February 3, 2010
A Ray of Light From a Black Hole
When I reviewed Ronald Florence’s impressive and important book, “Emissary of the Doomed,” which focuses on a forgotten hero of the Holocaust named Joel Brand, I mentioned in passing the exploits of a man named Reszo Kasztner. At least one careful reader with firsthand knowledge of those exploits noticed that I had oversimplified my description of the so-called Kasztner affair, and he kindly brought it my attention as follows.
Dear Mr. Kirsch,
I read with great pleasure your book reviews in the JJ.
This is a serious story, [and] great historians like Yehuda Bauer, etc. have written about it. Kasztner did save a part of his family and a handful of his friends. He had been away from Cluj for many years and barely remembered names when Eichman requested a list of names for the train. This list had been composed by a number of Cluj Jews who lived in Budapest
I just received the book, “Emissary of the Doomed,” and cannot find the writer having made the statement “ONLY.”
As Mr. Bishop correctly points out, the word “only” was mine alone. Ronald Florence, the author of “Emissary of the Doomed,” offers a detailed and nuanced account of what Kasztner did and didn’t do, and he acknowledges that Kasztner saved the lives of more than just his own friend and relatives. I should have been more careful in summarizing the account as it appears in Florence’s book. And I thank George Bishop for affirming these facts and calling them to my attention.
For readers who want to know more about the Kasztner affair, my colleague, Tom Teicholz, has written a moving and illuminating review of the current documentary film, “Killing Kasztner,” in these pages. Tom, whose late father also knew Kasztner, points out that “Kasztner has been faulted on many counts: for whom he saved and how he chose them (even though Kasztner personally chose very few of the train’s passengers, he did put his wife and 19 of his relatives on the train).”
So I hasten to clarify my own review of “Emissary of the Doomed,” and I need to make it clearer than I did that I do not claim to sit in judgment on men and women whom we observe from a safe distance in time and space.
Indeed, one of the great outrages of the Holocaust is that Nazi Germany did not merely torture and kill its Jewish victims; the Nazis and their collaborators also seemed to delight in compelling at least a few of their victims to play a role in deciding who would live and who would die. The same awful predicament was imposed on Jews who were forced to sit on the Judenrate (“Jewish Councils”) that the Germans set up in Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust. But we should never allow ourselves to forget who initiated and carried out the carnage, and we should never blur the line between the murderers and their victims.
At the same time, the moral burden of Jewish history obliges us not merely to remember the Holocaust but also to extract some measure of meaning from the grim facts. It is not an easy task, and it requires the kind of exacting attention to detail that George Bishop has modeled for the rest of us.
We can only hope that we will be rewarded for our efforts with the occasional ray of light from the black hole of the Holocaust.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.