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

Israel Taps Into Interfaith Tourism


As Israeli tourism officials focus on their main demographic with seven new tourism DVDs targeting Christian churches, 233 people will travel to Israel on Dec. 20 for the Los Angeles Jewish community’s 10-day, post-Chanukah Mega-Mission. The number falls short of the 400 Jewish tourists who were expected to go, with the drop-off partly due to the Orthodox Union’s (OU) convention last month in Israel.

“There were many conflicts that ran into it; the OU conference certainly was one of them,” said Young Israel of Century City Rabbi Elazar Muskin, a Mega-Mission co-chair. “Nobody’s blaming anybody as long as they’re going to Israel.”

The Mega-Mission is part of an up tick; tourism ministry statistics show that the 2003-2004 level of Jews visiting Israel did increase after several years of stagnant or decreasing Jewish tourism due to terrorism and the ongoing intifada. But a bulwark of Israeli tourism remains visits and pilgrimages by Christians.

Synagogues participating in the Mega-Mission include Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Muskin’s Orthodox Young Israel congregation, the Conservative Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Mission Viejo’s Temple Elat, Arcadia’s Congregation Shaarei Torah, Congregation Ha-Makom in Northern California and Adat Shalom and Temple Beth Am, both in West Los Angeles. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Southern California Board of Rabbis endorsed the mission, which was coordinated by Israel Tour Connection..

The Mega-Mission will have Jewish Angelenos meeting with Israel’s tourism minister plus opening and closing trip dinners.

“From the first stage I believed in this project,” said Noam Matas, the tourism ministry’s departing Western U.S. director, who noted that the average tourist spends about $1,000-$1,500 per day in Israel. “People want to go to Israel; the only thing that they were lacking was the leadership to take them.”

Individual synagogues running their own tour groups to Israel this year cut interest in the $2,300-person Mega-Mission. Reform congregation Temple Israel of Hollywood ran a 10-day study mission in mid-October, including a visit to help its sister shul near Jerusalem. Muskin’s own synagogue saw 65 of its members travel to Israel over Thanksgiving weekend for a bar mitzvah.

“So they turned it into a mission, which is great, but they’re not going with me in December,” the rabbi said. “Did as many rabbis and synagogues get behind it they should have? No. This is a big Jewish community; there is a sense of community but it’s not as strong as it should be because of its size. There’s nothing to criticize when you get 200-plus going to Israel; it’s fine, it’s a wonderful opportunity for the L.A. community to promote tourism.”

Matas also is working with Rabbi David Wolpe of Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple for plans to lead 100-200 Jewish tourists to Israel next May, plus a different trip for all the Chabads of Southern California. From Dec. 30-Jan. 6, Seattle-based Jewish talk show host Michael Medved plans a West Coast interfaith trip.

With Tourism Ministry budget cuts creating a leaner U.S. marketing staff, Matas has been leading the outreach to evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches. After a three-year tour working from his base at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, Matas left his director’s post on Dec. 7 as part of his normal ministry rotation. His successor has not been named, and Matas will remain in Los Angeles for the next few months working on ministry projects, including a stronger push into Latin America.

In 2005, evangelical Christian churches will start receiving customized tourism ministry DVDs, hosted by prominent Christian pastors, including the Rev. Jack Hayford of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys. The ministry’s Hayford-hosted “Destiny & Desire” DVD has been sent to about 38,500 pastors.

The other DVDs in the seven-DVD set will target Latino tourists with Spanish-speaking pastors, plus individual English-language DVDs for Calvary Chapel, Southern Baptist, Assembly of God and Nazarene congregations. Ministers from each of those faiths will talk to their own congregations about Israel.

“The message is different from DVD to DVD,” Matas said. “And the whole thing comes together as an online DVD library.”

The Tourism Ministry also is producing a tourism DVD for Christian women, showcasing sites relevant to the stories of biblical figures such as Rachel and Esther. While all the DVDs are hosted by prominent Christians, the final productions are edited by Israeli tourism officials.

Distribution of the 2,500 copies of the Christian women’s DVD will begin in January, when about 600 DVDs will be given to ministers’ wives at a Christian convention in Palm Beach, Fla. Separately, the leadership of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention has given Matas a pledge to put the Baptist-specific tourism DVD into all Southern Baptist churches nationwide.


Jesus vs. Kyle

“Oh my God, we killed Jesus.”

Kyle Broflovski, “South Park’s” resident Yid, has a tough time reconciling his people’s culpability in the death of Jesus after seeing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in the episode, “The Passion of the Jew.” Comedy Central has released “Jew” and two other religious-themed episodes on DVD last week, timed with the Aug. 31 video release of “The Passion.”

