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Jewish World Review June 6, 2001/ 16 Sivan 5761

Richard Z. Chesnoff

Richard Z. Chesnoff
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Reszo Kasztner:
Villain or hero? --
WHAT would you do if you found out your community of 1 million souls was being deported to Nazi death camps, but you had a chance to save some on the condition you did not warn the others?

That was the horrible dilemma facing Hungarian Jewish leader Reszo Kasztner after the Nazis invaded Budapest in 1944. Europe's last intact Jewish community was to be the Holocaust's next victim, and murder-mastermind Adolf Eichmann was wasting no time in packing Hungarian Jews into cattle cars for Auschwitz.

Kasztner, a dashing journalist and Zionist leader, tried to end all deportations by negotiating a "blood for wares" bargain with Eichmann. The German war machine was in trouble, and in exchange for $10 million and 10,000 trucks (for use on the Eastern front, the Nazis said), Eichmann himself promised to halt the Hungarian killings.

Predictably, Kasztner failed to get Allied backing for the deal. But eventually, he raised a multimillion- dollar ransom of gold, jewelry, diamonds and cash that bought thousands of Jewish lives. Among them were 1,684 Jews who boarded a train in Budapest that finally reached the safety of Switzerland. Kasztner chose those who made it to freedom.

To those he saved and their descendants, Kasztner became a hero, a Jewish Oskar Schindler who made a difficult but responsible moral choice. To others, especially those whose families he chose not to save, Kasztner became a villain, a man who played G-d and consorted with the devil.

Accused after the war of being a collaborator by another Hungarian Jew, he was the center of a tendentious Israeli libel trial during the early 1950s and eventually was assassinated in Tel Aviv by men convinced he had betrayed his own people.

But had he? For almost 50 years, there has been little or no discussion of Kasztner. While Schindler, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and others became icons of righteousness for their role in saving Jewish lives, Kasztner was almost a taboo subject. Holocaust museums paid scant if any attention to him. In "The Final Days," Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning documentary about the Hungarian Holocaust, there is no mention of Kasztner.

That's about to change. Urged on by several New Yorkers --- notably Vera and Imre Hecht (as a teenager, Vera was on the Kasztner train to freedom) --- the Museum of Jewish Heritage at Battery Park is holding a symposium on Kasztner on tomorrow from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. It's titled "Uncertain Redemption" and will be open to the public.

The debate, which promises to be heated, includes Hungarian Holocaust survivors and several experts on Kasztner --- among them City University Prof. Egon Mayer, whose father and mother (who was pregnant with him) also were aboard Kasztner's train.

The new and well-deserved interest in the Kasztner story doesn't end there. Award-winning producer Gaylen Ross and her French colleague Anne Feinsilber are preparing a documentary film on Kasztner and his moral dilemma. They have found hundreds of survivors and descendants of those he saved but are looking for more. Their e-mail address:

History sometimes takes time to surface --- but it always does. So what would you have done?

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book, recently updated, is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.

Richard Z. Chesnoff Archives

© 2001, N. Y. Daily News