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The Kastner trial revetted Israel. In it, Kastner who was a government official was accused of collaborating with the Nazis. The trial which was a libel case ended with the judge accusing Kastner with selling his soul to the devil. The Israeli Supreme Court eventually overturned the verdict, but before it did Kastner was assassinated.
On January 1, 1954, a trial opened in Jerusalem. It was a libel case. Dr. Rudolf Kastner who was a government employee had been the Chairman of the Jewish Rescue Committee of Hungary during the war. Malkiel Greenwald who had immigrated from Poland in 1938 published a newsletter that specialized in “uncovering” corruption in the ruling Mapai Party. In 1953 in one of his newsletters he accused Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis. He wrote that Kasterner “grew fat on Hitler’s looting and murder”. The government decided to sue Greenwald for libeling a public servant.
While some of the facts in the case remain disputed to this day, the basic narrative is simple. Adolf Eichman who was in charge of the elimination of the Jews of Hungary made an offer to an associate of Kasterner Joel Brand; war material in return for saving Hungarian Jewry. Brand was allowed to travel to Turkey and then interned by the British in Syria, and Eichman’s proposal was turned down by the Allies. But in the meantime, Kastner negotiated with Eichman for more time. Eichman agreed to prove his sincerity to agree to allow 200 hundred families to leave the country unharmed. Kastner provided a list of 1685 Jews who were all allowed to leave the country in two special trains to Switzerland. Of the 1,685 388 were from Kastner's home town of Cluj.
During the trial, Greenwald lawyer Shmuel Tamir, who had been in the Etzel and had been a member of Cherut, demanded to know from Kastner why he had not warned Hungarian Jews that they were being sent to Auschwitz and their death. Kastner answered that he was afraid of endangering the negotiations that he still hoped would save the bulk of Hungary’s Jews. As to whether Kastner had personally profited from the negotiations, beyond saving some of his relatives, the evidence was clear, Kastner had arrived in Israeli penniless.
On June 22, 1955, Judge Benyamin Halevi issued a 300-page ruling. In it, he determined that Kastner had done nothing to warn the Jews of Hungary. He wrote that Kastner had sold his soul to the devil. As such the libel case was dismissed. The verdict reverberated throughout Israel and resulted in the government of Sharett falling.
On March 15, 1957, he was ambushed outside his Tel Aviv apartment and killed by three assassins. The three who were caught were supporters of Lechi, the outlawed far-right militia. In January 1958 the Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision.
Jewish Studies Congress Debates Kastner Trial
Israel Kastner gave letters of exoneration to four Nazi officers in 1946, during the Nuremberg trials, journalist Dan Margalit said yesterday at a public debate marking the 50th anniversary of the Kastner trial.
The debate was held as part of the 14th World Congress for Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.
Professor Dan Laor of Tel Aviv University hosted the debate between history professors Yehiam Weitz, Shlomo Aharonson and Dina Porat. Margalit also took part in the debate.
Dr. Israel Kastner, one of the leaders of the Jewish community of Hungary, negotiated with the Nazi regime in Budapest, including Adolph Eichmann, to save 1,684 Hungarian Jews who had been sent to Auschwitz in World War II.
In 1947 he immigrated to Israel and was appointed spokesman of the Industry and Trade Ministry. In 1954 Malkiel Gruenwald accused him of collaborating with the Nazis. Kastner sued Gruenwald for libel, in what has become known as the Kastner trial. The court acquitted Gruenwald of most charges, and the judge even said Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil."
In 1957 Kastner appealed Gruenwald's acquittal to the Supreme Court, which overturned the earlier verdict and cleared Kastner of all charges. A few weeks after the court started hearing the appeal, Jewish assassins murdered Kastner near his Tel Aviv home. The three assassins were sentenced to life but were released in 1963 after being pardoned by the president.
Porat presented the central question at the debate - why had Kastner not warned the Jews of Hungary of what awaited them in Auschwitz, thus helping their orderly transport to their death? She replied that the Jews had known of the extermination already, with the possible exception of those living in isolated country communities.
She said that other Jewish leaders in Theresienstadt, Lodz and Warsaw also refrained from warning the masses of what awaited them.
Then Margalit made his provocative statement. "Four Nazi officers, including Kurt Bachar, received an exoneration letter from Kastner. This was during the Nuremberg trials in 1946, after the war, when he was already free of the Nazis' terror," he said.
Margalit said Kastner was involved in negotiations of "goods for blood" with these officers during the Holocaust and exonerated them in the name of the Jewish nation with no authority. "When asked about this during the trial in 1954,0 he lied and denied it. For this it is hard to forgive him," Margalit said.
Who Is Hungary's Real Holocaust Hero?
(Haaretz) — Two Jews set out from Budapest: One was Hannah (Anna) Szenes, a native of the city, pioneer and poet, who left at age 18 and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine but returned to her hometown under unusual circumstances during World War II. The other was Israel (Rudolf) Kastner, a native of Cluj in Transylvania − a jurist, journalist and Zionist activist, who only arrived in Budapest for the first time during World War II.
In the construction of Israeli memory of the Holocaust, Szenes and Kastner, both considered “Hungarian” Jews whose personal stories intersect with the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, play key roles. Szenes was a role model from the start: With her proud bearing and active resistance in the face of the Nazis, she was seen as synonymous with all that was beautiful and noble in the steadfastness of the Jews during the Holocaust. She became a national hero, a kind of local Joan of Arc.
Kastner, by contrast, was the bad guy: A symbol of the pandering to the conquering power and collaboration with the Nazis, he was viewed as abominable and was denounced. His assassination, in March 1957 − at the age of 51 − played out all the negative feelings Israeli society had about collaborators, and generally about all those Jews who did not raise the flag of rebellion.
Getting back to Budapest: Szenes was born there on July 7, 1921. She was the daughter of the writer Bella Szenes, and like him, she intended to become a writer. But exposure to the anti-Semitism of the late 1930s prompted her to become a Zionist, and in 1939 she immigrated to Palestine. There, she followed the Zionist-pioneering path with great success: studying at the farming school in Nahalal, joining a kibbutz (Sdot Yam), and enlisting in the Palmach pre-state commando corps of the Haganah. She was among the chosen few who were trained as paratroopers and dispatched to Europe on behalf of the Haganah to find a way to save Jews.
On March 15, 1944, Szenes was dropped into Yugoslavia, just four days before Germany invaded Hungary. In June of that year, Szenes crossed the border into Hungary, with the object of carrying out her rescue mission which had two purposes: performing espionage for the British and rescuing Jews. However, Hungarian police caught her that very same day and she was jailed in Budapest, her place of birth, exactly four years after she had left it. She was interrogated, tortured, tried (for “espionage and treason”) − and executed on November 7, 1944, without having been able to save any Jews.
During the critical period between June 1944, when Szenes was imprisoned, and November 7, the day of her execution, Kastner was living in Budapest, the city that had become his home and main venue of activity since late 1940: He had moved there from Cluj immediately after Transylvania was annexed to Hungary, and in 1941 was one of the people behind the Aid and Rescue Committee, a group formed to help the Jewish refugees who had arrived in Hungary from Nazi-occupied countries. The committee’s head was Otto Komoly, and Kastner served as his deputy.
After the Nazis conquered Hungary, the committee found itself in the desperate position of negotiating with Adolf Eichmann for the ransom of Hungarian Jews, in what was called the “Blood for Goods” deal. Unfortunately, the talks did not yield the hoped-for outcome. Nevertheless, in the course of the negotiations, and as a confidence-building measure, the Germans sanctioned the rescue of 1,684 Jews, who departed Budapest on a train − dubbed “Kastner’s train” − bound for Germany, and on to Switzerland.
Up to the war’s end, Kastner took other steps that, in the opinion of scholars of that period, led to the rescue of many people: He was involved in the talks that resulted in the “temporary” transfer of 21,000 Jews from southern Hungary to the Strasshof concentration camp near Vienna rather than to Auschwitz, and also in the order, issued by SS head Heinrich Himmler on August 25, 1944, not to send any more Jews from Budapest to extermination. In collaboration with Kurt Becher, a senior SS officer, Kastner worked to quietly transfer control of several concentration camps to the Allies, and thereby kept the remnants of the camps’ populations from being massacred.
“One can argue over details,” wrote the eminent Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, “but historically speaking, it seems to me there are not many people who [like Kastner] saved many Jews in the Holocaust. There are certainly not many who saved for sure 1,684 Jews and contributed to the rescue of tens or hundreds of thousands.”
