Relatives of one of the most contentious Jewish figures from the Holocaust era are hoping that archives they turned over yesterday will clear the name of the man both praised and vilified for bargaining with the Nazis for the lives of Jews.
Rudolf (Israel) Kastner was hailed by admirers as a Holocaust hero for saving thousands of Jews. But critics reviled him as a collaborator who sold his soul. He was assassinated in 1957 following a campaign of vilification.
In a ceremony yesterday, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, received Kastner's private archives, which his family said was one step closer to exoneration.
Kastner, a Zionist leader in Hungary during the Second World War, headed the Relief and Rescue Committee and negotiated with Nazis to rescue Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods and military equipment.
In June 1944, the Kastner Train, with 1,684 Jews on board, departed Budapest for the safety of neutral Switzerland. Kastner's negotiations also saved 20,000 Hungarian Jews by diverting them to an Austrian labor camp instead of a planned transfer to extermination camps, according to Yad Vashem.
Unjustified smear campaign
Yad Vashem officials said the material released yesterday would finally put an end to what it said was an unjustified smear campaign against Kastner.
"There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kastner," said Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, chairman of Yad Vashem's board of directors, himself a Holocaust survivor from Hungary.
"This is an opportunity to do justice to a man who was misrepresented and was a victim on a vicious attack that led to his death," he said, calling Kastner one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.
Kastner's backers say his actions were similar to those of Oskar Schindler, a non-Jew whose efforts to save more than 1,000 Jews was documented in the Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List."
But Kastner's detractors accused him of colluding with the Nazis to spare a collection of his well-connected and wealthy Jewish friends, while hundreds of thousands of others were being shipped to death camps.
Kastner moved to Israel after the war and became a top official in the Labor Party. In 1954 a local writer, Malkiel Grunwald, issued a self-published pamphlet that accused Kastner of being a Nazi collaborator.
The state sued Grunwald for libel on Kastner's behalf, resulting in a trial that lasted two years and riveted the nation.
In its verdict, the court acquitted Grunwald of libel and concluded that Kastner had sold his soul to the German Satan.
Kastner insisted all along that his dealings with top Nazi officials, including Kurt Becher, an envoy of SS commander Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo officer who organized the extermination of the Jews, were necessary to save lives.
Kastner was demonized in the Israeli public. In 1957, he was killed by Jewish extremists.
Then, a year later, Israel's Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling in the libel case, clearing Kastner's name.
Sunday's ceremony was attended by Suzanne Kastner, his only child, and by several people who survived because of the Kastner Train.
Kastner, 61, said the ceremony was another step in the rehabilitation of her father's name. "I also think that the State of Israel has finally retrieved some of its lost honor over this entire affair," she said.
Kastner's private archives include three boxes of letters documenting his correspondence with family, Jewish organizations and Nazi officials.
Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem library, said that while Kastner's public legacy has remained in question, it has long been established among historians that he acted in good faith.
"This is a man who was engaged in rescue activities," he said. Rescue activities during the Holocaust meant being in touch with people whom you would not particularly like to invite over to your house to have a cup of coffee. Kastner himself didn't board his famous train to freedom, instead staying behind and negotiating the further release of Jews, risking his own life."
Rozett said the findings in the archives support the idea that he was dealing in rescue and not behind-the-scenes deals to sell off Hungarian Jews.