The Kasztner Controversy

If Reszo Kasztner saved Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, why was he put on trial and assassinated?

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Reszo Kasztner (also known by the first names Rudolf and Yisrael) was a Transylvanian Jew who rose to fame, and later to infamy, for his role in saving Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Born in 1906 in Cluj, then capital of the province of Transylvania, Kasztner was a Jewish activist who served as editor of the region's leading Zionist paper, as leader of a Zionist youth group, and later as secretary of the National Jewish Party in the Romanian Parliament. In 1940, he moved to Budapest and became deputy chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Association.

reszo kasztner

Kasztner in radio studio, Israel
(courtesy Kasztner family)

In 1942 Kasztner helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee, which smuggled Jews from Nazi-occupied Slovakia and Poland to a still-neutral Hungary. But in March 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary, and deportations to Auschwitz began almost immediately.

The committee changed its focus, and chose to use means previously unthinkable for Jews during the Holocaust: Kasztner and other members of the committee negotiated directly with the SS in the hopes of saving Hungarian Jewry.

Negotiations with the Enemy

Initially, the committee offered to collect two million dollars in exchange for a cessation of the deportations. When that didn't work, a new plan was hatched. "The blood for goods bargain," presented by Adolf Eichmann, stipulated that the deportations would stop if the United States and Britain would supply the Germans with 10,000 trucks and other equipment for use on the eastern front (this deal, too, would never materialize). In the interim, Kasztner devised a new rescue operation.

The Kasztner Train, as it became known, would save members of Hungary's Jewish community. Kasztner negotiated with SS officer Kurt Becher, who represented SS chief Heinrich Himmler. With the war on the east front escalating, German resources were nearing depletion and Himmler saw this train as a potential bargaining chip that could be used in negotiations with the Western Allies.

The Kasztner Train

Among those selected by Kasztner and the committee to board the train were rabbis (including the future Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, whose community was almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust, and which he would rebuild, practically from scratch, in Brooklyn), Zionist leaders, members of the Jewish intelligentsia, and Kasztner's friends and family--totaling 1,685 passengers.

The train left Budapest on June 30, 1944 ultimately reaching neutral Switzerland (after being held hostage at Bergen Belsen for several months) in two groups--in August and December.

Back in Hungary, Kasztner continued his work on behalf of the country's Jews for the duration of the war, and his negotiations led to 20,087 Jews being sent to work in Strasshof, Austria, instead of Auschwitz. Seventy-five percent of these Jews survived the war. In addition, he provided aid to Jewish prisoners in the camps, making it possible for many to survive.

Kasztner in Israel

Kasztner immigrated to Palestine in 1947, with his wife and young daughter, and became a prominent figure in Israeli political life. He served as an official in David Ben Gurion's Mapai government, and edited the party's Hungarian language newspaper, as well as another Hungarian paper that had been re-established in Tel Aviv.

Then, in 1952, Malkiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian Jewish survivor living in Jerusalem, distributed leaflets accusing Kasztner of collaborating with the Nazis. As a member of the government, Kasztner was told he should participate in the state's court case against Gruenwald, in order to clear his own name.

The Trial

According to Gruenwald, Kasztner had agreed not to inform Hungarian Jews about what awaited them in Auschwitz, in exchange for those saved on the Kasztner Train. Kasztner insisted he did his best to save Hungarian Jewry. 

Reszo Kasztner

Kasztner and his daughter, Zsuzsi
(courtesy Kasztner family)

The lawyer for the defense, a sharp, right-wing Israeli named Shmuel Tamir, managed to turn the tables on the Israeli government, forcing Kasztner to defend himself against a range of charges that went beyond his failure to disclose what he knew about Auschwitz and the fate of Hungarian Jewry. According to Tamir, Kasztner had negotiated with the Nazis for personal benefit--saving family members and friends, and sharing in the Jewish booty confiscated by Becher. Kasztner was also accused of testifying in defense of Becher during the Nuremberg Trials.

The high-profile trial--second only to Eichmann's in terms of garnering national attention, and Israel's first court case about the Holocaust--took months. Eventually, the presiding judge declared that by negotiating with Nazis Kasztner had "sold his soul to the devil." Gruenwald was found not guilty of almost all charges against him, and Kasztner chose to resign from his position as a government employee.

Kasztner's Death & Legacy

At the time of Kasztner's trial, an extreme right-wing faction in Israel was questioning the legitimacy of the Israeli government under Ben Gurion. They argued that Ben Gurion's unwillingness to fight the British occupation during World War II amounted to a betrayal. (Ben Gurion had objected to engaging the British in battle on the grounds that they were waging war on a common enemy--Hitler.) For these Israelis, Kasztner came to represent the flaws of the Ben Gurion government. In March 1957, three years after his case ended, three members of the Israeli extreme right assassinated Kasztner. Less than a year later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned its original verdict, citing Kasztner's extraordinary efforts and achievements in saving Hungarian Jews during the war.

Decades later, the dispute continues to linger in Israel's consciousness. Was Kasztner a hero or a villain? For most of Kasztner's survivors and their descendants, thousands of individuals, the answer seems obvious. The controversy has been the subject of several books, and most recently a documentary film called Killing Kasztner (2008), which attempts to demonstrate that Kasztner acted heroically during the war. By and large, historians seem to agree with that conclusion.

But others believe that Kasztner should never have negotiated directly with the Nazis, and that by selecting family, friends, and members of Hungary’s elite for rescue, he had gone too far in determining who would live, and who would die.

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Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.