Moral complexity in WW2 (2): Israel Kasztner

Many of you will have read the book “Schindler’s Ark” or seen the film “Schindler’s List” and know how the Czech businessman Oscar Schindler managed to affect the escape of almost 1,200 Jews from Poland so that they missed certain death in the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two. But what about the Hungarian Jewish businessman Israel Kasztner who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in Hungary to enable almost 1,700 Jews to escape the gas chambers. This was the largest single group to be saved from the Holocaust – but I’m guessing that you’ve never heard of the incident.
This is because historically Israel Kasztner has been a hugely controversial figure, no more so that in Israel itself where he was a Government Minister after the war and the subject of an infamous court trial before he was assassinated outside his home in Tel Aviv. His critics argue that he was a Nazi collaborator; his defenders believe that he no choice but to negotiate with the Germans if he was to enable any Jews to leave Hungary alive.
This week I saw a fascinating BBC4 television programme entitled “The Jew Who Dealt With The Nazis”. Among those interviewed were Kasztner’s daughter, one of his grand-daughters and the man who assassinated him. The programme brought out very clearly how morally complex was the position of Jewish leaders in Occupied Europe as they struggled to comprehend what today we call the Holocaust and to do what they could to give some Jews a chance to live.
Of course, the Holocaust raises so many moral issues and a good introduction to this huge subject can be found in the book reviewed here.


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