Let me tell you about my friend Michelle’s father. Yeah, you heard that right. Michelle’s dad is my “in” to a vanished world. As the son of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors, he has some spicy opinions on one of the craziest stories of Israeli history: the Kastner Trial.
Here’s the TL;DR: Kastner was a Hungarian Jew who saved nearly 2,000 other Jews during the Holocaust… but was later accused of collaborating with the Nazis.
As Michelle’s father put it: “Kastner? He sold Jews for trucks!” And then… “He was a hero! He saved my relatives!” All the complexity of the Kastner trial is distilled into two sentences.
So… what happened? Was Rudolf Kastner a hero or a villain? What was his trial really about? And do any of us have the right to judge him?
There are two different stories about Rudolf Kastner.
The first is that Kastner said to the Nazis, “I’ll raise you 1.6 million dollars if you let me save Hungarian Jews.”
In the second story, the Nazis tell Kastner: “Make sure local Jews don’t resist us and we’ll let you save a couple of thousand people you care about.”
Uh. Not so great.
So… which story is true? That depends on who you ask.
No one was asking elderly stamp collector and amateur journalist Malchiel Gruenwald. But as a Hungarian Jew, he had lots of feelings about Kastner. He just didn’t expect that his feelings would shake Israel to its foundations…
Here’s what you need to know about Gruenwald.
- He hated Israel’s ruling party, the democratic socialist Mapai.
- He self-published a newsletter dissing local political figures and personal nemeses. (Do people still say “dissing”? Whatever, I’m gonna say it.)
Generally, people ignored Gruenwald.
Until the 51st issue of his newsletter.
In which he accused Rudolf Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis.
Paving the way for the murder of Hungary’s Jews.
Profiting from the Holocaust.
And helping a Nazi war criminal escape punishment.
Let me just repeat that, because it’s insane.
This was Rudolf Kastner. Back in Hungary, he’d been a politically involved, well-connected Zionist. An influential head of the Jewish community. The savior of nearly 2,000 Jews! In 1953, when Gruenwald made his accusations, Kastner was the press spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
What was Gruenwald talking about?!
Let’s rewind to 1943. WWII was raging. Millions of Jews were being murdered, but Hungary was still relatively safe. So Kastner co-founded a rescue committee that helps Polish and Slovakian Jews flee to Hungary.
But in 1944, the Nazis take Hungary. Kastner was forced to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann… the man in charge of deporting Europe’s Jews to ghettos and death camps.
Eichmann knew the Nazis were losing. So he proposed a trade. He’d let one million Jews go free, in exchange for 10,000 trucks to use on the eastern front.
The deal fell through. But it’s wild that it was even ever on the table! That’s what Michelle’s dad was talking about when he said Kastner sold Jews for trucks.
Kastner couldn’t save those one million Jews. But he did convince Eichmann to allow 1,685 Jews to escape Hungary. The so-called “Kastner train” contained a cross-section of Hungarian Jewry…including Michelle’s distant relatives and the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum. (Btw, a fascinating story for another time… Rabbi Teitelbaum, who was saved by Zionists, published some of the most anti-Zionist literature out there).
Gruenwald’s allegations seem laughable, right?
But Attorney General Haim Cohen wasn’t laughing. Rudolf Kastner was a government official! A slur against him was a slur against the entire government.
So Cohen did something that would change Israeli history forever. He sued Gruenwald for libel. In the process, he exposed Israel’s massive fault lines.
See, before independence, Israel was under British control. The Jewish community disagreed about how to deal with their tea-drinking, biscuit-eating overlords. And each camp was armed.
First, the Revisionists. Think…Menachem Begin. He and his crew hated the British. The Revisionist paramilitary, Etzel (aka the Irgun), is best known for bombing the British headquarters in 1946. Unsurprisingly, the British weren’t big fans. They deported – and sometimes hanged – Etzel fighters.
On the other side were the Socialists. Think David Ben Gurion. The Socialist paramilitary, the Haganah, smuggled illegal immigrants into Palestine. But…they also sometimes worked with the British. For a brief period, they even handed over Etzel fighters to the Brits.
