Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis is a controversial new documentary, written and directed by Gaylen Ross, which opened at the Screen on Friday, Feb. 19 (for additional movie showtimes, see the bottom of this post). SFR had an opportunity to chat with the director, who spent six years working on Kasztner, about the film.
Killing Kasztner sheds light on Rudolf Kasztner, one of the most controversial figures in Holocaust history. Many credit him with saving the lives of thousands of Jews (some say he saved more than did the famed Oskar Schindler). However, after his death, some claimed he was, in fact, a Nazi collaborator. Ross interviewed survivors of his rescue trains, his assassin, and his living daughter to create a unique image of a figure who is coming back into the international consciousness.
SFR: When did you first hear of Rudolf Kasztner?
GR: In 1997, a woman who was a Holocaust survivor had told me that she was rescued and came to Switzerland on the Kasztner train. I didn't know what she was talking about. I had never heard of Kasztner. From an American perspective, he was completely unknown. I started to research the story—people weren't talking about him. Museums just didn't discuss or acknowledge Kasztner. I thought that this was quite amazing in itself because what was the largest rescue of its kind, certainly by any Jew during the Holocaust, was not even a topic of conversation. As I did the research, I realized all the controversy, the lies and misinformation and rumors and falsehoods that were perpetuated around the rescue, was a politicization of the Holocaust that happened in Israel. How Kasztner was at the center of it and became collateral damage, in many ways.
Where did you begin your research?
I was working with a consultant, Egon Mayer. He was actually the only one who was keeping the flame alive in America about Kasztner. His story was that his mother was pregnant with him while they were on the train. He was born in Switzerland. Later, he was collecting documents and doing research, and he created a website in the very early days of websites. Then there was one symposium on Kasztner, the only one in America, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—and I went. I was really amazed by the passion and emotions that people had when they mentioned his name and talked about him. From both sides, there were the people that considered him a traitor for not saving all of them or having made a secret deal to save a few, and those who looked at him as somebody that was a rescuer who was besmirched and destroyed by history.
Could you discuss Kasztner's rescue work?
Kasztner was a part of the government when he moved back to Israel. He was doing the rescue work up until the end of the war—he stayed in Germany even though his family was on the train and were safe in Switzerland. He stayed to continued the rescue work, not just the train which was an amazing story in itself that went from Budapest, not directly to Switzerland, but was stopped in Bergen-Belsen—a concentration camp—and was held for ransom there for five or six months until everybody was saved. And then Kasztner continued his efforts. There were about 18,000 people attributed to Kasztner's negotiations who survived the war in the labor camps; people who normally would have been shipped directly to Auschwitz—women, children, the elderly, the sick— and survived. And he continued his work. There were all sorts of negotiations and deals going on with Himmler. They stopped on Himmler's orders, the murder in the concentration camps, so the Jews could be left alive for liberation. Then he went to Switzerland; then Kasztner moved to Israel and became part of the government.
When did you decide that the story of Kasztner would become a documentary film?
You know, you hear these stories and they're filed somewhere, then I started to do the research. I started talking to people and began to understand the controversy. It became incredibly difficult because nobody wanted to fund this film. You know, it's like, ‘Kasztner? Go find something else to do; go find something easier to do; it's too difficult, too complicated to tell this story.' So of course it made me want to tell it more. The way I started, I was initially going to really locate the story in Hungary where the negotiations happened at the end of the war: The rescue efforts that Kasztner was in the middle of. And then I realized that unless I moved the story to Israel, people would not understand why Kasztner was condemned. I thought I understood the politics around that but it actually became a much, much more complicated film to do once I realized I had to move it to Israel. Trying to explain Israeli politics from 1948 to 1955 is almost impossible for Israelis to understand because it's so divided from bitter riffs between the right-wing and the left-wing, much of which was because of what happened in the Holocaust and people feeling the need to blame someone for not saving or not rescuing. So there were so many factors involved in the story of Kasztner in Israel, and of course the trial happened there, and then the assassination.
