremely smart and intelligent and handsome and charismatic”. I think that these character traits would definitely be required in someone pulling off such a rescue mission. With hindsight on our side, is there something  he could have done better or differently?

He was in an impossible situation against the absolute power of the Nazis. It’s astonishing how much he achieved. In the trial he was let down by the Israeli leadership, bad legal representation and his own character and nerves. I can’t see much that he could have done better. To save lives he had to do deals with evil men. 

I’m seeing parallels between Kasztner and Schindler. Why is Kaszo relatively unknown while Schindler is known the world over?

 Passengers of the Kasztner train on their way to Switerland

It is ironic that the ex-Nazi Schindler is admired for the Jews he saved, while Kasztner is often vilified for those he did not save. Kasztner is attacked by other Jews: a case of not being a prophet in one’s own land or of familiarity breeding contempt. In a tragic situation Jews are looking for a scapegoat and finding one among themselves. Also, Kasztner’s character provoked hostility. As to being known, Schindler hit the media (Kenneally, Spielberg) first. Pure chance?

You’ve published other books, but none, I think, dealing with this subject. Was this book a breakthrough book for you in terms of documenting this time in your life?

Most of my writings before this book were academic. While I enjoyed writing those, this book means a lot more to me personally. The very positive reception of both the book and my personal appearances all over Germany (much more so than in Great Britain or in Israel) seemed to confirm this.

One description I’ve found on the internet seems pertinently accurate – that he was a ‘tainted saviour’. I can only imagine that being one of the people he saved, it was not easy to write objectively about Kasztner – a hero, who it was later found seemed to have all these character flaws. But then the mark of a true hero is his humanity. Can you describe the experience of writing about him?

Kasztner and his daughter

I was nervous on various grounds. One was simply whether the combination of autobiography and history would work; I am told by most readers and critics that it does. Another was whether I knew enough for a whole book: my memories at age eleven clearly weren’t enough, but testimonials from other members of the group, conversations with fellow-survivors and works by historians gave a complete picture. Yet another – and more serious – question was that of possible bias. Here I had to admit openly that I wanted to rehabilitate Kasztner and to thank him for saving my life. I did the research with some trepidation, afraid that he would turn out to be the traitor he is often said to be. To my relief I found that doing a deal is not necessarily collaboration and I can say with a good conscience that in my view Kasztner acted in good faith.

I hope its not too contentious to ask what your thoughts are on the current dispute in Israel / Palestine?  

Reading the British press I am astonished at the one-sidedness of so many comments which ignore that the Israeli attacks are a response to hundreds or by now thousands of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israeli territory. I wonder what these commentators would want the British govenment to do if a recognised terrorist group started firing missiles into England from, say, the Channel Isles. 

Where can people get a copy of your book?

From the normal book trade, including Amazon. The hardback Dealing With Satan is now out of print, but the paperback is readily available. The title is Rezső Kasztner. The daring rescue of  Hungarian Jews, but the text is identical.

Do you plan to publish any further books or media on the matter?

Perhaps. Quite recently I have written the largest part of a small volume in German on a number of drawings of Bergen-Belsen made in the camp itself by the graphic artist István Irsai, which was published last month by the Bergen-Belsen Memorial under the title Postkarten von Bergen-Belsen. István Irsai und sein graphisches Werk,  by Ladislaus Löb, Thomas Rahe, Miryam Sommerfeld-Irsai; also available in a shorter version in English as Ladislaus Löb, Greetings from Belsen. István Irsai’s picture postcards and life in the concentration camp, published by the Centre for German-Jewish Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. I also lecture on the Kasztner affair to audiences of all ages.

Related post: Felicity Davis, Author of Guard a Silver Sixpence

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Writer, transcriber, proofreader, editor, lover of the arts.

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