Ze’ev Eckstein, who in 1957 killed Rudolf Israel Kasztner, the Hungarian Israeli posthumously cleared of collaborating with the Nazis, died Monday. He was 88.
In the 1950s, the Israeli-born Eckstein spent time as an informer for the Shin Bet security service while also working for an underground right-wing group that sent him to shoot Kasztner – sometimes also spelled Kastner – outside his Tel Aviv home in 1957 after a court found that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Eckstein was convicted and would serve around six years in prison before being pardoned.
Kasztner, a journalist, was active in the left-wing Mapai party and in 1952 served as spokesman for the Trade and Industry Ministry.
His death followed a 1954-55 libel trial during which it was claimed that Kasztner cooperated with the Nazis and indirectly contributed to the Holocaust in Hungary in return for saving nearly 1,700 wealthy or prominent Jews.
In the case, Judge Benjamin Halevi wrote that Kasztner “sold his soul to the devil,” but 10 months after Kasztner was killed, the Supreme Court overturned the decision that went against him. Still, he said Kasztner had helped a few Nazis escape punishment after World War II.
According to the Shin Bet’s website, in March 1957 Eckstein parked a car next to Kasztner’s three-story apartment building, approached him and asked his name before firing at him with a pistol.
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“The first bullet that was shot was a dud, the second lodged in the car door, while the third bullet hit Kasztner’s torso as he tried to flee and fatally wounded him,” the site says. He died nearly two weeks later.
Two other suspects were arrested after the murder: Dan Shemer, the driver, and Yosef Menkes, who supplied the gun. All three received a life sentence but were pardoned and released from prison in 1963. Until his death, Eckstein claimed that another person was involved in the murder but was never arrested.
The debate over Kasztner’s legacy and character – whether he was a hero or a traitor – continues to this day. His granddaughter, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, has taken part in efforts to clear his name.
Eckstein worked at his father’s printing house before his stint as an informer for the Shin Bet. Over the years, he hinted that the agency was somehow involved in the murder, but was deliberately vague.
The head of the Shin Bet at the time of Kasztner's death, Isser Harel, said the relationship between the agency and Eckstein had ended before the shooting, after it became clear that Eckstein was a double agent.
“Two years ago, he called the police of his own accord and proposed working against the underground,” Harel said at the time. “But later it became clear that this man came to the police with bad intentions; that is, he was guided in this matter by the members of the underground.”
The High Court of Justice recently denied a petition by historian Nadav Kaplan requesting that the Shin Bet declassify documents on the murder. The Shin Bet claimed that publication of the documents would harm national security, a view the justices accepted after the agency agreed to release a small number of documents.