by Ben Hecht
To Samuel Tamir–
“A man stood up in Israel.”
INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW EDITION
What has come to be known as the “Kastner Affair” was one of the most painful chapters in the history of the state of Israel. The American fascina- tion with the recent O.J. Simpson trials pales in comparison to the degree to which the Israeli public and government were preoccupied with the progress of this nine-month trial in 1954–55. In the wake of the verdict of the trial, the Israeli government fell.
For the conspiracy-minded, the Kastner Affair has everything. The trial results were appealed, but before the appeal could be heard, Kastner was mur- dered. Some blamed right-wing fanatics and others believed that Israeli in- telligence had Kastner killed for fear of what he might reveal about contacts between the Nazis and the Israeli government during the time of the Holo- caust.
Despite the sensational nature of the Kastner Affair, it is little known today. It’s painful revelations, many feel, are best forgotten. A definitive history of the episode has yet to be written.1 Here are the basic facts:
In a pamphlet published in August 1952, Malchiel Greenwald, an Israeli citizen who had come to Palestine from Hungary in 1938, accused Rudolf Kastner, at the time the press spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in Israel, of testifying on behalf of SS Lieutenant General Kurt Becher and thus saving him from punishment for his war crimes. Greenwald further accused Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis and contributing to the death of over 400,000 Hungarian jewish people during WWII when Kastner served as a major leader of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee in Hungary.
Kastner was an intimate of high Labor government officials, and the gov- ernment had to decide whether to defend Kastner or fire him. In 1953, the Government of Israel brought charges against Malchiel Greenwald for slandering Rudolph Kastner. The trial lasted from January until the end of September, 1954. After deliberating another nine months, Judge Benjamin Halevi found Greenwald innocent, explicitly accusing Kastner of collaboration and aiding in the defense of Nazi General Kurt Becher:
The Nazi’s patronage of Kastner, and their agreement to let him save six hundred prominent jewish people, were part of the plan to exterminate the jewish people. Kastner was given a chance to add a few more to that number. The bait attracted him. The opportunity of rescuing prominent people appealed to him greatly. He considered the rescue of the most important jewish people as a great
personal success and a success for Zionism. It was a success that would also justify his conduct - his political negotiation with Nazis and the Nazi patronage of his committee. When Kastner received this present from the Nazis, Kastner sold his soul to the German Satan.....2
On the charge that Kastner was instrumental in saving Nazi Becher from punishment, Judge Halevi ruled:
It is clear that the positive recommendation by Kastner, not only in his own name but also in the name of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish World Congress was of decisive importance for Becher. Kastner did not exaggerate when he said that Becher was released by the Allies because of his personal intervention. The lies in the affidavit of Kastner and the contradictions and various pretexts, which were proven to be lies, were sufficient to annul the value of his statements and to prove that there was no good faith in his testi- mony in favor of this German war criminal. Kastner’s affidavit in favor of Becher was a willfully false affidavit given in favor of a war criminal to save him from trial and punishment in Nuremberg.3
The verdict was a major blow to the ruling Labor coalition. Kastner’s name, which had been part of the Mapai list to be submitted to the electorate the following month, was removed.
Just as the government initially had to decide whether to fire Kastner or file charges against his accuser, they now faced a similar dilemma - to appeal the verdict or not. Respected political journalist of Haaretz newspaper, Moshe Keren, was very critical of Judge Halevi’s verdict, yet wrote:
Kastner must be brought to a trial as a Nazi collaborator. And at this trial Kastner should defend himself as a private citizen, and not be defended by the Israeli government.4
On p. 164 of this book, Ben Hecht tells us:
After writing seven installments on the Kastner case, Dr. Keren flew to Germany. His intention was to interview Kurt Becher. A few days after his arrival in Germany, journalist Keren was found dead in a German hotel. The diagnosis was “heart attack.”
Two opposition parties filed no-confidence motions against the govern- ment. Prime Minister Sharett demanded the government appeal, but faced a
revolt within his own cabinet. Not only did the General Zionists, who had three ministers in the ruling coalition, oppose appealing the verdict, but they announced they would abstain instead of voting confidence in the government. One General Zionist said: “There is an impression that the government is continuing to protect Kastner,” and contended the impression was based on fact.5
Ben-Gurion, who had been in temporary retirement, recommended that Sharett let the government fall and form a new one without the rebellious General Zionists. Sharett resigned and Ben-Gurion resumed leadership of the coalition. In the elections a month later, Mapai remained the largest party in the coalition, but lost five seats. Menachem Begin’s Herut party increased their strength from eight to fifteen seats. This was the beginning of a steady rise in Herut’s strength in every election until Begin became Prime Minister in 1977.6
The government appealed. The Supreme Court upheld the exoneration of Greenwald on the charge that he slandered Kastner by saying his testi- mony was key in obtaining Becher’s freedom; on a split verdict, they reversed the lower court’s exoneration of Greenwald on the second charge; the ap- peals court ruled that Kastner had not collaborated with the Nazis and thus Greewald had slandered him.
Consider these two opposing opinions by the divided Supreme Court. They illustrate two very different understandings of the evidence that was presented to the appeals court. Did Kastner’s death, prior to the time the appeal was heard, affect the judges?:
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