Could you describe how Kasztner's trial led to his assassination?
The detractors of Kasztner and those who blamed him for not saving their families, their community, became difficult. One of the people published a tract that blamed Kasztner and accused him of all sorts of horrible things, including profiting from the money that he used for the ransom of Jews. The government ended up suing on behalf of Kasztner; and it was a criminal libel suit. What happens often in these libel suits is that they end up turning against the people that make the suits, and in this case it did. The judge ended up condemning Kasztner and he ended up with this horrible legacy, which was that of the man who sold his soul to the devil, even though the verdict was overturned a few years later by the Supreme Court. In between that he was probably the most hated man in Israel. Being told that you collaborated with the Nazis and you sold your soul to the devil was practically a death sentence in Israel at the that time, in 1955. So these Jewish extremists, one of which was named Ze'ev Eckstein ended up killing Kasztner, murdering him at his doorstep in Tel Aviv. And of course a year after the assassination, the Supreme Court overturned the verdict, but too late.
What was it like working and dealing with an assassin? A murderer?
I was having a dialogue with him. I never, you know, sympathized with what Eckstein did. He was a young man of 23 and they, he and the two others that were convicted, only served seven years in prison—out of a life sentence. Their sentence was commuted, which was remarkable in itself. So they spent most of their life out of prison and, in the interview, I essentially was looking for what was the transforming power that made a young man who knew nothing about the Holocaust—he grew up in Palestine, never stepped foot in Europe, only knew what he knew from ideologues and from headlines and reading about Kasztner—and was turned from a normal young person, or seemingly normal, into a murderer. This really was the core of the interview. He talked at length. At the same time I was researching, we actually went back to court trials of the assassin 50 years ago and took out all the documents we could, including ballistic tests and autopsy reports and initial testimonies, translated them all into English and then weighed that against the interview I had with him. So I was constantly looking back and forth from what he was saying now to what I knew was on record. It was a real coordination of information so I could be sure to get as accurate a story as possible. Although, he always kept certain things to himself and was either afraid or didn't want to tell. He starts the film by telling me he'll tell me the truth, but not the whole truth. That's how we begin. As much as I can get all the truth, I think I did, but he was pointing to a number of things that I try to fill in during the film.
Were there any topics you would like to have covered but couldn't out of necessity? (The film currently clocks in at 116m.)
I think the story could've been an epic. I think you could go on for five hours with this. There were many things that were left out of the film and many, many interviews with survivors that I would have loved to have in: Their experiences on the train and in Bergen-Belsen and after the war. And they are historical records that we're going to donate to Yad Vashem, which is the memorial in Israel for the Holocaust, so they can be looked at by historians and people who are interested and of course we'll add those to the DVD when it's released.
Could you speak about your documentary production? How many hours of footage did you collect before you began editing down?
Well, it's always like that with a documentary—you end up having hundreds of hours of footage. The difficulty is always in the edit room. I spent two years in the edit room—I mean, it really took that long to figure out the story, how to shape it, what we were going to tell, how to weave because I'm constantly weaving the present tense with the past tense. This was not a story of the past tense. It was a story very much being told today in their personal response to Kasztner; the survivors trying to rehabilitate his name; the family living through that experience; the assassin of course; and the political detractors of Kasztner who were very much in efforts to bring down not just Kasztner but the State of Israel who they had their own political agenda. All of that had to be woven in a way that told a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and an end. I started filming and, like with a lot of documentaries, we wait for money, we get money, we film a little more.
How has the public's perception of Kasztner developed in recent years?
So from the time I started filming Kasztner in 2001 to when we really stopped filming in 2007, a lot of things happened. One of the things at Yad Vashem they started to include Jewish rescuers because Jews weren't honored at all. They weren't even recognized there, and I still think in many ways they're not acknowledged here; it's always the Jews that were the victims and were saved by non-Jews like Schindler. Of course everybody knows Schindler because he became the subject of the Steven Spielberg's film. But the stories of Kasztner and the Jews he rescued were completely not talked about and not recognized. So since then, that's now become a part of Yad Vashem and hopefully will become a part of American institutions as well.
