Memorial Candle Lighting Revives Decades-Long Controversy About Kastner

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the entrance gate of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, against the backdrop of detention buildings in Oswiecim, Poland. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

The Knesset said in an official statement Thursday that the lighting of a memorial candle for Dr. Yisrael (Rudolf) Kastner did not constitute an official memorial for him – despite claims by MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Camp) that the lighting of the candle for her grandfather by Michaeli’s mother, Suzy Kastner, was in honor of the controversial figure.

Kastner is remembered as the Hungarian Jewish lawyer who arranged, in return for millions of dollars in vehicles, gold and diamonds, for the departure of 1,684 Jews – many of them family members – from Hungary in 1944, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to concentration and death camps. Kastner, a member of the Budapest Va’adat Ezrah V’hatzalah – the Rescue Committee – is also accused of failing to inform Jews that they were being sent to their deaths, instead of “resettlement in the east,” as the Nazis claimed, even though he knew the truth. Kastner was a member of the first Israeli government, but in 1953 was accused by survivors of having “sold out” his fellow Jews.

It should be noted that besides members of his family, many others were on the train that transported the rescuees from Hungary to Switzerland, including prominent members of the Hungarian Jewish community. Numerous Rabbanim, including the Satmar Rebbe, Hagaon Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a, were on the train as well.

Kastner sued his accusers, but lost the case, and the accusations that he collaborated with the Nazis to the detriment of other Jews and helped the Nazi regime in Hungary survive with an injection of much-needed resources stood. The government appealed on Kastner’s behalf, but meanwhile, he became a recluse, claiming that he had done what he could in a very difficult situation. In 1957 he was shot and killed . A year later, the decision against him was overturned by the High Court, which said that based on the facts of the situation Kastner faced, he could not be considered a “traitor to the Jewish people,” as he was accused of.

Despite the decision, Kastner’s name still evokes much emotion among survivors and their children, and efforts to preserve his memory – such as naming streets after him – have been quashed by opponents. The announcement by Michaeli earlier this week that a candle-lighting ceremony would be held in his honor on Thursday, Holocaust Memorial Day, reignited the controversy, with MKs, professors and historians weighing in on the matter in Israeli media.

The Knesset said that it did not consider the ceremony to be an official one, and was not a sponsor of it. “The Knesset has never, and will never, conduct a ceremony on behalf of a specific Holocaust victim or survivor,” a statement issued Thursday said. “Knesset members are free to light memorial candles on behalf of specific individuals, and this has been a long-standing practice. No one dictates on behalf of whom they can or cannot light candles. It is unfair and immoral for us to try and decide who is more or less worthy of being remembered among victims and survivors. We do not act in this way, and we would hope that others would respect the memories of the victims and survivors at all Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies.”

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