Israel Kastner vs. Hannah Szenes: Who Was Really the Hero During the Holocaust?

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IllustrationCredit: Eran Wolkwski

Two Jews set out from Budapest: One was Hannah ‏(Anna‏) Szenes, a native of the city, pioneer and poet, who left at age 18 and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine but returned to her hometown under unusual circumstances during World War II. The other was Israel ‏(Rudolf‏) Kastner, a native of Cluj in Transylvania − a jurist, journalist and Zionist activist, who only arrived in Budapest for the first time during World War II.

In the construction of Israeli memory of the Holocaust, Szenes and Kastner, both considered “Hungarian” Jews whose personal stories intersect with the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, play key roles. Szenes was a role model from the start: With her proud bearing and active resistance in the face of the Nazis, she was seen as synonymous with all that was beautiful and noble in the steadfastness of the Jews during the Holocaust. She became a national hero, a kind of local Joan of Arc.

Kastner, by contrast, was the bad guy: A symbol of the pandering to the conquering power and collaboration with the Nazis, he was viewed as abominable and was denounced. His assassination, in March 1957 − at the age of 51 − played out all the negative feelings Israeli society had about collaborators, and generally about all those Jews who did not raise the flag of rebellion.

Getting back to Budapest: Szenes was born there on July 7, 1921. She was the daughter of the writer Bella Szenes, and like him, she intended to become a writer. But exposure to the anti-Semitism of the late 1930s prompted her to become a Zionist, and in 1939 she immigrated to Palestine. There, she followed the Zionist-pioneering path with great success: studying at the farming school in Nahalal, joining a kibbutz ‏(Sdot Yam‏), and enlisting in the Palmach pre-state commando corps of the Haganah. She was among the chosen few who were trained as paratroopers and dispatched to Europe on behalf of the Haganah to find a way to save Jews.

On March 15, 1944, Szenes was dropped into Yugoslavia, just four days before Germany invaded Hungary. In June of that year, Szenes crossed the border into Hungary, with the object of carrying out her rescue mission which had two purposes: performing espionage for the British and rescuing Jews. However, Hungarian police caught her that very same day and she was jailed in Budapest, her place of birth, exactly four years after she had left it. She was interrogated, tortured, tried ‏(for “espionage and treason”‏) − and executed on November 7, 1944, without having been able to save any Jews.

During the critical period between June 1944, when Szenes was imprisoned, and November 7, the day of her execution, Kastner was living in Budapest, the city that had become his home and main venue of activity since late 1940: He had moved there from Cluj immediately after Transylvania was annexed to Hungary, and in 1941 was one of the people behind the Aid and Rescue Committee, a group formed to help the Jewish refugees who had arrived in Hungary from Nazi-occupied countries. The committee’s head was Otto Komoly, and Kastner served as his deputy.

After the Nazis conquered Hungary, the committee found itself in the desperate position of negotiating with Adolf Eichmann for the ransom of Hungarian Jews, in what was called the “Blood for Goods” deal. Unfortunately, the talks did not yield the hoped-for outcome. Nevertheless, in the course of the negotiations, and as a confidence-building measure, the Germans sanctioned the rescue of 1,684 Jews, who departed Budapest on a train − dubbed “Kastner’s train” − bound for Germany, and on to Switzerland.

Up to the war’s end, Kastner took other steps that, in the opinion of scholars of that period, led to the rescue of many people: He was involved in the talks that resulted in the “temporary” transfer of 21,000 Jews from southern Hungary to the Strasshof concentration camp near Vienna rather than to Auschwitz, and also in the order, issued by SS head Heinrich Himmler on August 25, 1944, not to send any more Jews from Budapest to extermination. In collaboration with Kurt Becher, a senior SS officer, Kastner worked to quietly transfer control of several concentration camps to the Allies, and thereby kept the remnants of the camps’ populations from being massacred.

“One can argue over details,” wrote the eminent Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, “but historically speaking, it seems to me there are not many people who [like Kastner] saved many Jews in the Holocaust. There are certainly not many who saved for sure 1,684 Jews and contributed to the rescue of tens or hundreds of thousands.”

Did they cross paths?

Did Kastner and Szenes meet during the critical months both were in Budapest − she as a helpless prisoner accused of espionage and treason, and he in his relatively high capacity as deputy head of the Aid and Rescue Committee? In her testimony during the “Kastner trial” in the Jerusalem District Court, in the spring of 1954, Katerina Szenes, the mother of Hannah, pointed an accusatory finger at Kastner for not having acceded to her repeated requests that he visit her daughter Hannah and give her a package, even though he intended to visit the prison where she was held. Szenes told the court she had repeatedly applied to his secretary, Lenka Ungar, but the latter kept putting her off.

