From Jan ’10 Spotlight: “Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust have been recognized very late at Yad Vashem, and they’re not recognized at all in America,” Gaylen Ross told me, when I called her in New York to discuss her new documentary film Killing Kasztner. “Many Jewish rescuers had no guns, but they were forging documents, smuggling, doing all sorts of things to save lives.”
Reszo Kasztner was a leading member of a Zionist rescue group in Budapest when the Germans occupied Hungary in March, 1944. This was late in the War, the Germans were clearly losing, and in a sudden about face, Adolf Eichmann offered to negotiate. His goal? Sell Hungarian Jews in exchange for cash and supplies. As a gesture of “good faith,” Eichmann allowed one group to enter Switzerland on what is now known to history as “the Kasztner Train.”
After the war, Kasztner made aliyah, but once in Israel, he was condemned as a collaborator. “In Israel, the first national conversation about the Holocaust was during the Kasztner Trial (1953-1955),” Gaylen said. “The blame, shame, and guilt that followed the Holocaust—much of it ended up at Israel’s doorstep. The bitter vibe that happened in Israel politically is all part of this horrendous story.”
Yes, it’s about the Holocaust, but Killing Kasztner also addresses urgent issues equally relevant in our own era. Gaylen forces us to confront the paradox of negotiation—how do we know if we’ve crossed the line from “negotiation” to “appeasement;” is this just a debate for historians after the fact? Can a man like Kasztner, acting in the role of negotiator, ever be considered “heroic,” or a role model for others?
Negotiators need cool temperaments, but terrorists run hot. The film is called Killing Kasztner, and the man who pulled the trigger was Ze’ev Eckstein. In Killing Kasztner, Eckstein, now in his 70s, reflects on his actions as a young man of 24. “The tragedy of Kasztner’s murder also encompasses Eckstein, the assassin,” Gaylen said. “We never condone the murderer or his act, but, in the film, I try to show what happens when bitterness and ideology and hatred and fanaticism are in the air.”
“In the Jewish Quarter of Budapest,” Gaylen concluded, “there’s a statue of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz.” Like Raoul Wallenberg, Lutz was a non-Jew who saved many Jews, and the statue shows Lutz as a sort of winged angel. “Kasztner is never going to be characterized as a winged angel,” Gaylen said. “So where—between the victim and the savior—does Reszo Kasztner exist?”
Killing Kasztner opens at the Music Box Theatre on Southport on Friday, Jan 8, and Gaylen will be here in Chicago to conduct Q&A sessions after selected screenings. To read my complete interview, visit: www.films42.com/chats/GaylenRoss.asp.