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Kasztner & daughter Zsuzsi (Photo: The Kasztner Family)

Directed by
Gaylen Ross
Produced by
Andrew Cohen, Noam Shalev, Gus D. Samios, Anne Feinsilber and Ross
Written by Ross & Cohen
Released by GR Films Inc.
English & Hebrew with English subtitles
USA/Israel. 114 min. Not Rated

Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis is an absorbing untangling of how history comes to judge choices made in extreme circumstances. Filmmaker Gaylen Ross starts scraping the scab off raw ethical, emotional, and political perceptions of heroism by looking at how two men came face-to-face on a dark Tel Aviv street in March 1957. One is now an articulate, gray-goateed gentleman who describes his younger self as “a typical Jewish boy.” The man, Ze’ev Eckstein, then adds the caveat “but poisoned”; he gradually reveals he was also an assassin. He reenacts how he gunned down an official of David Ben-Gurion’s government, Rezso Kasztner, who an Israeli judge had determined, in a notorious and sensational 1955 libel trial, was a “man who sold his soul to the devil.” Ross explores how their lives and the confrontation impacted their families, Israeli politics, Holocaust survivors, and interpretations of history. Separately, the families of Eckstein and Kasztner retrace the complicated story in preparation for a possible meeting and reconciliation.

In 1944, after the swift mass round-up and deportation of Hungarian Jewry, only the Jews of Budapest remained in the country as rumors flew about their fate. Their leaders’ pleas for help to the Allies were unanswered, while Rezso Kasztner and his rescue group, the Vaada, negotiated directly with Adolf Eichmann.

Fact: Kasztner secured one train for 1,685 Jews, but what did he know and what more could he have done? Did he favor his extended family and home village? Yes, 399 of the passengers. Did he pick 150 rich people who could cover the $1,000 ransom per head that Eichmann demanded? Yes. Did he select particular religious and Zionist leaders? Yes, the Satmar Hasidic community thriving in Brooklyn can be attributed to their rabbi being on that train. However, there were also very young orphans on board.

Just what deals did he make? The film includes some of Kasztner’s own explanations from a report he drafted (voiced by Larry Pine), but he also seems to have recklessly and flamboyantly exaggerated his importance to the Nazis, both to help divert Jews from the crematoria and to promise post-war support.

The limited testimony of train survivors is fascinating, though not all of them are grateful. Kasztner‘s daughter remembers being stalked by a man screaming that only he was saved and not his family (a similar repercussion was turgidly portrayed in the recent feature Tickling Leo). Startlingly, an elderly matron sits amongst her art and expensive furniture and disdains what Kasztner achieved in saving her and her family because they had to bear the indignity of being briefly detained in the stark conditions of Bergen-Belsen before he somehow secured their freedom. (A Hungarian neighbor of mine refused to see a film about his “train of gold.”)

Such attitudes were compounded for the passengers settling in Israel, who bitterly recall how they were scorned as passive victims, and that their experience was excluded from Israel’s official memorial museum to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and those who saved Jews. In the film, they confront (and years later convince) the staff to include them.

In the 1950s, Kasztner didn’t fill the new state’s image of a hero. Right-wing extremists focused scathing criticism on Kasztner as a way to bring down what was seen as Ben-Gurion’s government of compromisers, and accused Kasztner of collaboration with the Nazis. He was then serving as a spokesman for the ministry of transportation.

Israel’s post-war, multi-party politics are complicated to follow for Americans, and, unfortunately, the documentary is long on personalities and a bit short on historical clarifications. Just because Ross had exclusive access to Kasztner’s family and his murderer doesn’t mean that everything they say and do towards reconciliation is revealing or worth watching. Ross unnecessarily appears too frequently on screen to explain how she learned about the train and what she thinks of Kasztner. Ignore her and instead watch her thought-provoking documentary. Nora Lee Mandel
October 23, 2009



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