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Bargaining With the Devil: Documentary Focuses on Rudolf Kasztner, Shoa Traitor — Or Hero

It’s the controversy that won’t go away. Toward the end of World War II, the Nazi killing machine turned its attention to the Jews of Hungary, Europe’s largest surviving Jewish community. Journalist Rudolf (Rezso) Kasztner, a member of the community’s Aid and Rescue Committee, opened negotiations with Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of Hitler’s Final Solution, to rescue Jews from the gas chambers. He eventually saved 1,600 of them, including members of his own family, obtaining a train to Switzerland in exchange for gold, diamonds and cash. He also arranged for at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews to be placed on hold, interned in an Austrian labor camp until war’s end. Kasztner moved to Israel after the war.

VOICE OF ISRAEL: Rudolf Kasztner in Jerusalem, broadcasting the daily Hungarian-language news program on Kol Israel Radio, early 1950s.

In 1952, a pamphlet written by Malchiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian-born Jew who emigrated to Israel before the war, accused Kasztner of collaboration and treason. The charges led to a libel trial, but a verdict in 1954 went against Kasztner. In 1957 he was gunned down in Tel Aviv by Te’ev Eckstein in what is remembered as the first political assassination of a Jew by another Jew in the modern state of Israel.

Ironically, the libel verdict against Kasztner was overturned in 1958, less than a year after Kasztner’s assassination, but complete exoneration of the man and full recognition of what he did to save Jews from the Nazis have been slower in coming.

The Kasztner story has been told many times, from the 1961 book “Perfidy,” by Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, to a spate of new histories, including “Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust,” by Toronto writer Anna Porter, reviewed in the Forward this past February. In Israel, his story has been the subject of a television series, a documentary and a major play.

But the still-raw story may receive its widest audience in the new documentary film “Killing Kasztner,” which filmmaker Gaylen Ross directed and co-wrote (with Andrew Cohen). The film had its world premiere recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Kasztner’s daughter and three grandchildren in attendance.

The filmmaker spoke with the Forward the night before the movie’s premiere. Her previous works include “Dealers Among Dealers” and “Listen to Her Heart: The Life and Music of Laurie Beechman,” as well as the screenplay for a film about the Swiss banks controversy, “Blood Money; Switzerland’s Nazi Gold.” Ross also had a brief acting career, playing the lead role in the 1978 horror film “Dawn of the Dead.” Appearing comfortable and confident, Ross spoke passionately about the movie, which was seven years in the making.

Her interest in the man and his story began to take shape, she said, when she came across a history book in an empty corner of the New York Public Library. “I still, to this day, don’t know what the book was,” she said. “I remember reading this thing about Jews for sale, and there were trucks.” The trucks were a reference to SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s spurned offer to exchange 1 million Jews for 10,000 trucks. Ross was intrigued by what she read: “I thought this was so fantastical. And then later on, when I was doing the documentary on the Swiss banks and the Holocaust, I met Alice Fisher, who was this survivor and was on the Kasztner train. And then I said, what’s this train, what is this train?”

The Kasztner tale, as refracted in the film, is a multifaceted one. It ranges from the shaky Jewish self-image, which resists the idea of Jews being the rescuers of their fellow Jews, to the ongoing efforts of Kasztner’s family to rehabilitate his name, to the morality of his trading some lives at the expense of others, as he was forced to choose from among the many Jews he could save. Then there’s the question of why Kasztner testified to the good character of at least one Nazi, Kurt Becher, with whom he had dealt. This damning bit of evidence was used against him during the libel trial, as was the provocative compliment that Eichmann paid him when he wrote that “Kasztner was one of us, he could have been a Gestapo.” But although Ross scores at least one significant first with her film — in an on-screen interview, Eckstein, Kasztner’s ambiguously repentant assassin, discusses his act for the first time in public — the movie itself is unsatisfying, never successfully tackling any one aspect of the story, and failing to get a sense of what formed Kasztner and made him do what he did during the war. Startlingly, the film doesn’t delve into Kasztner’s prewar life, which surely was a factor in determining his later actions: He came from a strongly Zionist family in Transylvania, deferred moving to Israel to care for his widowed mother and was an outspoken, if abrasive, defender of Jews in his newspaper columns.

Whatever the film’s shortcomings, though, it deserves wide viewing simply for its compelling narration of Kasztner’s experiences during and after the war. Perhaps most important, the film addresses the very contemporary question of whether the man should be regarded as a Jewish hero — and what constitutes a hero.

“I started the film,” Ross said, “with the [Bertolt] Brecht quote ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.’ And why do we need heroes?” Given the powerful and tragic responses to Kasztner, she added, “I think the very nature of needing heroes gets us into a lot of trouble.” Significantly, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, initially did not acknowledge Kasztner among those whom it honored as rescuers. Only very recently, under pressure from those he saved, did it change its stance. “To a large degree,” Ross said, the world of Holocaust museums “didn’t really talk about Jewish rescuers. That’s a new conversation, even in the last few years.”  Pointing to the emotional turmoil that the Kasztner trial caused in the young State of Israel, which hadn’t even begun to deal with the effect of the Holocaust on the nation’s psyche, she said, “The story of Kasztner is the story of Israel in many ways,” she said. The documentary had its Israeli premiere October 19 at the Haifa International Film Festival.

But, Ross insisted, her film does not come down squarely on one side or the other regarding whether Kasztner merits the honor his supporters claim for him. “I want people to come away with their own thinking about that,” she said. “I’m very clear about not having an agenda, and I try very hard not to preach to people.” 

“I say the story is bigger than me, bigger than anyone. It’s an epic story. I don’t have the arrogance or hubris to believe that I’m going to answer all these questions: What was in Kasztner’s mind? What did he actually do? What did he think he was doing? I can only surmise. I think he tried to warn [people] as much as possible.”

After all, Ross observed, “negotiating is getting your hands dirty.” Quoting Eli M. Rosenbaum, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, she added, “The time to blame Jews for their own destruction is over.”

Ross also believes that eventually “there’s going to be another documentary and another film and another book. I don’t hold the definitive answers; I’m just peeling back one more layer of history.”

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a longtime Toronto-based arts reporter, film critic and teacher.

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