How has the story continued to develop since the conclusion of the film?
In Israel it's been amazing. We opened the film a year ago in theaters to incredible success and audiences that were overflowing. What was also remarkable was after this, the television broadcast decided to show the film, uncut—the longer version, it's more than two hours in Israel—on prime-time for the one of the most reverent days of the year: The Holocaust memorial day in April. This is a day when everything in Israel stops, completely stops. In the evening they showed Kasztner. It was almost revolutionary, that Kasztner would have been featured on this incredible day. While there was some criticism of it, Yad Vashem said they wanted to present it too. So there was not only a broadcast, but there was a huge screening of the film in the Jerusalem Center for Performing Arts, which is their major arts center, to about five hundred people. You know, that happened in a country where the man was condemned in a trial and assassinated. And we're hoping that this will start to happen here among museums and institutions and television. You know, whether people are Jewish or not Jewish, this is just a remarkable story. In the same way people were fascinated by Schindler, this is more remarkable because here you have a Jew who certainly was not an equal negotiator to Eichmann. He could have been killed at any time, going into the gestapo headquarters, but he went in day after day after day negotiating; trying to deal with bribes; trying to deal with the Nazis; and saving lives; and getting this rescue train.
Whose idea was it to orchestrate the encounter between Kasztner's daughter and the assassin?
Zsuzsi Kasztner always wanted to meet him. She always wanted to meet the man who murdered her father. I think, in her way, she never believed, and I think she is right, that the story began and ended with him; that he was only part of a larger picture. Without getting into conspiracy, and you know, that kind of thing, I think it's absolutely reasonable to think in many ways that Kasztner was a liability at this time for many reasons—to the government for what he knew. There were many, many questions about the murder which were never answered: Like, why were the bodyguards of Kasztner removed only a week or so before the murder? Kasztner had bodyguards; his life was always in jeopardy. His daughter had concerns and she wanted to meet him, and the assassin had always declined and was nervous about it, feeling that he might be attacked. I think it was emotionally too difficult. In any case, I created a neutral place, and the ground-rules were simply they could stop and start this meeting whenever they wanted. And I think he was glad that he met with her. I don't want to tell too much of the story, but they actually go off and talk by themselves, away from the camera. We never knew what they said, that became very private between them.
If you could, discuss the reactions to your film.
Well, the film has had incredible response from Kasztner survivors and family and people who espouse it like one of these great stories from history that they wish they had known about and are fascinated by. And then there will always be those people who blame Kasztner, who feel he was a collaborator, that he did not save people when could have saved people. I mean, the logic of this makes no sense to me; you know, how one Jew was responsible for saving a million Jews. Putting it all on Kasztner, I think that's the kind of thing one does with scapegoating; the traditional, biblical thing with a scapegoat is you put all the guilt and the sin on this animal and send them out to the desert to die, and that seems to me the absolute equivalent of what happened with Kasztner.
How do you react to those who remain openly critical of Kasztner?
So I also get the hate-mail: Why are you white-washing this man? How can you ascend him? I think the hardest thing is that in the film, I try to say, ‘Look'—I pose the question—‘if you want to look at the new research, if you want to look at the new archives, if you want to look at the new interpretation, then great. If you want to stay with the history of 60 years ago, it's sort of like saying, well, you're going to continue to believe that the world is flat by knowledge.' And I can't argue with that, you know. There are people who are going to tell you that the world is flat because that's what somebody said 1,000 years ago or 800 years ago. Well, how can you answer that if that's all they want to look at? And I think the same thing is true with Kasztner. I can understand people still having concerns about Kasztner without knowing the full story, because I certainly don't know the full story. Maybe we never will. Maybe that's what's so great about this episode, that there is mystery that will always continue to be mystery. But at least look at the facts. That's all.
College of Santa Fe
1600 St. Michael's Drive
Showtimes this week:
Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 25 and 26 at 1:30
Sunday, Feb. 28 10:40 am