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Shades of Gray

A new film shines a light on Rudolph Kasztner, controversial Holocaust-era figure

Liel Leibovitz
October 29, 2009
Kasztner in an Israeli radio studio(Courtesy Kasztner family)
Kasztner in an Israeli radio studio(Courtesy Kasztner family)

More than any other event in our collective consciousness, the Holocaust comes to us in high contrast, the darkest malice all the more menacing when juxtaposed with its victims, powerless and pure. We think of jackbooted Nazis marching in lockstep and of that little boy in the pea coat and the cap lifting his hands in surrender. We think of good and of evil, of black and white.

As has been his momentous misfortune, Rudolph Kasztner was always a man of grays.

The subject of a riveting new documentary, Killing Kasztner, the Hungarian community leader who saved nearly 1,700 of his fellow Jews by negotiating with the Nazis—a controversial tactic that played a role in Kasztner’s eventual murder by a Jewish vigilante—is finally having his moment of recognition. Earlier this year, his story served as the backdrop to the understated but powerful family drama Tickling Leo; a book, Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, was published last year, and another one, Emissary of the Doomed: Bargaining for Lives in the Holocaust, is to appear in January. Most important, perhaps, was the 2007 decision by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, to finally accept Kasztner’s papers into its archives and commemorate his actions in the museum’s official display.

As these files clearly show, Kasztner had made several difficult—some say dubious—decisions during the course of his rescue efforts. He had befriended several SS officials, most prominently Kurt Becher, a colonel who headed the Nazis’ economic department in Hungary. After the war, he wrote letters on their behalf, letters that carried much weight with the denazification committee. And while the true nature of Kasztner’s relationships with the Nazis with whom he negotiated remains unknown, it is still surprising that he, the rescuer of so many, had to wait for so long before being officially recognized for his efforts. Equally surprising is his relative anonymity; before the recent wave of work examining Kasztner’s legacy, he was condemned to almost absolute obscurity.

The opening scene of Killing Kasztner poignantly illustrates this point. The filmmaker, Gaylen Ross, points her camera to random passersby in Tel Aviv, the city Kasztner called home for the last decade of his life, asking if they knew anything about the man. Almost nobody does. Finally, when she tells a middle-aged man strolling on the beach the dry facts about the subject of her film—a Hungarian, saved hundreds of Jews, stood trial, assassinated by a crazed zealot—the man seems genuinely startled. “Now,” he says, “I’ll never forget him.”

As the film unfolds, Ross shines a light on the decision that would cost Kasztner his reputation and, eventually, his life. With Hungary fallen to the Nazis, and with transports to Auschwitz threatening to wipe out the country’s Jewish community, Kasztner met with Adolf Eichmann to negotiate a deal that the latter dubbed “Goods for Blood.” With the German army in dire need of cash, trucks, and anything else that might alleviate the escalating costs of the war, Kasztner, a reporter and activist speaking on behalf of a small group of Jewish community leaders, offered to pay for each Jewish life Eichmann agreed to spare. On June 30, 1944, a train with 1,684 Jews left Budapest for what the Nazis promised was a neutral, free country. It was redirected to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen instead, but after Kasztner paid the promised sum, $1,000 per head, the Jews for whose life he bargained were taken to the Swiss border and set free.

As several survivors tell Ross on camera, Kasztner himself was there at the border to make sure the transaction went smoothly. Then, he returned into the darkness, met with more SS officers, tried to negotiate other, similar deals. After the war, he emigrated to Tel Aviv with his wife and daughter and took a government job. He was broke and anonymous. He was disappointed, but not bitter. He hoped a time would come when people finally recognized the magnitude of his rescue operation. And then, it did.

In 1952, Malchiel Grunwald—crank, hotel manager, amateur stamp collector, suspected criminal—wrote a pamphlet accusing Kasztner, then a spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, of collaborating with the Nazis. “My God!” it read, “Kastner’s [sic] deeds in Budapest cost us the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews!” Then came the more direct accusation: “He saved people with connections,” the pamphlet continued, to “the members of Mapai,” a reference to Israel’s then-ruling party.