Did Kastner and Szenes meet during the critical months both were in Budapest − she as a helpless prisoner accused of espionage and treason, and he in his relatively high capacity as deputy head of the Aid and Rescue Committee? In her testimony during the “Kastner trial” in the Jerusalem District Court, in the spring of 1954, Katerina Szenes, the mother of Hannah, pointed an accusatory finger at Kastner for not having acceded to her repeated requests that he visit her daughter Hannah and give her a package, even though he intended to visit the prison where she was held. Szenes told the court she had repeatedly applied to his secretary, Lenka Ungar, but the latter kept putting her off.
“I am telling you, Dr. Kastner, that you did not take an interest in the fate of Hannah Szenes!” the defense lawyer in the libel case, Shmuel Tamir, scolded him. Kastner claimed in his defense that the Aid and Rescue Committee had discussed Hannah Szenes’ case and that he personally took the matter up with the Red Cross. He also expressed surprise at Katerina Szenes’ allegations regarding her own failed attempts to meet with him, claiming that his door was open to every Jew.
However, it was only in the television drama “The Kastner Trial,” written by Motti Lerner, which aired on Israel Television in 1994, that Kastner could be seen to go on the offensive, justifying his avoidance of Katerina Szenes by the need to maintain his distance from the paratroopers the Haganah leaders had dispatched to Hungary, whose presence in Budapest was like an albatross around his neck.
“How dare you complain to me?” burst out Sasson Gabai, the actor portraying Kastner. “Who even asked your daughter to come to Budapest? What was she thinking of doing? After all, it was because of the recklessness and arrogance of those who sent her that she crossed the border like a novice, and was caught five minutes later! And what was I supposed to do when I learned that she was in prison? Suspend the rescue operations of Budapest’s Jews and go to the Germans to beg them to save her?”
Hannah Szenes became a national heroine: Her diary and writings were published in multiple editions, becoming cult books. Kibbutz Sdot Yam held an annual memorial ceremony in her honor, which over the years came under the auspices of the Israel Defense Forces and its Paratroops Brigade. In 1950, the Israeli government instructed that her bones be brought for burial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in a state funeral. Children’s newspapers, schools and youth movements never tired of seizing on the figure of Szenes. Her poems became widely known, particularly “A Walk to Caesarea” (commonly known as “Eli, Eli”), which was set to music by David Zahavi.
The high point came in 1958, the state’s 10th anniversary, when Habimah Theater put on the play “Hannah Szenes” by Aharon Megged, which constituted final confirmation of the identification the public discourse created between her and Joan of Arc.
In retrospect, it seems that in the process of constructing the memory of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine after World War II, instrumental use was made of the story of Szenes’ mission and her personal qualities in general to intensify the value of rebellion and active resistance to the Nazis. These were quite frequently accompanied by condemnation of the passive masses that went “like sheep to the slaughter” − and even more so by condemnation of the European Jewish leadership that at best stood idly by, and at worst chose the route of collaboration. It was the Jewish council, the Judenrat, that was seen as the actual and symbolic embodiment of such collaboration.
Kastner, to his detriment, became the “negative” model: He immigrated to Palestine in 1947 and became the editor of the transplanted Hungarian newspaper Uj Kelet, which he had edited back in Cluj. After the founding of the State of Israel, he landed a government job, and was even a Mapai candidate for Knesset, having been thought to be a draw for the votes of Hungarian and Romanian immigrants. He himself was brimming with self-confidence, knowing full well the part he played in rescuing Hungarian Jewry during the war.
But soon everything was overturned: Malchiel Gruenwald, editor of a local Jerusalem publication, accused him of collaborating with the Nazis and helping to annihilate Hungary’s Jews in response, the attorney general, Haim Cohen, decided to file a libel suit against Gruenwald. Shmuel Tamir, a member of the Herut movement, came to Gruenwald’s defense, and Kastner quickly went from being the accuser to the accused. Some members of the press and public opinion conspired to denounce him and present him as one who betrayed his people by collaborating with Eichmann and his gang and thereby kept Hungary’s Jews from knowing the truth, thus nipping in the bud the potential for rebellion and even making things easier for the Nazi death machine.
All of this was boiled down in Judge Benjamin Halevi’s categorical statement on pronouncing the verdict, on June 22, 1955, declaring that “Kastner sold his soul to the devil.” Halevi did not refrain from praising the paratroopers and Hannah Szenes, which served to sharpen the vilification of Kastner, whose fate was ultimately sealed by three assassins who ambushed him outside his home on March 4, 1957. Mortally wounded, he died of his injuries on March 15.
The long and convoluted campaign to clear Kastner’s name was not slow in coming: The first harbinger was the Supreme Court ruling, of January 17, 1958, on the state’s appeal of the Jerusalem District Court verdict, which overturned most of Judge Halevi’s ruling. After a fairly lengthy hiatus, the battle was resumed in the early 1980s, a period − according to Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander − that saw a further thaw in Israeli society’s attitude to the Holocaust following the Eichmann trial. One of the ways this was expressed was in a series of representations that remade Kastner’s image, first and foremost Motti Lerner’s play “Kastner,” which the Cameri Theater put on in 1985, and which was the antithesis of Megged’s “Hannah Szenes,” from 1958. In the play, Lerner brought the case back to its original setting − in other words, to Budapest in the period after the German invasion. In successive tableaux, Rudolf Kastner was seen bravely contending with Eichmann, and also daring to stand up to the Jewish community leaders who did not necessarily agree with the audacious politics he was bold enough to undertake vis-a-vis the Nazis, motivated by the vehement aspiration to save Jews.
Only in the epilogue of the play does the playwright make the leap from 1940s Budapest to 1950s Israel, and places at center stage the lonely, now-wounded, but certainly also vindicated Kastner, who argues directly with the verdict of the Jerusalem court that practically sentenced him to extinction, recounts the story of the assassination, and ends with the words: “I continued running. A second shot rang out. The bullet hit me. In the back.”
But the grandiose morality play that unfolded before the Israeli spectator in those years had one or even two acts still to come. The lines cited earlier from the monologue Sasson Gabai delivers in the TV drama constituted only a partial quotation. It actually went on to include these lines: “And I will tell you who told the Hungarian police that Palgi and Goldstein [Szenes’ fellow paratroopers] were about to come to me. She did! Your daughter, the heroic Hannah Szenes! She cracked in her interrogation and revealed everything. I can imagine what torture she went through. No one would have withstood such torture. But Palgi and Goldstein were not arrested because of me, but because of her!”
These shocking lines, in which Hannah Szenes is accused of being forced to betray her comrades, can be found in the printed version of the script of “The Kastner Trial” published by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, but they are not to be found on the DVD of the docudrama, as presented in 1994. The explanation for this lies in a petition to the High Court of Justice that was filed by Giora Senesh, Hannah Szenes’ brother, who wished to prevent the series from airing. The petition was denied (in a majority vote), but the judges asked IBA officials to delete those lines of their own accord.
The court’s request was met, but the debate over Hannah Szenes’ supposed “betrayal” became a public matter: Not only Aharon Megged, one of the chief fashioners of Hannah Szenes’ persona in literature, theater and public discourse, but also others including Reuven Dafni, who was one of the last paratroopers still living at the time, and even the author Amos Kenan − all rejected out of hand the allegation of “betrayal” playwright Lerner had ascribed to Szenes. That was also the prevailing spirit of a Knesset debate on the subject, in the course of which one speaker after another rejected the allegations the playwright intended to voice, even if they were not heard.
Paradoxically, it was actually the Hannah Szenes High Court petition that gave new validity to her status as a national hero, whose luster had dimmed slightly since losing the pride of place that was reserved for such symbols of rebellion in the public memory. Five years after the broadcast of the three-part TV series, a hugely important milestone in the process of Israel Kastner’s public rehabilitation, the Supreme Court made public the reasons for the stance it took on Giora Senesh’s petition. At the time the court’s reasons were revealed, Giora Senesh was no longer living. His son, Eitan Senesh, maintains that this affair hastened his death.
In denying the petition, Justice Aharon Barak relied on the principle of freedom of speech and artistic creation, from which stemmed the position not to block the speech of the docudrama’s author. However, Barak ruled that the legend of Hannah Szenes, whom he described as “a national heroine and revered figure,” will continue to exist, thanks to the freedom that resides in the truth, and not by silencing its distortion.
“The poems and heroism of Hannah Szenes are what substantiate the myth,” wrote Justice Barak, himself a Holocaust survivor. “The lie will not harm her or her memory. The lie will be rejected by the truth, in a battle in the ‘free marketplace’ of ideas.”
