September 23, 2018

Hero or traitor: The life, murder and afterlife of Reszo Kasztner

Before there was Eichmann, there was Kasztner. 

Now that I have your attention, permit me to explain. 

The Kasztner trial, as it became known — the formal title of the trial was Attorney General of the State of Israel v. Malkiel Grunewald — was the first of two Holocaust trials in Israel in the mid-1950s and 1961 that shaped the way Israelis grappled with the Holocaust. The Eichmann trial united Israel; the Kasztner trial divided it. Finally out on DVD is the intriguing 2008 film “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis,” by Gaylen Ross, now including more than three hours of bonus features.

Adolf Eichmann was a perpetrator, the highest-ranking Nazi officer ever to be tried by the State of Israel. His capture and trial were global events. Eichmann was the SS officer in charge of the Jewish desk of the RSHA (Reich Security Head Office). He and his henchmen were responsible for putting Jews on the trains and getting them to the death camps in German-occupied Poland. Because he came into direct contact with Jews — tormenting them, negotiating with them directly — he was far better known among Jews and seemed a far more menacing character than his superiors who, though even more responsible, were less directly involved in the murder of Jews. In a gross overstatement, Gideon Hausner, the Israeli prosecutor at the Eichmann trial, likened him to Pharaoh. In a private note on Hausner’s grandiloquent opening address to the court, David Ben-Gurion wryly commented: “I think you must insert Hitler between Pharaoh and Eichmann.”  

Reszo Kasztner was a Hungarian Jew who was part of the Vaada, the Zionist Rescue Committee in Budapest during the fateful spring and summer of 1944. He negotiated directly with Eichmann and other SS officials. With everything to lose and few tangible resources at his disposal, he bluffed. He played upon the Nazi myth that the Jews were a coordinated world power and presumed to negotiate as a representative of World Jewry to save the remaining Jews of Hungary. Eichmann offered Jews for sale: 10,000 trucks to be used against the Soviet Union for 1 million Jews. Heinrich Himmler offered the West a separate peace; the Jews were the bait. Even as they were annihilating Jews and reducing them to abject powerlessness, murdering them at will, the leading Nazis believed their own propaganda about the power of the Jews and their global reach. And Kasztner played on their delusions to buy some time. 

His achievements were modest — a train was sent first to Bergen-Belsen, not Auschwitz — and from there 317 Jews were sent to Switzerland in August 1944, followed in December of the same year by an additional 1,353 Jews. All the while, 437,402 Jews were shipped on 147 trains — primarily to Auschwitz, where four out of five were killed immediately. 

Yet, however modest his achievements, they were greater than any other wartime Jewish rescue effort. 

To the survivors of the Kasztner train, he was a savior, a rescuer. They called the train Noah’s Ark, as it contained diverse Jews, religious and secular, rich and poor, children and the elderly — even the Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum and his family, along with Kasztner’s own family. To other Hungarian Jews, Kasztner was a collaborator who played God, saving some, while far greater numbers of Jews were murdered. And to some Hungarian Jews, he became the most visible target of the failure of Jewish leadership. They lashed out in fury: “He knew! Why weren’t we warned about Auschwitz?” The “he” is singular. Although Kasztner was part of a Vaada, a committee, and he, as well as many others, knew about Auschwitz, and he alone did not compile the list of those who boarded the train, he was the visible symbol of their anger and blamed for their fate. Information about Auschwitz and other death camps was seeping into Hungary from many refugee sources, but the news was deemed either “incredible” in the literal sense of the term, not believable, or could not be internalized. Until the very last moment, Hungarian Jews lived with illusions: We are Hungarians, we are different, and Hungary is different — or so they convinced themselves. 

Malkiel Grunewald, an unknown and little-regarded pamphleteer, accused Kasztner of collaboration with Eichmann in the deportation of the Jews. Few paid attention to the self-published pamphlet, one of many written by a very angry man. But Kasztner was ambitious and craved recognition, so when Attorney General [and later Supreme Court Justice] Haim Cohen approached Kasztner to urge him to sue Grunewald for libel, Kasztner took the bait. Shmuel Tamir, a young and very skilled right-wing attorney, represented Grunewald. His goal was to attack the Zionist establishment, and his partner was the leftist anti-establishment Uri Avnery, the ambitious editor of HaOlam HaZeh, who joined forces to make the plaintiff the accused, and to put the Zionist leadership on trial for inaction during the Holocaust. Kasztner became exhibit No. 1 in their crusade. 

Judge Benjamin Halevy, who later become one of the three judges to preside at the Eichmann trial, had been passed over for a Supreme Court approval, and his decision, coming more than a year after that trial, doomed Kasztner, finding that he had “sold his soul to the devil.” Halevy presumed Kasztner had negotiated with Eichmann as an equal; he did not comprehend that no Jew could stand before the SS as an equal. However, such a pretense was an essential part of the strategy — Kasztner stood accused in the court of public opinion. He became a beaten man. His quest for credit and fame became a personal tragedy. Months later, he was assassinated. Three men were convicted — there may have been a fourth — and then, only months after his murder, the Supreme Court cleared his name. By then it was too late. He was dead and his name muddied for history.

