THE SPINE OCTOBER 27, 2009
You probably don't know who Rudolf Kasztner was. But, actually, I've know about him since I was a teenager. Was he a Jewish hero? Or was he a traitor to the Jews? I can still hear the familiar piercing locutions of my parents' bad marriage, fought out over politics, Jewish politics, daily, unrelenting, almost viperous.
My mother was for him, this Dr. Kasztner who in the late days of the Second World War, while 12,000 Hungarian Jews a day were being gassed almost rhythmically in the crematoria, bribed Nazi officers to release a train with some 1,600 otherwise also doomed men, women and children to their new destination: freedom. Actually, Switzerland.
My father thought Kasztner a recreant. To my father, the choice of "which Jews?" and "why?" were the questions that could never be put to rest. And, at our dinner table, they never were.
The rescue taunted the Jews of the West and of Palestine. If this one was feasible, why not others?
And it also played against the model anointed by history. The many small insurrections that saved some people's lives, like the Bielski brothers' partisan operation evoked in Edward Zwick's actually dazzling film Defiance; the others, many others, that started in fated failure and ended in a glory that was only of the grave. Like the Warsaw Ghetto.
The cash nexus of liberation could not be denied. It was, after all, a ransom.
Who were among the chosen? First of all, the 150-odd rich. They would pay also for the others.
Dr. Kasztner's family.
Perhaps also some friends.
A few Jewish leaders.
But the bulk were ordinary Israelites among whom were many orphans, now grown up and showing palpably what the Nazis took from the world.
Oh, yes, plus the "sainted" Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum (now with the redeemer...or not), who says in the hearing of this film that he and his epigones were saved "by God." The Satmar are the smuggest and most dogmatic of the Hassidic communities, certainly the most virulently anti-Zionist. If you think you're supporting some cuddly old Jews when you buy your computers and photo equipment at B&H Photo Video, the largest such store in the United States, believe me, you're not. These are claustrophobes.
Did I say a film?
Indeed, I did. Now showing at New York's Cinema Village and very appropriate for any morally serious audience, it is actually a searing documentary by Gaylen Ross. Called Killing Kasztner, it focuses on Dr. Kasztner's killer, a messed up man of first right wing ideological fantasies and now not-so-right wing ones. But this riveting, intellectually articulate fanatic is at the center of the whole Kasztner controversy that raged through Israel (and through Jewry) during the early fifties. Until, that is, the rescuer of 1,600 Jews was assassinated by a Jewish nationalist in the Jewish state after the government had insisted that Kasztner file a libel suit against one of his besmirchers.
Libel suits are dangerous for people who are in the public eye and where the issues behind case are combustible. Take Alger Hiss. I happen to have known the government lawyer who pushed the rescuer into the role of plaintiff. When I knew him, the attorney was an Israeli Supreme Court justice, Haim Cohn, who had a reputation for learning, for sanctity, for wisdom. Actually, he was a pompous ass who couldn't see a different fact anywhere if he had an illusion.
I suppose people who know the Israeli landscape will get a bit more out of the documentary, given that many of the characters involved were celebrities and other sorts of degrading public persons.
But this is a movie so philosophically contentious, also in the abstract, that anyone who ponders well will want to ponder here.
Jewish wisdom says that "he who saves one soul, it is as if he has saved the whole world." That's where I stand--with my long deceased mother, actually--on this movie, the intricacies of Kasztner's whole history notwithstanding. Including, by the way, having signed affidavits for Nazi officers, who had helped in this great humane drama, seeking clemency from post-war justice.
I have said nothing about how Israelis treated Kasztner's children. They treated them horribly. Even many of those who had been rescued were stigmatized.
A little argument broke out in the theatre after the movie ended.