Once in a very great while you read a book that forever changes your perspective. For me that book was Ben Hecht's Perfidy, which I devoured sometime in 1974 or '75 after it appeared on a recommended reading list issued by the Jewish Defense League, of which I was a member.
Perfidy means treachery; the deliberate breaking of faith. In 1961, when Hecht published his aptly titled exposÃ© about events in the Holocaust, Hitler's war against the Jews was a repressed memory in the American Jewish consciousness.
Perfidy sold well enough to go into a second edition, though by the time I procured a copy it had gone out of print and was rumored to have been blacklisted.
PERFIDY IS a devastating account of how, toward the end of the Shoah, the Jews of Hungary were betrayed by Rudolf Kastner, deputy head of the Relief and Rescue Committee, an ideological affiliate of Mapai (precursor of today's Labor Party).
Hecht tells how after the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944, Kastner brazenly collaborated with Dieter Wisliceny, a top aide to Gestapo Jewish Section chief Adolf Eichmann, to save the lives of cronies and family. Eichmann allowed Kastner to organize a rescue train which brought 1,685 of these people to safety in Switzerland, in return - so goes Hecht's damning accusation - for keeping the rest of Hungarian Jewry in the dark about the fate that awaited them. He thus facilitated the Nazi genocide.
Hecht charges that Kastner, despite his connections with the SS, didn't lift a finger to help Hanna Szenes, the Palestinian Jewish heroine who had parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary on a rescue mission.
Perhaps most damning of all: After the war, Kastner testified on behalf of SS officer Kurt Becher (a Nazi he'd been dealing with), though Becher had taken part in the genocide of Hungarian Jewry. With all this under his belt, Hecht wrote, Kastner eventually wound up in Israel vying for a spot on the Mapai Party's Knesset list.
HECHT REVEALED additional treachery that purportedly reached beyond Holocaust-era Hungary, and thus transformed everyone else's Zionist heroes - David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Moshe Sharett - into villains for me.
For, according to Hecht, the entire Mapai leadership was part of an enormous betrayal: They failed to alert the Jews of the Yishuv to the enormity of the genocide taking place in Hitler's Europe. Had they done so, goes the argument, there would have been an uprising of Palestinian Jews demanding that the gates of Eretz Israel be opened and that the Allies do something to save their doomed brethren. Instead of raising the alarm, the Mapai leaders, who dominated the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, pursued an accommodationist policy toward the British Mandate authorities.
That wasn't all. In the Joel Brand Affair, Mapai chieftains collaborated with the British in torpedoing the Hungarian Jews' very last chance of avoiding the gas chambers. For in April 1944, Eichmann allowed Relief and Rescue Committee member Joel Brand to leave Occupied Europe with a stunning proposal: The Nazis would trade a million Jews for 10,000 trucks to be used only against the Soviets on the eastern front. Rather than facilitate the mission, Hecht wrote, Mapai leaders conspired with the British to have Brand detained.
As if all this weren't enough, the Mapainiks betrayed Irgun and Lehi fighters to the British both during and after the war, culminating, in their relentless duplicity, in the sinking of the Altalena and the attempted murder of Menachem Begin.
IT ALL TIED obscenely together. From the vantage point of the mid-1970s (when I first read Perfidy), the villains were of a type - quisling Jewish establishment leaders, the same kind of people who were telling JDL activists not to confront black and Puerto Rican hoodlums in the urban badlands of New York City; not to harass Soviet diplomats in an effort to pressure the Kremlin into freeing Soviet Jewry, and not to demand that money raised by the Jewish federations be earmarked for Jewish causes.
No wonder Rabbi Meir Kahane wanted us to read Perfidy, and no wonder we were enraged.
ALL THESE recollections welled up again last week as I read an Associated Press dispatch which reported that Yad Vashem had received "Kastner's private archive" from his family in the hope that it would clear his name, once and for all, and end his "vilification" by proving that Kastner was a hero and not the villain portrayed by Hecht and others.
"There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kastner," Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, chairman of Yad Vashem's board of directors, told the AP. "Kastner's backers," the AP reported, claimed his actions were on a par with those of Oskar Schindler. Robert Rozett, Yad Vashem's top librarian, asserted that Kastner was indeed a rescuer - not a collaborator.
Was it time for me to reevaluate, to face the possibility that Hecht might have been mistaken in his interpretation of the Kastner case? And if Hecht was mistaken about Kastner, was he also wrong in his portrayal of Mapai's motives?
HECHT BASED Perfidy largely on a libel case brought, contrary to Kastner's wishes, by Israel's attorney-general Haim Cohn against right-wing gadfly Malkiel Grunwald.