That was not the position of Justice Mishael Cheshin, who maintained that the petition should be accepted, commingling his reasons with lines from two of Szenes’ poems − “A Walk to Caesarea” and “Blessed Is the Match.” He ended with the following statement: “Hannah Szenes’ heart knew to stop with dignity. The dignity and good name of Hannah Szenes no one can take from her, neither in word nor in deed.”
But Motti Lerner was adamant in his original position, even after the High Court publicized its reasoning. In an article in Haaretz on September 5, 1999, Lerner returned to the “betrayal” issue that has dogged the Kastner-Szenes war throughout the years. “I do not and have never had any interest in damaging the image of Hannah Szenes, who is a great hero in my eyes − even if she broke under interrogation, as Hansi and Joel Brand think.” And indeed, Lerner found support for his argument in the book by the Brands, “The Devil and the Soul” (in Hebrew, 1960), where the rather odd (and one might add: erroneous) conjecture is raised that under the pressure of torture, Szenes revealed to her interrogators the address of the apartment on Bulyovszky Street where she was supposed to rendezvous with the other two paratroopers: Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein.
Lerner seizes upon that statement like one who has found great treasure, and what is more, he felt free to attribute this supposition to Kastner, even though it was originally put forward by the Brands. According to Lerner, he chose to employ this strategy − he himself uses the word “manipulation” − to pursue fully the question that troubled him more than any other, namely: “How did it happen that Szenes, the boundlessly brave and pure paratrooper, became a national hero even though she did not save any person from death, whereas Kastner was eternally disgraced, even though he saved many thousands directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly.”
He concluded thus: “Juxtaposing Kastner and Szenes was meant to examine the value system of Israeli society, which created this paradox.”
The efforts to rehabilitate Szenes’ standing in the public memory had a sequel: On November 5, 2004, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of her death, a memorial was held at Kibbutz Sdot Yam under the auspices of the Association for the Perpetuation of Hannah Szenes’ Mission and Heritage, and attended by the then-deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, in the revival of a tradition that had dissipated over the years as interest in her waned. Three years later, in November 2007, Szenes’ tombstone, which had remained until then in a Budapest cemetery, was brought to Kibbutz Sdot Yam, and the event was accompanied by a military ceremony.
However, Kastner loyalists did not remain idle: At the initiative of the offspring of the survivors of “Kastner’s train” and others, an annual gathering in memory of him has been held for the past five years in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Floral wreaths and memorial candles are placed at the entrance to the house at 5 Emanuel Haromi Street in Tel Aviv, where Kastner was gunned down, and in the lot of the Mahanot Haolim youth movement building, on the same street, a surprisingly large crowd gathers to declare each time anew that the selfsame Kastner − who supposedly “sold his soul to the devil” − is none other than one of the greatest rescuers of Jews in the Holocaust.
On a special website dedicated to Kastner, the invitation to this year’s ceremony read as follows: “This year, as well, we will gather in memory of the courageous, resourceful man Israel Kastner, one of the greatest rescuers in the Holocaust of our people. Many of us owe him their lives. We are convening to perpetuate the rescue enterprise, to express enormous gratitude, to illuminate what others tried to forget and conceal, and perhaps also to ask forgiveness for the injustice that was caused.”
On July 1, 1955, a few days after the verdict was handed down in the Kastner libel trial, critic and essayist Matti Megged wrote an article in the newspaper Lamerhav, entitled: “Between capitulation and heroism.” Megged wrote that one memory remains from those dark days of the Holocaust in Hungary that must always be recalled and mentioned, and that is the memory of Hannah Szenes. He went on to correct himself and add that actually we would do better to remember what he termed “the two phenomena” − in other words that which Kastner represents and that which Szenes represents − although the stated goal is “to bequeath the memory to only one (Szenes).”
Overtly and covertly, Megged was thus taking issue with the poet Natan Alterman, who since the publication, on April 30, 1954, of the poem “Remembrance Day − and the Rebels,” which likewise was written against the backdrop of the Kastner trial, had repeatedly voiced the demand to moderate the cult of rebellion to treat “the Jewish masses” with greater understanding to refrain from favoring the rebels over “the community leaders and lobbyists” and to acknowledge that the battle and the defiance, for which he feels admiration and respect, cannot be deemed the main and primary symbol of Holocaust Remembrance Day and its so-called badge of identity.
“Rebellion is only one feature of the case,” Alterman summed up, a statement that deviates completely from the mindset that had prevailed in Israeli society since the 1940s.
The poem “Remembrance Day − and the Rebels” was, to a large extent, the opening note leading up to a re-reading of Holocaust remembrance, and as such, to a further examination of the images that became associated over the years with the figures of both Hannah Szenes and Israel Kastner. This examination ostensibly led to the inevitable conclusion that the idolization of Szenes was patently disproportionate, just as the excoriation of Kastner that led to his being framed and later murdered was essentially unfounded.
But is this really how matters stand? This past March, following the February 27th maiden speech to the Knesset of Rudolf Kastner’s granddaughter MK Merav Michaeli, I published an oped piece on the topic in this paper. In it, I expressed my naive belief that the speech by Michaeli, who declared from the podium her profound commitment to her grandfather’s legacy, had brought to a successful close the long and convoluted rehabilitation of Israel Kastner, and thereby paved the way at long last for the resourceful activist from Cluj to enter the pantheon of the nation’s heroes − if not in place of Hannah Szenes, then at least alongside her.
But it was not so: Heated responses for and against that appeared in the paper and online in the wake of the article made it clear to me that the argument surrounding the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry is evidently not over yet. If that is indeed the case, then the ghosts of Kastner and Szenes, both of whom were put to death under horrific circumstances, are going to be with us for many years to come, colliding with each other, bypassing each other, one breathing down one another’s neck, after the scenario of the battle between the two long ago migrated from the streets of Budapest − where their paths first crossed − into our very souls.
1. The two epigraphs at the beginning of this article are from Arendt , Hannah , Eichmann in Jerusalem ( New York : Penguin Books , 1994 ), 287 Google Scholar , and Mann , Klaus , Mephisto , trans. Smyth , Robin ( New York : Random House , 1977 ).Google Scholar For Arendt's physical description of Eichmann, see Eichmann in Jerusalem, 5. “Adolf Eichmann … medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench … and who desperately and for the most part successfully maintains his self-control despite the nervous tic to which his mouth must have become subject long before this trial started.” See also letter from Arendt on April 13, 1961, in Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers Correspondence, 1926–1969 , ed. Kohler , Lotte and Saner , Hans ( New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich , 1992 ), 434 .Google Scholar (“Eichmann is no eagle rather, a ghost who has a cold on top of that and minute by minute fades in substance, as it were, in his glass box.”)
2. For detailed descriptions of the Kastner affair, see Segev , Tom , The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust , trans. Watzman , Haim ( New York : Hill and Wang , 1993 ), 255 – 320 Google Scholar Weitz , Yehiam , Ha-Ish she-Nirtsah Paamayim [The Man Who Was Murdered Twice] ( Jerusalem : Keter , 1995 )Google Scholar Bauer , Yehuda , Jews for Sale? Jewish Negotiations, 1933–1945 ( New Haven : Yale University Press , 1994 ), 145 –71.Google Scholar For a discussion of the decisions in the trial and appellate courts, see Lahav , Pnina , Judgment in Jerusalem: Chief Justice Simon Agranat and the Zionist Century ( Berkely : University of Califonia Press , 1997 ), 123 –25, 132–33, 142–44.Google Scholar
3. Weitz, Ha-Ish she-Nirtsah Paamayim, 60–61.
4. For a detailed examination of the negotiations, see Bauer, Jews for Sale? 145–71.
5. Translated by Lahav, Judgment in Jerusalem, 123. The Hebrew quotation is in Rosenfeld , Shalom , Plili 124: Mishpat Gruenvald-Kastner [Criminal Case 124: The Gruenvald-Kastner Trial] ( Tel Aviv : Karni , 1955 ), 16 – 17 .Google Scholar The full version is quoted and translated into English by Segev, The Seventh Million, 257–58.
