Leave it to the artists and attorneys at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day by introducing — or reintroducing — a man once considered to have been a Jewish antihero of World War II.
On the afternoon of May 1, instead of hosting a speaker or screening a film or hosting any of the other programs that usually commemorate Yom HaShoah, Temple Israel’s newly established arts council has invited community members to join the jury at a mock trial that will reconsider the fate of Rudolph Kastner, a Hungarian who helped Jews escape the Nazis but was later accused of being a Nazi collaborator.
The trial will feature a cast of characters played by accomplished actors from television and film, all but one of whom are also members of the synagogue, as well as Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and attorney Bert H. Deixler. Congregant Leslie A. Swain, a judge from the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, will preside over the proceedings. Alan Rosenberg, the only non–synagogue member in the cast and a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, will play Kastner.
The synagogue expects a full house for the event, which is being held in a room that seats 450.
Though Kastner is little known today, in Israel in the 1950s he was the object of very public condemnation. In 1955, an Israeli judge declared that he had “sold his soul to the devil.” Two years later, Kastner was assassinated.
Stranger still, Kastner — who will stand accused of treason at TIOH — first became the object of scrutiny and criticism because of actions he took during World War II that might have been, under other circumstances, worthy of praise: Kastner helped a trainload of Jews escape from Nazi-occupied Hungary.
“Between April of 1944 and January of 1945, 480,000 Hungarian Jews were exterminated” by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators, said Danny Maseng, the cantor at Temple Israel and one of the driving forces behind “The People vs. Kastner.” Maseng described the Holocaust in Hungary as having been fundamentally different from the genocide of European Jewry in other countries — in no small measure due to the rapidity with which Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.
In this context, on June 30, 1944, Kastner managed to get 1,685 Jews on a train heading in a different direction, bound for the neutral haven of Switzerland.
Although collectively, Kastner’s Jews outnumber even those saved by Oskar Schindler, because the passengers on the train were hand-picked by Kastner, because they included many members of his family, because he negotiated for their lives directly with Adolf Eichmann of the SS, and because he did not sound the alarm about the genocidal fate that the Jews of Hungary were then already meeting — for these and other reasons, Kastner was publicly vilified in Israel after the war.
To say that the story is complicated — morally as well as politically — would be an understatement. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘God, is Kastner a good guy or a bad guy?’ ” Doug Segal, the director of “The People vs. Kastner,” said. Like all but one of the people who came to be involved in the project, Segal, who has directed for TV and for the temple’s day school’s stage, had never heard of Kastner before the project was proposed.
The “good guy or bad guy” question that Segal faced is the very fundamental one first proposed by writer Jonathan Maseng — son of cantor Danny Maseng — who initially suggested that the Kastner case might make for an interesting mock trial. It is also the question that Jonathan Maseng hopes the show’s audience-cum-jury will struggle with.
“What we’re trying to get people to do is put themselves in his position,” Jonathan Maseng said.
An aspiring screenwriter, Jonathan Maseng, 26, works as a religious schoolteacher at Temple Israel and as a legal assistant, and regularly contributes articles to The Jewish Journal. He first came across the Kastner story by chance while reading about the early history of the State of Israel. When he mentioned it to his 60-year-old father, a native of Tel Aviv, Danny Maseng immediately remembered the case.
“I remember my parents telling me that it was a dark time in the history of our country,” Danny Maseng said, remembering the day Kastner was assassinated. He was 7 years old. Kastner was gunned down just four blocks from his grandparents’ home.
It was only recently that this controversial story began to attract attention in the United States outside academia. The acclaimed documentary “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis” had theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York last year. NPR and Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan called the film one of the 10 best documentaries of 2010.
The film’s maker, Gaylen Ross, believes “Killing Kasztner” is part of a wider effort to explain the political context in Israel that led to Kastner’s condemnation and assassination. “It started to happen in Israel over decades, little by little,” Ross said. Two Kastner plays were produced in the early 1980s on Israeli stages, and an Israeli television series followed in the 1990s. All this is slowly rehabilitating Kastner’s reputation and is assuaging the guilt felt by those Jews he saved from certain death. In Israel, during the years immediately following the war, Ross said, Kastner’s Jews had been made to feel that their salvation had come at the cost of the lives of the rest of Hungarian Jewry.
