Hero or collaborator?

A new documentary looks at the legacy of Yisrael Kasztner.

Yisrael Kasztner 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yisrael Kasztner 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"The story of Yisrael Kasztner is one of the last great untold stories of the Holocaust," says Gaylen Ross, director of the documentary Killing Kasztner, which is showing at cinematheques around the country this month. It has also been screened at the Haifa and Toronto international film festivals. She should know. Ross has devoted the last eight years of her life to unraveling this extraordinarily complex tale, which involves a politically motivated assassination, a famous libel trial, rivalries among different Israeli political factions and a Jew who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann during the last year of World War II. When I suggest to her that she could probably spend the rest of her life amassing even more material and updating her film, she laughs, but pauses for a moment, as if she is actually considering the idea. Speaking seriously, Ross says that as she researched the subject, she began to see "this story as a great tragedy of epic proportions." It started out simply enough. Ross, who has made films about Swiss banks during the Nazi era and Russian mail-order brides, became interested in the Kasztner story when she heard about the so-called Kasztner Train, that carried more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews to safety in Switzerland in 1944, at a time when the Nazis were killing the Jews of Hungary at the rate of about 12,000 per day. Yisrael (Rudolf) Kasztner, along with other Jewish officials, negotiated with and bribed the Nazis to allow the train out, although Eichmann at first directed the train to Bergen-Belsen, where these Jews spent several months before being allowed to continue to Switzerland. Hundreds of orphans were aboard, as were Satmar Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum and many prominent scientists and intellectuals. The train was part of a larger plan to try to save the nearly 1 million Hungarian Jews by trading war supplies to the Germans, in particular 10,000 trucks. Kasztner was one of several Jewish officials involved in these negotiations. Another result of these negotiations was that thousands more Jews were saved by being kept in work camps rather than death camps. "I became fascinated by the story of the train and the rescue and I wondered: If there was a Jew who rescued all these people, why didn't I know about him? What was the problem?" says Ross. As she immersed herself in the story, "I ended up logging I don't know how many miles flying back and forth from New York to Israel. For four or five years, I was in Israel every other month." As it turned out, there were some big problems inherent in both the story and in trying to tell it. The first was that unlike most - indeed, virtually all others - who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Kasztner was not lionized, but was first vilified and then assassinated, gunned down by 22-year-old Ze'ev Eckstein. Eckstein shot him outside his home in Tel Aviv in 1957, and Kasztner was survived by his wife and a young daughter, Zsuzsi. Eckstein, who was not a Holocaust survivor, was acting as a member of a shadowy right-wing group. But, to add just enough ambiguity to warm the heart of any conspiracy theorist, Eckstein says in the film that after he initially joined the group, he went to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) with a warning that its members were potentially violent extremists. When his warnings were not treated with the respect he felt they deserved at Shin Bet headquarters, Eckstein returned to the group and was one of those dispatched to kill Kasztner. He served seven years of a much longer sentence and was then pardoned. But although Eckstein pulled the trigger, there were many here who felt Kasztner deserved to die. Kasztner, a Hungarian journalist who moved to Israel after the war, where he became a minor government official, became infamous when an article, highly critical of his role in the negotiations with Eichmann to save Hungarian Jewry, was published in the magazine Ha'olam Hazeh, edited by the young Uri Avnery. The magazine, a combination of Time and Playboy, was widely read here. Instead of viewing Kasztner as a rescuer, writer Malkiel Grunwald criticized him, saying the rescue train was simply a gift from the Nazis that allowed him to rescue his family and friends. What Kasztner should have done, according to his critics, was to refuse any deals with the Nazis and warn all Hungarian Jews of the certain death that was in store for most of them (approximately two-thirds did not survive the war). On Kasztner's behalf, the Israeli government sued Grunwald for libel. But although Kasztner relished the opportunity to clear his name, Grunwald's lawyer, Shmuel Tamir, turned the tables on him, virtually turning him into the defendant. Particularly damaging were affidavits he signed testifying to the good character of SS official Kurt Becher. Although they may seem damning, Ross presents a contemporary