6. In Israel there is no jury system. Judges of a trial court sit either as sole judges in minor cases or in groups of three judges in the more important or complicated cases. (Article 37 of the Courts Law [consolidated version], 5744–1984.) Since Kastner's libel trial fell under the category of minor criminal offenses and did not seem to involve complicated issues of law in the outset, a sole judge was assigned to it. This initial perception of the case is confirmed by the fact that the state prosecution appointed the inexperienced attorney, Amnon Tel, to the case. See Weitz, Ha-lsh she-Nirtsah Paamayim, 107, 115, 122–23. Later on, after Tamir had managed to transform the trial proceedings into a most complicated case, addressing the whole issue of the behavior of Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, Judge Halevi did not ask for a panel of three judges to be appointed. (This was in contrast to the state prosecution that replaced Tel, an inexperienced criminal prosecutor, with the attorney general, Haim Cohen.) With the benefit of historical hindsight we see that a panel of the judge's peers could have supplied a deliberative framework for judging the Holocaust by allowing the judges to consult each other. Indeed, on Kastner's appeal five judges were appointed to sit on the case, instead of the three who normally preside at the appellate court. (Article 26 of the Courts Law specifies that the Supreme Court will sit in panels of three justices and authorizes the president of the court to extend the panel.)
7. Kastner was shot near his home in Tel Aviv on the night between March 3 and 4, 1957. The assassin belonged to an underground right-wing organization that was involved in the planning of terrorist attacks. The assassin (Zeev Ackshtein), the driver (Dan Shemer), and the head of the organization (Yosef Menks) were tried and convicted of murder. Weitz, Ha-Ish she-Nirtsah Paamayim, 332–36.
8. Douglas , Lawrence , “ Wartime Lies: Securing the Holocaust in Law and Literature ,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 7 (Summer 1995 ): 367 –96.Google Scholar
9. Cr.C. (Jm.) 124/53 Attorney General v. Gruenvald, 44 P.M. (1965) 3–241, 8. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from this source are mine.
10. The defense attorney proved allegation four by providing the affidavit Kastner had written in support of Kurt Becher. The court decided that allegation three had not been proved in the trial.
11. Attorney General v. Gruenvald, 51.
12. In an interview to the newspaper Ma'ariv on 3 October 1969 Judge Halevi stated: “This sentence was misinterpreted. In the judgment's context where it appears it refers to the 600 emigration permits that Kromey gave Kastner in order to bind him to him, to make him dependent on Eichmann and the Gestapo. I explain there the extent of the temptation that was involved in Eichmann's ‘gift’ … This literary allusion was not understood correctly, and if I had known in advance that it would be understood in this way I would have given up the literary term. It was not necessary.” Cited in Weitz, Ha-Ish she-Nirtsah Paamayim, 245.
13. The very structure of the judgment is such that after the “introductory” chapter (pp. 7–26) in which the judge presents the unsolved question (How is it that common people were led to Auschwitz without knowledge of their destination, while the leaders who encouraged them to board the trains found a safe haven in Switzerland?), he begins the judicial answer (the legal narrative) with the chapter entitled: “The Contract between Kastner and the S.S.” See Attorney General v. Gruenvald, 26.
14. Contrast Halevi's binary approach to that of the historian Yehuda Bauer who surveys the spectrum of options that were open to the Va'a'dat and discusses them within the historical context of the time, Bauer, Jews for Sale? 145–71.
Hungarian Jew's role in Holocaust still torments Israelis
At midnight on March 4, 1957, Israel Kastner, returning to his home in Tel Aviv, was confronted by three strangers. Once he affirmed his identity, they shot him. Kastner died 10 days later — the first political assassination in the State of Israel. A few hours later the Israeli Security Service caught the murderers. They were Jewish and explained that they murdered Kastner following the libel trial that took place in 1954-1955, in which Kastner, a lawyer, journalist and eventually a civil servant in Israel, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary, indirectly helping them eliminate Hungarian Jewry.
“Kastner sold his soul to the devil,” Benjamin Halevi, the judge presiding at the Tel Aviv district court, wrote in his decision on the high-profile case. A year after Kastner's death, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ruling and cleared him of collaboration with the Nazis.
But 62 years after the murder, Kastner's trial remains a point of agitation, with historians arguing passionately about whether Kastner was a hero or a villain of the Holocaust.
Rudolf Kastner, also known as Reszo Kastzner, was born in 1906 in the town of Cluj in Transylvania, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied law and then worked as a journalist, and was politically active and involved in Zionist activity. At the beginning of the 1940s Kastner was a member of the Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest that helped Jewish refugees who sought shelter in Hungary while fleeing the Nazis and, according to testimonies, he saved tens of thousands of lives.
After Hungary was occupied, Kastner was in contact with senior officials in the Reich, including Adolf Eichmann. His contacts enabled Kastner to put 1,684 Jews on a train to Switzerland, saving them from death — a fact undisputed by his critics.However, some Holocaust researchers question the motivation of the Nazis in cooperating with him and believe that Kastner traded the lives of those on the train — which included his family and friends — for other Jews who were left in Hungary. He allegedly knew the others would be put on death trains but failed to warn them.
In 1952, journalist Malkiel Greenwald published an article in which he claimed that Kastner, who had immigrated to Israel and was a candidate on the Knesset Mapai list, had collaborated with the Nazis. The scathing article began with the words, “The scent of a corpse tickles my nostrils it will be the best of the best funerals. Dr. Rudolf Kastner must be killed." It claimed not only that Kastner refused to warn the Jews regarding their expected fate but that he helped to deceive many, who following his words boarded the death trains. Greenwald further claimed that Kastner participated with SS official Kurt Bacher in the theft of Jewish property and that he testified in his favor after the war because of this partnership. The claim of theft was disproven in court.
Kastner, who worked at the time as the spokesman of the trade and industry minister, submitted a complaint against the journalist, after which the state prosecutor indicted Greenwald for libel. At the trial, Kastner turned from accuser to accused. Greenwald was acquitted, and very harsh things were written about Kastner in the court’s decision. The public outcry generated over the affair and the verdict brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Moshe Sharet.
In the decision, given after an appeal to the high court, the factual determinations of the district court were not refuted, but the majority opinion of the judges was that Kastner had not collaborated with the Nazis, although they agreed that Kastner had saved the Nazi Kurt Bacher from capital punishment “by means of a lie.”
According to professor Eli Reichenthal, who published a book titled, "The Man Who was Murdered Twice: A Re-examination of the Kastner Affair," Kastner was an informant for the Nazis even before the occupation of Hungary, and this was the reason for the status he gained with the Nazi top command. Reichenthal ascribes to him indirect responsibility for the murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews within the space of a few weeks. “Kastner methodically concealed information and caused the Jews to get on the death trains in the framework of an agreement he had supposedly reached with [Nazi war criminal Adolf Otto] Eichmann,” he explained to Al-Monitor. “Kastner had a halo of a Zionist politico, and this caused Jews to believe him. The Nazis appreciated this help and compensated him and his associates through the personal rescue of specific Jews who were smuggled out of the inferno. Eichmann himself said that Kastner was his loyal partner who helped him quiet the ghettos.”
Holocaust researcher Aryeh Barnea presents a totally opposite position, saying that Kastner could have escaped from the inferno but chose to return to it. “Kastner was a tactician who did all he could to save Jews,” he told Al-Monitor. “He entered the lion’s den and did everything to save as many Jews as he could. He used bribery, promises and the illusion of cooperation. In this framework he promised senior Nazis money and an alibi for a future trial. This is what happened with the Kastner train and tens of thousands of Jews who were sent to work camps. Even at the end of the war, he went around with Kurt Bacher and convinced the commanders of Nazi camps not to murder prisoners in order to save their own hides.”
Barnea argues that the claim that Kastner failed to warn Hungarian Jews of the Nazis is not based on fact. “Kastner sent emissaries in order to warn the community leaders, but they responded like any sane person would respond: in disbelief. The thought that they are going to murder Jews in crematoriums then sounded insane,” he explained.
Reichenthal maintains that Hungarian Jews had heard rumors of death camps in Poland. “The distance between Cluj and Romania was four kilometers of forest. If Kastner had warned even the 20,000 Jews in Cluj, they would have escaped with their lives. The few who did were indeed saved, but Kastner caused most Jews to get on the death trains.”
Those who insist on clearing Kastner’s name are mainly his family — including his granddaughter, former Knesset member Meirav Michaeli, who claimed this week that her grandfather was murdered “following the incitement of messianic, dangerous right-wing elements.’’ Descendants of the survivors from the Kastner train are also trying to clear him. One of them is artist Itamar Sagi, whose mother, two aunts and grandparents were saved by Kastner. For the past decade, Sagi has organized alternative events in Kastner’s memory on Holocaust Memorial Day on the street where he was murdered. Sagi put up a memorial plaque near Kastner’s house, but it has been vandalized three times. “From my six family members who were on the train, 200 people were born as of today,” Sagi told Al-Monitor. “It’s a generation that was created thanks to Kastner. We owe him our lives.”
