Film focuses on 'the Jew who dealt with Nazis'

Bob Tremblay

Thanks to Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," most people know about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved the lives of more than 1,200 Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust by employing them in his factory during World War II. He later died in Germany a hero.

Few people, however, know about Rezso Kasztner. The Hungarian Jew saved the lives of more than 1,600 Jews by securing a rescue train from Budapest to Switzerland. He saved another 600 or so by negotiating for a safehouse in Budapest. He was later assassinated in Israel, accused of being a Nazi collaborator. Some people believe Kasztner should be considered a hero like Schindler. Others brand him a traitor like the Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling.

To arrange the rescue train, Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust.

Those who want to find out more about this controversial figure now have the opportunity as the documentary, "Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis," receives its theatrical release.

Directed by Gaylen Ross, the film includes interviews with Kasztner's family and his assassin as it tells this multifaceted story. Shown at the Toronto and Haifa International Film festivals, it won the Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary at the 2009 Boston Jewish Film Festival,

"I thought it was a great documentary," says Stow, Mass., resident Marika Barnett, a Hungarian Jew who hid in the Budapest safehouse which, she says, Kasztner played a role in establishing. "It was one of the best documentaries I have seen because it does not call him a hero, it does call not him a traitor. It allows you to see the complexity of the subject and lets you decide."

Two of Barnett's cousins escaped on the Kasztner train and later relocated to Israel. Fifteen members of her immediate family, however, perished in the Auschwitz death camp or died of starvation in a ghetto.

Barnett was 10 years old when she and her family moved into a five-story apartment building at 6 Terez Boulevard in the Pest section of Budapest in December 1944. She says she was joined by 200 other Jewish families, accounting for about 600 people. Gentiles lived in the building also, bringing the number of inhabitants to about 1,000, Barnett says. She estimates the building had 50 apartments.

By a twist of fate, her father's office was in the building and provided a refuge for Barnett, her father, mother and two aunts.

To create this safehouse, Kasztner negotiated with SS Major Kurt Becher, who charged $20,000 per family, Barnett says.

"Now you may ask, 'Who were the SS protecting the Jews from?' It was from the Hungarian fascists," says Barnett. "By that time, the Nazis weren't killing the Jews in Hungary. Most had already been sent to Auschwitz. The remaining Jews were still around in Budapest and it was the fascists who took it upon themselves to kill whatever Jews were left. So systematically, diligently, working even through Christmas, they shot 18,000 Jews on the banks of the Danube. To save on bullets, they tied three people together, shot one and the three fell into the Danube and the two others drowned."

Eventually, Becher and other Nazis left Hungary as the Russian troops were advancing toward Budapest. One who stayed behind was SS Sgt. Ganzner. "I didn't know his first name," says Barnett, "but if he had left, the Hungarian fascists would have come in immediately and grabbed us. I saw him with my own eyes holding back at gunpoint the Hungarian fascists who came every day to the gate like the fox to the chicken coop. They knew we were there and he protected us.

"The Jews smuggled him out when the Russians came. They knew that if the Russians caught him, it would be instant death. They dressed him in civilian clothes and for weeks hid him in an attic and later smuggled him to Czechoslovakia. Apparently, Ganzner felt it was safe for him to go back to Austria, his native country, but he was caught by the Russians and shot on the spot. Had he left with the others, he would probably be alive today. He gave his life for us."

The safehouse wasn't exactly the Ritz, and while it was crowded, food was available. "We lived in relatively good conditions because we had my father's office to ourselves," says Barnett. "We had everything but a bathroom and I'll leave it to your imagination what we did for several weeks without a bathroom."

For these "relatively good conditions," the family can thank the foresight of Barnett's father, Kornel Schweitzer. "To our amazement we found out how my father had spent his time 'at the office' since the German occupation," writes Barnett in her story, "The End," which is contained in a book published by the group Hungarian Hidden Children called "Remember Us!" "The storage room was furnished with five beds, a table, chairs and a giant stove. Shelves and cabinets were stocked with dried and canned foods, flour, lard and so on.

"My father, whom we thought couldn't help himself to a glass of water, knew exactly what five people needed for survival. When he started to collect the supplies from gentile friends and grateful employees, he only had a vague feeling that we might need a place to hide."

Liberation arrived in January 1945, but it was accompanied by tragedy.

"As the Soviet troops were approaching, we sent a committee to the gentile tenants of our building," Barnett recalls. "The air raid shelter had been exclusively theirs. It was clearly understood that only gentiles were allowed into the shelter. Fearing a violent attack (on the night of Jan. 17), our committee begged them to allow the Jewish children to take refuge in the shelter for that one night. The response was prompt: 'No Jews in our shelter!'

"No one slept that night. Near dawn a horrendous explosion shook our building. Smoke spread quickly through the basement corridors. We knew we were going to die and we were ready for it. My mother put my head into her lap, and we all anticipated to be suffocated. Time went by and I was certain that I was dead. I had to be. What will this other world look like? I lifted my head and in the faint light of dawn that seeped through the broken basement windows, I saw with great disappointment that everything was still the same and I was not in heaven. We were all still there.

"Through the basement windows that our men had refused to barricade, fresh air had come in. We soon found out what the large explosion had been. The Soviets suspecting that Germans were hiding behind the gates had thrown in a powerful bomb. The explosion tore through the five-story building. Cement, brick, stone and metal came down on top of the air raid shelter. There were no survivors in there. We all stood there in silence, then quietly walked away."

Barnett's family returned to a building designated for Jews in Szent Istvan Park where they had resided before moving to the safehouse. "It was a miserable apartment with crowded conditions and it was a constant reminder that our lifestyle would not come back," says Barnett, who grew up in a well-to-do family. Their beautiful apartment where they had lived before the Nazis arrived would soon be burned and looted by Soviet soldiers.

The bicycle business of Barnett's father didn't fare much better. "The Germans took away 500 bicycles from my father's warehouse," says Barnett. "The communists took away everything else. So we were even poorer. It wasn't just what we gave to Becher."

Out of her large family, only one cousin survived Auschwitz. After returning to her village in northeast Hungary, she was arrested on trumped-up charges and sentenced by the communists to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia, says Barnett.

In 1956, following the failed Hungarian Revolution, Barnett escaped the country and fled to the United States, arriving in New Jersey with a knowledge of English but no money. After working as a clinical psychologist, she shifted careers and worked for 25 years as a software engineer for such companies as Honeywell, Digital and Oracle, before retiring. Divorced, she has two sons and two grandchildren. Today, the 76-year-old Barnett takes photographs, writes plays and lectures.

Of the Holocaust, she says. "How do you make sense of cruelty and horror like that? I can't." As for Kasztner, whom she only learned years later was responsible for her safety, "I have a positive opinion of him, and not just because what he did for me and my family," she says. "I think most people don't know the facts. It was complex times with complex people and you tried to cope as best as possible. I think he did whatever he could. He danced with the devil."

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