Killing Kasztner: Controversial Film Comes to New Jersey

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Danny Stern, son of a Kasztner survivor and Gaylen Ross, Filmmaker
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WESTFIELD, NJ - Killing Kasztner, a film by Gaylen Ross, is about a man who saved almost 20,000 Jews and was murdered for it by Jews. Named for Reszó/Rudolph/Israel Kasztner, the Hungarian Zionist leader and liaison to the Jewish Agency (the Sachnut), a unique train left Nazi territory in June 1944 with 1,684 passengers aboard, all of them rescued and released in Switzerland by December 1944. The film tells the story of how Kasztner was murdered in Israel by Jewish right wing extremists for being a Nazi collaborator—which history proves he was not—and brings Kasztner’s daughter and her children face-to-face with his murderer.

The film was shown to a crowd of more than 200 people on Sunday night at Temple Beth-El in Westfield, with filmmaker Ross in attendance. “Kasztner survivor,” 85-year-old Arthur P. Stern (known for building the first transistor radio ever) was “Skyped” in from Los Angeles, and his son, Daniel Stern of Westfield was present with other descendants of passengers on the train. The Stern family was very active in the Jewish community, and helped Kasztner organize it. His grandfather, Leo Stern, who was probably one of the most important, and certainly wealthiest leaders of the Jewish community in Budapest, helped get passengers for the train, but he didn’t testify on behalf of Kasztner in Israel, although he’d received a subpoena.
 
“They weren’t embarrassed to talk about being on the train,” his grandson, Danny, told The Alternative Press. “What put him over the top was the idea that Kasztner, after the war, was filing affidavits on behalf of  Nazis. It was a very difficult experience for him.”
 
Unknown to most people was that from the very beginning, Kasztner, vice-president of the Zionist movement in Budapest, was working on behalf of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish government of Mandate Palestine, and then for the Israeli government—a government that ultimately betrayed him.

Approximately 315 passengers were held hostage in Bergen-Belsen until August and let go as a sign of good faith. The rest were held in that concentration camp for six months before they were released near St. Gallen, Switzerland. Today, many historians agree that Kasztner’s deal also saved an additional ca. 18,000 Jews who were held as potential bargaining chips with the Allies instead of being deported to Auschwitz. Although the movie does not much deal with what happened during the war, the train was part of broader Jewish/Nazi negotiations that began in Slovakia with the Vaad Hatzolah (the Rescue Committee)—an association of Orthodox Jews in New York, London, Turkey, and Switzerland, seeking to rescue Jews from the Nazis for ransom, and Jewish Hungarian representatives of the Jewish Agency in Mandate Palestine. Dozens of high-powered people were involved in or knew about what Adolph Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, called the “Blood for Trucks” deal that culminated in the Kasztner Transport.
 
But because there wasn’t room for everyone on the train, there was a backlash of rage and resentment against Kasztner from those left behind—including accusations that he was a Nazi collaborator and war profiteer who had destroyed Hungarian Jewry.

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In 1953, Kasztner, then living in Israel, was accused of these crimes, in print, by Malchiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. At the time, Kasztner was a government spokesman, so the Israeli government decided to sue Gruenwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf. What damned Kasztner was that he lied on the stand to protect government efforts to recover Nazi loot, and was caught in his lie. Worse, the government didn’t want anyone to know Kasztner had done what he did at their behest and so withheld exonerating documents from the trial. Ross shows those documents in the film—documents discovered by researcher Shoshana Barri long after his murder.

To complicate matters, the Israeli idea of a hero was a soldier who would die fighting for the cause. Kasztner, who saved more Jews than anyone else during the Holocaust, was labeled a Nazi collaborator because he used his mouth and money—instead of guns—to rescue Jews.

It ended in ignominy when the judge accused Kasztner of having sold his soul to the devil, acquitted Gruenwald and fined him the equivalent of $1. After Kasztner was assassinated in front of his Tel Aviv home in March 1957, the High Court reversed that decision and cleared him. Though Kasztner had paid with his life for saving so many Jews, people would spit on and throw rocks at his young daughter, ZsuZsi.
 
Says filmmaker Ross: “In the ten years of researching and filming the Kasztner story, I’ve grown to perceive this as a tragedy on so many levels: the decades of mistruths and falsehoods characterizing both the rescue and the man, the politicization in Israel of the Holocaust during the Kasztner libel trial, and finally how Kasztner was forsaken by the very country he represented. The last the worst of all—that the evidence uncovered in Israeli archives by researcher Shoshana Barri (increasingly accepted  by historians) shows that Kasztner gave the testimonies for former Nazis on behalf of the Israeli government—in order to locate Hungarian Jewish money to rebuild Israel, and for information in finding Eichmann and the Mufti of Jerusalem for their war crimes. That the government abandoned Kasztner and kept silent during the trial and for half a century after, shows that Kasztner may have been the greatest scapegoat of the post-Holocaust era. Hopefully his legacy, once defined by that betrayal, will see new understanding and interpretation today.”

Since its American premiere last year, Ross’s film has stirred the controversy anew, even as research continues to exonerate Kasztner. For some, it is a very personal story, because they are Kasztner survivors and Kasztner family members. For others, it is the story of political terrorism, as described by Kasztner’s murderer. Recruited by Shin Bet (the Israeli Secret Service) to spy on a radical-fringe right-wing group, Ze’ev Eckstein then joined it. After the trial, he believed if Kasztner was killed, the Ben-Gurion government would fall. Kasztner was killed, and nothing changed.

“Killing Kasztner” took seven years to make, and when it started, the Kasztner family did not know Ross was going to focus on the man who murdered their father and grandfather. When it premiered in Israel, it was as if history had been rewritten. Yes, there are bitter Hungarian Jews who will never be convinced that Kasztner did the right thing, yet there the tens of thousands of Jews who exist today and are grateful that Kasztner did what he, and they, believed was the right thing to do. 

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