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Devil's Poker
TV Limited Series by Leo Zahn


The true story of the woman at the center of the struggle to save the last million from the Holocaust.  A tragic love story and a thriller, in Nazi-occupied Hungary and tells the story of Adolf Eichmann's monstrous offer to sell 1 million Jews to the Western Allies. While thousands are deported daily, leaders of the Jewish underground engage in unprecedented negotiations with the Devil himself. The story culminates in a post-war courtroom drama and a political assassination in Israel in 1957. 

(Primary source: The Hansi Tapes, 9 hours of oral history recorded in 1997)


At the height of WWII, Budapest is the Paris of the East, Hungary still an island of freedom for Jews amongst Nazi-occupied countries. Thirty-two-year-old Hansi Brand, a raven-haired beauty and successful business owner, lives a comfortable life raising two young children. She is married to Joel Brand, her salesman and PR maven. Hansi’s passion in life is to help those less fortunate, a mission that requires immense courage in such treacherous times. When the Nazi threat and wholesale murder of Jews plagues neighboring countries, the Brands string together a small yet powerful underground network of spies and smugglers for the purpose of rescuing and illegally harboring Jewish refugees. Initially funded with profits from Hansi’s apparel factory, this organization (VAADA) quickly grows in membership and reach. Illicit cash donations smuggled in from neutral Istanbul and Zurich now sustain rescue and support operations throughout 1943. One of the many beneficiaries of VAADA are the 1200 Jewish factory workers under Oskar Schindler’s protection in Poland.

Enter Rudolf Kastner, a sharp-witted lawyer and spokesperson for VAADA. Kastner nurtures political ambitions, fancying himself a born leader. At one of the Brand household’s many late-night poker games, Kastner is introduced to Hansi. From the moment their eyes meet, the magnetism between them is undeniable. An affair blossoms as tensions brew between Joel and Kastner over jealousy and ego. Hansi and Kastner plan a future together after the war. 

These dreams are crushed by the German invasion in March 1944. Hungary’s Jews are the last million still alive. Now headquartered in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann begins deportations to death camps. Hitler’s executioner, on orders of Himmler, must undertake a task he despises: negotiate a trade deal with the United States or Britain- blood for goods. He summons Joel Brand with an outrageous offer: to sell to the West 1 million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks. The Western Allies do not permit direct dialogue with the Nazi regime, so Joel will be used as an intermediary. He is flown on a German military plane to Istanbul to present the offer to the Jewish Agency, a shadow government of a future State of Israel. Hansi and their children stay behind as Eichmann’s hostages. Yet in Istanbul Joel finds himself ensnared in a web of double-dealing and political intrigue. Every day that passes condemns 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz.  

Hansi introduces Kastner to Eichmann. The two now play a game of high stakes poker with the Devil. Hansi’s best cards are bluffs, bribes, and her strategic intellect. She deftly exploits corruption in the Nazi regime, pitting rival SS officers against one another. The SS is willing to make concessions under the pretense that Joel’s “negotiations” with the Allies are ongoing and an agreement is “in the works,” none of which is true. This maneuver saves the lives of many. Paid for in cash and gold, a train with 1683 passengers is allowed to leave Hungary. Hansi is arrested by the Hungarian Gestapo and tortured for information about Joel’s secret mission. Her life is spared when she is released on orders of an SS officer opposed to Eichmann. In Istanbul, Joel has run into further resistance and decides to travel to Syria to meet Shertok, head of the Jewish Agency. While the British foreign ministry rejects Eichmann’s offer as Nazi blackmail,  Roosevelt realizes an opportunity to save lives. He sends Ira Hirschmann to Turkey to meet Joel. Racing to catch up with him, he misses Joel by a few hours. During a stop in Aleppo, Joel is dragged off the train by the British and placed under house arrest in Cairo.

Back in Budapest, Eichmann is still in the dark about Joel’s fate. Yet he cannot afford to gas the remaining Jews, his last bargaining chip. More concessions are made, sparing 18,000 lives. SS Colonel Becher takes over the negotiations, at first with a clandestine meeting on neutral ground between Nazi Austria and Switzerland. The deportation of the remaining 80,000 from the Budapest ghetto is halted. These negotiations ultimately wrench 100,000 Jews from the jaws of death.

After the war, Hansi believes she will reunite with Kastner, the love of her life. Her hopes are crushed when she learns that he and his wife are expecting a child. Fate throws them together one last time many years later in 1957, when Kastner’s name is smeared as a “collaborator” during the infamous Kastner trial. Hansi rises to his defense in his time of need. Their wartime affair is rekindled. Yet the judge’s statement could not be more damning: “Kastner sold his soul to the Devil”. These seven words seal his fate. Just months after the verdict is issued, Kastner, who saved more Jews than any man in history, is assassinated by Zionist extremists.

Kastner Train
Hansi & Schindler
Joel & Kids
Hansi Brand & Oskar Schindler (Israel - mid-60s) Joel and his children  
Kastner & Wife
Group Photo  
  Rare photo of Kastner, Boijo Kastner & Joel