A couple of weeks ago I watched the Storyville programme about Kastner (entitled “The Jew who talked to the Nazis”), and it stirred me up a lot. Few people who read the broadsheet newspapers (or the Jewish Chronicle) can have missed the row over Joe Allen’s play “Perdition” a few years ago; so the suggestion that some Zionists were involved in some dealings with the Nazis is not exactly news. And though everyone who writes about this feels compelled to act as if they are personally revealing something that has long been hidden, in fact there is a long and detailed account of Kastner and others’ roles in Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial.
For years the subject was also used as a stick by the Zionist right to beat Labour Zionists – as represented, for example, in Ben Hecht’s book “Perfidy”; more recently Lenni Brenner has written several books which meticulously document the involvements of the Zionist Right (especially Lehi) with attempts to do a deal with the Nazis. Proper historians, including Jewish and Zionists ones, know all about what happened, and the indignation of the Jewish community about the Allen play was either fake or ignorant. There is a debate to be had about how we should interpret and even judge these episodes, and what we can learn from the; but it shouldn’t be based on denial of the facts.
Nevertheless, the Storyville film not only told the story rather well, but did manage to tell me a lot that I didn’t know. I knew that Kastner had been assassinated after a Pyrhrric victory in his libel action, but had always assumed it was the work of crazed individual. The film not only show that the assassin had been part of an underground rightwing group (which had also attempted to blow up the Soviet embassy in Israel) but also that the group had been penetrated by the Shin Bet, and that there seems good reason to suspect that the Israeli authorities knew about the planned assassination but chose not to prevent it.
Why? Perhaps because Kastner had been giving witness statements on behalf of Nazis at their trials after the war – and that he had been doing this so that they would reveal the whereabouts of money looted from holocaust victims. The money was then transferred to the Israeli state, though not to descendants of the victims or other survivors. Evidence of Kastner’s statements for the various Nazis had emerged at the libel trial and had very much influenced the judge’s attitude towards him, yet Kastner had not given an explanation as to why he appeared to be helping these odious men when there were no longer any Jews to save. The film suggests that the assassins were allowed to go ahead with their plans because Kastner knew too much; it also shows that the murderers served relatively short sentences. Curiously, the actual assassin, who is still alive and was interviewed for the film, is one of the most sympathetic characters in it.
Also interesting in the film is the close collaboration between Uri Avnery and the right-wing lawyer (a Herut leader) for the defendant in the libel trial. We’re used to seeing Avnery as a peacenik, but his political career is much more chequered than that. He started out on the right, and obviously maintained links there in the muck-raking days of Haolam Hazeh.
The film also shows the way that the Jews rescued by Kastner were made to feel like they were the wrong sort of survivor. I suspect many survivors in Israel felt like that. The fact that the Kastner episode happened in Hungary, and that at least some Zionists seem to have had scant regard for the assimilated Hungarian Jews, may also have played a part.