History’s Deals


Rosh Hashanah 5776
September 14, 2015
In December of 1938 Nicholas Winton, then a 29-year-old London
stockbroker, was planning a skiing vacation to Switzerland. Before
leaving he received a phone call from his good friend Martin who urged
him to cancel the vacation and come to Prague instead. “I need your
help,” Martin said. “Don’t bother bringing your skis.” In Prague Winton
confronted thousands of Jewish refugees living in appalling conditions.
I am sure many are familiar with this story. Still I want to retell it
because this past July Nicholas (Nicky) Winton died after living to 106
years. I recall his story as well because much of our discussion this
past summer hinged around the very question Winton faced. How do
we confront evil? The stories we tell influence how we evaluate
contemporary events and in particular the now concluded Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action that lifts the sanctions against Iran in
exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear program. Some have called
President Obama’s negotiated deal appeasement. Others have praised
it. Some believe the deal forestalls war. Others believe that we are
once again reliving those concluding days of 1938.
Winton believed that the Munich Agreement between Germany and the
Western European powers would not offer “peace in our time,” but was
instead a prelude to war. The Germans would not stop with the
annexation of western Czechoslovakia. Kristallnacht in November of
1938 confirmed Winton’s feelings. In Prague he saw first hand the
Jewish refugees. He saw that no one was looking out for them. He
decided to try to get permits for the children. He wrote: “I began to
realize what suffering there is when armies start to march.” Winton set
up an office in Prague and returned to London where he appealed to
European nations to accept the children. Only Sweden and Britain said
yes. The United States by the way said no. He worked tirelessly to
raise funds and secure foster homes for the children.
Three months later Winton had his first success: a planeload of children
left Prague for Britain. Winton organized seven more transports, the
remainder by train. Each transport was greeted by waiting British
foster parents in London’s Liverpool Street station. On September 1,
1939 the largest transport of children was set to leave. On that day
Hitler invaded Poland. Germany then closed all the borders they
controlled. 250 children destined for London perished instead in the
fires of the Shoah. Winton has said many times that he remained
haunted by the faces of these children waiting eagerly at Prague’s
Wilson Station for that aborted transport. In the end Winton saved 669
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children. Their parents, as well as the majority of their families, were
among the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
I have been thinking about this story for many reasons. It is
remarkable that Winton, a Christian, was so moved by Jewish suffering
that he almost single handedly saved so many lives. It is a heroic story
of what one person can do when confronted with unspeakable evil. All
agree. Winton is a hero.
This morning I wish to meditate on history and heroism. How does our
view of it color our judgment of contemporary events? We are
commanded: zachor—remember! We tell the stories of our suffering.
Every year we read the megillah and tell our children about the wicked
Haman. We recall tales of heroism. Every year we sing of the bravery
of the Maccabees. We teach our children about the Holocaust. Why?
We must always remember. We must forever learn how to discern evil
when it once again blossoms. That is why the US Holocaust Museum
charts emerging genocides. Antisemitism and demonic hate flourishes
once again. It can be found among ISIS. It can be heard coming from
the mouths of Iran’s leaders.
So let me offer some words about the deal now concluded with the
Iranian regime. Despite the potential for controversy I hope this
sermon serves as a starting point for our discussions and debates, that
my words might make us think a little bit harder about our firmly held
positions and our pre-conceived ideas. So let me state this clearly at
the outset. The deal now concluded with Iran is a bad deal. I am not
going to get into the details. I am not a security expert. For that you
can read any number of articles. In a nutshell here is my judgment. I
do not trust Iran’s intentions. I worry about what will happen when
Iran and its proxies get their hands on even a fraction of the $150
billion of sanction relief. By the way I continue to worry about the
billions that Saudi Arabia funnels to terrorist groups.
President Obama appears naïve about the intentions of those bent on
our destruction. I have often said this and I will continue to say so.
History teaches us that we must take antisemites at their word. When
they rise up and agitate for our destruction we must not excuse their
words. They mean what they say. President Obama on the other hand
seems to believe that history is a great weight that must be
overthrown, that can be overcome. Leon Wieseltier writes: “The
president said many times that he is willing to step out of the rut of
history… It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for
the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old
struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited

precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical
powers of the present.” (The Atlantic, July 27, 2015)
By contrast I am a Jew. I relish in the past. I retell our stories year
after year. History defines me. It animates me. Past sufferings
instruct me. They continue to guide my responses to today’s
challenges.
I believe there could have been a better deal. Now, however, that the
deal is concluded, this is an argument for historians. I am left to
respond to present circumstances.
There are number of things we can offer about the present. For all my
worries about the deal and Iran’s intentions I worry as well about how
we argue about the deal’s flaws and merits. There are serious and
committed Jews who do not share my views. There are educated
leaders, and security experts, who have offered different judgments.
Our tendency to listen only to those who reinforce our own opinions is
one of the great failures of our present culture. It is made
exponentially worse by the desire to accumulate Facebook likes and
the unwillingness to sit and debate with those who sit across the table
from us. We are also a people animated by debate. We are made
better by sitting at the same table with those with whom we disagree.
