The Kastner Debate
The Assassination of Rudolf Kastner (1906 - 1957)
Rudolf Kastner was assassinated by Zeev Eckstein on March 3, 1957. Kastner was in no manner a government official or leader of anything. His assassination nevertheless was the culmination of years of accusations and counter-accusations claiming that Kastner was a Jewish Nazi collaborator or that he was the heroic savior of Hungarian Jews.
Kastner was a Hungarian lawyer and journalist who had joined the Aid and Rescue Committee in German occupied Hungary in 1944. At once, Hungary’s Jews were deported to the gas chambers at Auschwitz in Poland at the rate of 12,000 a day. Kastner thereupon negotiated with the Nazi killer Adolf Eichmann, senior officer of the SS killing commandos, to permit 1,685 Jews to leave Hungary for Switzerland in exchange for money, gold and diamonds. This led Israeli historian Yechiam Weitz to write that Kastner saved more Jews than any other Jew before or since.
Despite Weitz’s opinion, an Israeli citizen, Malchiel Greenwald, published a pamphlet in Israel in 1953 accusing Kastner of having been a Nazi collaborator. Kastner was accused of giving positive character references to three SS officers, who therefore escaped prosecution for war crimes. The accusations led to a two year long libel trial in Israel, ending in the verdict that Kastner “had sold his soul to the devil” on the grounds that Kastner saved his relatives and friends when he could have warned all the other Hungarian Jews that “resettlement,” as the Nazis called it, was in fact mass murder in gas ovens.
Kastner was killed on March 3, 1957. A year later, in 1958, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the verdict of the lower court, holding that Kastner’s sole motive was the saving of Jewish lives and that the allegation that he was a Nazi collaborator was libelous. In 2008, a feature film, Killing Kastner, was released in Israel and the United States. The film supports Kastner’s heroism. Nevertheless, the controversy concerning Kastner has not ended. It cannot ever end because some will view his success in saving the lives of 1,685 Jews. Others argue that Kastner saved only his own relatives and friends as well as “prominent” rabbis at the expense of 800,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered.
The dispute concerning Kastner should not allow us to overlook that the German killers were responsible for the dilemma confronting Kastner and that no one can today know how any of us would have reacted in the situation Kastner faced.