The Moral Ambiguity of Killing Kasztner

Documentary filmmaker Gaylen Ross's new film Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis hits the screen at Houston's Angelika Theater today. If you don't know the name Rudolf Kasztner, you aren't alone. Although the Hungarian journalist and lawyer saved more than 1,600 Jews during WWII, he never received the same adulation and acclaim that other rescuers did, such as Oskar Schindler (who saved 1,200 Jews).

The problem was that, like Schindler, Kasztner negotiated with Nazis in order to save those Jews. He promised, but never delivered, truckloads of supplies to the Germans in exchange for a train out of Hungry, which he loaded with fleeing Jews. But, unlike Schindler, Kasztner supposedly promised his Nazi contact, Adolf Eichmann, that he would not warn other Hungarian Jews about plans to deport 800,000 people to Auschwitz.

In Killing Kasztner, Ross recounts Kasztner's complicated, problematic story starting with his assassination in 1957, told by the first time by the shooter Ze'ev Eckstein ("You must understand I was then a decent Jewish boy ... I was a very common Jewish boy typical of my time ... only a poisoned one"). She moves through the effects of the controversy on his daughter, Zsuzsi, and his granddaughters who fight to give him his rightful place in history. She also touches on the stories of the survivors who were rescued by Kasztner, many of whom feel they were saved at the expense of other Jewish lives.

Hair Balls spoke with Gaylen Ross by phone, here's our conversation.

Hair Balls: What prompted you to make this particular film?

Gaylen Ross: I was in the middle of filming a documentary on the Swiss banks and the Holocaust when I heard the story from a woman who said she was on the Kasztner train as it started to be called, and ... I was shocked. I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought it was a remarkable and amazing story that nobody really knew anything about. My first question was, 'how could this episode in the Holocaust, where there was a Jew negotiating with Eichmann not be something that was part of our history?' As a WWII story, a Holocaust story, it was quite incredible to me. That's when I started to do the research and found out about this very complex and fascinating negotiation, and about the train and what happened to Kasztner afterwards in Israel, the trial and the assassination.

Hair Balls: Did you have a point of view when you started the film? Did you think that he was a hero or a traitor? Both?

Gaylen Ross: I didn't have enough information to have a point of view. I knew that there were polarized opinions and emotions. In fact, the first filming I did was the symposium at the Holocaust Museum in New York, which was the only symposium on Kasztner that ever [occurred]. I went there with no expectations and was amazed at the passions of the survivors, shouting at each other and accusing one another, the feelings that existed for 50 years. All I knew was that I didn't know.

But I wanted to know, why is he so vilified? Why isn't he someone that was recognized and given the same kind of acknowledgment that [Oskar] Schindler or [Raoul] Wallenberg was given? They did similar things that Kasztner had to do to save lives, they negotiated with Nazis, too. But they were not Jewish. His negotiation was done, one could say metaphorically, with a gun to his head. It was not a negotiation of equals. There were many instances where Kasztner writes in his reports that Eichmann threatened to send him to Auschwitz.

And that's what is at the heart of the story: How did a Jew manage to save lives like this? Was it possible for others to have done the same thing? I think there continues to be, for many, the guilt and the shame of their not having been able to do what Kasztner did. That it was a Jew who did this became a very painful statement of what others did not.

Read more about Killing Kasztner after the jump ...

Hair Balls: What was it about Kasztner that allowed him to accomplish the rescue? Why could he do these things when, as you say, others did not?

Gaylen Ross: There were two things, one was an outside factor and one was internal. The outside factor was that negotiation like this was possible only at the end of the war when the German were losing. They thought they could use Jews as a bargaining chip; Eichmann offered 10,000 trucks [of supplies] for a million Jewish lives. Could this type of negotiation have happened at the beginning of the war, absolutely not. This was a particular time, a particular moment and Kasztner opened this wedge of negotiation and that's how these lives were saved.

