September 22, 1997
Volume 50, No. 5
A criminal libel trial in the 1950s, little-known outside Israel, exposed deep and virulent philosophical divisions between that country's citizens and set the stage for the infamous trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, said Boston University law professor Pnina Lahav in her lecture, "The Holocaust, the Yudenrat and the Kastner Trial," on Sept. 15.
In fact, the deep-seated political mistrust and resentment that precipitated the Kastner trial remains an undercurrent in Israeli politics today, Lahav contends. It finds voice in the person of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a "member of a right-wing family who carries with him the wound of having been mistreated in the '50s," said Lahav.
In 1944, when Hungary came under occupation by the Nazis, doctor and "low-level Zionist activist" Rudolph Kastner became chairman of the local Jewish Rescue Committee. Adolph Eichmann, who had already been instrumental in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews, arrived in Budapest-knowing the defeat of the Third Reich was imminent-to finish his grisly work. "If I manage to add one million Jews to the five million already slaughtered," he reportedly told an aide, "I will leap happily into my grave."
In Budapest, Eichmann "rounds ups Jews, puts them in ghettos, reactivates the crematorium at Auschwitz and begins to plan the transportation of the Jews in the cattle cars from Hungary to Auschwitz," said Lahav. Initially, Kastner offered Eichmann $2 million to save Hungary's Jews. Eichmann took the money but continued to herd Jewish citizens into ghettos, from which he eventually transported them to the death camp.
"Then Eichmann suggests that he may give 600 certificates to Kastner to save 600 lives," said Lahav. Kastner negotiated with the Nazi and eventually managed to raise the number to 1,685. "And 1,685 people chosen by Kastner and his rescue committee board a train that later is called the Bergen-Belsen train. The train leaves Budapest, and after a very tense time at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, they are sent to Switzerland, and they are all rescued." Their number represented a drop in the bucket. Eventually, 400,000 Hungarian Jews died at Auschwitz.
After the war, Kastner migrated to Israel, joined the ruling left-wing party and was given the job of spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Meanwhile, another Israeli citizen named Michael Grunwald, who had ties to Hungary and had fled his native Vienna from the Nazis, chafed at Kastner's high-profile job for the government. Grunwald had joined the right-wing underground movement after emigrating to Israel and began a pamphlet campaign to root out government corruption.
He wrote several tracts about Kastner, one of which read in part, "Dr. Rudolph Kastner should be eliminated. For three years I've been awaiting to bring to trial . . . this careerist who enjoyed Hitler's acts of robbery and murder. On the basis of his criminal tricks and because of his collaboration with the Nazis, I see him as the vicarious murderer of my brother."
Grunwald's rhetoric came to the attention of then-Attorney General Chaim Cohen who, representing the state, later sued Grunwald on Kastner's behalf. Grunwald's attorney alleged that Kastner sacrificed the multitude of Hungarian Jews in order to save the 1,685 people handpicked for rescue by him and his committee. "Did Kastner collaborate with the Nazis?" Lahav asked her audience. "The Nazis gave him 1,685 seats on that train of people that he could save and, in return, what he did for the Nazis is he kept quiet about the Nazi plans to destroy Hungarian Jewry." Kastner lost his first trial.
The Kastner trial managed to lay bare all the bitterness, self-loathing and ambivalence about the Holocaust that characterized Israel at the time. Members of the ruling government and those of the right-wing underground mutually blamed one another for failure to do more to save European Jews. Many people also blamed the European Jews for not doing enough to save themselves.
Woven into this complex tableau was the resentment of right-wing Jews, who had fought the British in Palestine and were instrumental in the founding of Israel, against the left-wing government, which had "marginalized and repressed" them in the early '50s, said Lahav.
Adolph Eichmann's trial was a unifying and cathartic experience for the Jewish state, said Lahav, that laid blame for the Holocaust where it belonged-with the Third Reich.
But the subtext of the Kastner trial was: "What was a Jewish leader to do in such circumstances? How should we judge him?" Israel's Supreme Court overturned the verdict in Kastner's first trial 4-1. The justices felt Kastner could not be judged under such circumstances, Lahav said. The believed "that Kastner did what he could do for the Jews [and] he was hoping that in addition to this Bergen-Belsen transport he could also negotiate more and more lives." In any event, with the Allies invading Poland, perhaps he thought that the war was almost over and the Jews would be saved, said Lahav.
For Kastner, the verdict came too late. While awaiting the Supreme Court's verdict, he was assassinated men with known allegiance to the right-wing party. One of the assassins later said, "The earth could not tolerate both of us. One of us had to go."
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