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History Still Refuses to Judge Holocaust Rescuer Rudolph Kasztner

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Defending himself against libel, Kasztner soon found himself on trial for collaborating with the Nazis.

Hero or villain? Rescuer or collaborator? Traitor or victim? Rudolph Kasztner stands as a tortured example of the moral quagmire known as the Holocaust.

On March, 19, 1944, Hungary succumbed to German occupation, and Hungarian Jewry faced its inevitable demise.

Kasztner, a Jewish-Hungarian journalist and lawyer, had helped set up the Budapest Aid and Rescue committee that is credited with helping 22,000-25,000 Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe reach the relative safety of Hungary between 1941 and March 1944.

Faced with a new reality of the Nazi occupation and the subsequent deportation of Hungarian Jews to the death camps, Kasztner used his position and connections to devise a new rescue plan. Kasztner believed that the best way to save Hungarian Jewry— the last Jewish community in Europe—was to negotiate with the German authorities.

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A documentary about Kasztner examined the controversial figure vilified as a collaborator despite having engineered the largest rescue effort in Holocaust history.

In late June 1944, Kasztner paid Adolph Eichmann to release some 1,700 Jews by train to Switzerland. Kasztner and other Jewish leaders drew up a list of Jews to be released, including leading wealthy Jews, Zionists, rabbis, Jews from different religious communities, artists, orphans, students, and Kasztner’s own family and friends. The train also carried the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.

The Kasztner train, as it came known, did indeed eventually reach the safety of Switzerland and most of the 1,684 passengers survived, including Rabbi Teitelbaum, who founded the Satmar community in Brooklyn.

Kasztner settled in Israel after the war, and entered public service. Accusations that he collaborated with the Nazis led to an infamous libel trial that has repercussions to this day.

Professor Zach Levey will discuss the profound effect that the trial had on Israeli society at Menorah’s Scholars Series: CU at the J, Thursday, March 3, at 7 pm at the Boulder JCC. To make a reservation for A Trial in Jerusalem: Rudolph Kasztner Re-Examined, CLICK HERE.

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The Israeli court declared that the morality of Kasztner’s actions must be left to history to judge. And here we are, 72 years later, still struggling with the legacy not only of the man punished for his imperfect but successful rescue efforts, but struggling to understand his vilification.

Zach Levey is associate professor, chair of the Division of International Relations in the School of Political Science, and director of the program in Diplomacy Studies at the University of Haifa. He completed his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1994 and taught at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) until 1997, when he joined the faculty at the University of Haifa. He has also been visiting professor (2009-2011) at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Professor Levey’s areas of research, scholarship and teaching are The Cold War, U.S.-Israeli relations, Israel’s foreign policy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. His publications include two sole-authored books and seventeen articles in leading academic journals. He is currently a visiting professor in CU’s International Affairs Program.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Founding Director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time." She was also Director of Menorah and ACE at the J from 2003 through August, 2019.

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