Filmmaker Gaylen Ross

1/7/10 Update: Despite today’s massive snowfall, Gaylen Ross has arrived safely in Chicago & as I type, Milt Rosenberg is interviewing her on WGN 720.  She will do Q&A sessions tomorrow night (Fri) after the 5 PM & 7:30 PM screenings, as well as Saturday after the  1:45 PM, 5 PM & 7:30 PM screenings.  She will introduce the 1:45 PM screening on Sunday before flying back to NYC.  If you can’t make it this weekend, Music Box Theatre will continue showing Killing Kasztner all week long. Click HERE for showtimes & additional details.  Click HERE to read review in the Chicago Sun-Times.  Click HERE to read review in the Chicago Reader.

From Tzivi’s January ’010 Spotlight in the JUF News: “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 divide 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?

Kasztner with daughter Zsuzsi

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?”

Kasztner Train Survivors in Switzerland

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. Click HERE to read more about Reszo Kasztner on the Yad Vashem website.  Click HERE to read my complete interview with Gaylen.

All photos courtesy of Gaylen Ross.

Jan Lisa Huttner (“Tzivi”) is the Arts & Culture critic for Chicago’s JUF News as well as a Chicago YIVO board member.

2 Responses to “See KILLING KASZTNER”

  1. Michael Ezra Says:

    Dear Jan Lisa Huttner,

    Some might argue, I would add with justification, that Kasztner does not fall anywhere “between the victim and the savior,” where he actually fits is as a collaborator with tyranny.

    In your interview with Gaylen Ross, which you have linked to, Gaylen appears critical of those that read Ben Hecht’s 1961 polemic, Perfidy. It is certainly true that Perfidy has some flaws and many of these were noted by The American Section of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency but what is not disputed is the translation of the trial testimony that is included in the book. In fact, there were many more testimonies than those included in the book, especially from Jews from Kasztner’s home town of Cluj in Hungary that are damning for Kasztner.

    It is true that a number of books and articles have been published since Perfidy. For something scholarly from the leading scholar on the Holocaust in Hungary, Professor Randolph Braham, one can read his article published in the reputable Yad Vashem Studies and available free on line. I particularly suggest reading the sections about Kasztner to see myths surrounding him as a rescuer of various categories of Jews.

    In her film, Ms. Ross interviews the Israeli historian Shlomo Aronson who credits Kasztner with saving the majority of some 15,000-18,000 Jews sent to Strasshof. This is incorrect, Aronson does not even make such a claim in his book, Hitler, the Allies and the Jews. The truth is that these Jews were sent to Strasshof as a result of a request from the mayor of Vienna for slave labour and this request was passed on to Eichmann’s boss and down to Eichmann, who was not in a position to refuse. (More details on this myth can be seen on p.51 of Randolph Braham’s article that I linked to).

    In your interview, Ms. Ross poses a question:

    How is it possible at the end of the War (in 1944), that the only person who knew anything about what was happening was one single Jew named Rezso Kasztner?

    Kasztner was not the only person with this information but he was the best informed and he admitted himself in a letter he sent in July 1944 (quoted by Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945 [Yale University Press, 1994] p.196):

    hundreds of thousands went to Auschwitz in such a way that they were not concious until the last moment of what it was all about and what was happening.

    To mention but one testimony: the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in his book Night (Penguin Books, 2006) p.29 stated:

    But we were pulling into a station. Someone near a window read to us:
    Nobody had ever heard that name.

    In your interview with Ms. Ross the case of Hannah Szenes is mentioned. What is not mentioned is what happened after she was captured and before she was shot. According to the testimony of Hannah’s mother and of others, the following facts emerged that was summed up by judge Benjamin Halevey in what became known as the Kasztner Trial. Kasztner’s modus operandi in relation to Hannah Szenes was :

    (a) not lifting a finger for her sake; (b) pretending to handle the case; (c) preventing others (her mother, Komoly, Krausz and any lawyer) from handling her release. Kasztner did not try to save Hannah Szenes but knowingly abandoned her and even sabotaged the efforts of others, including her mother, to save her.

    In your interview with Ms. Ross, you ask her about the charge that she is “an apologist” for Kasztner. I believe that to be a perfectly reasonably and valid charge to make.

  2. chicagoyivo Says:

    From Jan.

    Michael Ezra blogs at Harry’s Place:

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