In the midst of all our worries about Gaza comes the long-awaited DVD version of Gaylen Ross' fascinating documentary Killing Kasztner about a Hungarian man who was said to have "sold his soul to the Devil" because he negotiated with the Nazis to save Jewish lives.
"Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust have been recognized very late at Yad Vashem, and they're not recognized at all in America," Gaylen Ross told me, when I interviewed her in 2009 just before Killing Kasztner's first Chicago screening at the Music Box Theatre. "Many Jewish rescuers had no guns, but they were forging documents, smuggling, doing all sorts of things to save lives."
Rezso Kasztner was a leading member of a Zionist rescue group in Budapest when the Germans occupied Hungary in March, 1944. This was late in the War, the Germans were clearly losing, and in a sudden about face, Adolf Eichmann offered to negotiate. His goal? Sell Hungarian Jews to the Allies in exchange for cash and supplies.
After the war, Kasztner made aliyah, but once in Israel, he was condemned as a collaborator. In Killing Kasztner, Ross forces us to confront the paradox of negotiation, an urgent issue that is just as relevant today as it was in 1944. How do we know if we've crossed the line from "negotiation" to "appeasement"? Is this just a debate for historians after the fact? Can a man like Kasztner, acting in the role of a negotiator, ever be considered "a hero" or a "role model" for others?
Some of my colleagues have written about Killing Kasztner as if it were merely an apologia for a long forgotten figure from the final days of the Holocaust, but that was not the film I saw, and I am sure that was never Ross' intention. "What do we do with our negotiators?" Ross asks. "We condemn them before they even get to the table!"
We already know what happens in the absence of negotiation. But Rezso Kasztner's daughter Zsuzsi, a woman who was excoriated as a child because her father dared to stand face-to-face with monsters, begs us to consider new possibilities: "The concept of heroism," she says, "It is not always at the end of the barrel of the gun."
Note that Ross has created many "Bonus Features" for the DVD. In addition to disc one (her original 2-hour documentary), there is now a Disc Two which contains extended one-on-one interviews with many of her sources, as well as panel discussions recorded at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Touro Law School, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Photos of Rezso Kasztner and survivors of the "Kasztner Train" courtesy of Gaylen Ross and Zsuzsi Kasztner Michaeli.