Commentary

Rudolph Kastner and How History Becomes Midrash

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Seventy-five years ago, 1,354 Jews arrived safely in Switzerland, following a harrowing journey from Nazi-occupied Hungary. The circumstances of their rescue would soon become one of the most contested and politicized topics in popular commemoration of the Holocaust. The pain and confusion endure to this day. 

The agreement reached by their rescuer, Rudolf Kastner, with Nazi leadership in Budapest has been repeatedly re-examined, re-framed, and re-weaponized in the arenas of Israeli politics and the courts of Jewish collective memory. Kastner himself, the survivors, and the victims who perished all deserve an accounting of this episode on its own terms, as a true story and not simply a projection of larger cultural conflicts. It is not clear that we will ever be able to deliver one.

The Kastner story is now told primarily through a contemporary form of midrash agada, the genre of non-legal rabbinic glosses on Tanakh. Indeed, the most influential account of Kastner’s negotiations, a 1961 polemic called Perfidy by Jewish American playwright Ben Hecht, places the author’s assumptions about Kastner’s inner thoughts alongside primary historical sources. For example, when Hecht quotes testimony given by Kastner, he adds: “[Kastner] tries to look like a man searching for the exact truth. But the caution suddenly in his eyes reveals his problem. He is trying to figure out quickly how much [the opposing attorney] can possibly know.”1 In his description of the night of Kastner’s death, Hecht prefaces, “There is no report of his mood and manner in this vital hour, so I must imagine them.”2

This approach mimics a pervasive feature of midrash agada. As Jeffrey Rubenstein has explained, while Tanakh itself rarely spells out the thoughts of its characters, midrashim routinely fill this gap, communicating “the theological concerns of the Sages [as] interior monologues of the biblical characters.”3 Ben Hecht, writing just fifteen years after the events, presents the story as a kind of Biblical history, not constrained by empirical evidence.

For a more precise assessment of the history, we ought to return to the provable facts.4 In the early years of the Nazi conquest of Europe, Kastner, a Jewish lawyer and journalist in Hungary, became active in communal efforts to rescue Jewish refugees. In 1943, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which later evolved into Israel’s founding government, formed its Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest and placed it under Kastner’s leadership. When, in March 1944, Germany carried out its long-expected occupation of Hungary, the country’s 800,000 Jews were suddenly in grave danger. At this late stage of the war, the Nazi SS was prepared to immediately begin transporting these Jews to death camps, unlike in other European countries, where Jews were more gradually disenfranchised, concentrated, and dispossessed while the Nazi machinery of death developed. But first, for reasons still unclear, the Nazis decided to negotiate with the Jewish Agency.

In the spring of 1944, Eichmann and Kastner reached an agreement whereby 1,684 Jews would be dispatched on a train to safety in neutral Switzerland. The list of 1,684 assembled by Kastner included 388 Jews from his small hometown Cluj, among them members of his family and prominent members of the Hungarian Jewish community. Kastner and his colleagues allowed representatives of various Jewish organizations to submit lists of names for inclusion on the train, resulting in a complete list that included Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum and his students alongside leaders of secular Zionist youth groups. 150 passengers bought their way onto the train, and the Aid and Rescue Committee used these funds to cover the Nazi ransom for all 1,684 Jews. 

The rescue train departed from Budapest on June 30, 1944, and Kastner himself did not board. The SS forced the passengers to disembark in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on July 9, 1944. 318 passengers were allowed to continue to Switzerland in August, and the remaining survivors arrived in December. A list of those who arrived safely in Switzerland was recently discovered in the archives of the National Library of Israel and was publicized for the first time in April 2019. It includes 1,672 names, among them the name of my great uncle, the man for whom I am named. He was among the lucky few. By the end of the war, 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime. 

In 1947, Kastner emigrated to Palestine with his family, and he soon entered the inner circle of Israel’s founding Mapai Party, the predecessor of today’s Labor Party. One so-called Revisionist critic of the Jewish Agency/Mapai, a Hungarian oleh, hotel proprietor, and pamphleteer named Malchiel Gruenwald, was the first to shine a spotlight on Kastner’s wartime decisions. In a 1953 pamphlet, hand-distributed for no cost in Jerusalem cafes, Gruenwald accused Kastner, then spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and Industry, of knowingly collaborating with Eichmann to conceal the death camp plot from the masses of Hungarian Jews in exchange for the lives of 1,684 handpicked, elite people.

