|March 31, 1998|
Dear Ms. McLellan:
My understanding is that the international press has accused Canada of lagging behind other countries in its prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and that the current increase in visible activity of your war crimes unit is your response to this accusation.
In an effort to assist you in estimating what the international norms are in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, I bring to your attention the case of Dr. Israel Kastner accused in Israel of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary during 1944-1945. As Israel is one of the leading repositories of victims of the Nazis, and as it more than any other country takes a vocal stand in opposition to Nazism, we may expect that its treatment of Nazi war criminals will be exemplary, and that it will offer a model for Canada to emulate.
The Kastner Trial
My information concerning the Kastner trial is taken from Akiva Orr, Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crises, Pluto Press, London and Boulder Colorado, 1994, ISBN 0-7453-0766-3, Chapter 9, "The Kastner Case, Jerusalem 1955," pp. 81-116. I present Akiva Orr's account from his own point of view, without digressing to speculate about its accuracy.
The Kastner case is as follows. In 1954, a 71-year-old Hungarian Jew, Malkiel Greenwald accused another Hungarian Jew, 48-year-old Dr. Israel Kastner — both living in Israel — of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary in 1944-1945. The Israeli government's response was instructive, and contrasts starkly with the response of the Canadian government in similar situations. The Israeli government initiated a libel action against the accuser, Greenwald!
Author Akiva Orr relates the thoughts that arose in the minds of Israelis at the time of these events:
|Who is this Greenwald, and who is this Kastner? What exactly did Greenwald say about Kastner? Where did he say it? Why didn't Kastner himself sue for libel? Why did the government find it necessary to sue an individual for libelling another individual? How was it possible for a Jewish collaborator with the Nazis to live in Israel for nine years without being publicly denounced? (p. 81)|
The answers to these questions, much abbreviated, are what I will discuss below.
I begin with the leading figures in the case: the accuser Greenwald had arrived in Palestine in 1938, and in the course of mailing pamphlets to members of the political party Mizrahi, accused Kastner of assisting the Nazis in their extermination of some 500,000 Hungarian Jews, and called for a public enquiry. The accused Kastner, in turn, had assumed various leadership roles within the Jewish community in Hungary during the war. He arrived in Palestine in 1946, joined Ben-Gurion's MAPAI party, occupied several prominent positions, among them Spokesman of the Trade and Industry Ministry, Director of Broadcasts in Hungarian and Rumanian, Chief Editor of Uj Kelet, and Chairman of the Organization of Hungarian Jewry.
Although accuser Greenwald — being sued by the Israeli government for libel — was the defendant in the trial and Nazi collaborator Kastner merely a witness for the prosecution, Orr points out that "it was the pressure of the questions of the defence, and his [Kastner's] own evasions, contradictions and lies that transformed Kastner from a witness into a defendant" (p. 82), and thus transformed the trial into the "Kastner trial."
What was Kastner's crime?
Adolph Eichmann, arriving in Budapest on 19 March 1944, concentrated first on shipping the 500,000 of Hungary's Jews living outside Budapest to Auschwitz for extermination. To accomplish this task, Eichmann was under-staffed, having only his own SS team of 150 men, and with only a few thousand Hungarian soldiers available for assistance. Given the shortage of manpower to administer the mass deportation, Eichmann's plan could have been resisted and perhaps even largely defeated — many of the Jews were young, had had military training in the Hungarian army, and so were capable of resistance, or at least of hiding or flight. And yet the Jews did none of these things, but instead showed up dutifully at the trains. Why this cooperation? Because the Jews believed that they were merely being resettled. Some even made efforts to get on the earlier trains in order to have a better choice of housing in the new settlements:
|Given the acute shortage of Nazi manpower and the general retreat of the German Army, Eichmann knew that it was absolutely essential that the destination of the trains be kept secret from the Jews. Had they known their destination they would have made every effort to avoid deportation, and many could have escaped. Eichmann knew that the Jews would not trust the Nazis or the Hungarian authorities. The only people they would trust were their own leaders. He and his staff had to make sure that the Jewish leaders would not inform the rest of the Jews about the destination of the trains. (p. 85)|
|Instead of information, the Jewish leaders provided the adults with sandwiches and the children with milk for the journey. Had these had knowledge of hot ovens instead of parcels of cold food, they would have been less ready to board the trains and the whole action of deportation would have been slowed down. (Rudolph Vrba, in Orr, p. 88)|
The plan to sacrifice 500,000 so that 600 could be saved, obviously, had to be withheld from the 500,000. At the same time, however, it had to be withheld from the 600 as well — for if they were to be informed that they alone were to be saved, this would ultimately have led to the 500,000 learning that they had been condemned.
