Rudolf Kasztner: The hated Shoah hero

He saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, but was murdered in Israel after being branded a collaborator. Now a new film tells his remarkable story.

By Jenni Frazer, February 26, 2009
Rudolf Kasztner with his daughter Zsuzsi in the early 1950s. She has mounted a decades-long campaign to rehabilitate her father’s name

Rudolf Kasztner with his daughter Zsuzsi in the early 1950s. She has mounted a decades-long campaign to rehabilitate her father’s name

The film director and producer Gaylen Ross was working on the film Blood Money: Switzerland’s Nazi Gold, when she first met a Holocaust survivor who said she had been on the Kasztner train. “I had no idea what she was talking about,” says Ross, “but I was fascinated and started to pursue the story.”

The result of Ross’s pursuit is a remarkable documentary, Killing Kasztner, which will be shown for the first time in London next week, at a special screening held by the UK Jewish Film Festival. The whole process, from that first casual mention of the Kasztner train to the finished film, has taken seven years.

“This is a very difficult story to understand,” says Ross with a certain ruefulness. “It is a very complex and controversial case. Many people said to me, leave it alone, you don’t know what you’re getting into. But I wanted to know, who was this man, why wasn’t he part of the names whom we know as heroes of the Jewish people?”

There are facts, and then there is speculation. Rudolf Israel Kasztner was a Hungarian-Jewish lawyer who, in 1944, began complicated and difficult negotiations with the Nazi SS colonel Adolf Eichmann — the so-called architect of the Holocaust — in order to send almost 1,700 Hungarian Jews to Switzerland, in exchange for money, gold and diamonds. The Jews who left on the train (not including Kasztner himself) went first, temporarily, to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and then to safety in Switzerland.

Kasztner stayed behind and was eventually reunited with his wife in Switzerland in April 1945. In the interim, he is said to have got money and supplies to a hospital for Jews in Vienna, and negotiated for another group on a truck transport to Switzerland, often called “the lost transport”.

It is at this point that the swirling controversy which surrounded Kasztner all his life — and after — begins. Professor Ladislaus Lob, who was 11 when he arrived in Switzerland on the Kasztner train in December 1944, is the author of Dealing with Satan: Rezso Kasztner’s Daring Rescue of Hungarian Jews. He says that parallel to the train rescue, in the summer of 1944, Kasztner, by dint of negotiations with the Nazis, was able to save a further 18,000 people. “Eichmann had orders to send labourers to Austria to build fortifications against the Russians. Kasztner bribed Eichmann and a senior SS officer, Eichmann’s rival Kurt Andreas Becher, to include women, children and the elderly in this group, so that they ended up in this Austrian labour camp rather than Auschwitz. In this way they survived.”

The Russians were in Hungary by December 1944 and by January 1945, Kasztner could no longer get to Budapest. Instead, he set up his headquarters in Vienna where he continued negotiations with the Nazi leadership. In the dying months of the war, Kasztner and Becher travelled from concentration camp to concentration camp with orders from Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, which said that there should be no destruction of the camps or their inmates.

As the Hebrew University professor, Shlomo Aronson, tells Gaylen Ross in the film: “They travelled, of course, in an SS Mercedes car, having the two lightnings of SS on the plate. But people started to believe that Kasztner was very much taken by his proximity to the Germans, that he had adopted the Nazi style.”

Post-war, Kasztner went to Tel Aviv, and began to work for the new Israeli government, as a spokesman in the Ministry of Trade. But pretty soon the whispering started: Kasztner had been a Nazi collaborator; he had saved Jews close to him, and done deals with Eichmann and Becher; worst of all, he had failed to inform the mass of Hungarian Jewry of the genocide awaiting them, and had rescued the few at the expense of the many. Eventually the whispering escalated into a full-on fight between the political leadership of David Ben-Gurion, to whose party, Mapai, Kasztner was affiliated, and the disaffected right-wingers who felt that the Jewish leadership of Palestine had also, somehow, betrayed the Jews of Europe and left them to their fate. In 1953 Malchiel Grunwald, one of those on the right, began publishing leaflets attacking Kasztner. Much against Kasztner’s better judgment, the Israeli government sued Grunwald for libel on his behalf.

