Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Aryan Couple

Last night I saw a compelling film about someone I had not heard previously of but who with his wife, children and extended family bought their way from a journey to a German Nazi extermination camp by signing over his substantial and significant industrial empire and family holdings of property. As with all such films where the film announces that it is based on a true story, however loosely, my first action after viewing the film was to attempt to find the facts.

The man was Manfred Weiss but I could only find one reference of value which I shall come to later because of the what I discovered about the man who took over the huge industrial holdings with 30000 employees and who went on to become one of the most wealthy men in Western Germany after the War.

Kurt Becher was a member of the Nazi S S who from his experience in Poland and Russia was responsible for the techniques of the genocide of the Jewish people and was then appointed Chief of Economic Development of the SS Command in Hungary by Heinrich Himmler in 1944.

It is sometimes forgotten by the media especially the entertainment media that Eichmann worked directly to Himmler on the extermination of the Jewish people in the German occupied territories and Himmler was head of the Gestapo as Minister for the Interior as well as responsible for the security and policing of all occupied countries. In this respect he was more powerful that Hitler in terms of his power over the German civilian population as well as the occupied territories.

Belcher responsible for extracting the maximum financial profit from all those exterminated, not just their possessions but everything from their body, including teeth, hair and using body fat for soap as well as enabling some wealthy Jews to officially buy their way out of the country. He was therefore by definition in terms of his role a monster of a human being yet he survived the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials where although arrested he was not charged and was used as witness.

Yet on arrival in the Hungarian capital in March 1944 his first task was to “ negotiate” the taking over of the most important Jewish businesses which were still owned and managed and he did this for the benefit of himself contrary to Himmler’s approach, a fact which the film deplorably stands on its head as the film argues Himmler coveted the art collection of the central characters which was housed in a provincial and rural located Palace, which because of the removal of Jews was looked after by a couple who posed as Aryans who were not only Jews but in touch with those monitoring and helping Jews to escape the Terror. Himmler is shown to attend the Palace for a meal with the Industrialist and his wife, plus the Hungarian Commander, presumably intended to be Becher and other local senior officers with Eichmann being invited for coffee to witness the signing of the agreement.

The films begins with a moving and challenging portrayal of the Terror in terms of the way Jews of all ages and backgrounds were herded into cattle trucks together with pictures of an extermination centre as it remains to day. Becher only remained in Hungary for the rest of that year in which he negotiated with another figure of controversy over the transport of 1685 Jews out of the country to places of safety for money, negotiating first with Eichmann and then through Becher with Himmler.

By the beginning of 1945 Becher was promoted by Himmler and Hitler in charge of all concentration camps until his arrest by the allies in May and by which time it is alleged that he had personally acquired in objects and money to the value of 10 million Swiss francs in the six large suitcases accompanying him on his travels.

He was protected at Nuremberg by Rudolf Kastner. Kastner was a Hungarian Jew who led an organisation which purchased from Himmler the safe departure from Hungary of the documented 1685 Jews for substantial payments but at a time when an estimated 12000 a day where being transported to the extermination centres. After the war Kastner moved to Israel where he came to hold a position in the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1952.

However shortly after this he was subject to accusation that he had in fact been a profiteer not just failing warn others of what was in store for them but encouraging them to comply with the authorities, reassuring that they would be safe. Although a court found that the case against him was not proven this was after a judge had criticised his role and led to his assassination in in 1957 and the judgement had a lasting and damaging effect on his family. My understanding is that Mr Kastner undertook work prior to the War helping Jewish refugees to resettle in Romania before moving to Budapest.

It was in 1944 that Kastner negotiated direct with Eichmann for the passage of a number of Jews by train to Switzerland and onward out of German control and with the details being agreed with Kurt Becher acting with the authority of Himmler and who required 50 of seats on the train for those he personally sponsored. In fact at first Eichmann broke the agreement and routed the train to Belsen however the agreement was then kept with those involved including artists, scientists, religious leaders and political activist being allowed to leave in two contingents via Switzerland.

Part of the subsequent campaign against Kastner was his support for Becher at the Nuremberg trials although again the view has been expressed that Kastner did this with the approval of Jewish leaders because of the wish to find and prosecute Eichmann and to recover property that Becher had removed for himself and for the Reich.

The real story was to have a twist because in what many regarded as an extraordinary move, after the capture of Eichmann Becher was called as a witness for the Defence at re Eichmann trial in 1961. He provided testimony from Germany unwilling to travel to Jerusalem where the trial was held, possibly sensing this was a trap. His testimony was not allowed because he was provided with questions in advance of the relay to the court. He was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in Western Germany at the time.

Writing after the event one important source, Hannah Arrendt, said “It was a great pity that Eichmann and Becher could not have been confronted with each other and this not merely for judicial reasons. Such a confrontation would have revealed another part of the "general picture," which, even legally, was far from irrelevant”

After describing his career she said “His relations with Himmler were excellent, he could see him whenever he wished. His "special mission" was clear enough. He was to obtain control of major Jewish business concerns behind the backs of the Hungarian government, and, in return, to give the owners free passage out of the country, plus a sizable amount of money in foreign currency.

