Rezső Rudolf Kasztner was a journalist, lawyer, and a leader of the Zionist movement in Romania and Hungary. Born in Cluj, Transylvania (then part of Romania), Kasztner studied law. From 1925 to 1940, he worked on the Hungarian-language Zionist daily Uj Kelet in Cluj, and served as its political correspondent in Bucharest from 1929 to 1931. During this period he was also the secretary of the parliamentary faction of the National Jewish Party. A leader of Aviva-Barissia, a Zionist youth movement (which eventually joined up with Ha-Iḥud ha-Olami), he edited its periodical No'ar (in Hungarian) from 1926 to 1928.
After Transylvania was annexed by Hungary (1940), Uj Kelet was closed down by the authorities; Kasztner then moved to Budapest (1942), and joined the local Keren Hayesod office. He was also active in the national headquarters of Ha-Iḥud ha-Olami, and from 1943 to 1945 was deputy chairman of the small Hungarian Zionist Organization.
As soon as he arrived in Budapest, Kasztner joined the Zionists’ organized rescue efforts on behalf of the Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia (see Czechoslovakia. First in charge of semi-clandestine political work and later head of the rescue operations, Kasztner conducted negotiations with the Hungarian authorities and political leaders, including members of the opposition. He also maintained contact with the Hungarian military intelligence and the German intelligence (the Abwehr) which had come to Hungary even before its occupation by the Germans.
After the German occupation of Hungary (March 19, 1944), rescue operations were stepped up and the Zionist contacts also came to include the officers of RSHA (Reich Security Main Office) who, headed by Adolf Eichmann, arrived in Hungary to apply the “Final Solution.” Kasztner conducted the rescue work jointly with Joel Brand, who initially served as the main contact with the Germans. As a relatively unknown “foreigner” he could not have been effective with Hungarian politicians and officials, so his area of contacts was with the Germans. The very idea of negotiating with the Germans was controversial both during the war and afterwards. The Nazis were imposing “The Final Solution;” they were clearly the enemy bent on destruction. Yet, they also were the only address if rescue was to be effectuated. The prime subject under discussion with the various German offices was the “Blut fuer Ware” (“Blood for Goods”) plan by which Germany would receive quantities of supplies for the German war effort from neutral countries with the help of international Jewish bodies in exchange for the survival of the Jewish population and their transfer from German-occupied territories to safety abroad, especially to Palestine.
By 1944, the German military situation was clearly deteriorating, and their purposes were hardly humanitarian, but if they could improve their military situation, then the partial postponement of the murder of Jews in one sector of operation – postponement not cancellation – was a price they might be willing to pay. In connection with this plan Kasztner became the chief contact with Eichmann in place of Joel Brand, whom Eichmann had sent to Istanbul to open negotiations with Jewish leaders abroad. In the period of August 21, 1944–April 1945, he visited Germany several times, and went five times to Switzerland, to meet representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency on the rescue plan, and particularly to arrange its financing by Jewish organizations. These activities resulted in the Germans’ transfer to Switzerland of two transports, first of 318 and later of 1,368 Jews from Bergen-Belsen, most of them of Hungarian and Transylvanian origin (on August 18 and December 6, 1944). Among the people on the Kasztner train were the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, and his entourage – saved by a Zionist – along with members of Kasztner’s own family and wealthy Jews whose support was essential to financing the operation. This was later to be a source of controversy. Kasztner’s negotiations with the Germans were also designed to ensure the survival of the Jews in the Budapest ghetto.
The postwar situation of Kasztner put him at the center of a storm. After the war Kasztner settled in Israel and was given a government post, becoming active in the Mapai Party. He edited Mapai’s Hungarian-language weekly A Jövó and subsequently rejoined the editorial staff of Uj Kelet, reestablished in Tel Aviv in 1948.
In 1953, an old Jew, Malkiel Gruenwald of Jerusalem, published a mimeographed leaflet in which he accused Kasztner of having collaborated with the Nazis thereby hastening the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. He also alleged that at the Nuremberg trial of Kurt Becher, an SS officer, Kasztner had testified on his behalf and thereby helped in acquitting a war criminal. Because the person being slandered was a government official, the Israel attorney general issued a writ of indictment against Gruenwald. The trial was a media sensation. A brilliant young right-wing attorney, Shmuel Tamir, turned the defense of Gruenwald into an indictment of Kasztner, the Israeli government, and the Zionist movement.
On June 22, 1955, the judge, Benjamin Halevy, who later was one of the judges at the Eichmann trial, gave his decision in the case, in which he accepted most of Gruenwald’s accusations and in a sharply worded judgment accused Kasztner of “selling his soul to Satan.” Halevy said that only the accusation that Kasztner has personally profited remained unproven and thus found for the plaintiff but awarded him a pittance.
The Israel Cabinet instructed the attorney general to lodge an appeal, a decision which caused a cabinet crisis when the General Zionists refused to support the government on a non-confidence motion. The Kasztner case thus became a major issue in the election campaign of 1955. The appeal, however, was submitted and, on January 17, 1958, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision, finding Gruenwald guilty on most points of the slander charge and thereby clearing Kasztner’s name.
Kasztner was no longer alive to see his vindication. On March 3, 1957, a young man from Tel Aviv, Ze’ev Eckstein, influenced by the political atmosphere created by the lower court’s verdict, shot Kasztner in the street. He succumbed nine days later.
The story of Kasztner served as the model for a novel by Robert St. John, The Man who Played God (1962). It is a featured part of both right-wing and post-Zionist critiques of Zionist activities during the Holocaust.
The accusations against Kasztner include the argument that he should have informed Hungarian Jews of the “Final Solution.” He had been privy to the Vrba-Wetzler report and “knew” that Jews were being killed in massive numbers. Hungarian Jews should have been warned of their fate, that he had favored privileged rather than ordinary Jews in his rescue efforts, and that he saved his own family at the expense of others. His negotiations with the Germans were by their very nature unequal; they had power, he did not. They could open the gates; he could not, at least not without their approval. So, his situation was compromised from the start.
Kasztner defenders argue on his behalf that information about the “Final Solution” was available to Hungarian Jews from many sources, but such information was not accepted as credible and therefore could not serve as a basis for action. Furthermore, the support of wealthy Jews was essential to financing the rescue operation. Without their participation for humanitarian or self-interested reasons no rescue could have been achieved, and the rescue of his family was quite natural.
Even in death, the controversy endures. It remains the subject of books, journalistic pieces, and even television shows and films. Kasztner remains a useful target for those who wish to attack the Zionist establishment of the Yishuv and the early years of statehood, and his circumstances reveal the utter powerlessness of Jews under German occupation once the “Final Solution” was German policy. Hero or villain or both, the debate over Kasztner will endure though quite often the discussion has less to do with him than with contemporary issues.
A. Weissberg, Desperate Mission (1958); A. Biss, Der Stopp der Endloesung (1966); E. Landau (ed.), Der Kastner Bericht (1961); Israel Supreme Court, Piskei Din, 12 (1958), 2017–317; Jerusalem District Court, Case 124/53, Ha-Yo’eẓ ha-Mishpati Neged Malki’el Gruenwald (1957). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Y. Bauer, Jews for Sale: Nazi-German Negotiations, 1933–45 (1994). T. Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (1993).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Kastner in broadcasting booth at Kol Yisrael - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.