We are made worse by sitting by ourselves across from our computer
screens. We are strengthened by loving disagreement. Argument is
not a sign of weakness. In fact the opposite is true. Unity of opinion,
and the hewing to talking points, does not strengthen us but instead
weakens us. Neither side in this great debate can be called traitors.
Of course I worry about Israel’s security. Of course I worry about
threats to the United States. But I also worry about the growing divide
among Jews. We are fractured. Love of Israel once united us. It was
once understood that love could come with critique. Now love appears
to mean unquestioning loyalty to Israel’s current political leadership.
There is far more disagreement within Israel’s Knesset than appears
permitted among American Jews. My friends it is not 1938 and
President Obama is not Neville Chamberlain. It is not 1938 for one
simple reason. There is a modern State of Israel, a sovereign Jewish
state, with a powerful and formidable army. The world is different
today than it was then. Today the Jewish people can defend
themselves.
The modern State of Israel represents the attempt to transcend the
narrative of Jewish victimhood. This does not mitigate my worries
about the deal. Israel in particular faces many threats but it is not
forever nearing a precipice. I have come to know a different Israel. I
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have fallen in love with the thriving and tumultuous, and often
boisterous, Jewish and democratic state, clamoring for our involvement
and engagement. I have faith in our survival. The Jewish people will
defend themselves. Am Yisrael chai!
I worry about the growing divide between the United States and Israel.
I blame both Obama and Netanyahu for this failure. We are united by
shared values. We must redouble our efforts to mend this divide. We
have many enemies and fewer friends. We should draw near to our
friends. And I remain deeply concerned about the growing rift between
American Jews and Israel. With each conflict we appear more and
more distant. If you think that Israel’s continued occupation of the
West Bank does not distance many of our young people from Israel
then you are mistaken. Take note of the over 3000 young Jews who
attended JStreet’s recent conference. Their voices must be embraced
as part of how one can love Israel. Our children’s love of Israel might
look different than our own. I hope my children share my passions. I
pray my children share my loves. I don’t expect, or even want, my
children to think like me. Tomorrow must be different than yesterday. I
expect my children, I expect our children, to participate in that
transformation.
I seek to be informed by history but not so scarred and bruised by it
that I remain forever wedded to it. I seek to learn from history but not
live within its confines. What then is the heroic response to present
evils?
I turned to some of my teachers for answers. In this regard some of
you are my teachers. I turned to Annie, a Holocaust survivor, a woman
who stands taller than just about any person I know, a woman who
survived a year in Auschwitz. As I spoke to her on the phone you could
almost hear her waving her finger at me when she said, “Rabbi, I have
seen evil with my own eyes. You cannot make a deal with people who
say ‘Death to the Jews. Death to Israel. Death to America.’ They
really mean to kill us.”
Then I called a newfound teacher and also a member of our holy
congregation.
Arthur is a combat veteran who served in the US Army during World
War II and fought in Germany. He said, “Rabbi, I have seen horror. I
don’t want anyone to see that again. I don’t want any young kid to
have to fight in a war again. Anything that delays war is a good thing.
This deal makes war less likely. I am in favor of it.”
Is one Jew’s experience of history more authentic than another’s? Is
one person’s pain and suffering more telling than another’s? History is
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far more confusing than our narratives suggest. History, as my
professor once taught, is messy. We tell the stories that justify our
opinions. It is not nearly as black and white as our tales imply.
There are those who accuse President Obama of appeasement and the
Jews who support his decision as collaborators. History does not speak
with an unwavering, certain voice. There are lessons to be learned
from history. Certainties elude us.
And so I offer another story. It comes from the same time period that
informs our current debate. This story is less familiar than the tale of
Winton. It is the story of Reszo Israel Kastner. Kastner was a Zionist
leader in Hungary and in particular a member of the Budapest Aid and
Rescue Committee. Hungary was then, as it has become now, an
escape route for refugees fleeing from the East. Then it was Jews who
were running from the Nazi onslaught in Poland. Today it is Syrians
fleeing from ISIS. In March 1944 the Nazis invaded Hungary. Jews were
then deported to Auschwitz’s gas chambers at a rate of 12,000 per
day. Kastner took it upon himself to save those he could.
What did he do? He went directly to Adolf Eichmann and negotiated
for the safe passage of 1,685 Jews to travel to Switzerland. He paid in
money, gold and diamonds. After a number of meetings he negotiated
the price of $1000 per life. Imagine this. Kastner, a Jew and a Zionist,
sat across from Eichmann to negotiate for these Jewish lives. He even
traveled to Germany to conduct some of these meetings. In an effort
to raise the extraordinary sum he auctioned off seats to wealthy Jews
for $25,000 per person. Among those on Kastner’s train as it later
became known, were his own family members and the rabidly antiZionist Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum. Kastner also developed a
working relationship with other SS officers, in particular Kurt Becher.
Some claim that Kastner leveraged these relationships to help save
over 10,000 more Jews. And what did Kastner offer in addition to gold?
