Roads Not Taken in the Province of Memory

An analysis of the controversy surrounding the famous Kasztner trial reaches a conclusion which is the exact opposite of that rooted in Israel’s collective mind.

Shulamit Aloni,
February 16, 2001

Alpayim magazine (2000 magazine), No. 20, edited by Nitza Drori-Peremen, Am Oved, 270pp.

The 20th issue of Alpayim, like all issues of this excellent magazine, is full of interesting articles in a variety of academic disciplines. I was particularly struck by a scholarly yet surprising piece by Michal Shaked called “History in the Courtroom and the Courtroom in History: Court Decisions and Narratives of Memory.” This article takes us back to the controversy surrounding the publication of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which also deals with the Attorney-General’s writ of indictment against Malkiel Gruenwald, popularly known as the Kasztner Trial. A decision on the case was reached in 1955. The President of the Jerusalem District Court and presiding judge was Dr. Benjamin Halevi. Halevi’s decision was appealed. In 1958, a panel of five Supreme Court justices accepted the appeal by a majority of five to four. The dissenting opinion was that of Moshe Silberg. The decision was written mainly by Chief Justice Shimon Agranat.

By the time Israel Kasztner’s name was cleared, he was no longer among the living. He was murdered by nationalist extremists in 1957.

The trial dealt with the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust and the question of whether Dr. Israel Kasztner, head of the rescue operations, had collaborated with the Nazis. The public remembers that Dr. Benjamin Halevi found Kasztner guilty and accused him of “selling his soul to the Devil.” It remembers that Kasztner was murdered and that the Supreme Court acquitted him and cleared his name of all suspicion of cooperating with the Nazis.

Michal Shaked explores the Kasztner trial in the light of historian Pierre Nora’s theory of lieu de memoire (“province of memory”), which ascribes to memory a special role in the building of national identity. “Memory puts remembrance in the domain of the holy; history drives it out,” says Nora. The “province of memory” thus sheds light on a nation’s changing perceptions of its past.

More Basic Questions

In Israel’s collective memory, the decision of Dr. Benjamin Halevi is perceived as “bad,” whereas the decision of the Supreme Court, as put into writing by Chief Justice Agranat, is “good.” Michal Shaked examines whether this is indeed the case. She does not overlook the fact that public awareness of the Holocaust reached a peak during the Eichmann trial, but that afterward, people basically forgot about the Kasztner affair until Motti Lerner wrote a play about it in the 1980s.

In the main, this is what happened:

On March 17, 1944, the Nazis marched into Budapest. On March 21, Eichmann and his aides arrived. Eichmann asked the leaders of the Jewish community to come see him and reassured them. He appointed a Judenrat that obeyed him without hesitation. Alongside the Judenrat, there were other Jewish leaders and Zionist bodies operating in Budapest, among them Va’ad Hahatzala, a rescue committee financed by the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee and headed by Israel Kasztner. The principal question that arose during the trial was whether Kasztner hid the truth about the atrocities from the Jewish community, thereby enabling Eichmann to proceed without hindrance – all in order to rescue a trainload of 1,684 survivors.

The question that interests us today – and also preoccupied Dr. Benjamin Halevi, as Michal Shaked points out – is a broader and more fundamental one. It was a question that was also asked while the debate over Hannah Arendt’s views was raging.

Why did community leaders, rescue committees, rabbis and members of the Judenrat reassure the people? Why didn’t they tell them the truth? Why didn’t they urge them to look for hiding places or flee, to save whatever could be saved? Why were they so obedient in handing over the community ledgers and supplying lists of names, addresses and property assets? Why didn’t they burn these ledgers so that it would be more difficult for the Nazis to round up the Jews?

In analyzing the decisions of Halevi and Agranat, Shaked reaches a conclusion which is the exact opposite of that rooted in collective memory: it is not Agranat’s decision that was liberal-minded and “good,” but Halevi’s. Halevi was the one who showed respect for human dignity, whereas Agranat was a slave to the classic Zionist practice of belittling the Diaspora. To Agranat, the doomed Jews of the Diaspora were little more than “human dust,” and Zionism was the only answer to the Jewish problem. It is this view of Zionism that dictated his court decision.

