The controversial legacy of Rudolph Israel Kastner, who helped nearly 1,700 Jews escape the Holocaust but was assassinated following accusations of Nazi collaboration, was rekindled at the Knesset’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony on Thursday when his granddaughter, Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli, lit a candle in his honor.
When Kastner was memorialized, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis stormed out of the Chagall Hall in which the ceremony was being held.
The controversy began when Michaeli and her mother, Susie Kastner, gave an interview to Maariv saying that the Knesset will memorialize their controversial progenitor, making it the first time any official state body has recognized his work to save Hungarian Jews, other than a mention at Yad Vashem.
The Knesset distanced itself from Michaeli’s claim, issuing a statement pointing out that for more than 30 years MKs have been lighting candles in memory of their loved ones who perished in or survived the Holocaust.
“The Knesset has never and will never hold personal ceremonies for a Holocaust victim or survivor,” the statement reads. “MKs who light candles dedicate it to their family members... and no one in the Knesset can tell the MKs whom they should honor. It is wrong and immoral to try to decide who is more or less worthy among the victims and survivors, and the Knesset certainly will not behave in such a way.”
Kastner’s story has long been a matter of controversy. He was a prominent Zionist activist in Hungary, who negotiated with senior SS officer Adolf Eichmann to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland in exchange for about $1,000 a person, thus saving their lives.
In Israel, he joined Labor precursor Mapai and became spokesman for the Trade and Industry Ministry in 1952. A year later, a pamphlet was published accusing him of collaborating with the Nazis, specifically because he helped SS officer Kurt Becher avoid a war crimes prosecution by giving a positive character assessment.
In the subsequent libel suit – brought by the Israeli government on Kastner’s behalf – the court ruled in 1955 that Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil” and sacrificed many of the Hungarian Jews he didn’t save by not telling them what the Nazis had planned for them.
Kastner was assassinated by Zeev Eckstein, a Stern Group veteran, in 1957.
A year later the Supreme Court overturned most of the decision against Kastner, finding the pamphlet against him had been libelous except about the “criminal and perjurious way” in which Kastner defended Becher, the Nazi.
Shneur Zalman Cheshin, one of the five Supreme Court justices, wrote: “On the basis of the extensive and diverse material which was compiled in the course of the hearing, it is easy to describe Kastner as blacker than black and place the mark of Cain on his forehead, but it is also possible to describe him as purer than the driven snow and regard him as ‘the righteous of our generation’ – a man who exposed himself to mortal danger in order to save others.”