ISRAEL: Exoneration of Dr. Kastner

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ISRAEL Exoneration of Dr. Kastner

For four years the conscience of Israel has been racked by the case of Dr. Israel Kastner.

The case was set by one Malkiel Gruenwald, an aging Hungarian Jew who saw 52 members of his family go to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Safe in Israel after the war, Gruenwald brooded. Why had none of the 500,000 slaughtered Hungarian Jews had any warning of their fate? With warning, Jews in Poland had had a chance to die fighting, and some had succeeded in escaping. But Hungary's Jews had gone docilely to their deaths, innocently sure they were merely being sent to labor camps. Gruenwald pored through old records, questioned other survivors, four years ago published his findings in a pamphlet. His accusing finger pointed at a well-known official in the Israeli government—Dr. Israel Kastner. Gruenwald charged that Kastner, former head of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Budapest, had made a traitorous bargain with the Nazis, allowed half a million Jews to die unwarned so that he might escape with 600 (including 19 of his own family, and 300 from his home town of Cluj).

Kastner denied that he was a traitor; if he had acquiesced in deaths he could not prevent anyway, it had been in order to save as many Jews as he could. The Mapai Party of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, embarrassed by the charges because Kastner was a party official and a Mapai candidate for the Knesset, confidently decided to prosecute Gruenwald for libel. For a year and a half the case dragged on, and all Israel bled from this opening of old wounds. In June 1955 Judge Benjamin Halevy ruled that Gruenwald was substantially right. Kastner, said the judge, was a Nazi collaborator who "sold his soul to the Devil" when he accepted the Nazi offer to spare 600 Jews. By failing to tell his people what lay ahead for them, he contributed to the murders of Auschwitz (TIME, July 11, 1955).

Halevy's decision caused the fall of Premier Moshe Sharett's Cabinet, and it was re-formed in bitterness and distrust. Kastner quit his government job, withdrew from the list of Mapai candidates and, a broken man, lived in what he called a loneliness "blacker than night, darker than hell."

At the direction of Sharett, the case was appealed to Israel's Supreme Court. Last week, after studying the massive evidence for 2½ years, the court by a 4-1 decision reversed Judge Halevy, found Malkiel Gruenwald guilty on all counts of criminal libel. Halevy had "erred seriously" in stating that Kastner had sold his soul to the Devil, the court found. Even the dissenting judge agreed that the charge that Kastner had "prepared the way for the destruction of Hungarian Jewry" was baseless.

Israel Kastner was not present to rejoice in his vindication. Last March he was murdered on his own doorstep by assassins who had accepted Gruenwald's accusations at face value.