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Revered or Reviled--The Legacy of Kasztner

Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis

November 5, 2009

Killing Kasztner is a new documentary film that was nearly a decade in the making. The film brings national and international attention to the story of Rezso (also known as Rudolf and Israel) Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who rescued more than 1,600 people with a train that eventually went to Switzerland in 1944. Kasztner has been vilified for negotiating with Nazis to allow Hungarian Jews to board the train to freedom.

Rudolf Kasztner and daughter Zsuzsi
Rudolf Kasztner with his daughter, Zsuzsi. Photo courtesy of Kasztner family and Killing Kasztner.

He was a Jew assassinated by a Jew during the post-World War II political turmoil in Israel, where he had resettled. Examining Kasztner's legacy in the documentary are historians, journalists and survivors of the train, including his only child, a daughter, and his three granddaughters. Even his assassin mines the past in conversations with director Gaylen Ross, who filmed mostly in Israel.

Survivors of the Kasztner train include Egon Mayer, a prominent sociologist who was a pioneer in outreach to interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews. Mayer was founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and published numerous books, including Love and Tradition: Marriage between Christians and Jews (Plenum/1987).

Mayer's avocation was the history of Kasztner and his rescue efforts.

Early in the film, Holocaust survivors in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage contentiously debate Kasztner's legacy. Egon Mayer was a speaker at that June 2001 event, where he said "that a rescue effort by Rezso Kasztner was the single largest successful rescue by Jews during the Holocaust. We also know the accusations leveled against Kasztner and the ultimate price that he paid was leveled against no one else. And so there's a huge question that hangs over this entire story. Why?"

For director Gaylen Ross, this New York conference is the beginning of her film's story when, as the narrator, she asks: "Why was this man [Kasztner] relegated to a darkened corner in a museum? Where was the word 'hero' in this drama?"

Sadly, Egon Mayer did not live to see the completion of Ross's documentary, but he was a consultant to the director and is credited as a donor to the production as well. At the young age of 59, in January 2004, Mayer died of cancer.

Among Mayer's writings about Kasztner is an article, "Jewish Holocaust Rescuer Murdered in Tel Aviv, A Personal Memoir by Egon Mayer," published in Moment magazine in August 1995. The Kasztner Memorial website Mayer created remains a detailed source of information about rescue plans and the rescued.

I had the serendipitous pleasure of meeting Mayer in the spring of 2000 at an interfaith conference in New Jersey, where he was the keynote speaker about intermarriage in Jewish families. We were introduced by the conference organizer, Lynne Wolfe, who led the Pathways program for interfaith families, in which our family participated.

Egon Mayer and I connected immediately; aside from being Hungarian (my father was a Hungarian survivor), we both attended City University--he at Brooklyn College, where he was also a professor, and I at City College. Also, I have the same name as his mother, Hedy, sometimes spelled Hedi, which is how I spell my name. And we shared an interest in interfaith family issues, which, due to Mayer's encouragement, led to my being a consultant for a project at JOI.

Paths cross, lives intersect ... I became aware of Ladislaus Lob, another survivor of the Kasztner train, when I wrote about the film Tickling Leo for InterfaithFamily.com. Lob was interviewed for the Tickling Leo DVD extras and speaks movingly of his escape when he was 11 years old, accompanied by his father on the Kasztner train.

Lob remained in Switzerland, the train stop for freedom, for nearly two decades before moving to England. He is emeritus professor of German at University of Sussex. Egon Mayer was born in Switzerland, just 16 days after the train arrived on Dec. 7, 1944, but his family returned to Hungary in 1945 when they were unable to secure travel to Palestine. They emigrated to the U.S. during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, when Mayer was 12 years old.

Mayer and Lob met for the first time in Germany at the International Workshop on the Rescue of Hungarian Jews via Bergen-Belsen, held in June 2003, less than a year before Mayer died. Mayer delivered a talk on "The Rescue of Hungarian Jews via Bergen-Belsen." His family, along with others on the Kasztner train, was detained at Bergen-Belsen before Kasztner negotiated their release for Switzerland.