The Three Paratroopers
As a demonstration of the concreteness and detail of the charges against Kastner, we may note the case of the three paratroopers. That is, three young Hungarian Jews who had joined the Haganah in Palestine parachuted into Yugoslavia and clandestinely made their way back into Hungary in April 1944 with the mission of, among other things, warning Hungarian Jews of their impending extermination, and of organizing resistance and escape. One of these, Bela Senesh, was captured crossing the border into Hungary, was tortured, and shot in October. Concerning Bela Senesh, Judge Ha'elvi writes:
|Kastner did nothing for Hannah Senesh. ... Kastner didn't visit Hannah in prison, didn't appoint a lawyer, didn't approach the department for POWs at the Swiss Embassy, and prevented Kraus from approaching it, didn't reply to Hannah's appeals to him, didn't send her any parcel, didn't receive her mother who tried, unsuccessfully, to see him, didn't inform the head of the committee, the late Dr. Komoly who was a family friend of the Seneshes and knew Hannah personally, about her being in prison in Budapest. (p. 100)|
Given that even Kastner's best efforts might have been unable to prevent Hannah's torture and execution, his neglect of her is possibly less blameworthy than his treatment of the other two paratroopers. These two succeeded in reaching him. Kastner was dismayed at their arrival, informed on them to the Gestapo, and applied the strongest pressure on them to surrender to Nazi authorities. Judge Ha'levi summarizes the events thusly:
|It has been proved that Kastner forced the two paratroopers, with extremely heavy moral pressure exercised secretly and on the basis of false explanations, to give up their duty. That Kastner informed the head of the Gestapo about the two paratroopers. That Kastner tried, by his pressure and tricks already mentioned to make the paratroopers hand themselves over to the Gestapo and succeeded at that stage with Palgi. It had also been proved that these acts were not done on behalf of the paratroopers, but, on the contrary, endangered their lives.|
In the end, both paratroopers were sent to Auschwitz. One, Goldstein, perished there. The other, Nusbacher, escaped, returned to Palestine, and became head of El-Al, the Israeli national airline.
The Court's Decision
In the end, Orr describes President of the Court, Dr. Benjamin Ha'levi's decision as follows:
He grouped Greenwald's accusations against Kastner into four headings:|
1. collaboration with the Nazis
2. "indirect murder" or "preparing the ground for murder" of Hungary's Jews
3. sharing plunder with a Nazi war criminal
4. saving that war criminal from punishment after the war.
After an exhaustively reasoned judgment of 200 pages, he ruled that apart from the third charge all charges were true and therefore not libellous. Charge 3 he found not fully proven, and he fined Greenwald a symbolic single Israeli pound. He ordered the government to pay the costs of the trial. (p. 83)
The newspaper headlines next morning were "Kastner has sold his soul to the devil."
|The government immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. It took another three years before the five members of the Supreme Court gave judgment. Before that, on 3 March 1957, Kastner was shot by an Israeli and died two weeks later. (p. 84)|
|Even before the Supreme Court heard the appeal, Kastner was assassinated. On the evening of 4 March 1957 he was shot outside his house by Ze'Ev Ekstein, who was then driven away by Dan Shemer in a stolen jeep. The police arrested them in their homes that same night. Next morning the police had their confessions. A third man, Joseph Menkes, was arrested a little later. Shemer and Ekstein were former employees of the Israel Secret Service. On the day of the assassination an agent of the Secret Service warned his superiors that the assassination would take place that night. No precautions were taken. (p. 112)|
|In the 1980s a campaign to rehabilitate Kastner started in Israel. It culminated, on 26 July 1993, in a decision proposed by Mayor Shlomo Lahat to the Tel Aviv city council, to name a street after Kastner. The resolution was passed by a considerable majority.|
Before appearing as a witness in a court did you consider the problem of whether it is a national crime or national sin to testify on behalf of [SS member] Becher?|
Did anyone tell you that you committed a national crime by testifying on behalf of Becher? Did they tell you in the [Jewish] Agency that you committed a national crime?
But do you know of a case apart from Becher's [where a Jew testified on behalf of a Nazi]? (pp. 102-103)
And we see allusion again to that same inhibitory pressure in the following excerpt from the Kastner trial transcript where questions are being asked by a Mr. Tamir of a Mr. Dobkin, the latter being a member of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency, and as well in the excerpt following that:
Tamir: "Mr. Dobkin, when did you first hear the name of the SS officer Kurt Becher?|
Dobkin: "I met this name for the first time only now, when I read the report about the trial."
"There is a version that you and Barlass agreed that Kastner should testify on Becher's behalf and even add a recommendation in your name. Do you remember such a thing?
"No. I don't remember any such thing. I don't remember discussing this subject with him."
"Did you know that Dr. Kastner was going to Nurenberg to testify?"
"I cannot remember."
"Did you ever face a moral dilemma for testifying on behalf of a Nazi?"
"Were you authorized — as head of the Jewish Organizations Department [in the Agency] — to give permission to testify on behalf of an SS General or Colonel?"
"I had no authority in these matters."
"Do you remember a debate in the Executive of the Agency on the problem of testifying on behalf of a Nazi?" (pp. 113-114)
|Kastner testified under oath in court that Eiyah Dobkin and Haim Barlass authorized him on behalf of the Agency to testify in Nurenberg on behalf of the SS Colonel Becher. (Joel Brand, Satan and the Soul, in Akiva Orr, p. 114)|