Recalling an Evil Idealist
Note to readers: I usually post my regular Ami column weekly; this past week, of course, Ami wasn’t published due to Pesach. Since I write several features for the magazine, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a different one, News and Analysis, from the pre-Pesach issue. The news story and commentary are below.
Three days after Pesach in 5721 (1961), the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a top deputy of Adolf Hitler known as “the architect of the Holocaust,” opened in Jerusalem. April 11 marked that day’s fiftieth anniversary on the non-Jewish calendar and yielded an assortment of commemorations, reflections and revelations.
Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, uploaded footage of the entire Eichmann trial to the Internet for public view. Recordings of the Nazi made in the 1950s while he was hiding in Argentina, recently discovered by Germany’s intelligence services, were digested in a series of articles in the German news magazine Der Spiegel. The U.S. State Department convened a presentation and question-and-answer session featuring two Holocaust scholars. One of those scholars, Deborah Lipstadt, published a new and well-received book about the trial. An exhibit entitled “Facing Justice—Adolf Eichmann on Trial” opened in Berlin’s Topography of Terror documentation center.
Countless news and feature offerings born of the trial’s anniversary were put before the public by the media; and countless papers on the subject were assigned to students.
Eichmann, who was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960, was surreptitiously spirited out of South America to Israel where, since he had been in charge of transporting millions of European Jews to death camps, he was put on trial for the central role he played in the European Jewish genocide. The defendant was sentenced to death and, in May, 1962, hanged—the only person ever to have been executed by Israel in the country’s history.
At the time, the trial captivated millions around the world, and it marked the first time that many people, even in Israel, learned details about the Holocaust. More than a decade earlier, the Nuremberg Trials put Nazis in the dock, and the Holocaust squarely before the world. But that proceeding was a military tribunal convened by a group of nations that had defeated the Third Reich and its allies, whereas the Eichmann trial took place before a judge representing a country established by relatives of the defendant’s victims. The Nuremberg Trials, moreover, took place shortly after the war’s end, which gave it the character of the world conflict’s closing chapter; the Eichmann trial came, it seemed at the time, out of nowhere, a harsh and unexpected reminder, a freshly shocking look at events that had taken place almost 20 years earlier.
What is more, the attention the Eichmann trial drew across Europe, Israel and the United States was intensified by the fact that, in the interim since the Nuremberg Trials, a new technology, television, permitted the proceedings to be not only read about and heard but seen, in real time, by hundreds of thousands.
Viewers watched scores of survivors enter the witness box and recount their experiences; and regarded with puzzlement the strange image of the strikingly un-monstrous monster in the defendant’s dock, a balding, bespectacled man with the look of an unremarkable office worker, laying out papers and pens before him, repeatedly and nervously cleaning his glasses.
But the facts that emerged about Eichmann, how the “transportation administrator” systematically, efficiently and determinedly arranged deportations of untold numbers of Jews and others to death camps, yielded the term, coined by Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial for The New Yorker, “the banality of evil.”
Eichmann’s evil was evident in the recently released tapes, too. Made by a Dutch journalist who volunteered for the Waffen-SS during the war, they captured the Nazi in Argentina living under an alias (“Ricardo Klement”) as he enjoyed a few drinks in a Buenos Aires house.
Eichmann admitted to disappointment that Jews had survived the war, and blamed himself and his fellow Nazis for not seeing their goals through. “We didn’t do our work correctly,” he lamented.
And, in stark contrast to how he presented himself years later in Jerusalem, he boasted that he “was no ordinary recipient of orders,” but rather “a part of the thinking process, an idealist.”
It was far from obvious that the fifty-year mark since the Eichmann trial would garner so much attention. Had it been ignored by the world, it would not have been surprising; few would have likely noticed.
That the anniversary in fact brought a small avalanche of new revelations, commemorations, articles and books may prove, from a Jewish perspective, to be something positive.
The Orthodox Jewish community, particularly in recent years, has come to recognize the importance of familiarizing its young—a generation nearly 70 years distant from the Holocaust—with the events of Churban Europe. There is a need, it is well recognized, to sensitize a new generation to what was lost—not only the individual lives, but the collective life of a world no longer extant; to inform young people of true spiritual heroism demonstrated during the years of the Shoah; and to place the catastrophe in the context of the Golus in which we live and wait.
Those goals stand in contrast to much that passes for Holocaust education in American and European society. There the attempted extermination of the Jewish people is portrayed in wholly secular terms, as an example of genocide and a warning of what can happen when totalitarian regimes are permitted to wield power. Even in Israeli schools, the Shoah is presented primarily as a lesson about the need for Jewish power, with uprisings like the Warsaw ghetto’s placed on center stage.
It is tempting to dismiss the public focus being brought to the Eichmann trial as part of such packaging, as something worthwhile but ultimately without lasting value, at least for Jews committed to the Jewish religious tradition.
But the reminder—or revelation, as it surely is for countless Jews who weren’t at least teenagers in 1961—of the trial and the details it revealed of the Third Reich’s killing machine, might prove a stimulus for some Jews distant from their heritage to consider what being a Jews really means.
At first thought, persecution and victimhood seem unlikely spurs to faith. Confronting the impunity with which Jewish blood has been spilled would not be expected to invigorate a sleeping sense of pride in the Jewish spiritual heritage.
But it is undeniable that the sense of Jewish uniqueness whose highest expression is a vibrant, joyful Jewish life can germinate with thoughts of the senseless and vicious hatred of Jews history has seen (and contemporary times continue to see).
Indeed, Jewish glory and calamity have long comprised a two-sided coin. Literally, in fact, as in the coin the Midrash teaches was minted by Mordechai, with a golden crown on one of its sides and sackcloth and ashes on the other. And soon enough we will all be gazing, in the glow of an ethereal Jewish moment, at a plate holding both matzoh and maror.
In 1961, as aware as the world was of the Eichmann trial, no one could have imagined that fifty years later a mere touch of a piece of plastic reminiscent of a mouse, indeed what the word “mouse” would bring to mind before a furry rodent, could conjure a literal vision of events that transpired that year in an Israeli courtroom—and, in turn, mind’s eye images of horrific events two decades earlier.
But it can. And it will, to innumerable young Jews whose window to the world, for better or worse (or both) is a screen taking its orders from the artificial rodent.
Many may just move on from the video of the trial. But some of those who linger, or find themselves transfixed, might just come to feel the brunt of the fact that “in each and every generation,” as we’ll say at the Seder, “they stand over us to destroy us.” And from there begin to ponder the specialness of Klal Yisrael.