For that reason, Ross said she is outraged at the idea of putting Kastner on trial again at the synagogue. “Using the political arguments from 1954 to retry a man who was a victim of a murder is insensitive at best and outrageous at worst,” she said in a recent interview.
Ross said she offered the synagogue the chance to screen her film on Yom HaShoah in lieu of the mock trial. It will be screened at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., this year and was shown on Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in 2009.
“People didn’t argue it,” Ross said of the 2009 screening in Jerusalem. “They didn’t have a trial. There was a new understanding in Israel; there was a new understanding of the scholarship in Israel — and this is happening in America.”
Danny Maseng believes it is important to teach people about Kastner, but that it is even more important to get people to care about his story in the first place. “The Holocaust has been relegated to a heavy region — or worse — for a younger generation,” he said. “It has become history in the worst sense of the word — something dry, something not immediate, something that doesn’t have any relevance to my life today.”
As for Ross, Danny Maseng said she was misinformed about what the event would entail. “She does not know what we’re doing nor does she know how we’re doing it, nor does she appreciate the fact that we’ve done months of preparation and research,” he said.
He also said he’d be happy to screen “Killing Kasztner” after the mock trial.
Ross, for her part, remains unconvinced. “It’s a kangaroo court,” she said, “and it’s very upsetting.”
Nevertheless, Ross is having an indirect impact on the TIOH project. At least one of the actors, Bob Odenkirk, who can be seen on the AMC television series “Breaking Bad,” said that he had seen “Killing Kasztner” and that it would help inform his performance.
At TIOH, Odenkirk will take the witness stand as Malchiel Gruenwald, the amateur journalist who, in 1953, set into motion the events that would result in Kastner’s assassination, when he published a pamphlet accusing Kastner of being a Nazi collaborator.
Because Kastner held a position as an Israeli government spokesman, the government, which was then led by David Ben-Gurion’s left-wing Mapai party, took up his defense and sued Gruenwald for libel. After a two-year trial, the judge not only acquitted Gruenwald, he effectively turned Kastner into the defendant and excoriated him for having dealt with Eichmann.
Today, with the benefit of distance and additional historical scholarship, Kastner no longer seems to Odenkirk and others like the man who “sold his soul to the devil.”
“From our point of view, and from a distance, it’s kind of easy to say he was a hero,” Odenkirk said. “He negotiated and saved 1,600 Jews, so what’s the fight? Why does anybody have anything against him?”
Odenkirk, whose two children attend Temple Israel’s day school and who was recruited to join “The People vs. Kastner” by one of the synagogue’s rabbis, said that looking closer at the materials that he was using to prepare for his role helped him to better understand where Gruenwald and others were coming from.
“For somebody like Gruenwald, whose family died, pretty much all of them,” Odenkirk said, Kastner “just looks like this guy who hung out with Nazis and saved not too many people — and mostly saved people he knew.”
Although all the actors have been given materials to keep their performances in “The People vs. Kastner” fact-based, the actual performance of the mock trial will be improvised. Odenkirk, who got his start in sketch comedy, has a great deal of experience with improv. “I’m not going to be making facts up,” he said. “What I have to do, and what everyone has to do, is present your character, what they care about, their emotional state and their argument.”
Ross’ documentary, Odenkirk said, “lets you into people’s very conflicted feelings about their own government at the time in Israel and Ben-Gurion, feeling that he was more of compromiser than they wanted him to be.”
But, in playing a witness, Odenkirk said his job was to make the jury’s decision as difficult as possible.
“I’m just worried about playing Gruenwald,” Odenkirk said of his character who, more than half a century ago, accused Kastner of having betrayed the Jews of Hungary.
“My goal is to have everyone who hears me agree with me when I’m done — or, at the very least, understand how I can feel that way.”