“I am telling you, Dr. Kastner, that you did not take an interest in the fate of Hannah Szenes!” the defense lawyer in the libel case, Shmuel Tamir, scolded him. Kastner claimed in his defense that the Aid and Rescue Committee had discussed Hannah Szenes’ case and that he personally took the matter up with the Red Cross. He also expressed surprise at Katerina Szenes’ allegations regarding her own failed attempts to meet with him, claiming that his door was open to every Jew.

However, it was only in the television drama “The Kastner Trial,” written by Motti Lerner, which aired on Israel Television in 1994, that Kastner could be seen to go on the offensive, justifying his avoidance of Katerina Szenes by the need to maintain his distance from the paratroopers the Haganah leaders had dispatched to Hungary, whose presence in Budapest was like an albatross around his neck.

“How dare you complain to me?” burst out Sasson Gabai, the actor portraying Kastner. “Who even asked your daughter to come to Budapest? What was she thinking of doing? After all, it was because of the recklessness and arrogance of those who sent her that she crossed the border like a novice, and was caught five minutes later! And what was I supposed to do when I learned that she was in prison? Suspend the rescue operations of Budapest’s Jews and go to the Germans to beg them to save her?”

Hannah Szenes became a national heroine: Her diary and writings were published in multiple editions, becoming cult books. Kibbutz Sdot Yam held an annual memorial ceremony in her honor, which over the years came under the auspices of the Israel Defense Forces and its Paratroops Brigade. In 1950, the Israeli government instructed that her bones be brought for burial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in a state funeral. Children’s newspapers, schools and youth movements never tired of seizing on the figure of Szenes. Her poems became widely known, particularly “A Walk to Caesarea” ‏(commonly known as “Eli, Eli”‏), which was set to music by David Zahavi.

The high point came in 1958, the state’s 10th anniversary, when Habimah Theater put on the play “Hannah Szenes” by Aharon Megged, which constituted final confirmation of the identification the public discourse created between her and Joan of Arc.

In retrospect, it seems that in the process of constructing the memory of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine after World War II, instrumental use was made of the story of Szenes’ mission and her personal qualities in general to intensify the value of rebellion and active resistance to the Nazis. These were quite frequently accompanied by condemnation of the passive masses that went “like sheep to the slaughter” − and even more so by condemnation of the European Jewish leadership that at best stood idly by, and at worst chose the route of collaboration. It was the Jewish council, the Judenrat, that was seen as the actual and symbolic embodiment of such collaboration.

Kastner, to his detriment, became the “negative” model: He immigrated to Palestine in 1947 and became the editor of the transplanted Hungarian newspaper Uj Kelet, which he had edited back in Cluj. After the founding of the State of Israel, he landed a government job, and was even a Mapai candidate for Knesset, having been thought to be a draw for the votes of Hungarian and Romanian immigrants. He himself was brimming with self-confidence, knowing full well the part he played in rescuing Hungarian Jewry during the war.

But soon everything was overturned: Malchiel Gruenwald, editor of a local Jerusalem publication, accused him of collaborating with the Nazis and helping to annihilate Hungary’s Jews; in response, the attorney general, Haim Cohen, decided to file a libel suit against Gruenwald. Shmuel Tamir, a member of the Herut movement, came to Gruenwald’s defense, and Kastner quickly went from being the accuser to the accused. Some members of the press and public opinion conspired to denounce him and present him as one who betrayed his people by collaborating with Eichmann and his gang and thereby kept Hungary’s Jews from knowing the truth, thus nipping in the bud the potential for rebellion and even making things easier for the Nazi death machine.

All of this was boiled down in Judge Benjamin Halevi’s categorical statement on pronouncing the verdict, on June 22, 1955, declaring that “Kastner sold his soul to the devil.” Halevi did not refrain from praising the paratroopers and Hannah Szenes, which served to sharpen the vilification of Kastner, whose fate was ultimately sealed by three assassins who ambushed him outside his home on March 4, 1957. Mortally wounded, he died of his injuries on March 15.

Clearing his name

The long and convoluted campaign to clear Kastner’s name was not slow in coming: The first harbinger was the Supreme Court ruling, of January 17, 1958, on the state’s appeal of the Jerusalem District Court verdict, which overturned most of Judge Halevi’s ruling. After a fairly lengthy hiatus, the battle was resumed in the early 1980s, a period − according to Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander − that saw a further thaw in Israeli society’s attitude to the Holocaust following the Eichmann trial. One of the ways this was expressed was in a series of representations that remade Kastner’s image, first and foremost Motti Lerner’s play “Kastner,” which the Cameri Theater put on in 1985, and which was the antithesis of Megged’s “Hannah Szenes,” from 1958. In the play, Lerner brought the case back to its original setting − in other words, to Budapest in the period after the German invasion. In successive tableaux, Rudolf Kastner was seen bravely contending with Eichmann, and also daring to stand up to the Jewish community leaders who did not necessarily agree with the audacious politics he was bold enough to undertake vis-a-vis the Nazis, motivated by the vehement aspiration to save Jews.

