70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

The age of heroes and traitors - the Kasztner-trial
Rudolf Kasztner
(Kolozsvár, 1906 – Tel-Aviv,  15 March 1957)

By Krisztina Politzer Maymon - 2018-03-15

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Dr. Israel (Rezső, Rudolf) Kasztner passed away 61 years ago on this day in Tel-Aviv. He was only 51 years old when he died, yet discussing his life story is not a simple task because of its very close connection to the first decades of the State of Israel, and the processing of the still acute and living memory of the Holocaust in particular - and not the least the political exploitation thereof; it raises eternal and yet tragically current moral dilemmas such as saving lives, betrayal, heroism, individual and community responsibility in the war, during the Shoa.


It also includes the first political assassination in the story of the State of Israel; one of the first major libel suits that still counts as one of Israel's most famous and largest litigation cases; and a fall of a government – and all this connected to the tragedy  suffered by the Hungarian Jewry in World War II. It is no wonder that there are countless novels, movies and TV series on the Kasztner case which still seriously preoccupies historians - and public opinion – to decide whether “Kasztner sold his soul to the devil” - or that he was a Zionist leader who saved the lives of thousands.

The Kasztner train

Kasztner started his career as a talented and ambitious lawyer in Kolozsvár [Cluj-Napoca]. One of the founders and associates of the Új Kelet Zionist newspaper, an influential representative of the Transylvanian Zionist movement, who had also served in the Romanian House of Representatives. Kasztner moved to Budapest after Transylvania had again become part of Hungary; he became the managing director of Va'adat Ezrah ve-Hatzalah, the Aid and Rescue Committee, founded at the beginning of 1943 in Budapest, to hide and assist Jews coming from beyond the borders and transmitting information from abroad.

Invitation from 1947 - Dr. Rezső Kasztner, Head of the Rescue Committee - photo: Archives

In the summer of 1944, Kasztner met Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the deportation of Hungarian Jews. The Germans seemed willing to release hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews for certain financial and diplomatic benefits. The bargaining with Eichmann and later with Kurt Becher first led to the unsuccessful “blood for goods” action, but the rescue of a smaller group was later realized: at meetings with the Nazis, an agreement was made to rescue 1685 people for one thousand dollars ransom per person.

List of the Kasztner Train Passengers (first page)

Since many were unable to raise such a large amount, Kasztner had put 150 seats up for auction, which was paid for by those whose financial position made this possible. Among the passengers selected by Kasztner were 40 rabbis (Joel Teitelbaum from the famous Hasidic rabbinical dynasty and Akiba Glasner, the orthodox chief rabbi of Kolozsvár), well-known Zionists (such as József Fischer, President of the Jewish National Association of Transylvania, later of the Transylvanian Jewish Party and Nison Kahan attorney (the leader of the Hungarian Zionist Association); scientists (e.g.,  the psychiatrist Leopold Szondi); artists (Dezső Ernster opera singer, István Irsai graphic designer, Béla Zsolt journalist and Aladár Komlós), but "simple" people, such as a group of Polish Jewish orphans and other Slovak and Polish refugees. 972 women, 712 men were on the train (including 252 children); there were 82 elderly and the youngest was a newborn child born on the 4th day of the journey in the wagon. This was the so-called “Kasztner Train,” which left Hungary at the end of June 1944. 1685 passengers first landed in Bergen-Belsen; later they were permitted to leave for the neutral Switzerland.

Kasztner train passengers in Switzerland, 1944 - photo by the Yad Vashem Archives

As a result of Kasztner's direct negotiations, more than 15,000 Hungarian Jews were sent, instead of Auschwitz, to Austrian work camps as “hostages,” where they eventually survived the Shoa. One of Kasztner's main negotiating partners was the SS officer Kurt Becher. Those who condemned him  later argued that he had reached an agreement with Eichmann: he would not warn the Jewish community of the real danger they faced - that is, that they would not be sent to labor camps, but to death camps, so as not to risk the negotiations regarding the Kasztner train. It is true that neither Kasztner nor the Jewish Council has fully published the information they had learned about Holocaust realities, including the so-called “Auschwitz Protocol.”


On November 28, 1944, Kasztner traveled to Switzerland (with a German passport) and did not return to Budapest anymore.


After the war, between 1946 and 1948 Kasztner, with the knowledge of the Jewish world organizations, gave favorable  witness testimonies six times on behalf of Becher and other SS officials who took part in the ransom and train negotiations. After the war he emigrated to Israel with his family.


The Kasztner trial


To this date, there is not one street in Israel bearing Kasztner's name, despite his personal interventions which saved many more Jews in the Holocaust, than for example Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg.


