The Kasztner Controversy

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

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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.

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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.