The Eichmann Trial: 50 Years Later
A prosecutor and key witness reflect back on the event that transformed Israel.
In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer in charge of orchestrating the Final Solution – the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps – was captured by Israeli agents near Buenos Aires. Eichmann was given a choice between instant death or trial in Israel. He chose to stand trial, which began in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961.
During the trial, the Israeli public was exposed to the details of the Holocaust nightmare for the first time, as well as to the heroism and ingenuity of those who survived.
In his defense, Eichmann insisted that he was only "following orders." Yet scores of witnesses contradicted that contention – testifying to Eichmann's "fanatical zeal and unquenchable blood thirst." Throughout, Eichmann listened impassively to a translation of the entire trial from a specially-designed glass cubicle in the crowded Jerusalem courtroom.
One year later, after all the evidence was in and all appeals exhausted, the cold-eyed Nazi monster was hanged at a prison in the Israeli town of Ramla.
Former Supreme Judge Gavriel Bach – at the time an up-and-coming lawyer and deputy state attorney – was asked to join the team of prosecutors. Fluent in German, he conducted most of the interrogations of Eichmann. At a recent talk in Jerusalem, with the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann Trial approaching, Bach described the unforgettable influence that the trial left on him.
"We were three prosecutors. We gathered millions of pages of documentation and read a great deal of background sources. I don't think I slept more than three hours every night throughout the trial," Bach recalls. “The German government was very cooperative and sent us a great deal of material.” Despite that, chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner preferred to call up as many witnesses as possible rather than presenting his case via historical documents, because "it would be more shocking and have more impetus."
"Some of us thought that Eichmann may have experienced regret at the terrible things done to the Jews in Europe," says Bach. While in custody, Eichmann was shown part of a film that portrayed the horrible conditions of the camps and the crematoria. “We all waited to see how he would react to the emotional film,” says Bach. But when a German-speaking guard asked Eichmann for his reaction, he simply changed the subject and complained about not being allowed to appear at the trial in a Nazi uniform.
Instigator of the Crimes
Among the many documents that Bach found was an interview which Eichmann gave to a fascist Dutch journalist in 1956 while hiding in Argentina. Eichmann expressed satisfaction over the sight of continuous railroads cars arriving in Auschwitz. "It was a glorious sight," he said.
"Did you have any regrets at any time?" asked the journalist.
"Yes", answered Eichmann, "I'm sorry that I wasn't stricter in carrying out our goal. Look what happened," he declared angrily in 1956. "The State of Israel now exists and that cursed race continues."
A book written by the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoes, describes how up to a thousand Jewish children were gassed daily. "Occasionally a youngster would beg for his life on bended knees in front of me, and I have to admit, I sometimes felt weak myself. I have children of my own. But then I was embarrassed at my frailty. The Oberfuhrer (Eichmann) strengthened my resolve by explaining that we had to kill the accursed Jewish children above all; they represented the future, and the Jewish future had to be erased from the face of the world."
Prosecutors found several examples of Eichmann’s steadfast, even stubborn resistance to any show of lenience. One of the Nazi leaders in Poland sent a request to delay the deportation of a certain Dr. Weiss and his wife. Dr. Weiss was a world famous expert on radar, and the officer thought it would be useful for the Reich to obtain key information before annihilating him. Eichmann wouldn't hear of it "as a matter of principle," and the doctor and his family perished along with their entire community.
Eichmann claimed that he was merely carrying out orders.
At one point during the war, Hitler himself, for political reasons, asked Eichmann not to touch 8,000 Jews left in Budapest. Yet despite his loyalty to the Fuhrer, Eichmann planned otherwise. (Only the war's progression prevented him from deporting this group.) These examples counter Eichmann's claim throughout the trial that he was merely a cog in the machine, carrying out orders.
"There were many dramatic incidents during the trial," says Bach, some which never came to the floor of the courtroom. "We received an important document from an anonymous source which detailed the number of arrivals at Auschwitz, the dates, and the numbers given to each Jew. We tried to verify the details and find the person who had sent us the valuable material, but couldn't make headway. We called in experts from the police department to examine the document and help us find its author. Then I had a brainstorm. Let's find survivors with the numbers mentioned in the document and ask them when they arrived at the camp. That will give us the proof we need to present the document at the trial.
"One of the policeman in the room, after some hesitation, rolled up his sleeve and showed us a number engraved on his arm. 'This number appears on the report; and indeed I arrived in Auschwitz on the date mentioned,' he said quietly. There was complete silence in the room. None of his police colleagues even knew that he'd been in the Holocaust. Like so many, he had hidden his past. We had our proof on the spot. But none of us could speak for several minutes."
The Eichmann trial had the effect of creating huge public awareness about the Holocaust in Israel and worldwide.
"Nobody wanted to talk about their Holocaust experiences," says Yosef Kleinman, a survivor who arrived in Palestine in 1945 during the days when the tiny Jewish community was struggling to survive and prepare for statehood. There was neither energy, time nor patience to hear the newcomers out. “No one was interested in hearing our stories,” says Kleinman.
