Documentary Film on the Life and Death of Israel Kastner, Broadcast on Israeli Television for Holocaust Remembrance Day
Who was Kastner?
Late last night (Wed 18 April 2012), the documentary film, “Killing Kastner” was broadcast on Israeli television, delving into the complex and controversial story of Israel Kastner, a Hungarian Jew who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann and the Nazis to save Jews during the Holocaust. In exchange for valuable goods and such as diamonds, gold and hard currency, Kastner was able to secure the release of almost 1,700 Jews by train to Switzerland. In terms of lives saved, this was the greatest single act by any Jew during the Shoah. Historians also estimate that Kastner was responsible for saving the lives of nearly fifteen thousand other Hungarian Jews by enabling their transfer from Auschwitz to the relative safety of Strasshof labor camp.
From his early career in Hungary as a journalist, lawyer and aspiring politician devoted to the Zionist cause, it was clear that Kastner was an individual of great promise and ability. Sometimes this talent bred a certain over-confidence which spilled over into arrogance. It was perhaps this supreme confidence in his intellectual ability together with his charisma and good looks which instilled in him the daring and courage to take incredible risks. Even before the war, despite great personal danger to himself as a Jew, he interviewed members of the anti-Semitic Iron Guard political party in neighbouring Romania while working for the Új Kelet newspaper.
Negotiating with the Nazis
Of course nothing would compare to his later involvement with the tiny group of Hungarian Jews known as the Aid and Rescue Committee or Vaada during the war. Under what today seem like impossible circumstances, Kastner was tasked with the role of negotiating with the Nazi leadership, meeting with the duplicitous Adolf Eichmann on several occasions to release thousands of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis and the terrible fate of the concentration and death camps. Although Kastner was merely part of a small band of Jewish individuals, he projected the image of a man of great power and importance. How he was able to deceive the Germans in this way still beggars belief even today, but without this tremendous act, he would never have been able achieve what he did, or leave the heart of the Nazi headquarters unscathed each time he ventured inside to negotiate.
Life in Israel and Libel Trial
After the war, Kastner realized his dream of moving to Israel, starting his life afresh by first working for a Hungarian-language newspaper and then slowly rising up the ranks of Ben Gurion’s ruling Mapai party, finally becoming the spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade in 1952. It was at this point that his past came back to haunt him. When an elderly amateur journalist with a criminal past named Malchiel Gruenwald, wrote a poisonous pamphlet alleging that Kastner was actually a Nazi collaborator who (among other things) provided assistance to members of the SS such as Kurt Becher, Kastner’s world began to fall apart. Needless to say, Gruenwald’s stunning revelations involving a toxic mixture of lies, half-truths and innuendo was enough to bring considerable shame and embarrassment onto the unsuspecting Kastner. As a serving member of the government, Kastner brought a libel trial against Gruenwald in a desperate bid to clear his name and put the whole affair behind him. But Kastner was caught out lying on the Becher connection and the presiding chief judge ruled that by entering into negotiations with the Nazis he had “sold his soul to the devil”.
The Kastner trial was important in the history of Israel for a number of reasons. It was the first time that Israeli society confronted the past of the Holocaust and attempted to come to terms with its impossible reality and the stark choices that had to be made by someone like Kastner – who to save and put on the train to Switzerland and who not. The trial also clashed with the common Israeli perception of the time that the Jews of the Diaspora went to the slaughter without trying to take control of their destiny. It would take the heart-rending testimonies of the survivors during the Eichmann trial to change that cruel perception once and for all. In short, Israel’s nascent society at the beginning of the 1950s was not ready to fully understand and engage with the complexity of Kastner’s story and to view his unique circumstances in a sympathetic light. Once the judge’s words had been spoken, for all intents and purposes, the case was closed and Kastner became a hate figure in Israel.
And then, even once Kastner retreated to a reclusive life of shame and desolation, the story was still not over yet. In 1957 a 22 year old former member of the extreme right-wing Lehi group named Ze’ev Eckstein, assassinated Kastner together with two accomplices, in an event which is still to this day clouded in mystery and controversy. In the documentary Eckstein claims that his gun jammed and the only shot that was fired by him was a blank. This begs the question: who fired the shot which killed Kastner? And why did Eckstein and the other two accomplishes receive the shortened sentence of just seven years in prison for cold-blooded murder? And finally, why in 1958 did the Supreme Court over-rule the lower court and completely exonerate Kastner for his role during the Holocaust only one year after his death? We may never know the answers to these questions and many more.
We can only hope that the re-showing of the Kastner film on Israeli public television in 2012, three years after it first premiered, reminds Israelis that we should not be so quick to judge, and that the truth is often more complicated than it might at first appear. In 2007 Kastner’s documents were finally entered into the official archives of Yad Vashem. There is still no street named after Kastner in the State of Israel today.