On March 3, 1957, at 11 p.m., a young right-wing zealot waited in the shadows outside an apartment building in Tel Aviv and shot a man named Rezso˝ Kasztner, who later died of his injuries. In Israel, many rejoiced. Half a century later, there are still Jews who curse Kasztner’s memory. There are others who mourn him as a martyr.
Who was this man, and why does he still arouse such conflicting emotions? A new documentary by director Gaylen Ross, Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis, sheds light on a strange chapter of history that is remembered today by a dwindling number of people.
“I didn’t come to the story with any presuppositions about whether he was a hero or not,” Ross said in a telephone interview. “My biggest question was, why didn’t I know anything about him?”
The film asserts that Kasztner saved more Jewish lives than anyone else during the war. He accomplished this by negotiating face to face with “the architect of the Holocaust,” Adolf Eichmann, and striking a deal: Jews for money, or “blood for goods,” as the Nazis termed it. Kasztner was able to put together a trainload of 1,684 Hungarian Jews and secure their safe passage to Switzerland, which remained officially neutral during the war. He bargained with Eichmann to spare many thousands more from the gas chambers and traveled from concentration camp to concentration camp in the waning months of the war with SS Col. Kurt Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who DealtWith Nazis, documentary, in English and Hebrew with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles Becher, commissar of concentration camps, to instruct the commandants that SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler had ordered a halt to executions.
One of the passengers on Kasztner’s train was a 16-year-old boy, Tom Margittai. Margittai would later emigrate to the United States and succeed in the restaurant business as owner of the Four Seasons in New York. Now retired, he lives in Santa Fe.
“I remember everything, because it was the most important episode of my life,” Margittai reflected over a cappuccino. “I was 16 years old. I worked at the headquarters of the Jewish organization in Budapest. They recruited us kids as gofers. I found out about the train in May 1944. I went home and told my dad, and my dad stood in line for days on end until he got in to see Kasztner, and we were accepted on the train. The reason? There were 300 people who were asked to pay for the train so that the others could go for free. They asked for £5,000 sterling per family, which was at that time a very serious sum. I am not sure what the final amount was that Kasztner paid for the train, but it was in the millions of dollars. So we got on the train. A lot of the passengers were children and orphans, industrialists, rabbis, you name it. It was what Eichmann called a musterzug, a sample train — sample of Hungarian Jews. ... This was to be the first of the trains. Of course, there was never another.”
One of the counts against Kasztner is that, as Sarah Palin might put it, he palled around with Nazis. The Nazis, of course, were the ones holding these particular cards and had to be dealt with. Another accusation is that he didn’t save enough people. Ross’ film quotes a survivor of the train who “curses Kasztner every day” for not saving the rest of his family.
“He was trying to save people,” Margittai said. “And something went horribly wrong. It was more or less to be expected. I mean, 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished, and those had some surviving relatives. They hold him responsible, emotionally, for not saving their loved ones, and they hold him responsible for not alerting the Hungarian Jewry about Auschwitz.”
That’s the big charge. From his dealings with Eichmann, Kasztner had learned the terrible secret of Auschwitz. “Kasztner and his people knew exactly what was going on,” Margittai said. “And they were negotiating with Eichmann to try to stop the gassing. None of us had any idea.”
“The allegation against Kasztner is not that he sat down with Eichmann,” Ross explained, “but that in his deal with the Nazis he kept from all the rest of the Hungarian Jews the information about Auschwitz. I think the heart of the story is that Kasztner was a Jew. Because he was a Jew, it’s a bitter mirror to other Jews who couldn’t do what he did, couldn’t save their own families and their own communities. It’s the ultimate scapegoat. People talk about those he didn’t save, as if he had that power. We never talk about the people who didn’t make Schindler’s list.”
Margittai agreed. “The truth of the matter is that there’s absolutely nothing they could have done to prevent this. First of all, the flower of Jewish men were in labor camps. The older Jews, the children, and women, I don’t think they were a match for the SS.”
In the early 1950s, allegations against Kasztner surfaced in Israel and produced a libel case that gripped the young nation. When Kasztner was discovered to have interceded on behalf of Becher at the Nuremberg Trials, public sentiment and the verdict turned against him. Evidence uncovered later by historian Shoshana Barri would appear to exonerate him, but at the time the case seemed damning.
Israel’s supreme court struck down most of the decision in 1958— after Kasztner was killed. His assassin was Ze’ev Eckstein, a young informer for the Israeli Security Agency who had become swayed by the right-wing extremist group he had infiltrated. Eckstein served seven years of a life sentence. Ross interviewed him extensively for the film and arranged a meeting between the assassin and Kasztner’s family. “A tortured man,” is how she describes him. “And though I in no way condone what he did, to me he represents what happens to many young people who want to be somebody in the world. Whatever religion or political persuasion they are, they hear stuff in these fringe groups, and they’re flattered and taken in, and they’re the ones who end up pulling the trigger or being suicide bombers. The ideologues don’t go to jail.”
Hero or villain? Savior or traitor? The ultimate verdict on Kasztner is still unsettled. Tom Margittai knows where he stands. “I knew him well. I liked him. The fact is that he was the only human being of the Jewish faith who negotiated with the Germans and saved Jews. I saw him in April 1944 in Geneva, visiting his wife, and he told me that he’s going back to Germany because he thinks he can stop the mass killings in the concentration camps. Now here’s an individual who has a pregnant wife, he’s in Switzerland, and he does not have to go back to the incredible hellhole that was Germany and expose himself to be killed. He went back because he felt that he had to.”
Ross counts herself among those who feel that Kasztner has been shabbily treated. But at a symposium at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2001, as she was beginning this project, she got a taste of the controversy. “To me it was incredible that Holocaust survivors were screaming at each other at the top of their lungs over this man who had saved lives,” she said. “I thought, if there’s this kind of emotion and passion 50 years after the event, there’s an incredible tale here.”
At 7:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19 and 20, Ross and Margittai will be on hand at the Screen to field questions about one of the most volatile and divisive issues in Israeli history.
Children on Kasztner’s train, 1944; courtesy Izhak Weinberg