When a Hollywood synagogue wants to draw upon the strengths of its congregation, is it surprising that there’s a surfeit of attorneys and actors? Such is the case at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), which heralded the talents of both sets in last weekend’s performance of “The People vs. Kastner,” a dramatic imagining of a trial for Rudolph Kastner that never happened.
Kastner is the Hungarian Jew who convinced Adolf Eichmann to send some 1,685 Jews on a train to Switzerland, even as another 480,000 were shipped off and exterminated in concentration camps. Rather than being celebrated for saving Jews, Kastner became a lightning rod after the war, accused of treason for collaborating with the Nazis. In 1957, he was assassinated on the streets of Tel Aviv.
For the May 1 performance, produced as a Yom HaShoah remembrance event by the synagogue’s new arts council, a legal team played by real-life jurists and historic witnesses portrayed by thespians created an aura of authenticity — a courtroom scene in which the audience was the jury, determining at the end of the day whether Kastner was guilty.
The legal team included L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich as defense attorney, former federal prosecutor and attorney Bert H. Deixler as prosecutor and L.A. Superior Court Judge Leslie A. Swain, who happens to be Deixler’s wife, as judge. All but Trutanich are TIOH members.
The company of actors included Alan Rosenberg (“L.A. Law”) as Kastner, Paul McCrane (“ER”) as Eichmann, and a host of “witnesses,” including Curtis Armstrong (“Revenge of the Nerds”), Libby Clearfield (“Oregon Trail Live!” and a teacher in the TIOH religious school), Enid Kent (“M*A*S*H”), Phil LaMarr (“MADtv”), Danny Maseng (TIOH cantor and music director, who has appeared on “Law & Order,” among other shows) and Monica Horan Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”). Only Rosenberg is not a part of the TIOH community.
(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reporter is also a TIOH member, and that the author of “The People vs. Kastner” is Jonathan Maseng, a frequent contributor to The Journal, who is also an aspiring screenwriter and the son of Hazzan Danny Maseng.)
From the standpoint of some of the congregation’s other professional attorneys chatting in the lobby during intermission, there was no contest that authenticity had been upheld. One attorney remarked that seeing Trutanich cross-examine the witnesses proved why you should hope he’s on your side in a courtroom.
“The Talmud says, ‘Save one Jew, and it’s as if you’ve saved the world,’ ” Trutanich repeatedly told the courtroom audience — many of whom knew little of the story of Kastner beforehand.
The show revealed a man who was recognized by the Nazis as a prominent player in the Jewish community and manipulated by the Nazis for his power. Each side hoped to outsmart the other — Kastner desperately promising money he wasn’t sure he could procure to buy freedom for Jews; Eichmann trying to maintain Kastner’s silence about the deportations and make sure Kastner would “stay in the game.” Although Kastner did not go on the train himself, Eichmann put many of Kastner’s relatives on board, according to the script, to ensure his complicity. Kastner also was able to travel to Switzerland, though he reportedly returned to Hungary and was later shipped to the camps.
The professional authenticity of the legal team was well-matched by the actors, who ad libbed answers to questions they had seen in advance. It was a testament to each actor’s skill that while the event ran long — close to four hours — the audience stayed until the end to vote overwhelmingly (266 to 27) to acquit Kastner, convinced that he had done all he could to save as many Jews as he could in a desperate situation. What in life was seen as his “collaboration” seemed, according to the production’s evidence, acts of expedience — Kastner’s attempt to do the best he could. His own family was saved, we were told, not by his own request.
Equally extraordinary, however, was what occurred after the show ended, when two survivors of the actual Kastner train spoke to the audience.
George Z. Bishop stood from the audience and testified to Kastner’s goodness, bearing real-life witness, in the form of his grandson at his side, that one life saved is truly more than a single gift.
And, as a finale, Arthur Stern, another Kastner survivor, rose to tell the group of how his own father, Leo Stern, an Orthodox rabbi, had an unlikely but important collaboration with Kastner. In Hungary at the time, the Orthodox were not inclined toward Zionism, but in light of what was happening, Rabbi Stern and Zionist Kastner collaborated to get Jews across the border.
Too many Hungarian Jews, Stern remembered, had a fundamental “trust in their government.” Before 1944, Hungary had sheltered its Jews and escaped the horrors going on in Germany and other countries around it, and the Jews wrongly believed that they would survive by following the laws of the land.
Stern told of how, as a young man, he went to see Kastner to ask him to put his girlfriend on the train. Kastner complied, Stern said, describing this act as a testament to Kastner’s generosity. But as viewed by one in the audience, this belated information also appeared as new evidence that might affirm what Kastner’s accusers believed — that he put favored friends onto the train, knowingly choosing “who will live and who will die” — exactly what Trutanich so convincingly said Kastner did not do.
And that is the difference between art and history — a series of events tied up with a ribbon in a theatrical performance, even one showing many sides like this one, may still be even more subtly complicated in life.
So, was Kastner a hero or a villain? We know he saved 1,685 Jewish lives — Jews who went on to procreate and to create new worlds. And to shake the hand of one of those survivors who came to witness this extraordinary retelling is to know that Kastner’s achievement is something to be thankful for, even if it wasn’t perfectly done.