Traitor or Hero?

While not flawless, the documentary on Israel Kasztner that airs tonight offers a fascinating look at one of the thorniest disputes in the young State of Israel.

"Killing Kasztner," the documentary by Gaylen Ross, opens with remarks by Ze'ev Eckstein - the man who assassinated Dr. Rezso Israel Kasztner. "I decided," said the man who defines himself as "a good Jewish boy," "to tell only the truth, but not the whole truth." He sticks by his word. At the end of this comprehensive and profound film, questions remain as to who sent him to do the job (but perhaps these are questions concerning conspiracy that are always asked about assassinations?).

Another thing that emerges from this documentary, in which a historical incident unfolds, is its personal nature. The whole film, it seems, deals with fathers and their offspring: Zsuzsi Kasztner recalls the trial, and being a girl of nine and a half whose father could not ride the bus or buy a newspaper without being spat at. She and her daughters are seeking to close the circle of that trial today. Yosef Tamir, son of the late attorney and minister Shmuel Tamir, who at the age of only 31 represented Malchiel Gruenwald, also continues in his father's path. Gruenwald charged that on the train leaving Hungary during the Holocaust, Kasztner saved only his own friends and relatives. Kasztner, the government spokesman at the time, sued Gruenwald for libel. The father of Eckstein, the assassin, is also mentioned at a very emotional moment in the film.

In general, in this film, which is being broadcast on the occasion of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Day on Channel 8 (tonight at 9:05 P.M.) - and which is not without flaws - there is a fascinating and humane treatment of one of the biggest disputes in the early days of the State of Israel. All of those interviewed - from the historians and journalists to the assassin, the victim's relatives, the prison warden and the childhood neighbors of the assassin - are intelligent, articulate people who are interesting to listen to and impressive.

Ultimately, the problems of the film seem secondary, but at first, at the stage when one decides whether to keep watching, they are annoying. The mannerist filming, with close-ups of speakers' lips or eyes, is a superfluous artistic tactic; it would have been possible to focus simply on the face. The music threatens to drown out the events. Moreover, it is not clear why the filmmaker films herself.

This is a long film ?(about two hours?) and it seems to address a foreign audience, not an Israeli one, judging by the amount of English spoken in it and the way the story is presented in great detail. Therefore, it's not clear why it was necessary to include the segment about people-in-the-street who have never heard of Kasztner. Never heard of him? How very odd. There was even a TV series with actor Sasson Gabai about the whole story, but never mind. Now you'll hear about him.

The presence of Merav Michaeli, a radio and television personality, is extensive considering that all told, she is one of Kasztner's granddaughters. Her ease in front of the camera might be one of the reasons for her being there, or perhaps it is because she is the eldest of her generation. This can be an advantage: if anyone keeps watching the film because of her. She says that the Israel that existed during the Kasztner trial was not capable of dealing with the complexity of what he had done, and the documentary confirms this.

The late Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, who appears in the film, relates that at first people thought the trial would end quickly, without reverberations, but then they realized it constituted the first public debate on the subject of the Holocaust in the young State of Israel. Indeed, the question at the core of the Kasztner trial was: To whom does this state belong - to those who sacrificed themselves or to those who fought? It reflected the general attitude that prevailed against the Diaspora Jews and the survivors who, in the opinion of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Palestine?) had "gone like sheep to the slaughter." Survivors felt as though they were on trial − but not only they: "It wasn't Kasztner who was on trial, but rather an entire regime," said Uri Avnery, the editor of the weekly Haolam Hazeh.

The film describes the entire two-year trial, which began in 1953, and of course the turning point at which it was learned that Kasztner had testified on behalf of Nazi General Kurt Becher, but lied about this in his testimony at the trial. Toward the end, an interesting claim is made - to the effect that Kasztner had protected the Jewish Agency and the Jewish leadership in the land of Israel by doing so. At the end of the trial Judge Benjamin Halevi declared that Kasztner had sold his soul to the devil, which many people interpreted as a death sentence that was waiting to be carried out.

Nowadays, when the hero in "Schindler?s List," one of the best-known films about the Holocaust, negotiated with the Nazis, it is perhaps hard to understand why Kasztner, who rescued more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews on the train and many others in the camps, was perceived as a traitor. But the truth is that even back then, the Supreme Court did not think so: In 1958 that court reversed Halevi's ruling - a year after Kasztner was assassinated at 51. But then people were occupied with other problems. Indeed, the newspapers that had reported on the trial in immense detail published the item about the ruling on their inside pages.