The Israeli government, seeking to protect the reputation of its officials, sued Gruenwald for defaming Kastner, and the resulting trial became a national spectacle, in essence a trial of Kastner for his wartime conduct. Evidence emerged at trial that Kastner submitted an affidavit in defense of SS leader Kurt Becher to the Nuremberg tribunal organized by Allied powers to try Nazi criminals, and that the Allies acquitted Becher on the strength of Kastner’s testimony. In a June 1955 ruling, Judge Benjamin Halevi ruled in Gruenwald’s favor, finding in Faustian fashion that Kastner “sold his soul to the Satan.” The Supreme Court of Israel overturned most of Halevi’s ruling in 1958 and criticized the judge’s biased reading of historical sources, but it was too late to save Kastner. He was assassinated in front of his Tel Aviv home on March 3, 1957 by right-wing extremist (and former Shin Bet informant) Ze’ev Eckstein. Eckstein and his accomplices were sentenced to life in prison but received a pardon from President Zalman Shazar in May 1963. 

In the eyes of Gruenwald and his supporters, the scandal did not begin or end with Kastner. They charged, and many on the right-wing of Israeli politics continue to charge, that the Jewish Agency chose not to intervene to save European Jewry from the Nazis. This theory achieved international prominence with Perfidy’s publication in 1961. Hecht’s book, a work of stunning prose and righteous anger, places Kastner at the center of a vast Jewish Agency conspiracy to abet the destruction of European Jewry in exchange for international acceptance of a Zionist state. This account depends on ignoring inconvenient facts about the Jewish Agency’s illegal refugee ships that ran the British blockade of Palestine’s coasts. Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt has spoken about Perfidy’s shoddiness as a work of history.5 Nonetheless, Perfidy remains the best known book on the subject. Kastner was cast as a villain in late-twentieth century Israel as well; for decades, Yad Vashem declined to memorialize the work of the Aid and Rescue Committee, and Kastner’s few supporters could not prevail over the uproar to name even a single Haifa street for him.

The slow effort to rehabilitate Kastner went mainstream only in the twenty-first century, largely thanks to two high-profile journalists-turned-politicians: Tommy Lapid (father of Knesset member Yair Lapid), a Holocaust survivor, writer, founder of the secular libertarian Shinui Party, Deputy Prime Minister, Chairman of Yad Vashem’s advisory board, and Kastner’s close friend; and Merav Michaeli, an Army Radio veteran, Haaretz opinion columnist, current Knesset member from the Labor Party, and Kastner’s granddaughter. 

Under Lapid’s leadership, Yad Vashem accepted the Kastner family archive for the first time in 2007.6 A year later, the feature length documentary Killing Kasztner premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.7 The film, directed by Gaylen Ross, explored the damning facts of Kastner’s relationship with Becher and counterposed them with testimony that Kastner sought to warn and mobilize the Hungarian Jewish population while simultaneously negotiating with Eichmann, and with a more recent theory that Kastner’s Becher affidavit was part of a Jewish Agency-sanctioned strategy to redeem Jewish property from former Nazis. These efforts to gradually reframe the Kastner history set the stage for a new, left-wing version of Kastner-themed midrash, advanced by Merav Michaeli.

Michaeli—a central character in Ross’ documentary—ascended to the Knesset in the 2013 elections and dedicated her inaugural Knesset floor address to the heroism of her grandfather. In emotional remarks, Michaeli drew a direct line between the attacks on Kastner’s motives and the vitriol regularly directed at left-wing politicians in Israel: “He [rescued Jews] in a way that appeared to some improper, not sufficiently Jewish, not sufficiently Zionist. I come from a founding dynasty, but also from a dynasty that’s not entirely in the mainstream, not in the consensus … Very often in Israel, any criticism of the State or of the way we conduct ourselves is perceived as no less than an act of treason.” 

