Just a few years ago, when filmmaker Gaylen Ross would ask people if they knew about Rezso Kasztner, most would shake their heads. The same was still true this past Sunday night at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield — at least before she showed the audience her documentary about him, Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with the Nazis.
The film, screened as part of the Reform congregation’s commemoration of Kristallnacht, tells the story of the lawyer-journalist from Budapest who rescued more people from the Holocaust than any other Jew, and more than those on Oskar Schindler’s list.
Kasztner was a leader of a rescue group in Budapest who had helped refugees flee Nazi Europe into Hungary. After that country was invaded, he negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to allow almost 1,700 Jews to leave for Switzerland on what became known as the Kasztner train. As one person in Ross’ documentary points out, if all those he rescued and their descendants came together, there wouldn’t be a hall in Israel large enough to accommodate them. Kasztner’s wheeling and dealing with Eichmann and other Nazi leaders may have also saved thousands more in the death camps.
Kasztner was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957.
Awareness has been growing since the film premiered in 2008, and two books about Kasztner have come out recently, but his story remains a peculiarly hidden chapter in Holocaust remembrance.
According to the documentary, until recently, Kasztner wasn’t mentioned at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum and the only memorial to him in Israel was a small stone in an obscure spot in the countryside.
It was the fact that Kasztner negotiated with the Nazis that twisted his reputation and tainted everything he accomplished, said Ross.
In 2001 she started exploring the subject, meeting with Kasztner’s daughter Zsuzsi Kasztner, with his granddaughters, with individuals he rescued, and with those who despised him, including — most dramatically — the man charged with his murder, Ze’ev Eckstein.
Ross isn’t new to dealing with twisted money trails. Among her works are the Emmy-winning Blood Money: Switzerland’s Nazi Gold and Selling the Dream, an examination of stock and securities fraud.
The screening and Ross’ presence at Emanu-El were arranged in part by temple member Daniel Stern of Westfield. His father, Arthur, was one of those on the “Kasztner train.” He had hoped to come from his home in California, but wasn’t well enough, so he made his appearance via Skype, his image projected onto the wall, and answered questions that way, recalling details from his experiences 66 years ago.
Kasztner and his family went to Israel after the war as penniless refugees, and initially he was considered a savior of lives. But in 1953, a self-employed pamphleteer, Malchiel Gruenwald, accused him of collaborating with the Nazis and selecting only his own family and a group of wealthy people to save. In fact, only 150 wealthy escapees paid the money the Nazis demanded of everyone, and the train’s passengers included workers, nurses, teachers, and a group of orphans.
The government (Kasztner was by then an official in David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party) sued Gruenwald for libel on behalf of Kasztner. The case dragged on and became an examination of Kasztner’s wartime activities. The court finally decided that the accusations were justified, saying Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.” That verdict was overturned in 1958, but for him it was too late.
In 1957, Eckstein, then a 22-year-old right-wing radical, shot Kasztner outside his apartment building.
Perhaps the toughest part of the documentary, said Ross, is the meeting between Kasztner’s daughter and his murderer. In the film, Zsuzsi Kasztner asks why he killed her father and who else was involved. He doesn’t give names, but acknowledges that he acted out of deluded fanaticism, convinced he was doing God’s will. His sentence was commuted after seven years in jail, agreed to at the time by a young Zsuzsi, but he has remained, he says, trapped in the hell of a story he can never change.
After the screening, Agi Neumann of Cranford was among those who rose to speak. She survived the war in Budapest and remembers the fear and the horror. She said, “I think Kasztner was very heroic.” There was a ripple of applause that would have gladdened Zsuzsi’s heart.