Three boxes of documents belonging to Israel Kastner were presented to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem this week. Negotiations between Kastner and Nazi Leader Adolph Eichmann to free Jews in exchange for cooperation from Kastner remain controversial to this day.
The private archives, comprising three boxes of letters of correspondence with Nazi officials, Jewish organizations and families, were presented in an official ceremony on Sunday. In attendance were Kastner's daughter, his granddaughter Merav Michaeli (a popular television personality who MC'ed the event), survivors of the “Kastner Train,” and others.
The papers, which also document Holocaust rescue efforts of the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest, were given to the Holocaust museum by the historian Dov Dinur. Dinur received them in 1981 to help him research the Kastner Affair.
Kastner has long been a controversial figure in Israeli history. A leader of the Zionist movement in Hungary during World War II and the co-chairman of the Relief and Rescue Committee, Kastner aided Jewish refugees who reached Hungary during the first years of World War II.
In April 1944, a month after the invasion of Hungary by the Germans, the Committee began talks with the Nazis regarding the saving of Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods, military equipment and cooperation. These negotiations took place under the shadow of the deportations of over a hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to death camps. In June 1944, a trainload of 1,684 Jews traveled to safety in Switzerland. A Yad Vashem statement says the negotiations also resulted in the diversion of 20,000 Hungarian Jews to an Austrian labor camp, preventing their expulsion to extermination camps.
In 1954, Kastner was accused by Malkiel Grunwald of having collaborated with the Nazis, and Grunwald was sued for libel. Grunwald claimed that Kastner struck a deal with the Nazis whereby he could handpick the 1,684 Jews to be saved on a train to Switzerland in exchange for encouraging the rest of Hungarian Jewry to get on the trains to the death camps.
Concluding a two-year trial that gripped the nation, Judge Binyamin HaLevi acquitted Grunwald and found that Kastner had "sold his soul to the German Satan."
In 1958, Israel's Supreme Court overturned most of the judgment - a year after Kastner's assassination by a Holocaust survivor.
Some consider Kastner a hero who should be credited with the saving of the nearly 1,700 Jews on the "Kastner train." Yad Vashem Chairman Yosef Tommy Lapid, a former government minister and founder of the anti-religious and now-defunct Shinui party, said at the ceremony that Kastner was one of the Holocaust's great heroes. “There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews, and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kastner,” Lapid said. “This is an opportunity to do justice to a man who was misrepresented and was a victim of a vicious attack that led to his death.”
Others, however, agree with Grunwald, who accused Kastner of a series of unforgivable crimes: "costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews;" testifying in Nuremburg in defense of SS Col. Kurt Becher, a high-ranking Gestapo official and murderer; saving "no fewer than 52 of his relatives, and… people with connections," and "making a fortune in the process;" saving many of his own townspeople; and of agreeing to keep quiet about the fate of the other tens or hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were murdered.
Kastner was serving as spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade when Grunwald published his charges in the form of a pamphlet. Representing one side of the long-running controversy, his lone daughter Suzanne said at the ceremony, "I think the State of Israel has finally retrieved some of its lost honor over this entire affair."