Six decades after the deeply controversial trials over his negotiations with high-ranking Nazis and his subsequent assassination, Yisrael Rudolf Kastner was honored during the Knesset’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony on Thursday, in the presence of the prime minister, Knesset speaker, opposition leader, and head of the Supreme Court.
Kastner’s daughter, Suzi, and granddaughter, Zionist Union lawmaker Merav Michaeli, lit a candle at the official parliament ceremony for the former Budapest Zionist leader, who both rescued nearly 1,700 Jews during the war and later testified on behalf of prominent SS officers in the Nuremberg trials.
The Knesset, in a statement, defended Michaeli’s right to dedicate the candle to her grandfather. Six Knesset representatives and employees, accompanied by survivors, lit candles at the memorial event.
“The Knesset never has and never will hold personal ceremonies for people killed in the Holocaust or survivors,” it said. “The Knesset members who go up to light a memorial candle tend to dedicate the candle to a family member who was killed or survived the Holocaust and no one in the Knesset can dictate to the Knesset member who they may honor with their memorial candle.
“It is flawed and immoral to try and determine who is more or less worthy among the survivors and victims,” the Knesset said. “Certainly the Knesset won’t act this way, and one must hope that others will also respect the Holocaust and the sanctity of the ceremony.”
Likud minister Ofir Akunis stepped out the hall in protest when Michaeli and her mother stood up to light the candle.
A Likud youth activist group on Tuesday had sent a letter expressing “disgust and disappointment” over the honor, citing Kastner’s actions “to save Nazi murderers, including mass murderer Kurt Becher, from the noose” and his “controversial actions during the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz chimneys.”
But otherwise, little protest was registered over the inclusion of the former Hungarian Jewish journalist turned-Israeli official, who was defended by the State of Israel in the now-infamous 1954 libel case over accusations of Nazi collaboration.
Sixty-four years ago, the State of Israel brought libel charges against pamphleteer and Hungarian-Israeli Jew Malchiel Gruenwald, over claims Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. The case ultimately served as a searing indictment of Kastner’s activities during the Holocaust in his dealings with high-ranking Nazi officers, with Halevy accusing him of “selling his soul to the devil.”
The main characters in the high-stakes courtroom drama would also go on to have ties to the Knesset: The defense attorney cross-examining Kastner, Shmuel Tamir, became justice minister under Likud’s Menachem Begin, and the judge, Benjamin Halevy, also later became a Knesset lawmaker.
The Supreme Court in 1958 cleared Kastner of all the collaboration charges handed down by Halevy, and said he was solely motivated in his dealings with the Nazis by the rescue of Jews from their deaths.
The justices, however, unanimously established that Kastner had testified on behalf of Becher at Nuremberg in a perjurious affidavit, resulting in the senior SS officer’s exoneration. (In his statement to the tribunal, Kastner maintained Becher tried to save Jews and attested to his “good intentions.” The Israeli justice system, however, determined Kastner was well-aware of the Nazi plans for the genocide of the Jews. Kastner also lied to the Jerusalem court about his Nuremberg testimony. Becher died in 1995. He was never tried.)
The exoneration by the Supreme Court came too late for Kastner, however, who was assassinated by right-wing extremists in 1957.
Defenders of Kastner maintain that he, in an impossible moral position, used his ties with the Nazis to save Jews, and point to the outcome in the form of the so-called Kastner Train — nearly 1,700 Jews taken to safety in Switzerland.
His critics, meanwhile, say those Kastner saved were friends and relatives, as well as other prominent Jews. They charge that the remainder of Hungarian Jews were actively duped by Kastner, who was aware of the Final Solution and the Auschwitz gas chambers, but did not inform the local community, thus preventing attempts to organize resistance efforts or flee en masse across the border, and thereby facilitating the mass deportations to Auschwitz that resulted in the decimation of most of Hungarian Jewry.