Israel Pulse

Hungarian Jew's role in Holocaust still torments Israelis

Article Summary
Six decades after his assassination, the question of whether Israel Kastner was a hero or a villain during the Holocaust continues to torment Israelis.

At midnight on March 4, 1957, Israel Kastner, returning to his home in Tel Aviv, was confronted by three strangers. Once he affirmed his identity, they shot him. Kastner died 10 days later — the first political assassination in the State of Israel. A few hours later the Israeli Security Service caught the murderers. They were Jewish and explained that they murdered Kastner following the libel trial that took place in 1954-1955, in which Kastner, a lawyer, journalist and eventually a civil servant in Israel, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary, indirectly helping them eliminate Hungarian Jewry.

Kastner sold his soul to the devil,” Benjamin Halevi, the judge presiding at the Tel Aviv district court, wrote in his decision on the high-profile case. A year after Kastner's death, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ruling and cleared him of collaboration with the Nazis.

But 62 years after the murder, Kastner's trial remains a point of agitation, with historians arguing passionately about whether Kastner was a hero or a villain of the Holocaust.

Rudolf Kastner, also known as Reszo Kastzner, was born in 1906 in the town of Cluj in Transylvania, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied law and then worked as a journalist, and was politically active and involved in Zionist activity. At the beginning of the 1940s Kastner was a member of the Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest that helped Jewish refugees who sought shelter in Hungary while fleeing the Nazis and, according to testimonies, he saved tens of thousands of lives.

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After Hungary was occupied, Kastner was in contact with senior officials in the Reich, including Adolf Eichmann. His contacts enabled Kastner to put 1,684 Jews on a train to Switzerland, saving them from death — a fact undisputed by his critics.However, some Holocaust researchers question the motivation of the Nazis in cooperating with him and believe that Kastner traded the lives of those on the train — which included his family and friends — for other Jews who were left in Hungary. He allegedly knew the others would be put on death trains but failed to warn them. 

In 1952, journalist Malkiel Greenwald published an article in which he claimed that Kastner, who had immigrated to Israel and was a candidate on the Knesset Mapai list, had collaborated with the Nazis. The scathing article began with the words, “The scent of a corpse tickles my nostrils; it will be the best of the best funerals. Dr. Rudolf Kastner must be killed." It claimed not only that Kastner refused to warn the Jews regarding their expected fate but that he helped to deceive many, who following his words boarded the death trains. Greenwald further claimed that Kastner participated with SS official Kurt Bacher in the theft of Jewish property and that he testified in his favor after the war because of this partnership. The claim of theft was disproven in court.

Kastner, who worked at the time as the spokesman of the trade and industry minister, submitted a complaint against the journalist, after which the state prosecutor indicted Greenwald for libel. At the trial, Kastner turned from accuser to accused. Greenwald was acquitted, and very harsh things were written about Kastner in the court’s decision. The public outcry generated over the affair and the verdict brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Moshe Sharet.

In the decision, given after an appeal to the high court, the factual determinations of the district court were not refuted, but the majority opinion of the judges was that Kastner had not collaborated with the Nazis, although they agreed that Kastner had saved the Nazi Kurt Bacher from capital punishment “by means of a lie.” 

According to professor Eli Reichenthal, who published a book titled, "The Man Who was Murdered Twice: A Re-examination of the Kastner Affair," Kastner was an informant for the Nazis even before the occupation of Hungary, and this was the reason for the status he gained with the Nazi top command. Reichenthal ascribes to him indirect responsibility for the murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews within the space of a few weeks. “Kastner methodically concealed information and caused the Jews to get on the death trains in the framework of an agreement he had supposedly reached with [Nazi war criminal Adolf Otto] Eichmann,” he explained to Al-Monitor. “Kastner had a halo of a Zionist politico, and this caused Jews to believe him. The Nazis appreciated this help and compensated him and his associates through the personal rescue of specific Jews who were smuggled out of the inferno. Eichmann himself said that Kastner was his loyal partner who helped him quiet the ghettos.”

Holocaust researcher Aryeh Barnea presents a totally opposite position, saying that Kastner could have escaped from the inferno but chose to return to it. “Kastner was a tactician who did all he could to save Jews,” he told Al-Monitor. “He entered the lion’s den and did everything to save as many Jews as he could. He used bribery, promises and the illusion of cooperation. In this framework he promised senior Nazis money and an alibi for a future trial. This is what happened with the Kastner train and tens of thousands of Jews who were sent to work camps. Even at the end of the war, he went around with Kurt Bacher and convinced the commanders of Nazi camps not to murder prisoners in order to save their own hides.” 

Barnea argues that the claim that Kastner failed to warn Hungarian Jews of the Nazis is not based on fact. “Kastner sent emissaries in order to warn the community leaders, but they responded like any sane person would respond: in disbelief. The thought that they are going to murder Jews in crematoriums then sounded insane,” he explained.

Reichenthal maintains that Hungarian Jews had heard rumors of death camps in Poland. “The distance between Cluj and Romania was four kilometers of forest. If Kastner had warned even the 20,000 Jews in Cluj, they would have escaped with their lives. The few who did were indeed saved, but Kastner caused most Jews to get on the death trains.”

Those who insist on clearing Kastner’s name are mainly his family — including his granddaughter, former Knesset member Meirav Michaeli, who claimed this week that her grandfather was murdered “following the incitement of messianic, dangerous right-wing elements.’’ Descendants of the survivors from the Kastner train are also trying to clear him. One of them is artist Itamar Sagi, whose mother, two aunts and grandparents were saved by Kastner. For the past decade, Sagi has organized alternative events in Kastner’s memory on Holocaust Memorial Day on the street where he was murdered. Sagi put up a memorial plaque near Kastner’s house, but it has been vandalized three times. “From my six family members who were on the train, 200 people were born as of today,” Sagi told Al-Monitor. “It’s a generation that was created thanks to Kastner. We owe him our lives.” 

Barnea believes town squares and avenues should be named for Kastner. “According to Yad Vashem, Kastner saved 21,000 Jews. No one is more deserving of commemoration. Maybe he also made mistakes, but what motivated him was saving lives,” he argued. Reichenthal reiterated that Kastner’s real story can be discerned from the voices forever silenced. “It’s fine that the descendants of Kastner’s survivors work to commemorate him, but it’s those who aren’t here to testify who raise difficult questions.The few of them who survived and testified in Greenwald’s trial said difficult things.”

“Kastner will be judged by history and not by a court,” Justice Shimon Agranat wrote in the decision. In recent years, more revelations have been published regarding the affair. On April 29, two lists of survivors on Kastner’s train, drawn up after they reached their destination in Switzerland, were published for the first time. It seems that history’s judgement on Kastner is still not final. 

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Mordechai Goldman has served for the past few years as the diplomatic and military analyst of the ultra-Orthodox daily Hamevaser. He attended ultra-Orthodox rabbinical colleges and studied psychology at the Israeli Open University. He also participated in the national civil service program. Goldman lectures to ultra-Orthodox audiences on the diplomatic process and on the Israel Defense Forces and consults with companies in regard to the ultra-Orthodox sector.

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