This is probably due to the fact that in 1953 a leaflet of the then unknown (Hungarian-born) Malkiel Grünwald who obsessively used to produce politically themed leaflets, was inadvertently handed to Dr Joszef Dov, Minister of Agriculture, Kasztner’s direct boss. In the simple and somewhat chaotic leaflet Dr. Kasztner, the leader of the Mapai Party, a journalist of the Új Kelet daily newspaper, and a candidate for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, and a ministerial spokesman, was accused that, as the highest-ranking Zionist leader in Hungary, he was co-operating with the Nazis, rescuing his family and friends and the wealthy from the death camps for money and in exchange for helping to deport and kill Jews, and that he spoke in favor of Nazi defendants during the Nuremberg trials.


Since the accusations against Kasztner were against a public official, a Zionist leader and the protégée of the Mapai government, his bosses urged him to sue the slanderer, which was done by Kastner, and the Israeli public prosecutor filed charges against Grünwald for the defamation of a public official in November 1953.

Israel's Attorney General v Grünwald, indictment

However, shortly after the launch of the public prosecution procedure, the Grünwald trial was changed into the Kasztner trial, thanks to Shmuel Tamir, the incredibly talented defense attorney, motivated by his politics and ideology. Tamir, who was right-wing and actively engaged against the left-wing Mapai regime, did not hesitate to take advantage of the judicial process to promote his view shared by many: that the Jewish leaders of the Yisuv (then Palestine), of the Jewish Agency (Hasochnut Hayehudit ) and of the Mapai Party also bear part of the responsibility  for the killing of the European Jews during the Holocaust, among others because they had cooperated with Kasztner helping his actions and, together with the leadership of the British Mandate, had deliberately concealed the news concerning the annihilation and thereby had limited the Jews' escape to Palestine.


Tamir's brilliant defense strategy was “that statement was true”, that is, to show the truth of the statement, a proof that led to a long and complicated judicial process. In Grünwald's pamphlet there were five accusations against Kasztner: as a witness at the Nuremberg trial he spoke in favor of Kurt Becher, the Nazi criminal; he co-operated with the Nazis during the war; he concealed information that could have saved the lives of Hungarian Jews; he collaborated with the Nazis to steal Jewish money; he only saved the lives of his close associates, especially Mapai party members and sympathizers while letting other Jews down.


The trial began in the then small building of the Jerusalem District Court, but since thousands of people, including the Israeli political elite among them, wanted to witness the sessions personally, and the press was also greatly interested, they were forced to move to the hall of the Supreme Court building.

Malkiel Grünwald arrives in the court room

During the course of the trial, Kasztner's work and heroism were being told about by distinguished high-ranking witnesses on his behalf- while Tamir, the defense attorney invited dozens of unknown survivors to the witness' seat. From their confessions, the claim was more and more affirmed that if these simple people, who told in detail how they were led to Auschwitz and lost their families, had known about the danger in advance they would have been able to resist and escape; it would not have been impossible - and that this did not happen because they did not know the truth about the plans of the Nazis and the genocide being carried out. With each one of his questions Tamir fed into the bitterness of the survivors who were not part of Kasztner's rescue mission: “What would you have done if you had known the truth about Auschwitz?” they were asked, and they affirmed it again and again: if they had known what was waiting for them and their families, they would not have boarded the wagons. Tamir also managed to “break” Kasztner, who found it more and more difficult to defend himself against the accusations that he was primarily caring about the rescue of his family and friends, and that he had done all he could to assist the Nazis for the sake of their rescue, which was further proven in Nuremberg by the fact that the SS Becher went free thanks to Kasztner’s intervention on his behalf. With additional witnesses, Tamir presented compromising claims concerning the Prime Minister Moshe Sharett himself, saying that the fate of European Jews was sacrificed on the altar of cooperation and good relations with the British. At the hearing, none of the passengers of the Kasztner train was willing to testify.


Thus, the essence of the accusation against Kasztner and the Zionist leadership was that there would have been an alternative to the fate of the Jews, and the Jews would have had the opportunity to rebel or escape - and as a hero, not as a passive victim dragged to the “slaughter.” Moreover, Tamir argued, it was not only the case that they betrayed the Jews of the Diaspora, by way of keeping silent about the Holocaust, but “losing their common sense, craving power, out of cowardice ... they also actively prevented the rescue.” These words of Tamir, for example, made reference to the testimony of the mother of Hanna Szenes who, as a witness to the defense, said that she had personally turned to Kasztner and the Rescue Committee to plead for the release of her daughter, but they all refused. As is well known, Szenes could not be broken in jail under duress and was executed - yet she could not save even one life with her self-sacrifice. Moreover, Tamir succeeded in degrading Joel Palgi to a traitor (Palgi was the partisan partner of Szenes, a hero paratrooper like Szenes, and Kasztner's witness). Joel Palgi, who also started as a Hungarian Zionist in Kolozsvár, then immigrated to Palestine, was deployed as a British paratrooper to Hungary, and Kasztner himself gave him up the Nazis, disguised as a diplomat to try to negotiate with them. Palgi went to the SS headquarters, but eventually the Nazis imprisoned him and tortured him to confess. Palgi later escaped and worked for the rescue of Jews until the end of the war.


