He Sold His Soul

No peacemaker is considered a hero here the way a warmonger is. One doesn't talk to Devils, whether old or new ones, not during the Holocaust and not now.

Who is behind me, who is in front of me, who is on either side of me? When the lights went up in the auditorium, it became clear: In the front row sat the family of the murdered man, the bearded man in the row behind me was the murderer, and the two elderly women on either side of me, for whom the English-language film had to be translated, were among the survivors. I was watching "Killing Kastner," the exciting film by Gaylen Ross, at the Haifa International Film Festival. This movie, a fascinating 129-minute documentary about the most inflammatory political murder of the 1950s, the murder of Dr. Israel Kastner, included a first, hair-raising interview with the murderer, Zeev Eckstein. When the American director asked the survivors of the "Kastner train" to rise, they popped up like mushrooms all over the auditorium, sorrowful figures who owe their lives to the slandered and detested murdered man; even now, like his family, they know no peace. I was choked by tears.

We don't have any more such stories today. Fifty years after Kastner's collaboration trial and his subsequent assassination, there was still a great and heavy sense of unease in the auditorium. Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa, introduced me to a man whose two younger brothers did not manage to board the 1944 rescue train Kastner arranged from Hungary to Switzerland, and he bears the guilt to this day. But 50 years later, the time has come to bow our heads in forgiveness before the man who chose negotiations over the futile and hopeless path of fighting. Fifty years after we chose paratrooper Hannah Senesh (Szenes), who did not rescue a single Jew, as our childhood heroine - Did we choose her? They chose for us - the time has come to ask Kastner's forgiveness. Perhaps this important film will carry out the historical task, in a place where Kastner has no monument and no memorial, except for his grave.

Kastner really did sell his soul, as Judge Benjamin Halevy said. He sold his soul to the Devil of negotiations, lobbying, and rescue at any price. He saved 1,600 Jews, more than any other Jew. Neither the partisans nor the Warsaw Ghetto rebels, neither the fighters nor the heroes matched this. His path did not suit young and belligerent Israel. Author Mati Megged wrote the day after the trial in the literary magazine Masa: "Thanks to the rebels and not thanks to those who surrendered." The rescuer Kastner was one of "those who surrendered."

Now, as then, we are in favor of struggle, no matter what. No peacemaker is considered a hero here the way a warmonger is. One doesn't talk to Devils, whether old or new ones, not during the Holocaust and not now. We wanted so badly then to see the new Jew, grenade in hand, like the statue of Warsaw Ghetto leader Mordechai Anilevitz at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, and to get rid of the old Jew, the elegant man in the top hat, who negotiated with the Devil - and to hell with the result, the main thing is the struggle.

And so the people who rose in the auditorium in Haifa are the result of Kastner's "betrayal." They lived a complete life thanks to him, raised families and continued to feel guilty about having been rescued.

The right's claims against Kastner have remained vague. We didn't want him as a hero, and that's that. Raoul Wallenberg did the same thing, and he has a street and a statue in Tel Aviv, because he's not one of ours. But by being murdered, Kastner left an important legacy behind him that, to this very day, we are trying to shake off: Yes to negotiations, with anyone. Do you want to know why? Ask the survivors of Kastner's train.