Agranat was not alone. The classic Zionist motif of Diaspora-belittlement also played an important part in Justice Schneur Zalman Cheshin’s thinking:

Bereavement and loss, helplessness and despair, a great human mass unable to stand on its feet. A forsaken island surrounded by passivity and hostility. That is how Kasztner perceived Hungarian Jewry during the war. What was the point of preaching and warning? Could the dead awaken?

Haim Cohen, then state prosecutor, made similar remarks to the District Court:

Run to where? Rebel against whom? These were Jews with long years of persecution, torture and untold suffering behind them. They and millions like them were victims of an ancient curse, destined to be led like sheep to the slaughter. They should have fled? They had no feet to flee. They should have put up a struggle? They had no arms to struggle. There was no spirit left in them.

Different Philosophies

Benjamin Halevi took a different approach. He rejected Haim Cohen’s arguments about the total impotence of the Jews of the Holocaust. If they had known the Nazis were planning to deport them to Auschwitz, said Halevi, it is possible that many of them could have been saved. Israel Gutman of the Yad Vashem research institute is not fond of such statements. Had he been aware of Halevi’s remarks, maybe he would have included them in his peculiarly entitled piece for Ha’aretz, “The Jews Murdered Themselves,” in which he attacks the views of Hannah Arendt.

Benjamin Halevi dismisses the claim that the Jews of Hungary had “no spirit left in them,” although he admits that it is impossible to know how many would have been saved, or to predict in advance who would live and who would die. “I am not saying that all these methods – fleeing en masse, going underground, hiding children in Hungarian homes, disrupting the deportations, engaging in active defense or terrorism – would have been appropriate or possible at all times and in all instances,” he wrote.

The real bone of contention is how hundreds of thousands of Jews marched off unresistingly to the gas chambers at a time when receiving information would have given them an opportunity to fight, to organize the “second Warsaw” of which Eichmann was so afraid. Was it not the responsibility of the leadership to pass this information on?

This brings us to the different political philosophies upon which the views and conclusions of Agranat and Halevi are based – views which continue to reverberate in the public discourse of today. “With Auschwitz as the option,” wrote Halevi in his decision, “the Jews – leaders and community members – deserved an opportunity to fully weigh every suitable method of defense or rescue, in accordance with the conditions of time and place.”

Michal Shaked contends that the ethical and political philosophy evident in Halevi’s stance is built on the tenets of democratic humanism: all people are equal and all individuals are autonomous beings with human dignity and the right to decide their own fates – even the hapless Jews of the Diaspora. These were the ideas that led to the decision he handed down in the courtroom, but were forgotten in the wake of the negative response to Halevi and his verdict.

“Generalizing” the Holocaust

Agranat built his arguments on a completely different axis. In his opinion, Kasztner had a right to act according to his assessment of prospects for a large-scale rescue mission. Seeing that no such prospects existed and the only hope (a very slight one) lay in trying to negotiate with the Nazis, that is what he did. His actions were thus entirely proper, as far as the court could see.

Michal Shaked ends this fascinating article, which analyzes the way collective memory evolves, repressing certain details and preserving others, with the following observation:

In hindsight, the Kasztner trial can be seen as a debate over Holocaust remembrance. Agranat’s decision allowed the Holocaust to be turned into a generalization, a historical chapter that is over and done with, an episode belonging to another time and place. His ruling lets us remember the Holocaust in one way: with generalized lamentation and bereavement. The Holocaust becomes one embracing Jewish event, a reason for national – Jewish and Israeli – mourning.

Halevi’s decision does not allow this. His was a concrete discussion of the case put before him. He breaks the Holocaust down into fragments and judges what he sees, without sentimentalism. The Kasztner Trial thus played an important role in establishing the national memory of the Holocaust as a memory of grief. Not an enlightened liberal province of memory and not a Zionist province of memory, but an Israeli-Jewish province of memory.

The questions raised by Benjamin Halevi in his court decision resurfaced in the Eichmann Trial. In the same way that they were pushed out of mind and memory in the first trial, they were repressed in the second. Hannah Arendt, the first to broach these issues in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was declared a Jew-hater and a traitor to her people. It took 40 years for her work to be translated into Hebrew and even now her views arouse bitter controversy.

But the questions linger: was rescue possible? Did those who should and could have done something, do enough? The accusing finger points not only at the international community but also at the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine and its leadership, David Ben-Gurion in particular.