... almost 1,700 Jews and who was killed in Israel.
AVIVA-Berlin: Your documentary film Killing Kasztner reopens the debate of a 50-year-old tragedy and whether a figure long reviled as a villain of the Holocaust was in fact a heroic saviour of Jewish lives. What was, and is, the reaction of your film and this true story?
Gaylen Ross: The film, because it asks questions and explores the legacy of Kasztner including the rumours, the accusations, the falsehoods and truths, has resulted in audiences not reacting in polar positions to Kasztner, but what I had hoped for - to reopen the discussion, to look at what happened to Kasztner, what he did and may have done in light of new information and evidence, to understand the context in which Kasztner acted during the war, and also the context of his condemnation, following the Holocaust, the guilt and shame experienced by Jews and the need to blame someone for the murder of millions of Jews. And if there was someone who saved people like Kasztner did, why wasnÂ´t their family saved, their friends, their neighbours? Terrible choices, terrible guilt, especially the unresolved and complex feelings in Israel immediately after the war â€“ the Kasztner libel trial in 1954 was surprisingly the first public discourse on the Holocaust and the political divisions inside of Israel in which Kasztner was caught up - the fierce anger and bitterness following the war and birth of the state of Israel.
AVIVA-Berlin: The documentary Killing Kasztner took eight years in the making, had its world premier in the Toronto International Film Festival, January 2009, during the outbreak of the Gaza War, and opened in cinemas throughout Israel to unprecedented critical and audience reception.
Please tell us more about your feelings when showing the film for the first time.
Gaylen Ross: I was very nervous at the premier in Toronto â€“ not only was this the first time the public at large would see the film after years in the making, but the Kasztner family and many Kasztner survivors were seeing the film in Toronto for the first time. The film is very personal, very emotional in the portrayal of the families and survivors, and they were terribly candid and open in their view of what had happened to them over the years, and the effects of the trial and murder on their lives. Especially KasztnerÂ´s daughter Zsuzsi. And because the film shows the other side, significantly the murdererÂ´s revelations and personal history, and other detractors of Kasztner, I understoond how sensitive and potentially upsetting the film could be. What was gratifying was to see how the audience respected the balance and understood, I believe, that I tried to show everyone in the film, pro or con Kasztner, with dignity and to allow their voices to be heard. I didnÂ´t always agree with some of the positions taken, but I tried to have their opinions represented.
AVIVA-Berlin: You have done documentaries about gamblers in America, men who order their brides in Russia or Nazi-gold in Switzerland. What exactly in the Kasztner story was it that kept you doing research for eight years, why couldnÂ´t you get this story out of your mind?
Gaylen Ross: First and foremost I was taken by the story because I had never heard of it before â€“ this rescue train from Hungary in the middle of one of the worst mass deportations by the Nazis of the Jews during the war. And when I did ask people about it, I was told to leave the Kasztner Â´affairÂ´ alone - it is too complicated, too difficult, too controversial.
But the Kasztner story is like the greatest of Greek or Shakespearian tragedies and like all tragedies, endlessly fascinating. And as time and changing understanding brings new depth to classical tales, this one too benefits from that. Who Kasztner was, a man who negotiated with one of the most feared Nazis, Adolf Eichmann, represents a person larger than life, and his actions interpreted by many as heroic. Yet like all tragedies there is a downfall, and his was particularly painful in that the attacks and murder were committed by his own brethren. What could be more profound than a judge condemning Kasztner in Faustian language as the Â´man who sold his soul to the devilÂ´.
And there is the other element of mystery which will always remain within the Kastner story â€“ what Kasztner knew or didnÂ´t know. What were the exact details of his negotiations with Eichmann? And was Kasztner betrayed by his own Jewish leadership in giving the affidavits for former Nazis after the war? There are many loose ends and many questions remaining to be answered.
AVIVA-Berlin: Were you afraid, that eight years work would have been lost, because the focus of the media was on the Gaza war?
Gaylen Ross: Well, it was possible and understandably so. No film is more important than a war, and loss of life. But it was interesting to me that a film which focused on a man who saved lives through negotiation should open in the middle of the Gaza war in Israel, and that so many people would respond to this difficult and complex story at such a sensitive time.
AVIVA-Berlin: Dr. Israel (Rezso) Kasztner, known by many as the Jewish Schindler, was a Hungarian Jew, who negotiated face to face with Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis, and succeeded in saving almost 1,700 Jews by sneding them on a train to safety in Switzerland. He was said to be a man who sat down with his enemies, he was condemned as a traitor in Israel, and his name was deleted from the official records of the Holocaust. In 1957 he was assassinated by Jewish right wing extremists in Tel Aviv. Zsuzsi Kasztner, the only daughter of Kasztner is saying: "They murder him over and over again." Please tell us something about how Zsuzsi Kasztner spent her childhood.
Gaylen Ross: Zsuzsi Kasztner in the film describes her childhood once the trial began through the condemnation of her father that continued even after his murder â€“ she was the victim of terrible verbal and physical assaults by the children. And since children are only mirroring their parents and society at large, and are cruel without thinking, it was particularly terrible for Zsuzsi as a little girl. And she never told her mother what happened until much later â€“ she was worried for her parents and didnÂ´t want to cause them further grief.