“You were an idealist who had left his country to save Jews, serve in the Allied Army, and risk his life. But as you had arrived in Budapest, your situation became serious, you fell under the influence of Kasztner and under his pressure and under the pressure of the circumstances, you decided to work with the Gestapo to save your life,” the defense lawyer accused Palgi. After Palgi’s hearing, the proof phase was completed and the representatives of the parties - the Public Prosecutor of Kasztner and Tamir as the Defense Counsel - summarized the arguments. According to state prosecutor Haim Cohen, none of us - and therefore not even the court itself could judge the actions of those who were facing the danger of being destroyed by an almost unimaginable cruelty. He argued, not only on behalf of Kasztner, but also on behalf of the leadership of the Mapai Party and the Yisuv during the Second World War. Here it is worth noting that except for Kasztner, none of the key figures of the case was a Holocaust survivor:  the defamatory Grünwald, the lawyers and attorneys and judges were all European born, but all had managed to emigrate to Eretz, Palestine, before WWII.


The Defense Counsel Tamir then held a speech for five full days. In the reality born in his mind and considered by him as proven facts, there were two sides in the case: on the one hand, the traitorous Judenrat (the Jewish Council) together with Kasztner and the Mapai Party negotiating and cooperating with Nazis; and on the other hand the paratroopers, including Hanna Szenes, a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice together with the rebels of the ghetto uprising (but not Joel Palgi!). Between these two sides there were the misled masses of Jews who voluntarily walked into the “slaughter.”


The judge had nine months to formulate his judgment, during which parliamentary elections were held - and although Kasztner was first nominated by his party but later was asked to resign, so that the opponent would not use the situation to ruin Mapai's chances at the election.


On June 22, 1955, Judge Halevi read the judgment. The police were also prepared for the event; special units were assigned to secure the building of the Supreme Court, where the proclamation took place. The judgment consisted of 207 pages, its reading lasted from morning to late in the evening, but it was clear in the first few hours what the outcome would be: when analyzing the negotiations for the Kasztner train, the sentence (known and cited even today) was uttered, influencing the opinion of several generations evaluating the Kasztner case, and probably casting the fate of Kasztner:  “Kasztner was given the actual possibility of rescuing, for the time being, 600 souls from the imminent Holocaust...not just any 600 souls, but those he considered, for any reason, most prominent and suitable for rescue... his family, his friends, his colleagues ... By accepting this present, Kasztner sold his soul to the devil.”


According to Halevi's judgment, Kasztner collaborated with the Nazis, was personally responsible for the murder of the Hungarian Jews, and for releasing SS Becher from his war responsibilities. In only one point the judge did not condemn Kasztner: to acquire Jewish wealth. Following the judgment, Kasztner became a recluse, and Israel's fifth leader, Moshe Sharett, resigned on 29 June 1955. The reason for his resignation was a motion of non-confidence submitted following Kasztner’s trial. New elections have been announced - as a result of which the Mapai party, the first time in the history of Israel, lost a large number of seats for the benefit of the right-wing Herut party, though it remained in power.


Final judgment


In the evening of March 3, 1957, while Kasztner was on his way home from the editorial office of the Új Kelet newspaper, he was shot by a young anti-government activist, Ze’ev Eckstein, in front of his home in Tel-Aviv. One week later, Kasztner died of his injuries, so he could not get his name cleared, but the state appealed against the first instance.


Less than a year after the murder, in January 1958, the five-member council of the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the judgment against Kasztner and decided that Grünwald had indeed maligned him (except for his Nuremberg's intervention on behalf of the SS). The most important legal innovation of the verdict was to examine the concept of betrayal from the subjective point of view, in light of the perpetrator's intent: a person is a traitor only - the judge said – if they intend to benefit the enemy, causing harm to their own people; so Kasztner was not a traitor in this sense.


With the judgment of the second instance, the case has come to an end in legal terms - but the moral judgment and social debate concerning it has not yet been completed to this date. As Tamir summed up in his speech to the Supreme Court, “The final judgment - for all of us - will be rendered by the nation, during our generations and in the coming generations.”


On July 20, 2007, during a solemn ceremony led by Kasztner's former friend, Tomi Lapid, the Yad Vashem Institute of the Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem, took over Kasztner's archives and by doing so, accepted him in its remembrance. His family, above all his granddaughter, the well-known journalist and representative of the Labor Party, Meirav Michaeli, is still working on Kasztner's real rehabilitation, for the due recognition of his rescue mission.


Following the judgment of the second instance, Joel Palgi reprinted his memoir about the rescue operation in Hungary and added the following thoughts to the chapter on Kasztner:


"If you go and you will not come back, you will be a hero;

If you go and do come back - you will be condemned;

If you cower and do not act - you condemn others.

But this nation has a future only if there will always be people who say: Who will go if not I? And these people also know that if they return, they will be judged by those who did not go." (Joel Palgi)

Rezső Kasztner's memorial in Budapest

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