When rescue is not collaboration

Gaylen Ross, Special to The CJN, Monday, December 1, 2014

Several years ago, I was invited to Budapest to premiere my film Killing Kasztner, the story of the controversial Hungarian Jew, Rezso Kasztner, who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for the lives of 1,684 Jews on a transport to Palestine. 

While walking through what was Budapest’s Jewish quarter, I came upon the memorial honouring Carl Lutz, the Christian Swiss diplomat, credited also with saving thousands of Jews in Hungary. The statue depicts a Jew lying prone on his back with hand raised heavenward to Lutz, a Michelangelo-like hovering angel of salvation. My immediate thought was where would one put Kasztner? Neither on the ground nor in the heavens – a Jewish rescuer exists in the limbo between.

Holocaust Education Week in Toronto has taken up the theme of collaboration this year, and I applaud its engagement of this highly sensitive subject. Though I have accepted the characterization “Hero or Traitor” to bring shorthand attention to Kasztner, I believe we need different terminology to comprehend the singular task of rescue of Jews by Jews.

The term collaborator (working together, even as equals for a shared goal) is brutal and blunt when applied to the Holocaust and rescue. It is rarely, if ever, attributed to Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who saved Jews: only their courage, selflessness, and shrewd negotiating skills are extolled. Yet how easily Jews who were involved in rescue have been ascribed ulterior motives, attacked, put on trial, or as in Kasztner’s case, murdered. How readily a consummate liar like Eichmann is believed in his uncensored interview in Lifemagazine where he called Kasztner an “equal partner,” as if there was equality when one party bargains with a gun to his head. Or Hannah Arendt’s deeply misguided indictments of kapos, Jewish Councils and especially Kasztner, plunging them into an even darker post-war grey zone. 

For all the wining and bribing that Oscar Schindler did with Nazis, he is not condemned as a collaborator nor does anyone point to the three million Polish Jews who perished in the Shoah and didn’t make his list. Yet it was the 450,000 Hungarian Jews who died in Auschwitz that weren’t on Kasztner’s list that became his legacy.

I have always felt that the reticence of Jews to acknowledge Jewish rescuers (in occupied Europe) was because it became a terrible mirror Jews held up to themselves, reflecting back a shame and guilt at the inability to save one’s own. If another Jew saved his family or community, what does that mean when others could not? It was better to believe that all were victims, and only Gentiles could save Jews. The very act of survival was once so tainted in “having done something wrong” it could only multiply a thousand fold if one bargained and negotiated actively for many.  

It was especially true in Israel, for the survivors who could not claim the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto or partisan resistance. When the libel trial turned against Kasztner, those he rescued were also caught in the web of Judge Halevi’s unforgiving verdict, “that he sold his soul to the devil.”  For those survivors the letter “c” of collaboration became the mark of Cain branded on their foreheads.

It is gratifying that we have moved well beyond those times, but still have much work to do in recognizing Jewish rescuers. In the last few years, Yad Vashem (who now credits Kasztner with saving 20,000 Jews in the Strasshof labour camp) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York have made real strides to do so. The B’nai B’rith organization has established the Jewish Rescuers Citation “to set right the historic record.”

To this day, the idea of negotiating, to sit down with our enemies, tests our diplomats. They are fearful that they too will be stigmatized for weakness rather than given credit for their judiciousness and realism – their strength. I defer to Kasztner’s own words about rescue:  “Our Jewish heroes did not only die on the battlefield of glory. The battle for the rescue of lives also had its martyrs…Our young comrades from Budapest and Bratislava, Chaluzim and Chaluzot, who took care of those hiding in cellars and bunkers, or the Jews imprisoned in the ghettos, or rescued children from the hands of the murderer,  showed just as much bravery and heroism, as those, who joined the partisans, and with a weapon in their hands, died a heroes death.” 

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Kasztner transport’s, 1,361 Jews,  released from Bergen-Belsen. They arrived at their refuge in Caux, Switzerland on the second night of Chanukah

Gaylen Ross is director of the award-winning film Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis.www.killingkaszstner.com