Think you never need to see another documentary about the holocaust as long as you live? I know the feeling. But you need to see Killing Kasztner. The film is a true-life political-espionage thriller about a Hungarian-Jewish journalist, a virtual nobody, who pretended to be a big shot in order to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann—the SS fiend and “architect of the holocaust”—to save a train full of Jews from the death camps.
You’d think the man would be remembered as a hero. But Killing Kasztner begins by interviewing an Israeli assassin who gunned down Rudolf Kasztner in Tel Aviv 13 years after he had saved 1,700 people from Auschwitz. Why? That’s a briar patch of questions about class, European-Jewish identity, Israeli national identity, political posturing by David Ben-Gurion’s government (and its opponents), the accidents of history, and Kasztner’s own actions.
Kasztner was accused of striking a wretched bargain with Eichmann: He would get to save his train full of “prominent Jews” (including his family and friends) if he kept his silence about Eichmann’s plans to exterminate everybody else. And he allegedly tried to save SS colonel Kurt Becher from prosecution after the war. Kasztner, then a member of the Israeli government, sued for libel, and the trial became a heavily politicized test of national identity.
One journalist, who took Kasztner’s side at the time, says the Kasztner trial was skewed by Israel’s attempt to position itself as a state of warriors (descendents of the Warsaw Uprising) instead of negotiators or capitulators. “We are fighting, we are the new Jews, and they went like sheep to slaughter,” the journalist says, describing the thinking of the time. “Even in the death camp, they could do something. There were millions of Jews. Why didn’t they rise, as we would’ve done? As we thought we would’ve done.”
Kasztner’s defenders say he showed great courage in trying to do something, anything to save whom he could and for having the guts to negotiate directly with Eichmann. At one point during the negotiations, Kasztner later wrote, he began to feel ill. You’re losing your nerve, Eichmann laughed, and suggested he take a rest cure in Auschwitz. (Eichmann, it turns out, assisted Kasztner’s public damnation by writing in a postwar article that “Dr. Kasztner… would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.” But Eichmann was never known as a trustworthy fellow.)
The trial dragged on for 17 months and ended with a 300-page opinion that took 14 hours to read in the courtroom. The judge concluded that, “by dealing with Nazis,” Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.” This was practically a death sentence.
Even today, some of Kasztner’s survivors condemn him. In one stunning interview, a wealthy woman in New York, sitting in her opulent living room, surrounded by masterworks of art, says Kasztner is no hero because his train of Jews had to spend some time in a labor camp, where they witnessed terrible things, and that she “could have saved myself” without Kasztner’s help.
This is a lot, but it’s only part of the story: The assassin, Ze’ev Eckstein, says, for the first time ever, that other people were in on the plot, perhaps members of a right-wing militia, perhaps Israeli government agents. (Eckstein won’t say which—though he never testified on his own behalf, he served only seven years in prison and was pardoned by Ben-Gurion). There’s Eckstein’s story of transformation from zero to assassin and his tense meeting with Kasztner’s family. There’s holocaust history, Israeli history, newspaper wars, the politics of museums, labyrinthine machinations (Kasztner wasn’t the only one negotiating with the Nazis—and he may have vouched for Colonel Becher at the secret bidding of the Israeli government), and on and on.
Killing Kasztner takes seemingly simple moral statements (Nazis = always and everywhere bad; saving Jews = always and everywhere good) and fractures them with a fascinating and troubling kaleidoscope of truths and educated guesses.