Discovering their common interests, Lob and Mayer began planning a translation of Kasztner's writings but couldn't attract the interest of a publisher. With Mayer's illness progressing, Lob undertook a book about Kasztner that drew upon his own and Mayer's research. The published book, Rezso Kasztner: The Daring Rescue of Hungarian Jews: A Survivor's Account is dedicated, solely, to Egon Mayer.

Acknowledging Mayer in the book, Lob thanks his fellow survivor "for strengthening my resolve to do Kasztner justice as he [Mayer] would have done in a book left unfinished when he died aged fifty-nine."

The Kasztner family, his daughter Zsuzsi, who was 11 when her father was assassinated in Israel, and his granddaughters, Michal, Keren and Merav Michaeli, shared their family's history with Lob when he traveled to Israel. And Gaylen Ross, the director of Killing Kasztner, was a resource for Lob's book, along with survivors, organizations that commemorate the Holocaust and historical archives.

Second-Class Citizen

"To this day," Mayer wrote in an essay in Moment in August 1995, "my mother, like my late father before her, is unable to relate the story of their salvation from the Nazis without the fear that their friends and neighbors will brand them as collaborators."

In March 2004, Yad Vashem had a seminar on rescue for the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. When there was no mention of Kasztner, a group of survivors confronted Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, and the impromptu meeting was filmed for the documentary.

A now-Israeli Kasztner train survivor tells Shalev she feels like she bears the "sign of Cain," yet, "Jewish law says he who saves a single soul of Israel has saved the entire world." Why is Kasztner maligned? Shalev has no ready answers.

As Mayer wrote: "Like [Oscar] Schindler, he bribed key members of the German officer corps with booty obtained from imperiled Jews to win their safety and ultimate survival. But, unlike Schindler, Kasztner's name did not emerge from the ashes of the Holocaust as a beacon of moral courage. Quite the contrary."

Survivors such as Mayer and Lob, as well as the attention brought by Kasztner's daughter, Zsuzsi, and his granddaughters, along with director Gaylen Ross's Killing Kasztner, spotlight the unjustness of being denigrated as a "man who sold his soul to the devil."

Historian Shoshana Barri (Ishoni), who appears in Killing Kasztner, says, "I cannot imagine a more ideal scapegoat than Kasztner." He endured a lengthy trial in the courts and by the press for his dealings with Nazis to rescue Jews from Hungary. In 1957, he became the first Jew in Israel to be assassinated by a Jew. It was too late, but he was legally vindicated by the Supreme Court of Israel in 1958.

Out of the Shadows

A public ceremony in July 2007 at Yad Vashem, known worldwide as "the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority," was held for the donation of the private archives of Dr. Israel (Rezso) Kasztner. This time, Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, had many kind words for Kasztner's family members, train survivors, their children and grandchildren. Filmed for the documentary, the event is emotional vindication for "second-class citizen" survivors.

Two years later, on April 26, 2009, on the evening of Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Memorial Day in Israel, Killing Kasztner was broadcast on Israeli television.

For the premiere of Killing Kasztner in New York, Zsuzsi Kasztner and two of her daughters traveled from Israel, Ladislaus Lob came from England, Hedy Mayer (Egon Mayer's mother) and director Gaylen Ross assembled at a packed screening of Killing Kasztner at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The New York Times, which covered the event, called it a "joyous tribute."

"The Kasztner drama is one of epic proportions," says Gaylen Ross, "and in the way of great tragedies will be examined and reappraised for years to come. In the end, what Kasztner knew and didn't know always will remain a mystery."

In a time of madness and horror, such as the Holocaust, when a person is faced with the ultimate choices of protecting life for self, for family, for community--only then would the moral dilemma be real.

Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.

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