Only in the epilogue of the play does the playwright make the leap from 1940s Budapest to 1950s Israel, and places at center stage the lonely, now-wounded, but certainly also vindicated Kastner, who argues directly with the verdict of the Jerusalem court that practically sentenced him to extinction, recounts the story of the assassination, and ends with the words: “I continued running. A second shot rang out. The bullet hit me. In the back.”

But the grandiose morality play that unfolded before the Israeli spectator in those years had one or even two acts still to come. The lines cited earlier from the monologue Sasson Gabai delivers in the TV drama constituted only a partial quotation. It actually went on to include these lines: “And I will tell you who told the Hungarian police that Palgi and Goldstein [Szenes’ fellow paratroopers] were about to come to me. She did! Your daughter, the heroic Hannah Szenes! She cracked in her interrogation and revealed everything. I can imagine what torture she went through. No one would have withstood such torture. But Palgi and Goldstein were not arrested because of me, but because of her!”

These shocking lines, in which Hannah Szenes is accused of being forced to betray her comrades, can be found in the printed version of the script of “The Kastner Trial” published by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, but they are not to be found on the DVD of the docudrama, as presented in 1994. The explanation for this lies in a petition to the High Court of Justice that was filed by Giora Senesh, Hannah Szenes’ brother, who wished to prevent the series from airing. The petition was denied ‏(in a majority vote‏), but the judges asked IBA officials to delete those lines of their own accord.

The court’s request was met, but the debate over Hannah Szenes’ supposed “betrayal” became a public matter: Not only Aharon Megged, one of the chief fashioners of Hannah Szenes’ persona in literature, theater and public discourse, but also others including Reuven Dafni, who was one of the last paratroopers still living at the time, and even the author Amos Kenan − all rejected out of hand the allegation of “betrayal” playwright Lerner had ascribed to Szenes. That was also the prevailing spirit of a Knesset debate on the subject, in the course of which one speaker after another rejected the allegations the playwright intended to voice, even if they were not heard.

Lie vs. the truth

Paradoxically, it was actually the Hannah Szenes High Court petition that gave new validity to her status as a national hero, whose luster had dimmed slightly since losing the pride of place that was reserved for such symbols of rebellion in the public memory. Five years after the broadcast of the three-part TV series, a hugely important milestone in the process of Israel Kastner’s public rehabilitation, the Supreme Court made public the reasons for the stance it took on Giora Senesh’s petition. At the time the court’s reasons were revealed, Giora Senesh was no longer living. His son, Eitan Senesh, maintains that this affair hastened his death.

In denying the petition, Justice Aharon Barak relied on the principle of freedom of speech and artistic creation, from which stemmed the position not to block the speech of the docudrama’s author. However, Barak ruled that the legend of Hannah Szenes, whom he described as “a national heroine and revered figure,” will continue to exist, thanks to the freedom that resides in the truth, and not by silencing its distortion.

“The poems and heroism of Hannah Szenes are what substantiate the myth,” wrote Justice Barak, himself a Holocaust survivor. “The lie will not harm her or her memory. The lie will be rejected by the truth, in a battle in the ‘free marketplace’ of ideas.”

That was not the position of Justice Mishael Cheshin, who maintained that the petition should be accepted, commingling his reasons with lines from two of Szenes’ poems − “A Walk to Caesarea” and “Blessed Is the Match.” He ended with the following statement: “Hannah Szenes’ heart knew to stop with dignity. The dignity and good name of Hannah Szenes no one can take from her, neither in word nor in deed.”

But Motti Lerner was adamant in his original position, even after the High Court publicized its reasoning. In an article in Haaretz on September 5, 1999, Lerner returned to the “betrayal” issue that has dogged the Kastner-Szenes war throughout the years. “I do not and have never had any interest in damaging the image of Hannah Szenes, who is a great hero in my eyes − even if she broke under interrogation, as Hansi and Joel Brand think.” And indeed, Lerner found support for his argument in the book by the Brands, “The Devil and the Soul” ‏(in Hebrew, 1960‏), where the rather odd ‏(and one might add: erroneous‏) conjecture is raised that under the pressure of torture, Szenes revealed to her interrogators the address of the apartment on Bulyovszky Street where she was supposed to rendezvous with the other two paratroopers: Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein.