In the summer of 1952, Grunwald disseminated a mimeographed newsletter accusing Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis. When "Pamphlet 51" was released, Kastner was working as a spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade - hence Cohn's (and the governing Mapai's) determination to quash the charges.
The trial opened in January 1954 and quickly transformed itself from a libel case against the hapless Grunwald into an indictment of Kastner and the entire Mapai apparatus.
Shmuel Tamir, a leader of the Herut Party, Mapai's bitter foe and precursor to today's Likud, represented Grunwald before Jerusalem District Court judge Binyamin Halevi.
The case lasted 10 months. The court heard 60 witnesses, saw hundreds of documents submitted in evidence and generated 3,000 pages of testimonies.
On June 22, 1955, Halevi delivered his verdict which took all day to read: Kastner had collaborated in facilitating the Nazi destruction of Hungarian Jewry; and his "rescue train" was a "gift" for services rendered - 388 of those on board were family and friends from his home town of Cluj.
Judge Halevi: "Kastner sold his soul to the devil."
IN JANUARY 1958, however, the Israeli Supreme Court, in a split decision, overturned Halevi's decision. In an opinion written by Justice Shimon Agranat, the high court said the task before it was not to give Kastner "a clean bill of health" but to examine whether Grunwald had proved his contentions beyond reasonable doubt.
Hecht summarized: "All five Supreme Court judges upheld Judge Halevi's verdict on the 'criminal and perjurious manner' in which Kastner after the war had saved Nazi war criminal Becher - 'without justification.' Two of the judges further upheld Judge Halevi's findings that Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Three did not."
KASTNER - WHO had been working as night editor for the Hungarian-language daily Uj Kelet - never lived to see the lower court decision overruled. At 12:10 a.m. on March 3, 1957, Ze'ev Eckstein, Yosef Menkes and Dan Shemer ambushed him as he was parking his car outside his Tel Aviv home at 6, Sderot Emanuel.
He succumbed to his wounds on March 16, leaving a wife and 11-year-old daughter. Two thousand people attended his funeral.
The three attackers were convicted, served time and were released by 1963. Eckstein, the shooter, was said to have been a paid informer of the Shin Bet.
OVER THE years the case continued to make ripples, with books, plays and documentaries - none definitive.
In 1981, for instance, "documents" were reportedly discovered which were said to "prove" that Kastner had saved the lives of 200,000 Jews - and that Kurt Becher had collaborated with Kastner, not the other way around. In 1982, Israel TV broadcast a fair-minded documentary about the affair. Several plays were written about the trial; one by Motti Lerner was even performed in West Germany in 1985. Another, in 1987, was by the virulently anti-Israel British playwright Jim Allen, who claimed "The Zionists" were "Hitler's favorite Jews."
Paradoxically, there was something - albeit with crucial variations - that the Jabotinsky Right, the anti-Zionist Left and the mad hatters at Natorei Karta could all agree on: Kastner had been a villain, and his behavior emblematic of what could be expected from Mapainiks.
At the same time, I never came across a reputable Holocaust history that embraced Hecht's line about Kastner's dealings with the Nazis - whether Raul Hilberg's classic The Destruction of the European Jews (1985), Saul Friedlander's just-released and widely acclaimed The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, or anything in between. Friedlander, for instance, writes that it is simply impossible to know why Kastner testified on the Nazi Becher's behalf.
AND THAT'S where things more or less stood when the Kastner "archive" - which Yad Vashem hopes will end his vilification - was delivered to the Holocaust museum on July 22.
In an interview at Yad Vashem, librarian Rozett told me that the "Kastner archives" amount to just several boxes, and that the material contains no smoking gun - or, in terms of what I was looking for, no unsmoking gun that would demonstrate Kastner's pure intentions.
Nevertheless, Rozett argued, "Ben Hecht's book is not a work of history" and his interpretations are simply wrong.
Take the train that brought 1,685 people to safety. Rozett: "They were a group chosen by Hungarian [Jewish] leaders, Kastner, members of the Jewish council, [and] leaders of Orthodox Jewry." Everybody put on people from their own camp. In fact, the train carried Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe, as well as leading Betar activists.
Sure, Kastner packed as many friends and family on board as possible, but so what? He didn't do it as part of a plot, Rozett affirmed.
Understanding the context is everything if you want to evaluate Kastner's behavior, he emphasized. For instance, the impetus for Kastner's dealings with the Nazis in the first place was the fact that Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann's envoy, had arrived in Budapest with a letter of introduction from Rabbi Michael Dov Ber Weissmandel. The Slovakian Orthodox leader had been bribing the Nazis with money to stop deportations.
WITH GERMANY'S defeat just over the horizon, it became commonplace for Third Reich figures to pursue authorized and freelance negotiations: about a separate peace, to enrich themselves or to prepare alibis.