Zsuzsi Kasztner, his only daughter, was aged 10 by this time and she and the entire family, says Ross, “lived under the shadow of the case”. The trial lasted for two long years: the little girl was ostracised and stoned by schoolmates. Grunwald’s lawyer was a former member of the Irgun, Shmuel Tamir, who turned the trial into an indictment of Kasztner and, by extension, the Israeli Labour leadership.

The judge, Benjamin Halevi, later a (right-wing) Herut member of the Knesset, ruled against Kasztner. He said in his judgment: “The opportunity of rescuing prominent people appealed to him greatly. He considered the rescue of the most important Jews as a great personal success and a success for Zionism. It was a success that would also justify his conduct — his political negotiation with Nazis and the Nazi patronage of his committee. When Kasztner received this present from the Nazis, Kasztner sold his soul to the German Satan.”

The verdict effectively signed Kasztner’s death warrant. On March 3, 1957, a young man of 21, Ze’ev Eckstein, approached Kasztner outside the lawyer’s flat in Tel Aviv. As the dying man later told his sister in the ambulance on the way to hospital: “He asked me if I was Dr Kasztner. I said yes. Then he shot me.” Kasztner died of his wounds — too early to know that the following year Israel’s Supreme Court would overturn most of the judgment against him. By three votes to two, the Supreme Court judges said: “During that period Kasztner was motivated by the sole motive of saving Hungary’s Jews as a whole, that is, the largest possible number under the circumstances of time and place as he estimated could be saved.”

Ross’s film does three extraordinary things. It provides, for the first time in more than half a century, direct testimony from the convicted assassin, Ze’ev Eckstein. Speaking about his younger self with a remarkable degree of insight, Eckstein tells Ross: “I was a very common sort of Jewish boy, typical of my time. Only I was a poisoned one.”

Ross persuades Eckstein, who, with his co-conspirators, served only seven years in prison, to meet Zsuzsi and her daughters, who have been campaigning to rehabilitate Kasztner for decades. It is an astonishing encounter. Zsuzsi recalls: “He [Eckstein] was really moved… he told us that it [the assassination] destroyed his father and his family, that he regretted it there and then.”

And Ross shows us the original archive material which electrified Israel during the trial, including the most damning documents of all, the post-war affidavits which Kasztner wrote in defence of leading Nazis, including Kurt Becher. In all, Kasztner testified on behalf of Becher and other SS officers five times between 1946 and 1948.

Ross says that Kasztner was “a tragic hero. Tragedy befell him. Thousands of Jews owed their lives to his negotiations with Eichmann. His story, I came to realise, is also the story of Israel, a young nation coming to terms with the unimaginable in the early years after the Holocaust. Kasztner was comprehended by the country’s own struggle to define itself under that horrendous shadow… the trial divided a nation, and Kasztner was branded ‘the man who sold his soul to the devil’.”

Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is where many of the survivors of the Kasztner train join his daughter and granddaughters at Yad Vashem, for a ceremony in which Kasztner’s papers are donated to the Holocaust memorial authority’s archives. For the survivors, says Ross, there was tremendous guilt. Many of them, for a long time, thought of themselves as those who had benefited by the death of others. “But by the end of the film I think there has been a philosophical turn, that there were Jewish rescuers, and Jews were not just victims who were saved by non-Jews.”

Israeli historian Yechiam Weitz noted: “Kasztner saved more Jews than any Jew before him or since”. But still in Israel, there is no memorial to him nor a street named after him.

Killing Kasztner will be shown at the Tricycle Cinema, London NW6 on Thursday, March 5, followed by a Q&A with director Gaylen Ross and Professor Ladislaus Lob. Tel: 020 7328 1000. The film will be shown in the BBC’s Storyville strand later this year

Last updated: 11:55am, February 26 2009