As a secular culture warrior and vocal opponent of West Bank settlements, Michaeli soon became a public enemy in Israel’s right-wing religious communities. Her public embrace of her grandfather’s story therefore served to reawaken popular opposition to Kastner, weaponizing it to meet the current political moment. In 2017, the conservative publishing house Sela Me’ir released a new Hebrew edition of Perfidy. Though the book had originated nearly six decades earlier as an effort to introduce the English-speaking public to a controversy already known to Israelis, its mission in 2017 was to re-acquaint Israelis with Kastner, to make a new political issue of old news, and to target the audience thirsty for “the book that Merav Michaeli does not want you to read.”

*

Rudolf Kastner, those he saved, and those he failed to save still cannot get a fair hearing. Seventy-five years ago, a local Jewish community bureaucrat was called upon by history’s most ruthless killer of Jews to face a responsibility of unimaginable stakes. He may have made a catastrophically wrong decision, and for this he has been sentenced to live his afterlife as a blank slate for projection of anxieties and competing national narratives. The retellings of the history supplement the bare facts with features evocative of later events and personalities, designed for the ideological aims of the author.

In a pathbreaking 1974 essay, Joseph Heinemann identified this storytelling method as an important subgenre of midrash aggadah. Heinemann explained that in many cases, the apparent goal of a midrashic text is to “reveal the image of its own age in the ancient Scriptures.”8 This sort of midrash adds details and texture to the Biblical narrative, transforming its meaning on two levels: 

The first deals openly with the explication of the biblical text and the clarification of the biblical narrative, while the second deals much more subtly with contemporary problems that engaged the attention of the homilists and their audience. The aggadists who tell of Korah, the rebellious Levite, and his followers (see Num. 16, etc.), refer, in reality, to the ‘scoffers of this generation’ who despise the sages and their teachings. The rabbis discuss Noah’s coming out of the ark, but the discussion implicitly presents differing attitudes toward the liberation of Israel from foreign oppression. (quoting Bereishit Rabbah 34:4).9

Kastner’s Revisionist critics, including Gruenwald in the 1950s and Hecht in the 1960s, chose to frame him in the wider narrative context of supposed collaboration between the Mapai elite and the Nazis. Gruenwald and Hecht’s own backdrop, the “contemporary problems that engaged the[ir] attention,” was the Reparations Agreement signed by Israel and West Germany in 1953 and opposed fiercely by Revisionist Zionist leader—later Prime Minister—Menachem Begin. Begin famously led the violent anti-reparations march to the Knesset in 1952, protesting, “Our blood shall not be atoned by goods. We shall wipe out the disgrace.”10

Writing in the shadow of Reparations, Begin’s followers like Gruenwald and Hecht turned Kastner into a reflection of their nemesis Ben-Gurion; the latter’s apparent blood money collaboration with the Germans after the fact came into sharper focus if understood as a continuation of a more sinister, unforgivable blood money collaboration during the Holocaust itself. In this presentation, Kastner’s deal must be understood in retrospect as a collaboration with the Nazis, in order to “reveal the image of [the Revisionists’] own age in the ancient Scriptures” of pre-State history (see above, note 8).

Kastner’s defenders have found success by adopting, whether consciously or unconsciously, the historiographic tactics of his critics. Their account emphasizes the facts ignored or distorted by the Revisionists, and their celebration of Kastner depends on framing him as a symbol of broader historical trends: most importantly, as a martyr. 

Merav Michaeli’s midrash of her grandfather focuses less on Kastner’s own decisions and more on what was done to him. In her reductive telling, Kastner’s critics were actually more concerned about Kastner’s tactics and style than his loyalty. The decision to negotiate rather than take up arms was simply “not entirely in the mainstream, not in the consensus” of early Israeli society. As Michaeli described this dynamic on the Knesset floor in 2013, she consciously evoked the place of the contemporary left in an increasingly nationalist, uncompromising political consensus. She returned to this theme in April 2019, responding on Twitter to a new article reprising the theory of Kastner’s complicity in the Hungarian Holocaust. In a series of tweets, Michaeli made the link between the forces arrayed against her grandfather in the 1950s and those arrayed against her today even more explicit: “Kastner was murdered in the State of Israel even though he rescued Jews. He was murdered after a cruel political incitement campaign, for the political benefit of dangerous, messianic right-wing forces. I have the great privilege to be the granddaughter of Israel Kastner.” 