Only a scholar would know that the phrase “selling your soul to the devil” first appeared in a statement by Rabbi Michoel Dov Weismandel, who was part of the working group in Slovakia that bribed Eichmann’s deputy Dieter Wisliceny in the hopes that it might forestall deportations from Slovakia. Weismandel admonished that one must negotiate with the Nazis to save Jewish lives “even if it meant that you had to sell your soul to the devil.” But such subtlety was already lost on the Israel public just a decade after the Holocaust. Halevy’s words doomed Kasztner.

In 2009, Ross, an American filmmaker, released her documentary, a decade in the making, to critical acclaim. “Killing Kasztner” explores the first Israeli show trial on the Holocaust from many different perspectives and features a long interview with Kasztner assassin Ze’ev Ekstein, as well as a meeting between Zsuzsi Kasztner, his daughter, and the man who murdered her father. Were the DVD merely a release of the documentary, it still would have been worthy for a viewer interested in the Holocaust or in Israel’s representation of the Holocaust then and now. 

But Ross has gathered significant new material to supplement the original film. Included are three panel discussions featuring survivors and leading historians of the Holocaust in Hungary, the rescue efforts and of Israel’s public memory of the Shoah; interviews with the remaining figures of the trial and Kasztner assassination: Gabriel Bach, the charming and dapper former Israeli Supreme Court Justice who handled the successful appeal of the Kasztner verdict to the Supreme Court and later served a young prosecutor assisting Gideon Hausner in the Eichmann trial; and Kasztner’s train survivors describing the trip to Switzerland and their experience in Bergen-Belsen as a semi-protected population. And, finally, a more extensive interview with Ze’ev Eckstein, the complicated, conspiratorial assassin who was a double agent working for the Shin Bet against right-wing extremists before he joined their cause. He reveals much, yet still he conceals even more.

Many questions are asked — some institutional, some political, others deeply personal. And even when the questions are answered, they linger unsettled even now, more than a half century later.

Kasztner wanted recognition; he believed he was an effective hero who actually succeeded in saving lives. Yet Israel, then in its infancy, was seeking a different sort of hero, one untainted by the complexities of living as a Jew in the galut — more like Hannah Szenesh and the parachutists sent by the Yishuv who were dropped behind enemy lines to warn Hungarian Jews, but whose mission failed when they were captured. Some people admired Kasztner but did not like him; others were envious; still others despised him. Even his friends thought him vain.

The most gripping part of the film is an interview with Eckstein, who was a young man when he, together with Yosef Menkes (the leader) and Dan Shemer (the driver), spurred on by his unnamed handler, decided that Kasztner must meet his end. Hearing him describe his state of mind, his fanaticism and his commitment to violence, one well understands the suicide bombers of today, and all too easily one can imagine an interview 25 years hence with Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, explaining his motivation, his passion, his certitude, confident in how much he has achieved. The encounter — too polite for my tastes — between Eckstein and Zsuzsi Kasztner is breathtaking. Each needs the other to better understand him or herself.

Issues surrounding the trial and Kasztner’s execution remain unresolved, unanswered but not unasked:

Was Eckstein right in speaking of a second, unseen, unknown killer or was he teasing his interviewer, playing with history?

Why would Kasztner lie about his efforts to seek clemency for Col. Kurt Becher, the other SS official he dealt with in Budapest? How could he not have understood that the skilled defense had done its job and would uncover his complete record? Why did he make himself so vulnerable to protect someone else?

What was the Jewish Agency hiding in claiming it knew nothing of Kasztner’s letter to the de-Nazification court on behalf of Becher?

Why were the assassins freed by Israeli President Zalman Shazar after serving only seven years?

Why did Israel glorify the resistance fighters, whose accomplishments were so meager, or the parachutists whose mission ended in failure, non-Jews who rescued Jews, but not the rescuers who gave us a glimpse of Jews acting within the limits of the terrible alternatives available to them? Would we have different heroes in our age, as we have become powerful and experience the limits even of the considerable power of contemporary Jews, from the prime minister downward?

Were the DVD to present the film alone, dayenu — it would have sufficed

Were it to contain merely the interview with Eckstein or with Bloch; testimony of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen and the train; or the interview with Petertz Revesz, the last survivor of the Vaada, dayenu.

Were it to have contained any one of the three scholarly panels, that, too, would have sufficed.

But each of the segments adds to the importance of the whole, and Ross offers us a deep, courageous and honest exploration of the controversy. And for this we should be most grateful.

For more information about purchasing he DVD, click here.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com