She knew her father was hated, called a Nazi, was thrown off buses, spit at... yet she said she always believed that he was a hero, and rescued as he told her: "As many people as he could." It was a testament to her strength that as an adult she was able to achieve a normal life raising three daughters and an important professional career as a surgical nurse.
AVIVA-Berlin: I do think that Kasztner is going to be, that people will see him in a different light after having seen your film. What does that mean to the Kasztner-family and to you?
Gaylen Ross: I canÂ´t speak for the Kasztner family, although I know that the resultant dialogue from the film is very important to them, and that audiences are coming away with a new awareness about the man and the context in which he acted.
AVIVA-Berlin: Kasztner was one of the leaders of a small Zionist rescue organization, the de facto head of the Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest. How did he get in touch with Eichmann?
Gaylen Ross: Kasztner was part of this small Zionist rescue group, and they realised early on that Jewish lives might be saved through bribery and negotiation with the Nazis. Eichmann saw the group, called the VaÂ´ada, as having connections to money and military equipment the Germans desperately needed at the end of the war, and Himmler saw them as perhaps a link to the Allies, to be used if and when Germany was defeated. It is a very complicated and detailed process of contact and negotiating that Kasztner outlines in his report written after the war, and chronicled in books about the subject. WhatÂ´s important is that Kasztner saw an opening and played for time to save the train of Jews to Switzerland and others - the thousands who were sent to the StraĂźhof labor camps, many of whom would have gone to their deaths in Auschwitz.
AVIVA-Berlin: After Kasztner moved to Israel, he was accused of being a collaborator and fought a battle in a trial that condemned him as "the man who sold his soul to the Devil". How would you describe him in nine words?
Gaylen Ross: I would certainly not describe Kasztner as he was characterised by the verdict of Judge Halevi in 1954, a trial that became politicised and without many of the facts and understanding of the European JewsÂ´ experience of the Holocaust, which really did not come to light until the Eichmann trial in 1961. Nor for decades later until archives were opened and new documents released, none of which was available at the time of the Kasztner trial.
I can only describe Kasztner as a tragic figure, who rescued what he could under extraordinary circumstances during the war, knowing even then that his actions would be interpreted with terrible consequences. In the words of US Nazi Prosecutor Eli Rosenbaum, it is time to stop blaming Jews for their own destruction, and I think it should end with Kasztner as well. No other person who rescued, whether Oskar Schindler or Carl Lutz or Raoul Wallenberg, was defined by those they didnÂ´t save, who werenÂ´t on their lists. Only in discussing Kasztner is there a caveat â€“ even in his memorial in Budapest â€“ though he didnÂ´t save 500,000 Jews, he saved this number. Why? Because Kasztner was Jewish? That he shouldnÂ´t have had the ability to rescue, that he should only be a victim? And if Kasztner had fought with a gun in his hand, if he had resisted, even if he had saved no one, would he have had a different treatment later in Israel? It is the idea of negotation which somehow is at the heart of the bitterness and attacks. And sitting down with oneÂ´s enemies is still cause for divide today all throughout the world, whether in the Mideast, Europe, or in the United States.
AVIVA-Berlin: While the film opened to sold-out audiences in Israeli cinemas during the Gaza war, other voices, silenced for half a century, were also now speaking out. How, do you think, will change this touching and confronting debate the Israel of today?
Gaylen Ross: I believe that the discussion which has been both courageous and honest in Israel has made it possible for many people, survivors and others, who were afraid to stand up for Kasztner 50 years ago, able to do so now. The current understanding of Europe during the Holocaust, the reality of Jews trapped by Nazis and in occcupied countries, make KasztnerÂ´s actions more understandable and the realities of what could have been done and should have been done less divisive and governed by fantasy or wish fullfillment. Even so I think it is interesting that Hollywood is now making films about partisans like Defiance, and even Quentin TaratinoÂ´s revenge fantasy â€“ when the most lives were saved perhaps by a man who sat down with his enemies.
AVIVA-Berlin: How did making and presenting Killing Kasztner change your life?
Gaylen Ross: Like all documentaries, but especially this one, it is a grueling process â€“ of filming and raising money, and long months of editing. But I think this film was especially hard because the topic is so difficult and uncomfortable. And there are so many layers to peel away. It is a story certainly larger than any one personÂ´s ability to tell it, it is epic. And like any epic, it will always remain essentially unobtainable and unknowable. Once touched by the Kasztner story it does not leave you, it remains. And so it has for everyone even after 60 years.
AVIVA-Berlin: Your future projects?
Gaylen Ross: My first priority is getting Kasztner to be seen by as many people as possible. And to open the film in the United States.
Then I also have a film that I have been working on for a long tme, and hope to finish this year about an actress who lost her short-term memory and returns to the stage, something no one has done before. It is a special story, she was a friend of mine, Caris Corfman, a graduate of Yale School of Drama, and an amazing actress.
Read more about Gaylen Ross at: www.grfilmsinc.com