Barnea believes town squares and avenues should be named for Kastner. “According to Yad Vashem, Kastner saved 21,000 Jews. No one is more deserving of commemoration. Maybe he also made mistakes, but what motivated him was saving lives,” he argued. Reichenthal reiterated that Kastner’s real story can be discerned from the voices forever silenced. “It’s fine that the descendants of Kastner’s survivors work to commemorate him, but it’s those who aren’t here to testify who raise difficult questions.The few of them who survived and testified in Greenwald’s trial said difficult things.”
“Kastner will be judged by history and not by a court,” Justice Shimon Agranat wrote in the decision. In recent years, more revelations have been published regarding the affair. On April 29, two lists of survivors on Kastner’s train, drawn up after they reached their destination in Switzerland, were published for the first time. It seems that history’s judgement on Kastner is still not final.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE AND LEGACY
Margalit is an iconic media personality in Israel, having written for major Israeli newspapers since the 1960s and hosted shows on several channels on Israeli television. His book, Sheder me'ha-Bayit ha-Lavan (1971 Broadcast from the White House), attracted considerable attention and criticism in Israel. Among other things, it drove Chaim Herzog, the future president of Israel, to investigate how so many state secrets were leaked from the government to the book's author. Margalit was also the moderator of the pre-1996 elections debate between candidates binyamin netanyahu and shimon peres, which was widely seen as a critical moment that ended Peres's chance of reelection.
During his time in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, Margalit famously exposed Leah and yitzhak rabin's illegal American bank account. This disclosure resulted in Rabin's resignation from his post as prime minister and in the prosecution of Leah Rabin. It also led to the election of the Likud Party for the first time in Israeli history in 1977. Margalit has long been dedicated to fighting corruption. Nevertheless, he has sometimes been seen as hypocritical for his close friendships with the Israeli political elite including ehud olmert, detailed in his 1997 best seller, Raiti Otam. Margalit has been criticized from the Left for his defense of Olmert against corruption in light of evidence to the contrary. Margalit is also sometimes seen as insensitive to religious Jews and has been criticized by the religious right for not having their views represented on his debate programs and for his comment that religious Israelis in the army should expel Jews from Gaza during the withdrawal or face a quota limiting their numbers in the army. The inclusion of the former Shas Party leader and interior minister, Aryeh Deri, as a regular panelist on the Council of the Sages despite his imprisonment on corruption charges has also garnered criticism for Margalit.
As a veteran commentator on Israeli affairs, Margalit is widely cited by other Israeli newspapers, as well as the international media, including the United Kingdom's national broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
1954 The Kastner Trial - History
In early 1946 in Tel Aviv, Asher Berlin got attacked in an alleyway. A gang of men with knives slashed his stomach and face. While Berlin&rsquos blood poured out on the ground, his attackers warned passersby not to help him: &ldquoDon&rsquot interfere. He informed on Jews to the Gestapo.&rdquo In spite of the thugs&rsquo threats, he was taken to the hospital and survived, his face and body covered with scars.
Asher Berlin never turned in Jews to the Gestapo. He had not set foot in Europe since coming to Tel Aviv in 1924. Mistaken for someone else, he was caught up by the mob justice meted out in the streets of Palestine in the years after the German surrender. Jews rumored to have collaborated with the Nazis were set upon by angry survivors of the camps, beaten viciously and in some cases, like Berlin&rsquos, nearly killed. The editors of the Tel Aviv newspaper Iton Meyuhad warned, &ldquoThe anarchy that is raging in our public places has gone beyond all bounds.&rdquo
A few years later, criminal courts replaced the lynch mobs. In 1950, the new state of Israel passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law. Under the law, Jewish kapos and members of the ghetto Judenräte (Jewish Councils) were put on trial for crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. The largely forgotten history of these trials has pivotal importance for our changing sense of what it meant to be a Jew during the Holocaust, as Dan Porat makes clear in his insightful, eloquently written new book, Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators.
Most surprising to readers will be Porat&rsquos account of the charges against the Jewish defendants. Many survivors regarded Jewish kapos, policemen and Judenrat members as equivalent to Nazis themselves. Elsa Trenk, a kapo who had beaten female inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was charged in 1950 with being guilty of genocide. The policeman who arrested her claimed she had &ldquoan intention to annihilate the Jewish people,&rdquo and the prosecutor at her trial argued that she &ldquoidentified with her German superiors.&rdquo
Trenk was convicted of mistreating inmates, and she received a two-year sentence. Like all the other Jewish defendants in the trials, she was cleared of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Trenk had been traumatized by her experience of Auschwitz in the years 1942-43, the court concluded, and this explained her cruelty. She did not identify with the Nazis, nor did she wish to exterminate the Jewish people.
Another female kapo from Auschwitz, Raya Hanes, went to trial a few months after Trenk, in early 1952. Hanes&rsquo defense shed a new light on the situation of Jews in the camps. The survivors who accused Hanes didn&rsquot know why she shouted at them and struck them. Hanes wanted the inmates in her block to curse her, one witness explained. The harsher she was, the more the Germans trusted her, and this enabled her to help prisoners.
Hanes, it turned out, had risked her life to save inmates. &ldquoHow could this person also be a sadist?&rdquo asked the judge who acquitted her. The judge added that there was a problem with some survivors&rsquo memories. Traumatized by their suffering, they were unreliable witnesses. They mixed up events, or attributed cruel actions to Hanes that she couldn&rsquot have committed.
Yet some of the kapos put on trial were sadists, unlike Raya Hanes. Jacob Honigman, who had served the Germans at the Gross-Rosen camp, habitually whipped frail inmates, and kicked them in the belly and genitalia, &ldquofor no reason whatsoever, just for sadistic pleasure.&rdquo So the court concluded when it sentenced Honigmann to 8 1/2 years in prison, later reduced to 6 1/2 years by the Supreme Court&mdashthe longest sentence handed down in the kapo trials.
The verdict in the Honigmann case suggested that Jewish functionaries could be judged by standards that applied outside of the Shoah. The fact that they, like all Jews, could have been murdered by the Nazis at any moment did not absolve them.
In 1954, another case of alleged Jewish collaboration seized the attention of Israelis. The accused, Rudolf Kastner, was a government minister from the Mapai party. Ten years earlier, as a leader of the Zionist Rescue Committee in Budapest, he had convinced Adolf Eichmann to release 1,685 Jews to safety in Switzerland in exchange for diamonds, gold, and a vast amount of cash. Among those on the &ldquoKastner train&rdquo were more than 50 members of Kastner&rsquos family and hundreds of people from his hometown. Meanwhile, Eichmann was murdering much of the rest of Hungarian Jewry.
Had Kastner agreed to keep the facts of the Nazi genocide secret from Hungary&rsquos Jews, fearing that his plan to save his relatives would be endangered if Eichmann&rsquos victims fled or revolted? This was the explosive charge of the journalist Malkiel Gruenwald, born in Hungary, who had lost 52 members of his own family during the war. Gruenwald was also outraged that Kastner had saved his negotiating partner, SS Commander Kurt Becher, from being prosecuted for war crimes at Nuremberg. Haim Cohn, the attorney general who presided over the kapo trials, pressed Kastner to join a libel suit against his accuser. If Kastner didn&rsquot do this, Cohn added, he would be charged as a Nazi collaborator.
During the Kastner trial, as it came to be called, Gruenwald&rsquos defense lawyer argued that Kastner was a willing tool of the Nazis and that his actions caused Hungarian Jews &ldquoto go like sheep to slaughter.&rdquo Cohn, speaking on behalf of Kastner, retorted that Kastner and the Rescue Committee may have made the wrong choice, but that was &ldquoa matter between them and heaven.&rdquo Negotiation with the Nazis was a legitimate tactic. Cohn added that Kastner&rsquos 1,685 survivors did not come with a price tag of half a million dead Hungarian Jews. Kastner had not doomed the others Eichmann and the Germans had.
Cohn&rsquos argument for Kastner didn&rsquot work with Judge Benjamin Halevi, who in a 274-page opinion ruled that Kastner had &ldquosold his soul to the devil.&rdquo The judge didn&rsquot explain how Hungary&rsquos Jews would have escaped death had Kastner told them they were headed for Auschwitz, but he was sure that somehow they would have. Kastner appealed to the Supreme Court, but in 1957, before his case could be heard, he was murdered by a member of a right-wing cell.
The next year the Supreme Court took the side of the dead Kastner and overturned the original verdict. &ldquoHeaven forbid that we shall name this person &lsquocollaborator,&rsquo&rdquo Justice Shimon Agranat wrote in his majority decision. Kastner&rsquos aim was to save Jewish lives. Even if some of his actions might have benefited the Nazis, helping the Germans was not his goal saving Jews was.