The two groups had some bad blood. Their hatred of each other animated the Kastner trial.
Kastner was a Socialist spokesman for a Socialist government with a Socialist Attorney General. His accuser, Gruenwald, was a Revisionist. His lawyer, Shmuel Tamir, had been an Etzel commander. He leaped at the chance to humiliate the ruling party.
Kastner denied everything. But Tamir picked him apart. He claimed that Kastner’s cozy relationship with Eichmann was proof of collaboration. What was in it for Eichmann? Tamir insinuated that Kastner dissuaded Jews from resisting, selling out his community to curry favor with the Nazis.
Plus, Tamir continued, a seat on the Kastner train cost money. Kastner profited from saving a tiny number of Jews, leaving everyone else to die.
Finally, Tamir produced a signed affidavit proving that Kastner had given testimony exonerating S.S. officer Kurt Becher.
Becher had been Chief of the Economic Department of the S.S. in Hungary. His job was to plunder Jewish wealth. Yet after the war, Kastner testified that “I never for a minute doubted [Becher’s] good intentions.” Worse, he made this statement on behalf of the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress.
Both organizations denied their knowledge or involvement. But the damage was done. Everyone came out looking terrible.
It took nine months to reach the verdict that would tear Israel apart.
The judge ruled that three of Gruenwald’s claims were true.
- Kastner had collaborated (by negotiating).
- He had “paved the way for the murder of Hungarian Jewry” (by encouraging Jews not to resist).
- He had testified for Kurt Becher.
…But he hadn’t profited from the war.
Yes, the Kastner train cost money. But it was used to save Jewish lives, not to enrich Kastner.
Still, the judge proclaimed that Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil.”
Imagine being Kastner. You’re a Holocaust survivor. You’ve been forced to work with Eichmann. You’ve saved 1,685 Jews. You’ve finally made it to the Jewish state… and then one cranky old guy destroys your entire life.
Kastner’s life was ruined. But why did the government fall?
Well, many parties disagreed on whether to accept the verdict.
Unsurprisingly, the Socialists wanted to appeal. But the Revisionists and their allies refused. Worse, the Revisionists submitted a motion of no confidence, forcing the government to vote on its competence.
The government lost. The Prime Minister resigned. In the subsequent elections, the Socialists lost five seats. The Revisionists gained seven, shifting the balance of power.
Explosive stuff for a libel trial.
Amid this chaos, the Attorney General appealed the verdict. Two years later, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, mostly clearing Kastner’s name.
The Supreme Court judges were sympathetic to Kastner. Four of the five judges ruled that Kastner had not collaborated. All five agreed that he had not enabled the murder of Hungarian Jewry. And all five agreed that he had testified in favor of a war criminal.
But Kastner couldn’t enjoy his vindication. Three Revisionists had assassinated him the year before.
It’s a tragic story. And it set the tone for how Israel dealt with the Holocaust for the next decade.
Israel’s founders — socialists and revisionists alike — tried to build a Jewish state divorced from recent history. Fear and weakness were the shameful artifacts of the Diaspora. Israelis would be “New Jews:” strong, self-sufficient warriors.
It was comforting to pretend that Israel was full of New Jews. Until… you remembered the Holocaust survivors. New Jews often viewed survivors as living reminders of the Diaspora. Of weakness. Of shame.
People like Shmuel Tamir, Gruenwald’s lawyer, genuinely believed that survivors hadn’t done enough to resist. That they survived because they collaborated. Or because they sold out fellow Jews.
That it was better to die a martyr than survive a coward.
But the five Supreme Court judges who overturned the conviction were far more sympathetic than Shmuel Tamir. They ruled that Kastner had done the best he could.
So… why did he testify in favor of Kurt Becher?
All I know is this: The Nazis forced people to shoulder impossible burdens. To make horrific choices that none of us can judge. And the weight of those choices was too heavy for any one person’s shoulders. This is why Israel exists. So that no single person ever needs to carry such a burden again.