According to Rozett, the May 1944 Joel Brand affair is now understood to have been part of a far more complex gambit than Hecht described. What most people forget about Brand is that he was accompanied by Bandi Grosz - a double, triple or even quadruple agent. D-Day was just weeks away, and the real purpose was to offer the US and Britain a separate peace with Nazi Germany, leaving the Soviets out in the cold.
In this version, Brand's trucks-for-Jews mission was - unbeknownst to him - just a cover story. "So we have," said Rozett, "this [attempt at] driving a wedge between the Allies and Germany" at a pivotal point in the war. It was the British commitment not to allow the Nazis to divide the Allies at this pivotal juncture that killed the Brand mission.
"And the Mapai leaders didn't cry out because the official position of everybody is that this deal was not workable, but that the Germans needed to be strung along. Hecht's view is predicated on the idea that the Jews had a certain amount of serious power. [In fact,] they had very little power."
In The Seventh Million, popular left-wing journalist Tom Segev also addresses the trucks-for-Jews affair: "The matter had gone from the Jewish Agency executive in Jerusalem to the desks of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. None of them wanted the deal, each one for his own reason, and for one common reason: They did not know what to do with a million Jews. Eichmann ordered the trains to roll to Auschwitz."
In Jews for Sale, Yad Vashem's Yehuda Bauer argues, contrary to Hecht, that Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Sharett wanted the British to allow Brand to return to Hungary in order to buy time with Eichmann. They also pleaded for radio warnings to the doomed Jews, and for the bombing of the rail lines leading to Auschwitz.
But the British weren't interested; incredibly, London suspected, writes Bauer, that the trucks-for-Jews proposal "was a major German-Zionist plot to introduce a million Jews into Palestine."
IN A telephone interview, I asked Tommy Lapid, who was in Hungary during the Kastner period (though not involved in the rescue train), why he is convinced that Kastner should be remembered as a hero, not a villain. While Lapid is not a follower of Jabotinsky, neither is he a Mapainik, so his views carry some weight.
Lapid recalled that he first met Kastner in Israel, and that they worked alongside one other at the Uj Kelet Hungarian daily.
"I saw Kastner in the office the week he was killed," Lapid recalled. He was personally sympathetic to Kastner, whom he remembered as an extraordinarily intelligent man.
Why, I asked, did he testify for the Nazi Becher after the war? Because, said Lapid, Kastner promised Becher: If you help me save Jews, I will do my best to save your neck after the war.
He didn't need to keep his word, Lapid argued; who would know the difference? The fact that Kastner did honor his promise proved his ultimate decency.
Yes, he lied in Halevi's court about not having testified in Becher's favor - because in 1950s Israel it would have been impossible to publicly justify his actions. No one would want to listen.
Lapid feels strongly that anyone who didn't personally experience the Shoah - and he was thinking especially of Kastner trial judge Binyamin Halevi - was in no position to evaluate Kastner's actions.
Kastner had immense "sacred hutzpa," Lapid told me. It gave him the strength to deal face-to-face with Eichmann in an effort to save Jews - only to have the surreal nature of those negotiations dissected years later, in the comfort of a Jerusalem courtroom.
Even though during the war Kastner reached the safety of Switzerland, he nevertheless chose to return to Germany and Hungary, Lapid reminded me. And even with Becher's promised personal protection, who but a hero who wanted to save Jewish lives would put himself in harm's way at the height of the Allied offensive against Germany, with bombs exploding all over the place?
But why, I challenged, didn't Kastner warn the Jews of Hungary of the fate that awaited them? There was no point, said Lapid. "A revolt by Hungarian Jewish women and children would have resulted in an immediate massacre. (The men had already been taken for forced labor.) The object was to buy time in any way possible."
Finally, what about the insinuation that the Shin Bet killed Kastner to keep him silent and Mapai in power? "Absolute nonsense," declared Lapid, if for no other reason than because the then head of the Shin Bet was Amos Manor, a close personal friend of Kastner's from Hungary.
HAVING REVISITED these issues, I'm still in no position to determine whether - or to what extent - Hecht may have been wrong in his interpretation of Labor-Zionist behavior during the Holocaust. But I am left with the sense that their contradictory conclusions notwithstanding, neither the historians, nor Hecht, nor the folks at Yad Vashem, who are intent on clearing Kastner's name, are out to deceive.
Today, I see no value in willing ourselves to remain embittered, perhaps in perpetuity, over Zionist ideological divisions during the Mandate and the Shoah era. It's time to move on.
The true villains of the Shoah, let us never forget, were first the Nazis and their enablers, then those who barred the gates of refuge, and those who rioted to keep them barred.
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