The series of post-Holocaust collaboration trials, climaxing with Kastner&rsquos murder, laid bare an explosive question: Could Jews be found guilty of partnering with the Nazis? Or was this accusation slanderous, born from a misunderstanding of the satanic upside-down world that the Germans had created for Jews&mdashin which living itself was a criminal act?
The hellish reality that the Nazis created for the Jews of Europe was hard to parse using the ideas of good and evil that prevail in peacetime civilian life. During the Shoah, handing over others to death might be the only way to save yourself, or your friends, or your parents, or your children. This was routinely the case for Jewish policemen in the ghettos who were spared because they rounded up other people&rsquos families&mdashand even their own families.
Were such actions laudable? Surely not. They are reprehensible. But they were also common enough to make any morally and historically sensitive person hesitate before passing judgement. The death sentence that targeted the Jews of Europe for extermination was handed down and carried out by the Nazis, not by the people they murdered and tortured.
Yet surely, Holocaust victims who served the Nazis were exercising some degree of human agency, however circumscribed. Hirsch Barenblat, the head of the Jewish police in the Polish town of Bedzin, was charged with delivering thousands of Jews to their Nazi executioners. On one occasion, the prosecution insisted, he drove 50 children out of an attic and sent them to certain death. True, Barenblat also assisted the Jewish underground, but only starting in 1943, when his own wife, along with several Judenrat leaders, was deported to Auschwitz. After his position as Nazi collaborator began to seem less secure, Barenblat helped Jews, but not before.
Barenblat had been tried and acquitted once, in Poland in 1948. In 1962 he was put on trial again, this time in Israel, less than a year after Eichmann&rsquos execution. The deputy district attorney of Tel Aviv, David Libai, wanted to prove that Barenblat was a member of an enemy organization&mdashthe same charge that had been leveled at Eichmann. During the Eichmann proceedings, Attorney General Gideon Hausner had spectacularly put the whole Nazi regime on trial, not just the little man in the bulletproof glass booth. In the same way Libai wanted to try the Jewish councils and Jewish police, not only Barenblat.
But at the last minute, just as he finished the prosecution&rsquos case, Libai surprised the courtroom by withdrawing the final count against Barenblat: membership in an enemy organization. He had been ordered to do so by Israel&rsquos attorney general, who was worried that if Barenblat was convicted, thousands of Israeli citizens who had been policemen or Judenrat members under the Nazis would also face trial. Barenblat was ruled guilty on other counts, including handing over persecuted people to the Nazis.
To many Israelis, Barenblat&rsquos actions were appalling. The journalist and politician Uri Avnery considered the Barenblat trial even more important than the Eichmann proceedings, since it exposed the Jewish police as a &ldquocriminal organization.&rdquo Without the Jewish councils and Jewish police, Avnery thundered, &ldquothe annihilation would not have been possible!&rdquo Avnery was echoing Hannah Arendt&rsquos Eichmann in Jerusalem. Jewish collaboration was the &ldquodarkest chapter&rdquo of the Holocaust, Arendt notoriously remarked. If no Jews had cooperated with the Nazis, she said, &ldquothere would have been plenty of chaos and misery,&rdquo but no 6 million dead.
Avnery and Arendt, and others like them wanted the Jewish victims of the Holocaust to embody a higher sacrificial morality based on historical foreknowledge. The Jews of Europe, they implied, should have sacrificed their own lives instead of assisting, even in small ways, the executioners of their people. But establishing a standard that bears little connection to the historical circumstances or to the lived experience of actual survivors is not a higher form of morality it is a form of egocentric fantasy, which victimizes the victims while celebrating those who criticize them for living.
Similarly, the fantasy that armed Jewish defiance would have stopped the genocide dishonors the victims of the Shoah, who overwhelmingly saw no such possibility. Were they wrong? In fact, history confirms their skepticism and should temper our wish to see images of heroic Jews triumphing over the Nazis. While the brave partisans and ghetto fighters will and should live forever in Jewish memory, their acts of resistance most often resulted in more dead Jews rather than in any way seriously obstructing the Nazi extermination machine. Holding them up as a moral standard imposes another unbearable burden for millions of other innocent victims of a genocide.
When Barenblat appealed to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Moshe Landau, who had presided over the Eichmann trial, declared him not guilty of all charges. Landau argued that it would be &ldquohypocritical and arrogant on our part&mdashon the part of those who never stood in their place,&rdquo to &ldquocriticiz[e] those &lsquolittle men&rsquo who did not rise to the heights of moral supremacy when mercilessly oppressed by a regime whose first aim was to remove the human image from their faces.&rdquo The most salient question, Landau suggested, was not whether turning people over to the Nazis for deportation is a criminal action, but rather who was responsible for the evil that those actions were a part of.
Hirsch Barenblat inhabited what Primo Levi famously called the gray zone. Levi recognized that when we think about the Nazi period we feel the need to take sides and separate evil from good. But the impossible strain that human nature suffered during the Shoah (and in other, similarly extreme situations) means that the clear oppositions between innocence and guilt on which any civilian legal system is constructed cannot adequately cover morally compromised people like Barenblat, whose role as victims is inseparable from their role in helping the perpetrators.
In his stunning 1954 poem &ldquoYom hazikaron&mdashvehamordim&rdquo (Memorial Day&mdashand Day of the Rebels), Nathan Alterman depicts the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising blending in with the masses of Jewish dead. Alterman&rsquos resistance fighters want the reader to admire &ldquoJewish fathers who said, &lsquothe underground will bring a catastrophe upon us,&rsquo&rdquo along with the most tragic case of all, &ldquothat boy or girl who left behind nothing but a small white sock.&rdquo
Heroism comes in varied forms, the poet argues. But there are also those who fell short and must be excluded from the collective lament. Porat remarks that Alterman elsewhere described some collaborators as mere &ldquobeasts of prey.&rdquo &ldquoThere are acts and occurrences that a sane human being must not &lsquounderstand,&rsquo&rdquo Alterman wrote. Jewish kapos, Judenrat members and Jewish policemen were not on the side of the Nazis. But the cruel and heartless among them must still be judged, if not in a court of law then in their exclusion from our collective mourning.
Three boxes of documents belonging to Israel Kastner were presented to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem this week. Negotiations between Kastner and Nazi Leader Adolph Eichmann to free Jews in exchange for cooperation from Kastner remain controversial to this day.
The private archives, comprising three boxes of letters of correspondence with Nazi officials, Jewish organizations and families, were presented in an official ceremony on Sunday. In attendance were Kastner's daughter, his granddaughter Merav Michaeli (a popular television personality who MC'ed the event), survivors of the &ldquoKastner Train,&rdquo and others.
The papers, which also document Holocaust rescue efforts of the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest, were given to the Holocaust museum by the historian Dov Dinur. Dinur received them in 1981 to help him research the Kastner Affair.
Kastner has long been a controversial figure in Israeli history. A leader of the Zionist movement in Hungary during World War II and the co-chairman of the Relief and Rescue Committee, Kastner aided Jewish refugees who reached Hungary during the first years of World War II.
In April 1944, a month after the invasion of Hungary by the Germans, the Committee began talks with the Nazis regarding the saving of Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods, military equipment and cooperation. These negotiations took place under the shadow of the deportations of over a hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to death camps. In June 1944, a trainload of 1,684 Jews traveled to safety in Switzerland. A Yad Vashem statement says the negotiations also resulted in the diversion of 20,000 Hungarian Jews to an Austrian labor camp, preventing their expulsion to extermination camps.
In 1954, Kastner was accused by Malkiel Grunwald of having collaborated with the Nazis, and Grunwald was sued for libel. Grunwald claimed that Kastner struck a deal with the Nazis whereby he could handpick the 1,684 Jews to be saved on a train to Switzerland in exchange for encouraging the rest of Hungarian Jewry to get on the trains to the death camps.
Concluding a two-year trial that gripped the nation, Judge Binyamin HaLevi acquitted Grunwald and found that Kastner had "sold his soul to the German Satan."
In 1958, Israel's Supreme Court overturned most of the judgment - a year after Kastner's assassination by a Holocaust survivor.
Some consider Kastner a hero who should be credited with the saving of the nearly 1,700 Jews on the "Kastner train." Yad Vashem Chairman Yosef Tommy Lapid, a former government minister and founder of the anti-religious and now-defunct Shinui party, said at the ceremony that Kastner was one of the Holocaust's great heroes. &ldquoThere was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews, and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kastner,&rdquo Lapid said. &ldquoThis is an opportunity to do justice to a man who was misrepresented and was a victim of a vicious attack that led to his death.&rdquo
Others, however, agree with Grunwald, who accused Kastner of a series of unforgivable crimes: "costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews" testifying in Nuremburg in defense of SS Col. Kurt Becher, a high-ranking Gestapo official and murderer saving "no fewer than 52 of his relatives, and… people with connections," and "making a fortune in the process" saving many of his own townspeople and of agreeing to keep quiet about the fate of the other tens or hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were murdered.