“South Park” is known for its irreverent take on political and social issues of the day, and this episode is no different.

For years, Kyle’s loud-mouthed friend Eric Cartman has slammed him for being Jewish. But in the beginning episodes of season eight, Cartman feels justified in his anti-Semitism after seeing “The Passion.” He taunts Kyle to watch the movie and prove him wrong.

Kyle finally gives in and is horrified by what he sees. After apologizing to Cartman for doubting him, Kyle spends the rest of the episode wrestling with the prospect that his people might be “Christ killers” who should apologize for the death of Jesus.

Meanwhile, Cartman starts a “Passion” fan club and organizes local fans to help him carry out his “final solution.” Dressed as Hitler, Cartman begins parading the “Passion” fans through the streets of South Park shouting, “Wir müssen die Juden ausrotten” (We must exterminate the Jews), which the clueless fans think might be something in Aramaic.

“South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone lampoon Gibson, portraying him as an unhinged, underwear-clad torture freak, and take the Jewish community to task for its panicked reaction to the Gibson film.

The DVD also includes the episodes “Red Hot Catholic Love,” which pokes fun at the Catholic sex scandal, and “Christian Rock Hard.” Noticeably absent in any of these episodes is South Park’s own public access host of “Jesus and Pals” and member of the religious superhero team Super Best Friends — Jesus himself.

While Comedy Central might have great timing, it’s difficult to imagine that fans of this heavily marketed show will shell out $19.99 for the three-episode “The Passion of the Jew” when an entire season of “South Park” runs roughly $40 on DVD.

Quiet Debut for ‘Passion’ DVD

When Rabbi Harold Shulweis learned that the DVD of "The Passion of the Christ," which debuted on Aug. 31, would be just a bare-bones, no-frills copy of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, the spiritual leader of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom said, "That’s very good. I don’t think the Jewish community has to repeat, regurgitate, all the anguish, all the anger."

The DVD and video release of "The Passion" by Fox Home Entertainment will arrive in stores quietly, a change from the loud, once seemingly never-ending ecumenical controversy that surrounded the film’s Ash Wednesday theatrical release in late February. The film’s midnight premiere at Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas found Christians leaving the theater in tears; at least one Christian viewer argued politely afterward with a Jewish patron, telling her, "I’m gonna pray for you right now."

None of that greets the film’s DVD/video arrival. Gibson is not doing interviews. The $29.98 DVD has no director’s commentary, behind-the-scenes feature or any other add-ons that usually accompany the DVD release of a film that enjoyed a $375 million U.S. box office.

What Jews may remember most is not a blockbuster film, but some insensitive — to some anti-Semitic — movie images of Jewish leaders living under Roman occupation. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, said he would not have changed anything about his response to the film.

"If you’re asking me if we have changed our positions, absolutely not," said Hier, who said he still feels "The Passion" depicted those ancient Jews who did not become Christians in the first century C.E. "in a very negative manner."

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) considered "The Passion" an interfaith outreach tool rather than a continuing controversy, and in Houston the AJC worked with Gibson on a Jewish-Christian "Passion" preview screening. By contrast, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman spoke out continually against the movie until its premiere, but the DVD release is not prompting new comment because, he said, "The issue plays once. DVD is not the event the film was."

The February opening prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a collection of Catholic documents about Jews and Jesus’ death. While some bishops commented publicly on the film, the bishops collectively did not issue prominent statements or hold national press conferences to warn against possible anti-Semitism or tell millions of non-practicing Catholics that "The Passion" should not cause people to blame the Jews for the death of Christ.

After seeing the film in Rome, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper The Tidings last March 19, "Did hints of anti-Semitism creep in?" But the question was raised without being answered.

"Not every bishop felt it was necessary to issue a public statement," said Eugene J. Fisher, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs.

"There are resources and materials aplenty," he said. "The system worked to deliver the teaching to the Catholic community."

But not seeing bishops on television expressing concern about Gibson, an ultraconservative traditionalist Catholic, disappointed Jewish leaders; Hier believes the bishops were getting mixed signals from the Vatican about whether or not the pope liked the movie.

"More could have been done. Absolutely more could have been done," Hier said. "When there were the confused signals of what the pope said, I think Catholic cardinals and bishops were confused as to what the pope did think."

Hier and Foxman both were accused of helping promote the film by talking about it repeatedly. Hier points to the best-seller status of Christian end-of-time/rapture books as proof that without Jewish criticism, Christians see movies and buy books that may not portray Jews positively.

"The ‘rapture’ books — they’re hardcover best-sellers," Hier said. "There were no protests, no controversy. There is a constituency to buy such books as there is a constituency to see such movies."

