Kaszt­ner’s list

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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

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