Kastner was serving as spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade when Grunwald published his charges in the form of a pamphlet. Representing one side of the long-running controversy, his lone daughter Suzanne said at the ceremony, "I think the State of Israel has finally retrieved some of its lost honor over this entire affair."
The Eichmann trial began on April 11, 1961, in the theater house Beit-Ha'am (in Hebrew, "House of the People") in Jerusalem. Adolf, the son of Karl Eichmann, was charged with crimes against Jews, Gypsies, and others during the years of Nazi reign in Germany and in the Nazi-occupied areas. He was tried under a special Israeli law, the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950. The trial was viewed from the outset as a historical event of great importance. In a dramatic announcement before the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minister of Israel, declared that Eichmann had been captured by Israeli security services in Argentina, where he was hiding under a false identity. Eichmann's kidnapping was a violation of Argentina's sovereignty. The Security Council intervened, but Argentina did not press the matter, and Eichmann failed when he attempted to raise this as an objection to his trial. He was brought to Israel in a special plane in May 1960. A special panel of judges—which included Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau, who headed the bench, and District Court judges Benjamin Halevy and Isaac Raveh—was appointed. The auditorium was packed with representatives of the international media as well as interested members of the Israeli public, Holocaust survivors were alongside native Israelis. The prosecution was headed by Gideon Hausner, Israel's attorney general, and the defense was conducted by a German attorney, Robert Servatius, who had previously defended Nazis at the Nuremberg trials.
During World War II, Eichmann was in charge of the Nazi security police's Jewish Department. In September 1939 he became head of the Jewish Section in the Gestapo. It was his job to oversee the transfer of Jews from the countries conquered and annexed by the Nazis and from Germany itself to concentration and extermination camps in the east. In this role he became responsible for the deaths of millions. From his early days in the service of the Nazi apparatus Eichmann specialized in questions relating to Jews and Zionism, and in 1937 he even visited Palestine incognito. His first noteworthy role was to organize the enforced emigration of Jews from Austria after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938), where in a short time he and his team managed to force more than 50,000 Jews to emigrate by stripping them of their property. By the end of 1940 Eichmann's office had the authority over all the Jews within the Reich. Later, he personally directed the 1944 deportations from Hungary while negotiating with Jewish representatives over a deal to exchange Jewish lives for goods or money. This deal never materialized and about 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths. His importance for the implementation of the Final Solution, however, did not derive from his formal rank in Nazi bureaucracy, as he had never attained a rank higher than the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel (Oberstleutnant) and was thus separated from Interior Minister Himmler by at least two ranks. Instead, the main source of his influence was his expertise in connection with Jewish affairs and his having dealt with them throughout the Nazi period.
At the Jerusalem District Court Eichmann was indicted on fifteen counts, including crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and membership in various criminal organizations, including the SS, the Security Service (SD), and the Gestapo. Trying Eichmann in a domestic criminal court raised some very difficult questions. First, there was the problem of judging him according to an extra-territorial and retroactive law. Second, the connection of the judges to the community of the victims seemed to undermine the objectivity of the court. Third, the focus of the trial on victims' testimonies and on their suffering was unprecedented. Aside from these legalistic problems, the judges had to resort to doctrines of domestic criminal law to adjudicate the novel category of crimes against humanity that were committed over an extended period of time, in different places, and by numerous actors. The court refused to rely on the law of conspiracy that was used in the Nuremberg trial, because of its overreach, and its tendency to blur important distinctions of the criminal law. Thus, although the Anglo-American doctrine of conspiracy offered a simple solution to adjudicating collective crimes, it also threatened to undermine the age-old distinction between the principal agent and the accessories to the crime. Instead, the Israeli court developed a unique interpretation of the Final Solution as a crime that implicated different agents in its various stages of implementation and was able in this way to attribute responsibility to Eichmann as a principal agent. Eichmann relied on the defense of "obeying superior orders," but the court rejected it on the basis of the doctrine of "manifest illegality" that was previously recognized by the Nuremberg tribunal. The task of the court was not simple. It had to find a way to adjust its jurisdiction rules and to interpret domestic criminal law so that it could address the novel categories of Nazi crimes without undermining the procedural guarantees of a fair trial.
The special significance of the Eichmann trial both to the international community and to the national community in Israel can be understood in light of two earlier trials: the Nuremberg trial, conducted after World War II, and the Gruenwald libel trial (better known by its popular name the Kastner trial), which took place in Israel during 1954 and 1955. Many of the prosecution's decisions regarding the way in which to structure the Eichmann trial were undertaken to avoid the risks that had materialized in those two earlier trials. Eichmann was not tried by the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, together with other Nazi criminals, because he had managed to escape to Argentina. Not only was Eichmann absent from Nuremberg but the full story of the Holocaust of European Jewry was absent as well, as Ben-Gurion emphasized in press interviews. Among the reasons for this were the jurisdictional limitations imposed by the charter of the International Military Tribunal, which held the great Nuremberg trial. The charter authorized the court to adjudicate only those actions falling under the category of "crimes against the peace" and "war crimes" that took place after 1939. These limitations stemmed from the novelty of the legal category of "crimes against humanity" and from the fear that the precedent might unduly serve to undermine the sovereignty of states later on. By contrast, the Jerusalem court, which derived its authority from the Israeli law, was able to consider the whole range of Eichmann's actions throughout the prewar and wartime period (1933–1945), because the law did not impose a similar time limitation. In addition, the court was called to focus on crimes against the Jews, alongside crimes against humanity.
The prosecution used the platform of the trial to tell the missing story of the Jewish Holocaust. For this purpose it brought 112 witnesses who testified about the events of the Holocaust and Eichmann's involvement in coordinating and carrying out the Final Solution. In addition, it submitted 1,600 documents that described the systematic persecution of European Jewry in all its phases. This evidence helped the prosecution draw a picture of the full extent of the Holocaust, even though some of the facts it sought to establish were not controversial, since the defendant did not contest the facts about the "extermination" of Jews, or the authenticity of the documents. The main line of defense was of "obeying orders" and it therefore called for a much narrower scope of factual examination in the trial. Accordingly, the defense decided not to cross-examine witnesses whose testimony did not relate directly to the actions of Eichmann. Although the court did not adopt this view of the defense, it noted in its verdict the undue extension of the trial's scope, saying that the attorney general "occasionally deviated to a small extent from the path which the court had deemed correct to delineate."
Relying solely on Israeli law, however, raised other concerns, because it was an ex post facto legislation that extended the jurisdiction of the Israeli court to adjudicate crimes that occurred outside the state of Israel, and before its establishment. For this reason the appellate court advanced an alternative basis for the court's jurisdiction, known as the doctrine of universal jurisdiction for trying crimes against humanity. The doctrine of universal jurisdiction remained dormant for forty years, because the international community viewed with suspicion the political aspects of the Eichmann trial. However, during the 1990s, when the international community was struggling to establish a permanent criminal international court, the ruling in the Eichmann trial came to serve as one of the main precedents for national courts that were beginning to adjudicate crimes against humanity that had taken place outside their territorial borders.
The second trial that Eichmann's prosecutors had in mind and that had a crucial impact on their approach was the Kastner trial, as noted earlier. During the 1950s the Israeli law for trying the Nazis and their collaborators was used mainly to try "their collaborators" among the Jews in Israel. One trial that caught much of the public attention and gave rise to an intense controversy within Israel dealt with the failed negotiations that the Zionist leader Rudolph Kastner had conducted with Adolf Eichmann. Israeli public opinion divided over the appropriate course of action taken by Jews to the Nazi oppressor. Some favored armed resistance, whereas others upheld the course of negotiations and cooperation. This debate reached a tragic climax when Kastner was assassinated a short time after the trial court reached its verdict, in which it strongly condemned Kastner for collaborating with the "devil." The prosecution in the Eichmann trial, aware of this traumatic event, attempted to change the atmosphere of blaming the victims' leaders by focusing on the guilt of the Nazi perpetrator—the defendant Adolf Eichmann. The Eichmann trial was to play a crucial role in unifying the ranks in Israel and in helping to construct a collective Israeli memory of the Holocaust. The prosecution asked key witnesses to avoid the debate over the cooperation of the Judenrate (Jewish leaders) with the Nazis and instead focused on the suffering of the victims. This decision to rely on the victims' testimonies had an enormous symbolic significance in legitimizing their words and lifting the taboo on discussing the Holocaust from the point of view of the victims, both for legal and for historical purposes.