"They called us 'sabonim' (soapers),” he says. “They couldn't fathom why we hadn't stood up to the Nazis in the camps and fought back. In those days Israelis were taken up with the macho image of the ‘new Jew.’ They didn't understand what we were up against in Europe, and we ourselves didn't want to be reminded. We just wanted to get on with our lives and put that all behind us."
Indeed, the main drama of the Eichmann trial was the Holocaust survivors who appeared as witnesses. As first it was difficult to even locate witnesses, since they had gotten so used to not talking about that period in their lives. "I had a hard time convincing some people to come forth and tell their story," Bach recalls. “One man told me, ‘If I start talking, you won't be able to stop me for four or five days.’"
Bach insisted that at least one witness should appear from every country.
The prosecution team argued among themselves how much time to give each witness. "I was adamant that at least one witness should appear from every country that had been under Nazi rule," says Bach.
Kleinman, one of the youngest witnesses, described the selection process he endured as a 14-year-old. "First we were put into a ghetto, and several weeks later we were sent in cattle cars to the camp. For three days we had nothing to drink or eat.”
At Auschwitz, there was a selection table where the infamous Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele, sent the most able-bodied to the right for slave labor, and the weaker ones to the left for extermination. “My 13-year-old brother was held up for inspection,“ Kleinman recalls, “but in the end they told him to run along and join our parents to the left, which he did happily, not knowing what that meant. That was the last time I saw any of them.
”In the barracks, the old timers quickly filled us in and callously pointed to the smoking chimneys we could see through the window. 'That's where your parents are. They're all dead by now.' That's how we learned the terrible truth.”
At the Eichmann trial, Kleinman testified about an incident where Auschwitz guards called the prisoners out to see one young boy getting punished. Kleinman describes:
“Usually they'd give 25 lashes. This boy withstood the punishment and didn't let out a sound. That made the tormentor angry and he continued beating him – 30, 35, 40 lashes. And still the boy didn't cry out. We ourselves couldn't take it anymore. But the soldier continued hitting him all over – on his legs, face, stomach, wherever the whip landed.
“When he got to 50, and the boy was already on the ground, he threw away his whip and left in disgust. We ran over to the hero, picked him up and washed him off. 'What did you do to get this punishment?' we asked him. He could barely talk, but he said, “I brought siddurim (prayer books) to the barracks. It was worth it. I'm glad I did it.'"
This story had a deep influence in the courtroom. The court-appointed defense attorney wept openly, and the judges called for a break in the procedures.
Little Red Coat
At the trial, another witness who had been inside the gas chamber lived to tell about it. As a youngster, he arrived in Auschwitz together with 200 other children, after a horrendous three-day train trip. After the selection, he was pushed into a large dark room with shower piping, and the door was shut behind them. At first the children began to sing, to lift their spirits, but that soon gave way to wailing and screaming. Suddenly the heavy metal door swung open and a guard pulled out 20 of them into the bright sunlight. The Nazis needed workers to unload bags of potatoes and there weren't enough soldiers for the job. That's how this man was able to give a first-hand description of the insides of the crematorium.
At the trial, Dr. Martin Foldi, related how he and his family arrived at Auschwitz in the winter of 1944. As the bewildered Jews stumbled out of the cattle cars, they were hounded by dogs and Nazi soldiers with whips. He described being sent to the right with his 11-year-old son. His wife and two-year-old daughter were taken to the left. The little girl was wearing a little red coat. At the last minute, a guard sent Foldi's son with the crowd to the left. Dr. Foldi panicked thinking, how could this young boy find his mother and sister among the thousands there at the station. But then he knew... he could find his sister because she was wearing the red coat. It would be "like a beacon" for the boy. Then he states, "I never saw them again."
This testimony is likely to have formed the inspiration for the iconic red coat in Steve Spielberg’s classic film, Schindler’s List.
The horrible story shook the courtroom. But for prosecuting attorney Gavriel Bach, it was by far the most upsetting moment of the 16-week trial. Bach had just bought a red coat for his own daughter.
In the courtroom, Bach played with his papers and kept the whole court waiting for his next question while he conquered his emotions.
The Eichmann trial made headlines all over the world, but in Israel the subject was the center of everyone's attention. The long-term effects of the trial were dramatic and many. The Israeli public understood at last what the survivors had undergone, and became much more empathetic. The enormity of the Holocaust was suddenly brought to the fore, through the witnesses who gave a personal voice and face to the 6 million victims.
Today, far from the days of Israelis “not wanting to acknowledge the tragedy,” there is a whole different attitude. Israeli universities have professors of Holocaust Studies; thousands of Hebrew books have been printed on the subject; government agencies grant special privileges to survivors; and every year on Yom HaShoah the media devotes an entire day to interviews with the nearly-extinct generation of survivors.
Half a century later, the Eichmann trial is not merely a historic event. It represents the turning point in Israel’s understanding of the Holocaust.