(RNS) Eva Adler was a schoolgirl in 1944 when she climbed aboard a train that took her and 1,683 other Jews not to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, but to salvation.
The train ride, embarking at Budapest as headlines in America proclaimed “JEWS IN HUNGARY FEAR ANNIHILATION,” was bartered by a Hungarian Zionist named Rudolf Kasztner.
In the final year of World War II, he negotiated for Jewish lives with the promise of delivering trucks to Adolf Eichmann, the self-proclaimed “Jewish specialist” in the Final Solution. For that, he was vilified as a collaborator, lionized as a hero and later felled by an assassin.
For Adler, the haunting images are now rushing back with all the clanging roar of a locomotive on miles of steel track. Now 83 and living in Haworth, N.J., she is among the survivors of what’s known as the Kasztner Transport who this week (Oct. 18-25) were able to witness a preview of the film “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis.”
“He saved lives. To save a life is a wonderful thing,” Adler said on Tuesday while seated at a dining room table covered with old black-and-white snapshots of loved ones.
There’s a family picture of a young, dark-haired Adler with her father, Sigmund; mother, Rose; and brother, Frederick; all of whom departed Nazi territory in Budapest and eventually made it safely to St. Gallen, Switzerland.
The family, though, was anything but whole. An older snapshot shows Adler with her cousin, Clara, believed to have perished in the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
“Nobody came home. Nobody,” she said of the notorious death camp.
And there’s one photo of her boyfriend, Andrew Sebestyen, who died at the Third Reich’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
“He was locked up already,” Adler, who ended up never marrying, said of her beau.
The promise of her family’s rescue was anything but certain. First, the border of Switzerland proved insurmountable. “The Swiss changed their mind and we couldn’t go,” she said. “So they took us to Bergen-Belsen. … I think Kasztner worked, worked hard, with the Swiss.”
In December, some six months later, a new train was to arrive. But Adler was hesitant, as were others.
“I didn’t believe it. I thought maybe they wanted to kill us. Bergen-Belsen didn’t have gas chambers. … If they wanted to kill us, they would take us someplace with a gas chamber.”
It was almost nighttime when Adler and the others trekked eight, maybe 10, miles into the forest near Bergen-Belsen. There was no train. They waited.
“We are standing there. It was already 5 o’clock and cold. Then it became dark. It was finally 10 o’clock.”
Then a train pulled up in the dark of the forest, not with the typical cattle cars used to transport Jews to their deaths, but ones with passenger seats.
“If they wanted to take us to the gas chambers, they wouldn’t bring such an elegant train,” Adler reasoned. At one point during the next two days, as the Kasztner Transport made its way across Nazi Germany en route to Switzerland, the iron horse came to a halt. Allied bombers were overhead.
Adler’s reminiscences flowed about what happened next: the kindness of a little girl who ran after her and gave her a piece of chocolate, her stay in a beautiful mountaintop Swiss hotel, empty for lack of tourists. In the ensuing years, she’d fulfill her dream of being a physician, eventually traveling to Israel and the United States, where she would become a longtime child psychologist.
As for Kasztner, he was assassinated in front of his Tel Aviv home in March 1957, just a few years after a countryman accused him of collaborating with the Nazis. The Israeli government had sued the accuser for libel, but in the inflammatory political trial that followed, he ended up being portrayed as “the man who sold his soul to the devil.”
The film, which received critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival and is being released Friday in New York, includes interviews with assassin Ze’ev Eckstein, described as a right-wing Jewish extremist who ultimately served seven years in prison, and Kasztner’s daughter, Zsuzsi, and granddaughter, Merav Michaeli.
“He left us with this heritage,” Michaeli said yesterday of a grandfather credited with saving tens of thousands more by interceding in the war’s final days. “He wasn’t a victim. … He didn’t give in to this, `There’s nothing to do. They’re bigger than us. They’re the monster.'”
As for his killer, she said: “He’s the one who pulled the trigger, but so many people made him do it. We met with him. … Today, he’s very self-reflective. I also think he feels he’s coming to the end of his life.”
Today, Kasztner is described as the Jewish Schindler, after Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who employed some 1,200 Jews in his factories to save them from the Holocaust, bartering with the Nazis along the way. His story was the basis for the acclaimed film “Schindler’s List.”
(Philip Read writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)