In Knesset, Setting the Record Straight on a Defamed Holocaust Hero

MK Merav Michaeli, in her maiden speech to the Knesset, made a bold statement about her lineage, thus redeeming the legacy of her grandfather Israel Kastner.

Dan Laor
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Israel society traveled a long and bumpy road until the moment MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) stood erect, her head held high, on the Knesset podium and introduced herself to her fellow Knesset members and the public as the granddaughter of Dr. Yisrael Kastner.

In the State of Israel’s early years, everyone looked up to “the fighters and the rebels.” They were the ones identified with heroism during the Holocaust, to be set apart from the masses of Jews who allowed themselves to be passively herded to their deaths. Most of all, these rebels were to be distinguished from the members of the notorious Judenrat, the Jewish leadership that was compelled to cooperate with the occupying Nazi forces.

All of this was distilled in the Kastner affair. Israel Kastner, who lobbied in Budapest and other places to save Jews – successfully rescuing thousands from their deaths – was condemned as a criminal and a traitor. Judge Benjamin Halevy wrote in his historic verdict in the Kastner-Malchiel Gruenwald trial, in which Kastner was bizarrely transformed from a witness to a defendant: “Kastner sold his soul to the devil.” Although the verdict was several hundred pages long, that one sentence was the bottom line. And while Levy wrote the verdict on his own, his statement expressed the feelings of many.

The person held up as a role model at that time was Hannah Szenes, who had been arrested on the Hungarian border shortly after she crossed it illegally, without having had the opportunity to save even one Jew. Hannah Szenes surely was and is worthy of admiration, but the special treatment she was given, at the expense of others, shows how distorted Israeli thinking was at the time. Hannah Szenes became the standard by with Yisrael Kastner was measured, and held up to that ruler, he was found wanting. That mindset was expressed in the trial itself during the testimony of Catherine Szenes, Hannah's mother, and even more so in Judge Halevy's ruling.

Then came those who took the law into their own hands and carried out Kastner’s death sentence, on their own behalf and on behalf of those who had sent them.

They took their inspiration from, among other things, Judge Halevy’s verdict. The murder occurred on March 5, 1957. About a year later, just a few blocks from the site of the murder, Israel's national theater premiered Aharon Megged’s play “Hannah Szenes,” whose purpose was to declare who the real hero of the Holocaust was.

For those attempting to understand the Holocaust, things have been turbulent ever since. Israel's social climate shifted in the wake of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and objective historical research on the Holocaust began to be done. These factors put the rebellion into perspective. They also shed a different light on the collective behavior of the Jews and the actions of the Jewish leadership, which did not choose rebellion. Suddenly, even the Judenrate were shown some compassion.

This paved the way for the gradual change in Kastner’s image, which reflects a wide variety of modes of expression. The list includes Dov Dinur’s monograph (“Kastner: New discoveries of the man and his work” [Hebrew, 1987]); Yehuda Kaveh’s documentary film; Motti Lerner’s play “Kastner” and his acclaimed television series, co-written with Uri Barbash; the research of Shlomo Aronson and the statements and writings of Professor Yehuda Bauer, who at various times justified Kastner’s actions and even stated firmly that he was one of the biggest rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. Yes, yes, Kastner, too. Not just Steven Spielberg’s decorated hero, Oskar Schindler.

When Kastner arrived in Israel, his public and political career looked like it was on the rise. He was a well-known figure among Romanian and Hungarian Jews, a man who saved Jews, a jurist and a journalist, the editor of a Hungarian-language newspaper, a high-ranking government official, and even a candidate on Mapai’s list for the first and second Knessets. All of this was cut short by his trial and murder.

Now, like a ghost, Kastner passed through the gates of the Knesset in the form of his daughter’s daughter, whose own identity is inextricably wound up in the roots of her family tree. “Reszo Kastner was my grandfather,” Michaeli said, and the people beheld the revelation. Back in the dark 1950s, at the height of the Kastner trial, Michaeli’s mother, Zsuzsi, was constantly bullied by her classmates and members of her youth movement because of the same family connection. Now, in Michaeli, it is a source of pride.

But the change is not complete. A plan to name a public park in Haifa after Kastner ran up against opposition, and a decision by the Tel Aviv municipality to name a street for him has not yet been carried out. But these are just mere pebbles on a vast beach. On February 27, during Michaeli’s maiden speech in the Knesset, events finally came full circle. The Kastner affair, at last, came to an end.

Professor Dan Laor, who teaches Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, holds the Jacob and Shoshana Schreiber Chair for Contemporary Jewish Culture at Tel Aviv University.

Israel Kastner in court, 1954.
Israel Kastner in court, 1954.Credit: jff-zagreb.hr