historian, Shoshana Barri, who has found evidence that the Jewish Agency encouraged Kasztner to file them, although he had written disparagingly of Becher in earlier reports. In the end, Judge Binyamin Halevi not only acquitted the defendant on most of the libel counts, but agreed with the defendant that Kasztner was more of a collaborator than a hero. "He had sold his soul to the German satan" to negotiate with Eichmann, the judge said. The trial was covered around the world and Kasztner's story inspired American screenwriter Ben Hecht's novel Perfidy. Although in 1958 the Supreme Court overturned most of the verdict, saying that Kasztner's sole motivation was to save Hungarian Jews, it was too late, since he had already been murdered. JUDGE HALEVI, argues Ross and many of her interviewees in the film, was "a virtual death sentence for Kasztner." The late journalist and Knesset member Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who worked with Kasztner, recalls how his colleague was startled by a noise as they strolled the streets of Tel Aviv that turned out simply to be a cat in a trash can. Later, says Lapid, he realized Kasztner knew he was about to be killed. His family realized it, too. His daughter, Zsuzsi, who has devoted her life to helping restore his reputation, describes in the film how he had a conversation with her as if he were saying good-bye. Ross chose to focus significant parts of the film on Zsuzsi and her daughters, because "I wanted viewers to have a sense of immediacy about the story. It's not simply set in the past. It's a story that people are living very much today." We see his daughter and three granddaughters, one of whom is Merav Michaeli, the television personality, as they visit a museum of Hungarian Jewry that barely mentions Kasztner, and as they lobby the Haifa Municipality to name a street after him (a request that is granted, and later denied). Interviewing the assassin, and then bringing together Eckstein with the the Kasztner daughters and granddaughters (although it may seem improbable, Zsuzsi passionately wanted to meet him), Ross tried to show "the different points of view in a Rashomon kind of way." Eckstein admits remorse and tries to recall how, in his confused state at the time, the idea of this killing made sense to him. "His story is really the story of the making of any assassin," says Ross. The story continued to evolve long after she began filming. In 2004, survivors of the Kasztner Train visited Yad Vashem and spoke with an official about why this rescue is not commemorated at the museum. In 2007, Zsuzsi and Kasztner's family attended a ceremony in which his papers were officially donated to the Yad Vashem archives. Many survivors of the train also attended. "They were always ashamed of having been part of this rescue, as if they didn't have the right to their own survival," says Ross. She cites one woman who speaks of feeling, until that moment, "as if she bore the mark of Cain." Although Ross says, "I tried to exclude my opinions so people can come to their own conclusions," when pressed she admits that, "Kasztner did become a scapegoat in that horrible time," caught between the various political factions in Israel. What ultimately interested her was "trying to understand the climate and politics of a country under the shadow of the Holocaust." The story is really about "people's perception of heroism. After the war, they wanted heroes like Hannah Szenes [who was killed by the Nazis after she parachuted into occupied Hungary on a doomed rescue mission]. They wanted the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. There was always the shame of survivors being blamed. And the survivors of the Kasztner Train had the shame of having been associated with the man who sold his soul to the devil. The movie examines what is heroism, why do we need it, who are the heroes we create for ourselves and why." The issue of negotiating with representatives of evil regimes or groups "is always a difficult one." Not surprisingly, getting a documentary about a complex and relatively little-known subject funded was not easy. "This wasn't one of those movies where you get the money, you film for a couple of months and then you edit for a couple of months." But putting the film together slowly, over a period of years, "gave me the gift of time. It took so long I got to see the story evolve." The story of the trial had been the subject of a popular television play by Motti Lerner in the mid-1990s, "but it wasn't known outside Israel, and younger Israelis certainly didn't know about it." The New York-based Ross has an unusual background for a documentary filmmaker. She will always be a footnote in film history since she starred in the horror films Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow, directed by George Romero. Says Ross: "We all had our salad days. If Dawn of the Dead hadn't become a cult classic, you could have blinked and missed my acting career." In the end, for Ross, the Kasztner story illuminates a continuing debate in Israel and abroad. "These are the beginning of the passions you can still see in the politics of today," she says.