These decisions of the prosecution—turning the trial into a platform for telling the story of the Jewish Holocaust by the victims, as well as avoiding the issue of Jewish cooperation with the Nazis—were sharply criticized by philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt, a German Jew, was living in France at the start of World War II. Interned in southern France along with other stateless Germans in 1940, she escaped and reached America in 1941. She made her name in 1951 with The Origins of Totalitarianism, a thorough account of the historical and philosophical origins of the totalitarian state that drew parallels between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In 1961 The New Yorker sent Arendt to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial. Her reports, which harshly criticized the Israeli prosecution, were later published in expanded form in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem. She disagreed especially with the prosecution's decision to cast the trial's spotlight on the Jewish Holocaust and its victims. Arendt believed that instead of employing a category created by Israeli law, "crimes against the Jewish people," the prosecution should have based its case solely on "crimes against humanity." However, unlike many in the international community, she did not doubt the wisdom of using a legal process against Eichmann, or the right of Israel to judge him. In her opinion the systematic plan of the Nazis to annihilate the Jewish people justified the trial of Eichmann by a tribunal belonging to the victims' new political community. She praised the judges, especially Justice Landau, for resisting the temptation to allow politics into the court.
The parts of Arendt's narrative that stirred much controversy discussed the complicity of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own communities, and the depiction of Eichmann's state of mind as "banal." Jacob Robinson, who served as an advisor on international law to the prosecution team, devoted a book, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, to refuting the inaccuracies in Arendt's report. Gershom Scholem, an eminent scholar and public intellectual, published a letter questioning Arendt's unforgiving condemnation of the Judenrate. The report sparked a furor and an intense debate that was waged primarily in the American press. Notwithstanding the controversy, Arendt's book remained one of the classic sources addressing the philosophical and jurisprudential aspects of the Eichmann trial. Ironically, it was Arendt's book that kept the trial from losing its pertinence some forty years later. The book was belatedly translated into Hebrew in the year 2000, stirring a new public debate, this time, regarding historical representations of the period.
In its verdict, the district court rejected Eichmann's arguments, both those challenging the jurisdiction of the court and those raising the substantive defense of obeying superiors' orders. Eichmann was found guilty on all counts and on December 15, 1961, was sentenced to death. He appealed, but the Supreme Court upheld the district court's decision. His appeal for clemency was also denied by Israel's president, notwithstanding the pleas of several public intellectuals on his behalf. Eichmann was hanged on the night of May 31, 1962. His body was cremated, and the ashes were scattered at sea. It was the only death sentence to be carried out in the history of the state of Israel.
Above all, the Eichmann trial is symbolized by the bulletproof glass booth in which Adolf Eichmann had been seated to protect his life. Abba Kovner, a leader of a Jewish Resistance group and a witness in the trial, proposed seeing the glass booth as a symbol of the predicament of the Jews themselves under Nazi rule. Today, after the publication of numerous historical studies of the crimes of the Nazis, we may understand the glass booth as a symbol of the Nazi criminals themselves. By resorting to "clean language" and by distancing the higher members of the Nazi apparatus from the daily murder and brutality that was the fate of the victims, the Nazis succeeded in introducing to the world a new form of crime that threatens to pervert the technological achievements of civilization into the instruments of its destruction. In this regard, the Eichmann trial stands as a warning sign to humanity.
Who Wants a Lone Rider in the Knesset?
The local political system does not encourage one-man factions in the Knesset as they jeopardize governability - but they are also some of the most original and courageous politicians.
A member of the first Knesset, Ari Jabotinsky, once demanded that the parliament's cafeteria offer both kosher and nonkosher food, including ham sandwiches. Jabotinsky, son of the head of the Revisionist movement, was among the leaders of the campaign against religious coercion. His demand did not reflect the decision of his parliamentary faction: He started out in the Knesset in Herut, but quit and became a faction of one.
The Knesset has known quite a few lone foxes of his sort. The country's political history shows that a number of MKs who chose or were compelled to go it alone, without factions, were among the most influential, original, fascinating and challenging politicians.
The campaign ads airing these days reveal about half-a-dozen new heads of lists, whose names no one had ever heard of before. After the election they will doubtless be forgotten. The local political system does not encourage "factions of one." They jeopardize governability, and encourage eccentrics and buffoons. But party discipline stifles original and courageous thinking, and spews out independent people who offer ideological alternatives.
There have not been many of them: just under 50, out of more than 800 MKS elected since the state's establishment. Not all of them excelled as parliamentarians, not all were called upon to choose between obeying their faction and sticking to their worldview all reserved their first loyalty for their ego. Almost all, in their way, were odd ducks. But most contributed something to the right of minorities to be represented.
David Ben-Gurion entangled himself unnecessarily in the famous Lavon affair and was expelled from Mapai, of which he had been a cofounder. But the Israeli Workers List (Rafi ) he formed won only 10 seats, and in 1968 it joined in creating the Labor Party.
Ben-Gurion refused to take part in that move, however, and remained alone. His faction of one reflected a personal tragedy, not an ideological rift.
I doubt there are more pathetic moments in the history of Israeli politics. Even Yigael Yadin as a faction of one never reached such a level of wretchedness.
Moshe Dayan's story was practically the opposite: He defected from his party to join Menachem Begin and managed to bring about the peace treaty with Egypt, the most important achievement of his political career.
Ben-Gurion and Dayan deserve to lead the "Top 10 Chart" of politicians without a faction. It isn't easy to pick the remaining eight.
Shmuel Tamir, an elite lawyer, and Uri Avnery, an elite journalist, starred in several formative affairs in the state's history - among them the 1954 Kastner libel trial and the so-called Shurat Hamitnadvim libel trial, involving Amos Ben-Gurion. Before they developed bottomless hatred toward each other, the two waged important battles for the supremacy of the law and freedom of the press. Tamir moved around from one faction to another until he remained alone Avnery started off in the Knesset by himself.
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The formative affairs that made the 1950s so fascinating also made a standout of Benjamin Halevi, the judge in the Kastner trial, the Kafr Qasem massacre trial, and later also the Adolf Eichmann trial. His story was unique in that he served as a Supreme Court Justice before running for Knesset on the Gahal list. He too moved about from one faction to the next, until he wound up alone. The decision over which of these three deserves a spot among the Top 10 - Tamir, Avnery or Halevi - is tough.
Jabotinsky competes with another prominent Revisionist, Hillel Kook, who also - how can I put this politely? - was a colorful character. "Peter Bergson," as he called himself, resided in the United States at the time of World War II and initiated efforts to save Jews.
Vying for the same spot on the MKs' list is another man whose life story, like those of Jabotinsky and Kook, could be the basis for a movie: Natan Yellin-Mor, the sole member of the Fighters List. A commander in the Irgun (prestate underground militia ), he was jailed for his part in the murder of the Swedish UN mediator Folke Bernadotte, and later was one of the leading spokesmen for the Israeli peace camp. The author Moshe Shamir took the opposite course: from left to right. There, on the right, one of the few MKs who left a "legacy" is awaiting a spot: Meir Kahane.
His inclusion on the Top 10 list will make Rafael Eitan's inclusion redundant.
It is interesting that so many of the lone foxes in the Knesset came from the general direction of the Revisionist movement - not from the "ideological collectivism" that characterized the parties on the left.
For its part, the ideological left can offer for the Top 10 list Charlie Biton, Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi, all three of them more serious than the buffoonish image they adopted. If there is any room left on the list, it could be filled by Rachel Cohen-Kagan, one of the mothers of Israeli feminism. Arie Lova Eliav and Dedi Zucker will be out, and, along with them - what can you do? - also a series of rabbis.
Here then is a possible list of the Top 10 lone MKs through the generations: David Ben-Gurion Moshe Dayan Uri Avnery Shmuel Tamir Meir Kahane Rachel Cohen-Kagan Hillel Kook Ahmed Tibi and Yigael Yadin. Rabbi Joseph Bagad and Samuel Flatto-Sharon will vie for the last spot. Bagad enriched Knesset folklore with gimmicks nobody before him had tried, but he became tedious he once suddenly sat down on the plenum floor. In a contest between the two, Flatto-Sharon would win. Because of the accent, of course.
Kahane Nati Harnik/GPO Ben-Gurion Starphot Yellin-Mor Eldan David/GPO Avnery Daniel Tchetchik