This version of Kastner morphs him into Yitzhak Rabin: slandered, threatened, and murdered by small, cowardly opponents who feared the spirit of diplomacy that he had come to embody. The inclination of Rabin, and Michaeli after her, to secure Israel by dividing it is, needless to say in 2019, no longer “entirely in the mainstream, not in the consensus.” Speaking of her grandfather’s fate and considering her own, Michaeli concluded, “any criticism of the State or of the way we conduct ourselves is perceived as no less than an act of treason.” 

Of course, the real Kastner was neither Ben-Gurion nor Rabin. Unlike Ben-Gurion, the real Kastner never wielded political power; he lived his most consequential moments in quintessential powerlessness, as a Jew at the mercy of the SS. Unlike Rabin, the real Kastner was widely condemned even after, perhaps especially after, his murder; his death neither purified his legacy nor stimulated a public soul-searching. Nonetheless, the real Kastner has by now been replaced by the polemical one. The more these midrashic versions of Kastner take hold in the public, politicized consciousness, the more slippery the true historical facts become. 

As Tamar Schwell observed in 1998, the practice of teaching children the stories of Tanakh alongside the midrashim on those stories tends to stifle their ability to understand Biblical peshat (plain meaning of the text), and the effects are apparent among graduates of traditional Jewish education: 

Because they are never taught otherwise, [children] tend to perceive all that is related to them from the midrash as fact, without ever questioning and understanding the motivating force of the midrash… [M]any children, as they develop into adults, never pay attention to the fact that many of the events that they learned as stories from Tanakh are not actually written in Tanakh. The midrashim that they learned are understood literally and not differentiated from Biblical text.11

My own experience researching and discussing the Kastner history has revealed a similar phenomenon. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have any kind of Jewish communal conversation about Kastner in the post-Hecht era without somebody defaulting to the “history” of Perfidy.

Merav Michaeli has worked to counter this default, not by dissociating her grandfather from the persona symbolizing Labor Zionism, but by reinforcing that association to celebrate the principles of Labor Zionism. Either way, Kastner cannot simply be Kastner; he must live on as a reflection of his camp. 

We can no longer give Kastner a fair hearing on the evidence of his actions, not because the events happened so long ago, but rather for the very opposite reason. The events happened too recently, too far into the era of modern, empirical history for us to recognize that they are susceptible to, and have received, the treatment of midrash. Simply put, very skilled communicators have found political usefulness in the memory of Rudolf Kastner, and they got there first.

  1. See Ben Hecht, Perfidy (New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1961), 46–47.
  2. Ibid., 129.
  3.  Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, “The Exegetical Narrative: New Directions,” Review of Ha-Sipur she-lo’ supar: Omanut ha-sipur ha-mikra’i ha-murhav be-midreshe hazal, by Joshua Levinson, The Jewish Quarterly Review 99, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 103.
  4. See Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale?: Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 19331945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 145–221.
  5. Mark Lawson, Setting the Past Free – Part I (BBC, 2016), audio, 29:45. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0739pgh.
  6. “Yad Vashem Hopes Kastner Archive Will End Vilification,” The Associated Press, July 23, 2007. https://www.haaretz.com/1.4954412.
  7. Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis, directed by Gaylen Ross (2007; Kinonation), Amazon Prime Video. https://www.amazon.com/Killing-Kasztner-Jew-Dealt-Nazis/dp/B076WZ7BYS/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.
  8. Joseph Heinemann, “The Nature of the Aggadah,” trans. Marc Bregman, in Midrash and Literature, eds. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 44.
  9. Ibid., 49.
  10. Herut” Party Head Menahem Begin Addressing a Mass Demonstration Against Negotiations with Germany in Tel Aviv, 1952, National Photograph Collection of Israel, http://gpophotoheb.gov.il/fotoweb/Grid.fwx?search=D523-076.jpg#Preview1.
  11. Tamar Schwell, “Teaching Midrash from a Developmental Perspective,” The Atid Journal (1998), available at http://www.atid.org/journal/journal98/schwell_sum.asp. For further exploration of this phenomenon, see Iscah Waldman, “Understanding the Place of Midrash in the Jewish Day School,” (Doctoral diss., New York University, 2019), 199–205.