Hero, Villain or Victim

“Killing Kasztner” Program Sparks Passionate Debate, Raises Questions

Panelists (L-R): Joseph Berger, Gaylen Ross, Richard Weisberg and Mordecai Paldiel

In the darkened auditorium, a quote from Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo flashed across the screen: “Unhappy is the land that has no heroes.”

“No,” read the next line. “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

More than 200 students from Yeshiva University’s undergraduate colleges, its Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School and the New School, gathered in Weissberg Commons on October 20th for an exclusive screening and panel discussion of the documentary Killing Kasztner. Orchestrated by the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM), a student-run organization, in conjunction with Cardozo, the evening featured four speakers with differing perspectives on events depicted in the film: Dr. Joseph Berger, a Holocaust survivor saved through Israel Kasztner’s efforts; Holocaust expert, Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, assistant professor of Jewish history at YU and a former director of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous; Richard Weisberg, Walter Floersheimer Professor of Constitutional Law at Cardozo; and Gaylen Ross, the film’s director.

The case of Kasztner has been a contentious and unsettling footnote in post-Holocaust history for decades. Kasztner, a Jewish Hungarian lawyer, successfully negotiated with senior SS officer Adolf Eichmann for the release of a train carrying 1,684 Jews in exchange for money, gold and diamonds in late 1944. Though he considered himself a hero and went on to become a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry, in 1952, Kasztner was accused of Nazi collaboration. He was assassinated in March 1957. His legacy remains uncertain; in Holocaust narratives across the globe the people he saved, and those he did not, struggle with the morally ambiguous implications of his actions.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDsAiRbw39c

“Our panel was chosen to represent voices from a variety of backgrounds, all introduced to the Kasztner case through emotional and scholarly exploration,” said Simon Goldberg, president of SHEM. “We hope that reflecting on this mysterious figure will not only illuminate the circumstances that tied the hands of Israel Kasztner over 70 years ago but which tie the hands of all human beings trying to make sense of ethical dilemmas today.”

The film sparked a lively debate between the panelists over the role Kasztner played in the salvation of thousands of European Jews, as well as what responsibility, if any, should be assigned to him for the thousands he allegedly betrayed by providing assistance to Nazis. Weisberg noted that the central question posed by the documentary is one the Israeli government faces on a regular basis: “Can heroes negotiate with the enemy? Is it ever appropriate to engage in dialogue with limitless evil?”

For students, the night was an eye-opener. Members of the audience lingered long after the formal part of the evening had ended, engaged in earnest discussion with the panelists. Now that Yad Vashem had acknowledged Kasztner’s efforts, was his name cleared? Should his killers, who had been released from prison after only seven years, be retried? How did Ross’s film compare to Ben Hecht’s more than thirty-year-old chronicle of the event, Perfidy?

Simon Goldberg, president of SHEM

“Our aim is to provide young people with a variety of platforms through which to explore and grapple with the lessons of the Holocaust,” added Goldberg, who is majoring in history and political science at Yeshiva College. “We believe that dialogue facilitates moral growth and that we can equip students with the tools to become Holocaust educators in a world where memory is increasingly challenged.”

“I think Michael Berenbaum described it best,” said Ross. “‘This was a time of choices when there were no choices to be made.’”

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