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Monday, April 12, 2010

A Q&A with Killing Kasztner director Gaylen Ross

Posted By on Mon, Apr 12, 2010 at 4:47 AM

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Gaylen Ross’s documentary Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with the Nazis examines the life of Rezso Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who helped many Jews escape the concentration camps but was also accused of collaborating with the Nazis and withholding information about Auschwitz. Ross will be in town this weekend when the film opens at the Cedar Lee Theatre (2163 Lee Rd., 216.321.5411, clevelandcinemas.com). She’ll lead question and answer sessions after the 1:30, 4:15 and 7 p.m. screenings on Friday, April 16, Saturday, April 17 and Sunday, April 18. In addition, Dr. Anna Rubin, a local woman who survived because she rode on a truck transport that Kasztner arranged, will also attend the screening. Ross recently phoned in from her New York home to discuss the movie. Here’s what she had to say.

I think you might have mentioned this in the movie, but what intrigued you about Kasztner’s story?
In 1997 or 1998, I was producing and writing a film about the Swiss banks and the holocaust accounts, and a woman who was a claimant said she got to Switzerland on the Kasztner train. That’s when I stopped her and said, “What are you talking about?” I had never about the train or about the rescue or a Jew who had negotiated with Adolf Eichmann. I thought it was an amazing story. I finished the film about the Swiss banks. Then, I was doing other films and this was in the back of my mind. And then I started researching and that’s what you have to do before you begin to film or raise money or do any of the things you have to do. That’s when I discovered how complicated and difficult this story was in terms of what happened to Kasztner. The trial and his murder in Israel complicated the rescue story so his tale never got told here.

When did you first meet Kasztner’s daughter?
The first meeting I had with the Kasztner family was back in 2001 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which was the first and only symposium on Kasztner in this country. I also witnessed this incredible debate among holocaust survivors who were very emotional and divided about Kasztner and his rescue and his legacy. This was another reason the story captivated me so much.

How’d you win the trust of his assassin, who walks us through the scene of crime and provides chilling details about the shooting?
I listened to him and allowed him to have his voice in the film. He represented the absorption of all the bitterness and hatred that had happened in Israel at the time as a result of allegations against Kasztner. It was a unique story in what happens to a young person transformed by that into what is the ultimate response, which is murder. To me, it reflects not just whether you’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim or whatever you are. But if reflects the way young people are turned by ideologues and language. I don’t condone what he did. I don’t think he expected that as a result of contributing to the film.

Do you really believe everything he had to say?
I say it in the film what I differ with and what I offered. I am clear about what I still have my arguments or disagreements about. We went back to the libel trial and to the murder trial. The documents were archived from 50 years ago and we went back into the original testimony and the autopsy reports. We translated all the reports so I could compare what he was saying to what was the information then.

He and Kasztner’s daughter meet for the first time. How difficult was it to get them together?
She always wanted to meet him and I think in a way he wanted to have that meeting with her. Of course, it was very difficult. I provided a neutral possibility. They controlled the meeting. They could stop and start when they wanted. She wanted it to be recorded for history so that was her choice always. They needed to meet and that’s the result of it

At the film’s end, I get the sense that the public understanding of Kasztner has started to shift. Did your film have anything to do with that or was it already happening?
It was both. The filming made a difference and at the same time there was a widening understanding of the context in which Kasztner operated in Hungary. Material has been written about Kasztner since. The film is really very much a story about Israel and any country and how they make their heroes. The choices about what makes a hero is also shifting. The role of negotiator is an option, too. The reality is that Kasztner saved thousands of lives that would not have existed if he had not done the negotiation. That’s part of the reconsideration. Turning a camera on any institution or organization also doesn’t hurt. There’s been a growing up, especially in Israel about Jewish rescuers. That’s a category that’s complicated ignored. If the numbers credited to Kasztner rescues are accurate, then the numbers that might have been saved far surpass anything that Schindler did. It’s not about competition. It’s about acknowledgement. We’re looking at this whole story with new information and new material and that’s very important. The negotiations he did were done in a very specific time. It was a story that only could have happened because the Germans were losing. They were looking to make other negotiations with the Allies. They were all realizing that they were losing. This is how Kasztner looked at it and saw the possibility in this and used it. There are those who believe the Germans used Kasztner. That’s the other side of the argument. The point is that there are all these people who are alive and that’s the reality. It’s because of Kasztner’s rescue. I’m still finding other stories, like Anna Rubin who was not on a train but at the end of the war was on a truck convoy with sixtysome other Jews, including many prominent rabbis, into Switzerland. Somebody else was talking about how she lived in a safe house in Budapest that Kasztner has negotiated so that they could be kept hidden while there was thousands and thousands of Jews shot in the Danube River. I think what’s fascinating is that these stories keep coming out. No matter what people think about Kasztner, we just have to look at that. We just have to have the conversation.

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