The DVD is expected to sell well; Wal-Mart will discount the R-rated movie similar to the Family Christian Stores’ $19.95 DVD price. Aug. 31 also heralded some "Passion" bandwagoning as studios released fresh DVDs of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," plus ABC, NBC, BBC and PBS will release religion documentaries and a documentary on Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews.

On the humorous side, this week, Paramount released a DVD of religion-mocking "South Park" episodes titled "The Passion of the Jew."

Looking back on what once was an exhaustive debate over Gibson’s movie, Foxman said, "Would I do it again? The answer is yes. I don’t think we had a choice not to react. None of us prophesized the burning of synagogues. If we hadn’t been out in front, the Catholic bishops wouldn’t have put out a compilation of essays. [Gibson] put it out there. He made the issue. We didn’t have the luxury, based on history, to be silent. I don’t think I took us anywhere that we shouldn’t be."

7 Days In Arts


UCLA Live continues to impress today with its unique programming. Its exclusive commissioned event unites celebrated cartoonist Chris Ware (“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”) with NPR’s Ira Glass, host extraordinaire of “This American Life.” Together, they present “Visible and Invisible Drawings: An Evening With Chris Ware and Ira Glass,” a story presentation by them both, each in his own medium.8 p.m. $17-$40. Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.


It’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” Israeli-style in “Yossi andJagger,” new out on DVD this month. The bittersweet film is based on the truestory of two Israeli officers, gay and in love and stationed on theIsrael-Lebanon border. An official selection at the Berlin and Tribeca FilmFestivals, the film was also well received by numerous critics. The DVD includesa music video for a hit single from the film, never released in the UnitedStates. $29.99. www.strandreleasing.com



Seven Days salutes fellow El Camino Real High Schoolalums Brent Goldberg and David T. Wagner for their latest achievement: Openingthis week is the screenwriters’ new film, “The Girl Next Door,” a bawdy romanticcomedy with a heart of gold about a boy’s infatuation with the girl next door,who turns out to be a former porn star. We’re sure hilarity ensues — after all,these are ECR boys. Opens April 9. www.thegirlnextdoormovie.com



Dave Frishberg recently performed at Lincoln Center, and has written songs recorded by Diana Krall, Michael Feinstein, Bette Midler and Blossom Dearie. But Gen-X-ers will be most impressed by his contribution to “Schoolhouse Rock” — Frishberg is responsible for that song ingrained in nostalgic memory as the one that taught you how a bill becomes a law, “I’m Just a Bill.” He plays a series at the Jazz Bakery beginning today.April 13-18. 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. $25-$30. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 271-9039.


Before it was an Academy Award-winning movie, it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The Rubicon Theatre Company presents Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” beginning this week. For those who’ve been living under a rock, the play (and the film that followed) tell the story of the 25-year relationship between a Southern Jewish woman and her black chauffeur. See it this evening, in its original form.7 p.m. (Wed), 8 p.m. (Fri.-Sat.). 2 p.m. (Sat.-Sun.). $25-$45. The Laurel, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. (805) 667-2900.


First Michael Damian, now Brad Maule and Eric Martsolf. Soap opera stars keeps popping up in productions of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Our theory: Perhaps the cheese factor helps with the crossover? Either way, Maule (of “General Hospital” fame) and Martsolf (Ethan Crane on “Passions”) play Jacob and Pharoah, respectively, in the latest production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. And cheesy or not, the show’s also a classic. Catch it this week only.April 13-18. 8 p.m. (Tues.-Fri.), 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat.), 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sun.). $30-$95. Kodak Theatre, Hollywood and Highland, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (213) 365-3500.


Philip Kaufman fans work to keep their blood pressure level tonight, as the American Cinematheque kicks off its “Writer and Director: A Retrospective Tribute to Philip Kaufman” with a triple hit. A double-feature of the erotically charged films “Henry and June” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” sandwich an in-person appearance and discussion by Kaufman.7:15 p.m. Series runs April 16-18. $9. The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.

7 Days In Arts


With a title like “Jane White Is Sick and Twisted” the
product practically sells itself. But just in case you haven’t heard of this
little cult film, here’s what you need to know: Obsessed with television and
home-schooled by an agoraphobic mother, Jane White’s strange life gets stranger
when she sets out to find her absent father by trying to make it onto “The Gerry
Show,” a TV talk show in the vein of “Jerry Springer.” In the process, she
encounters freaks of every variety. Written, directed and produced by David
Michael Latt, the movie stars TV icons like Maureen McCormick of “The Brady
Bunch” and Dustin Diamond of “Saved by the Bell.” It’s now available on DVD.