“His most important transaction was with the Manfred Weiss steel combine, a mammoth enterprise, with thirty thousand workers, which produced everything from airplanes, trucks, and bicycles to tinned goods, pins, and needles. The result was that forty-five members of the Weiss family immigrated to Portugal while Mr. Becher became head of their business.

When Eichmann heard of this Schweinerei, he was outraged; the deal threatened to compromise his good relations with the Hungarians, who naturally expected to take possession of Jewish property confiscated on their own soil. He had some reason for his indignation, since these deals were contrary to the regular Nazi policy. Which had been quite generous.

For their help in solving the Jewish question in any country, the Germans had demanded no part of the Jews' property, only the costs of their deportation and extermination, and these costs had varied widely from country to country-the Slovaks had been supposed to pay between three hundred and five hundred Reichsmarks per Jew, the Croats only thirty, the French seven hundred, and the Belgians two hundred and fifty. (It seems that no one ever paid except the Croats.) In Hungary, at this late stage of the war, the Germans were demanding payment in goods-shipments of food to the Reich, in quantities determined by the amount of food the deported Jews would have consumed.

So how does the film deal with these issues. As I said it begins well with scenes sending thousands by train to their extermination and with a sight of a centre as it is today. The story in fact centres on the young couple who look after the Palace and where the attractive wife is pregnant and flirts with a guard at a control post which they pass on their regular visits into the nearest town where in fact they keep watch on the transport of Jewish people and appear to report to some kind of underground movement. They are suddenly contact by their employers to get the Palace ready for the visit of Himmler and three others and this poses as challenged for the young man as they are in fact also Jews and he wants to assassinate Himmler and Eichmann when he learns they are to be involved, The wife persuades him not to do this because of the implications for them and for others.( This is one of several irrational moments in the film introduced for dramatic tension. The situation for them deteriorates when the on the ground appointed security man takes a shine to the wife who he believes is Aryan hence the Title of the film The Aryan Couple, He has learned from Eichmann who appears as a kind of chief of Gestapo that the couple are to be killed once the deal has been completed and the employers leave from a local air field by plane. He asks Eichmann to arrange sound proof facility at the Gestapo HQ where he intimates he wishes to rape and then kill the young woman for amusement.

It is fact that Himmler and Eichmann did not get on as personalities and approaches. It is arranged that all the relatives of the industrialist played by Martin Landau as a Joseph Krausenberg should be held together at the Gestapo Headquarters and for Joseph to be summoned from his office to the Gestapo HQ where he is made to wait, roughly treated and told to calm his relatives nerves before going to his country home for the dinner and departure. This action is designed to ensure that he signs the papers handing over the possessions to Himmler including the art collection. This is all fabrication because as has been shown the intention was to hand over the property to Aryan Hungarians in return for their payments for the elimination of the Jewish people.

The antipathy between Himmler and Eichmann is shown when Himmler insists that Eichmann kisses the hand of Joseph’s wife. The reality of what would have been such a situation is also shown by the hesitancy of the wife to sign the document without guarantees and her scathing and dangerous in the circumstances comments about the treatment of her countrymen and women. Before the couple depart and do leave with their extended family of some 45 individuals on the plane to Switzerland the young couple disclose their truth identity and fears and ask their employers to help them.
By this time Eichmann and the aggressive would be rapist have found out the young couple are Jews and he decision taken to order the senior office left to clear up the situation and take charge of the Palace, to kill the couple and bury them in the grounds in a grave which the young control point soldier who flirted with the young wife is asked to dig and then participate in their execution.

However unbeknown to the audience the employers have provided the senior officer with gold for him to enable the couple with exit papers signed by Himmler presumably of the kind which were issued for the Becher train and indeed the couple are to leave the capital by a special train which the officer escort them from the central station. In the meantime Eichmann has ordered the execution of the couple so he can hear their deaths over the phone. The irrationality is that in order to confuse or mislead the audience there are no cries as the shots are fired which in reality would have led someone over the phone to question. In the meantime the young soldier waiting by the open grave commits suicide because the situation he is in thus absolving the young German soldiers in general from the behaviour of their seniors, the SS and the Gestapo and the political leaders.

However there is a further twist because Eichmann’s fanatical henchman goes to Palace and discovers the officer has lied who is then apprehended his gold. The henchman undertakes to go off and take the couple from the train before they reach the border. However meanwhile Himmler having learned of the situation and fearing his plans to take over the industrial empire and the Palace will be thwarted at the last moment instructs a colleague to ensure the couple depart and join their employer. This colleague has to shoot the fanatical henchman who refuses to accept the order and is about to shoot the couple before they can reboard the train as it slowly leaves the station.

The film which I presume was made for TV is well done but it is a pity there is such a gulf between fact and fiction although some of he key elements of the reality are faithfully recounted I came across one reference to the death of one the daughters who I presume travelled with her father. She had become New York based and is understood to have devoted much of her life to supporting Human Rights Charities.

No comments:

Post a Comment