At the same time, is the external factors. Kasztner was a particular kind of person. He had an arrogance, a belief that he could have the kind of power that he could sit down with Eichmann and negotiate. This arrogance of Kasztner that made him believe he could do this when he was a nobody. In reality, he had no power, no authority, no anything. He was just a member of this little Zionist rescue group. He was not in the leadership of any council or anything that had any sort of standing. And really he had nothing to bargain with, the trucks were never going to come, so he was really pretending and making Eichmann believe that he could deliver.

Hair Balls: There were accusations that Kasztner obtained Eichmann's cooperation only by promising that he would not warn other Jews about the German's plans. In fact, Eichmann later said that Kasztner "agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation -- and even keep order in the collection camps -- if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate to Palestine. It was a good bargain." That had a devestating effect on many of the Jews Kasztner saved, making them feel that their lives were paid for with the blood of other Jews.

Gaylen Ross: Each of the survivors experienced their survival uniquely, but yes, many believed they were branded with the mark of Cain, because they survived at the expense of others and rescued by a collaborator.

Hair Balls: In the film you show a man who says he was one of dozens of boys in a youth group that Kasztner sent to Budapest to warn the Jews there that the Germans were coming. He told the boys to tell the Jews, "The trains are coming and the trains mean death." The man says he and the other boys did so, but that no one listened.

Gaylen Ross: Somehow, this one man was tasked with warning an entire country, when the other Jews could see what he saw, they knew what he knew.

It was a fantasy. One, that there was one human being who was responsible for everybody as if they didn't know, and as if they couldn't do anything, and as if they didn't have the responsibility for knowing as well. That's really, really the horrible, painful part of this part for so many survivors. What they themselves didn't do.

The other thing, even if he had warned everyone, it totally refutes the facts on the ground. The reality is that the ghettoization and deportation of Hungary's Jews was done with incredible rapidity, it took eight weeks to do in Hungry what it took eight months to do in Poland. Men were already in concentration camps, women and children were already being shipped to Auschwitz at 12,000 a day. The Germans were losing the war at that point, it's true, but Eichmann's mission was to kill as many as possible and to do it as rapidly as possible.

Hair Balls: Was there ever any conclusive proof that Jews were killed specifically because of anything that Kasztner did or didn't do?

Gaylen Ross: Never.

Hair Balls: One of the most startling things in the film is that Ze'ev Eckstein, Kasztner's assassin, claims that he shot first a blank, then two live rounds towards where Kasztner was on the street. And then he heard another shot, one that neither he nor his accomplices fired.

Gaylen Ross: I don't believe in conspiracy. The chances that Kasztner could have been killed with another gun exactly like the one Eckstein used, I don't believe that. But that's what I wanted to do with the film - to create this Rashamon of perception. I do believe there's a truth and I don't believe that everything is relative. I do believe that Kasztner saved lives and that a lot of the accusations were politicized and completely false. But some things we'll never know for sure.

Hair Balls: Eckstein owns up to his actions, even if he believes they didn't result in Kasztner's death. In the film he says, " It was not my bullet that killed him, but that does not diminish my responsibility." And after several requests from Kasztner's daughter, he agrees to meet with her. The film shows them talking alone on her apartment balcony. What was the result of that meeting?

Gaylen Ross: They never talked about it. Not to me, not to her daughters, whatever was there was between them. I think they just felt it was important to meet. I don't know what the result is emotionally for them, but they wanted it. Whatever was said on the balcony, remained there. It was private.

Hair Balls: So what's your final take on Kasztner and his legacy?

Gaylen Ross: He was a scapegoat. All the sins, every blame that could be done was put on Kasztner. And I'm not saying he was a perfect man; I'm not even saying he was or wasn't a hero. The whole point of the film is that that's where we get in trouble. But at least, let's get the facts right and then we can put the attributions of hero or not on afterwards.

Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealth with Nazis is screening at the Angelika Theater, 510 Texas Street. For information, call 713-225-1470 or visit

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Olivia Flores Alvarez