He promised that if there were a trial he would testify in behalf of these
SS officers. Being a man of his word, Kastner traveled to the
Nuremberg war crimes trial following the war and offered testimony in
behalf of Kurt Becher and two other SS officers. He was first and
foremost a man of his word.
What defines a hero? Do we elevate Winton to the status of hero
because he was not a Jew? Because he was an ordinary man who we
would have expected to feel distant from Jewish suffering and pain but
whose vacation was derailed by a heartfelt moral imperative? Do we
denigrate Kastner because he was a Jew who failed to even warn his
fellow Jews of the murderous deaths that he absolutely knew awaited
them? There are those who believe as well that it was Kastner who
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turned Hannah Senesh and her fellow paratroopers into the Germans.
The timing of their ill-fated rescue attempt could have derailed
Kastner’s plan to rescue the 1,685 Jews he had negotiated so hard for
so long to save. Do we wish to forget his acts because he exchanged
money for lives? And yet the history is clear. He saved 1,685 Jewish
lives. Then again history also offers muddy conclusions. Still his story
does not end there.
Following the war Kastner made his way to Palestine. He became
active in Mapai, David ben Gurion’s party. He never gained a Knesset
seat but by 1952 became spokesman for the Ministry of Trade and
Industry. And that is when the story gets really interesting. Malchiel
Gruenweld remembered Kastner from the war and believed he had
betrayed the Jewish people in wartime Budapest. He published a
pamphlet accusing Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis, enabling
the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry, partnering with Nazi officer Kurt
Becher in the theft of Jewish assets, and saving Becher from
punishment after the war. And so what did Kastner do in response to
these accusations? He, and the nascent State of Israel, sued
Gruenweld for libel. The lower court found in favor of Gruenwald and
accused Kastner of selling his soul to the devil.
The State decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. And
this decision led to the collapse of the ruling coalition and the call for
new elections. Have we ever retold this story? We don’t learn this
history. We tell tales of the Wintons. They are ennobling. They are
clarifying. They are neat and tidy. Here is good. There was evil. We
push away the stories of the Kastners. They are complicated. They
tend not to fit with our squared narratives of good and evil. During the
Shoah people were forced to make terrible, and unimaginable, choices.
Saving lives did not always emerge from altruistic motives. Schindler,
we learned, was a flawed man. In 1958 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in
favor of Kastner. Kastner however never lived to see his name cleared.
He was assassinated a year earlier by a right wing Jewish hit squad.
And then three years ago his granddaughter, Meirav Michaeli, rose
before the Knesset as a member of the Zionist-Labor party, and said in
her first speech before her fellow Knesset members the following: “On
Wednesday morning, July 3rd 1944, a Zionist Jew stood in a suit in Adolf
Eichmann’s Budapest office. Your nerves seem tattered said Eichmann
to the man. Maybe I will send you on a vacation to Auschwitz. The
Zionist Jew who stood before him remained unfazed. That man was Dr.
Israel Kastner.
The reason why he was in the room was to negotiate with Eichmann
and other Nazi officers in order to save tens of thousands of Jews from

extermination. Reszo Kastner hu haya hasabba sheli. Reszo Kastner
was my grandfather,” she exclaimed.
For the granddaughter the grandfather is a hero.
Back to Winton. It was not until years later, in 1988 that the world
learned of his heroism. His wife discovered a trove of documents in a
suitcase in his attic. These documents detailed the names of all the
children that Winton was able to save. He only wished he could save
more. Documentaries were produced. He was knighted by the British
government. He became Sir Winton. A statue of Winton carrying a
child in his arms was erected in Prague’s train station.
Back to Kastner. He is buried in an ordinary cemetery. A documentary
about him was produced as well. It is entitled, “Killing Kastner.” And to
this day you could search near and far but you will never find a street
in any Israeli city named for Israel Kastner.
In Jerusalem, you can find a street named for Yohanan ben Zakkai, the
rabbi who betrayed those zealots made famous by the stories we tell
on Masada but you will not find Rehov Kastner. Every attempt to name
a street for him still meets with fierce resistance. We name the street
we want to walk. We write the stories we want to hear.
And so here is my judgment about the history we retell. It does not
offer the certainties that politicians, and rabbis, too often suggest. It
grants lessons. But its road is not straight. History’s deals are
imperfect.
Back to Winton and Kastner. We can deduce this math. The hero
saved 669 souls. The traitor, as some would still call him, saved 1,650
and probably far, far more.
For all my misgivings about the Iran deal and my judgments about its
failures and my fears about where it might lead, I have to admit that
historical certainties belong to the prophets alone. I have to admit that
when future generations look back the math might tip against my view
and in favor of those now accused of collaboration and treason.
The truth might be the following. The messy history that real people
live could end up saving more lives than the stories I prefer to tell.
That, I now realize, leads me to my prayer. May my fears prove
unfounded and the hopes of others prove true. And may 5776 offer
the world an increased measure of peace.

I am thankful to my teacher, Dr. Rachel Korazim, with whom I learn at
the Shalom Hartman Institute, and who first taught me about Israel
Kastner's life.
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz
Congregation L’Dor V’Dor