Street signs tell the story. Israeli boulevards and avenues are named for heroes, Herzl, Weizmann, Jabotinsky. Mail is delivered to houses on Trumpeldor, Arlosoroff, Senesh, Rabin -- martyrs forever remembered. But for Israel Kastner, assassinated in 1957, a man who some say rescued more Jews than did any other Jew during the Holocaust, there is nothing, not even an alley.
In 1944, he negotiated with Nazis for a train that carried 1,685 Jews to freedom. He helped 20,000 Jews to be placed in a relatively benign camp in Austria.
Survivors tried to name a street in Haifa. People objected: “No one wants to walk on a street named Kastner.”
It hurts but is no longer a surprise for Kastner’s only child, Zsuzsi, now 63. She remembers her father being spit upon, pushed off busses; she remembers herself, age 9, beaten up in school, pelted with rocks.
In 1953, the Israeli government, on behalf of Kastner, sued an obscure freelance writer for libel, for writing a pamphlet accusing Kastner of collaboration. But the judge sided with the writer, ruling in 1955 that Kastner was a Nazi collaborator and that Kastner “sold his soul to Satan.”
Kastner had given testimony to the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal on behalf of a Nazi who orchestrated the murder of 560,000 Hungarian Jews.
Critical in the trial was the revelation that after the war, Kastner had given testimony to the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal on behalf of one of the top five Nazis who orchestrated the murder of 560,000 Hungarian Jews. Later, it was revealed that he had testified on behalf of three others. The fifth Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, was already in hiding.
Kastner identified himself on the affidavits as a representative of the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress, which were reportedly hoping to get, in exchange, the return of Jewish money looted by Nazis, and information about Eichmann. The two organizations denied involvement, though new information in the documentary indicates that Kastner was indeed working for them.
My father “was a great human being,” says Zsuzsi, “very smart, very warm, he had joie de vivre. When the time came to be a hero and do great things, he did.”
She was in New York for the Gaylen Ross’ new documentary, “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis,” that screened at YIVO.
On March 3, 1957, in their Tel Aviv apartment, nearing midnight, Kastner’s wife Bogyo was knitting a little red woolen sweater for her daughter Zsuzsi, awaiting her husband’s return. From the street, Bogyo heard bullets -- a man calling, falling on the sidewalk, in the street below her window. She put down her knitting, knowing.
That man is in the image of God, Reb Shlomo Carlebach once explained, is to realize that just as God is ultimately unknowable, so is another man’s soul. “Really,” said Reb Shlomo, “what do we really know?”
Kastner was buried on Purim, his funeral procession proceeding on almost parallel avenues to Tel Aviv’s Purim parade, known as “Ad delo Yada” -- “Until You Don’t Know” -- from the Purim mitzvah to drink until one doesn’t know the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman. Even Kastner’s fiercest critics could never quite reconcile the essential mystery, the “Ad delo Yada,” of Kastner’s soul. Ben Hecht, the journalist and screenwriter, once wrote that Kastner “was not always a man of evil. Virtue and courage were once in him, and even a love of Jews.”
Haman or Mordechai? Kastner was a chameleon, his very name a camouflage. With Hungarians, he was Rezso; with Nazis, he was Rudolf; with Israelis, he was Israel.
In 1944, Eichmann made an offer to the Vaada, a Jewish rescue committee in Budapest led by Kastner: One million Jews for 10,000 trucks. Eichmann agreed to allow a train of Jews to go to Switzerland as proof of his good intentions.
Here, let Eichmann tell the story. In 1960, in Israeli custody, Eichmann told Life magazine: “Dr. Rudolf Kastner [was] an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation and even keep order in the collection camps if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. ... It was a good bargain... The price of 15,000 to 20,000 Jews -- in the end there may have been more -- was not too high for me.”
Eichmann added, “We trusted each other perfectly ... While we talked he would smoke one aromatic cigarette after another, taking them from a silver case and lighting them with a little silver lighter. With his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.”
Kastner did absolutely nothing to help Hannah Senesh, before or after her capture.
The mother of Israel’s greatest heroine, Hannah Senesh, testified against Kastner in the libel trial, saying that when Senesh parachuted into Hungary to assist Jews Kastner was supposed to be her contact. But, said the mother, who was in Budapest at the time, begging Kastner to help, Kastner did absolutely nothing to help Hannah, before or after her capture, even though he had influence with her captors and access to her prison.
The Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, a survivor of the train, refused to testify or offer support in the libel trial.
And then Kastner was caught lying on the witness stand about his postwar help to Lt. Gen. Kurt Becher, the SS man in charge of the economic rape of Hungarian Jews -- collecting their gold teeth, bales of hair, bank accounts, watches and furniture. Becher rose to the rank of major for his work in the Death Corps, and after Hungary, was promoted to “commissar” of the entire concentration camp system.
Kastner’s affidavit to the Nuremberg tribunal: “Becher belongs to the very few SS leaders having the courage to oppose the program of annihilation of the Jews ... I never doubted for one moment the good intentions of Kurt Becher.”
Ze’ve Eckstein, Kastner’s assassin, says in the documentary of Kastner, “there was no question in my mind ... kill the bastard. Clear the holy land from this atrocity.”
With Kastner dead, the Israeli Supreme Court overthrew the lower court’s ruling, deciding 3-2 that Kastner was not a collaborator during the war. But in a second ruling, the Israeli Supreme Court was unanimous: Kastner, after the war, acted in a “criminal and perjurious manner,” helping Becher. “I had a few people by my side over the years,” says Zsuzsi, now 63, “but most of it was a lonely road. One of the survivors told me, the children of Kastner should have been kings in Israel. I said, I’ve always been a queen, just the knowledge that I was the daughter of such a great man. In that, I wasn’t lonely.”
She attends conferences, lobbying to have her father recognized as a hero and included in Holocaust studies. “I’ve been doing my best, hoping for it, dreaming about it.”
And what of his helping Nazis?
“First of all,” says Zsuzsi, “not all of them were so terrible. Becher,” she says, “wasn’t terrible. No, Becher went out of his way, and through his help my father was able to save almost 200,000 Jews.... Oh yes, I met Becher a few times in Germany. I wanted to see him. What I learned is that he was really anxious to help save Jews.
“He wasn’t a real Nazi,” explained Zsuzsi. “He never was ... He considered my father a friend. He kept saying that nobody saved so many lives as he and my father. He really wanted to save Jews. He helped my father a great deal.”
At the YIVO screening, survivors of the train, one after another, rose to praise Kastner. “Even after he got his family to Switzerland, and he got out, Kastner came back to Hungary, went to Germany, went from camp to camp. He saved lives.”
The 560,000 Jews who left on 147 other trains could not be reached for comment.
This article originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week