JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum has unveiled the private archives of one of the most contentious Jewish figures from the Holocaust era in an attempt to exonerate the man’s tarnished legacy.
Yad Vashem officials said the material released Sunday should finally put an end to what it said was an unjustified smear campaign against Rudolf (Israel) Kasztner.
Kasztner was hailed by admirers as a Holocaust hero for saving thousands of Jews. But critics reviled him as a collaborator who “sold his soul.” In 1957, after a campaign of vilification, he was assassinated by Jewish extremists.
Kasztner, a Zionist leader in Hungary during World War II, headed the Relief and Rescue Committee, a small Jewish group that negotiated with Nazi officials to rescue Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods and military equipment.
In June 1944, the “Kasztner Train,” with 1,684 Jews on board, departed Budapest for the safety of neutral Switzerland. Kasztner’s negotiations also saved 20,000 Hungarian Jews by diverting them to an Austrian labor camp instead of a planned transfer to extermination camps, according to Yad Vashem.
Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
“There was no man in the history of the Holocaust who saved more Jews, and was subjected to more injustice than Israel Kasztner,” said Joseph Lapid, chairman of Yad Vashem’s board of directors, himself a Holocaust survivor from Hungary.
“This is an opportunity to do justice to a man who was misrepresented and was a victim on a vicious attack that led to his death,” he said, calling Kasztner “one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.”
Kasztner’s backers say his actions were similar to those of Oskar Schindler, a non-Jew whose efforts to save more than 1,000 Jews were documented in the Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List.”
But Kasztner’s detractors accused him of colluding with the Nazis to spare a collection of his well-connected and wealthy Jewish friends, while hundreds of thousands of others were being shipped to death camps.
Kasztner moved to Israel after the war and became a top official in the ruling Labor Party. In 1954, local writer Malkiel Grunwald issued a self-published pamphlet that accused Kasztner of being a Nazi collaborator.
The Israeli government sued Grunwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf, resulting in a trial that lasted two years and riveted the nation. In its verdict, the court acquitted Grunwald of libel and concluded that Kasztner “sold his soul to the German Satan.”
Kasztner insisted all along that his dealings with top Nazi officials, including Kurt Becher, an envoy of SS commander Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo officer who organized the extermination of the Jews, were necessary to save lives.
Kasztner was demonized in the Israeli public. A year after he was killed, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling in the libel case, clearing his name.
Sunday’s ceremony was attended by Suzanne Kasztner, his only child, and by several people who survived because of the “Kasztner Train.”
Kasztner, 61, said the ceremony was another step in the rehabilitation of her father’s name. “I also think that the state of Israel has finally retrieved some of its lost honor over this entire affair,” she said.
Kasztner’s private archives, which were held for research purposes after his death, include three boxes of letters documenting his correspondence with family, Jewish organizations and Nazi officials.
Robert Rozett, director of the Yad Vashem library, said that while Kasztner’s public legacy has remained in question, it has long been established among historians that he acted in good faith.
“This is a man who was engaged in rescue activities,” he said. “Rescue activities during the Holocaust meant being in touch with people who you would not particularly like to invite over to your house to have a cup of coffee.”
Kasztner himself didn’t board his famous train to freedom, instead staying behind and negotiating the further release of Jews, risking his own life.
Rozett said the findings in the archives “support the idea that he was dealing in rescue and not behind-the-scenes deals to sell off Hungarian Jews.”