It was, of course, ludicrous to suspect Kasztner of favoring, while in Hungary, members of an Israeli political party he would not join until years later. But Grunwald, a member of the Irgun, the right-wing militia led by Menachem Begin, was speaking in code. In attacking Kasztner, he was really attacking David Ben Gurion, whom Begin and his followers still held in contempt for his pragmatic approach toward the British mandate. This being the case, and Kasztner being a government employee, the State of Israel sued Grunwald for libel.

But Kasztner soon turned from plaintiff to defendant. Grunwald’s attorney, Shmuel Tamir—another Irgun member who would eventually become Begin’s Minister of Justice—accused Kasztner of collaborating with the SS, of failing to warn Hungary’s Jews of the impending catastrophe, of not doing enough to spark an active resistance to the Nazis. The judge, Benjamin Halevy—another future political ally of Begin’s—agreed. By dealing with Eichmann, he famously wrote, Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.” The government decided to appeal the case, which eventually led to its collapse and to the resignation of Prime Minister Moshe Sharet.

Kasztner became a recluse, depressed and angry. He had hoped that the trial would be his moment of glory. Instead, he was now increasingly ostracized, the hatred for him nearly universal. Killing Kasztner is at its most luminous when it analyzes the reasons for this calumny: Israel, the film points out, was, at the time, a nation still struggling for its right to exist, and it needed martyrs, not midlevel officials who negotiated with the enemy. Its preferred heroes were people like Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, or Hannah Szenes, the 23-year-old woman who parachuted into Nazi-occupied territory in an attempt to save its Jews. That both Anielewicz and Szenes failed to achieve much by way of saving lives mattered little; they died grasping a gun, just as Israel now expected its own sons and daughters to do.

Israel’s Supreme Court, hearing the case in 1958, overturned Halevy’s initial judgment. “One cannot find a moral fault in [Kasztner’s] behavior,” Judge Shimon Agranat wrote in the majority opinion. “One cannot see it as becoming a collaboration with the Nazis.”

The opinion, however, mattered little to Kasztner. He was already dead. On March 3, 1957, a young member of an extreme right-wing underground group assassinated him near his home in Tel Aviv. The gunman, Ze’ev Eckstein, is still alive, and is featured prominently in Killing Kasztner. So are some of the men and women who had been fortunate enough to board Kasztner’s train; a number of them appear in the film, and some confess to feeling as if Israeli society judged the price of their survival unacceptable. By choosing to ignore Kasztner, the state ignored them as well, they felt, and turned their survival into a source of guilt and shame. A similar psychological exploration lies at the heart of Tickling Leo, one of whose characters is supposed to have been a friend of Kasztner’s.

Guilt, unlike valor or villainy, resides in the lower recesses of our psyche, next to doubt and fear and self-importance and a host of other character traits that make for very good survivors but very poor national myth. That’s why it was Kasztner’s trial—and not the trial, eight years later, of Eichmann—that was the collective experience Israelis needed to have if they were ever to find a way to discuss the Holocaust productively. Kasztner gave them a path; in him, the foreigner, the negotiator, the compromiser, Israel saw all the dimly lit avenues of nuance it so deeply wanted to avoid.

While clearly sympathetic to Kasztner, the film examines some of the more difficult charges against him, in some cases unearthing surprising historical allegations based on new discoveries—Kasztner’s post-war letters to Becher and the other Nazis, one historian suggests on camera, may have had something to do with the SS officer’s promise to deliver cash and arms to the Jewish community in Palestine, struggling for its existence and unable to decline any offer of help, even at such a heinous cost. But the film’s main achievement lies in introducing audiences to Kasztner and his gray zones. It is there, after all, that most of us live.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.