Lerner seizes upon that statement like one who has found great treasure, and what is more, he felt free to attribute this supposition to Kastner, even though it was originally put forward by the Brands. According to Lerner, he chose to employ this strategy − he himself uses the word “manipulation” − to pursue fully the question that troubled him more than any other, namely: “How did it happen that Szenes, the boundlessly brave and pure paratrooper, became a national hero even though she did not save any person from death, whereas Kastner was eternally disgraced, even though he saved many thousands directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly.”

He concluded thus: “Juxtaposing Kastner and Szenes was meant to examine the value system of Israeli society, which created this paradox.”

The efforts to rehabilitate Szenes’ standing in the public memory had a sequel: On November 5, 2004, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of her death, a memorial was held at Kibbutz Sdot Yam under the auspices of the Association for the Perpetuation of Hannah Szenes’ Mission and Heritage, and attended by the then-deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, in the revival of a tradition that had dissipated over the years as interest in her waned. Three years later, in November 2007, Szenes’ tombstone, which had remained until then in a Budapest cemetery, was brought to Kibbutz Sdot Yam, and the event was accompanied by a military ceremony.

However, Kastner loyalists did not remain idle: At the initiative of the offspring of the survivors of “Kastner’s train” and others, an annual gathering in memory of him has been held for the past five years in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Floral wreaths and memorial candles are placed at the entrance to the house at 5 Emanuel Haromi Street in Tel Aviv, where Kastner was gunned down, and in the lot of the Mahanot Haolim youth movement building, on the same street, a surprisingly large crowd gathers to declare each time anew that the selfsame Kastner − who supposedly “sold his soul to the devil” − is none other than one of the greatest rescuers of Jews in the Holocaust.

On a special website dedicated to Kastner, the invitation to this year’s ceremony read as follows: “This year, as well, we will gather in memory of the courageous, resourceful man Israel Kastner, one of the greatest rescuers in the Holocaust of our people. Many of us owe him their lives. We are convening to perpetuate the rescue enterprise, to express enormous gratitude, to illuminate what others tried to forget and conceal, and perhaps also to ask forgiveness for the injustice that was caused.”

On July 1, 1955, a few days after the verdict was handed down in the Kastner libel trial, critic and essayist Matti Megged wrote an article in the newspaper Lamerhav, entitled: “Between capitulation and heroism.” Megged wrote that one memory remains from those dark days of the Holocaust in Hungary that must always be recalled and mentioned, and that is the memory of Hannah Szenes. He went on to correct himself and add that actually we would do better to remember what he termed “the two phenomena” − in other words that which Kastner represents and that which Szenes represents − although the stated goal is “to bequeath the memory to only one ‏(Szenes‏).”

Overtly and covertly, Megged was thus taking issue with the poet Natan Alterman, who since the publication, on April 30, 1954, of the poem “Remembrance
Day − and the Rebels,” which likewise was written against the backdrop of the Kastner trial, had repeatedly voiced the demand to moderate the cult of rebellion; to treat “the Jewish masses” with greater understanding; to refrain from favoring the rebels over “the community leaders and lobbyists”; and to acknowledge that the battle and the defiance, for which he feels admiration and respect, cannot be deemed the main and primary symbol of Holocaust Remembrance Day and its so-called badge of identity.

“Rebellion is only one feature of the case,” Alterman summed up, a statement that deviates completely from the mindset that had prevailed in Israeli society since the 1940s.

The poem “Remembrance Day − and the Rebels” was, to a large extent, the opening note leading up to a re-reading of Holocaust remembrance, and as such, to a further examination of the images that became associated over the years with the figures of both Hannah Szenes and Israel Kastner. This examination ostensibly led to the inevitable conclusion that the idolization of Szenes was patently disproportionate, just as the excoriation of Kastner that led to his being framed and later murdered was essentially unfounded.

But is this really how matters stand? This past March, following the February 27th maiden speech to the Knesset of Rudolf Kastner’s granddaughter MK Merav Michaeli, I published an oped piece on the topic in this paper. In it, I expressed my naive belief that the speech by Michaeli, who declared from the podium her profound commitment to her grandfather’s legacy, had brought to a successful close the long and convoluted rehabilitation of Israel Kastner, and thereby paved the way at long last for the resourceful activist from Cluj to enter the pantheon of the nation’s heroes − if not in place of Hannah Szenes, then at least alongside her.

But it was not so: Heated responses for and against that appeared in the paper and online in the wake of the article made it clear to me that the argument surrounding the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry is evidently not over yet. If that is indeed the case, then the ghosts of Kastner and Szenes, both of whom were put to death under horrific circumstances, are going to be with us for many years to come, colliding with each other, bypassing each other, one breathing down one another’s neck, after the scenario of the battle between the two long ago migrated from the streets of Budapest − where their paths first crossed − into our very souls.

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