60 Years Later: Eichmann in Jerusalem

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The corner of two main
Warsaw streets in ruins. (Witness To History)

Let me introduce myself.

I am a proud child of two Holocaust survivors.

I was a young girl when the Eichmann trial began in Yerushalayim. One day during the course of the trial, I heard a knock on the door. There stood Reb Leibel Binnenfeld, a man we considered our uncle. During the Holocaust, Leibel had spent eight months with my mother and her brother in a bunker in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, then almost entirely reduced to rubble by the Nazis.
Leibel was a man I knew as a pillar of strength, always smiling, always with a candy for me. But now he stood at the door, looking shaken, on the verge of tears. The moment my parents saw him, they took him into the dining room and locked the door. A few moments later, I heard a voice sobbing bitterly. I did not recognize my parents’ voices and understood it was Leibel. As a young girl, I couldn’t understand why he was crying.

It took me years to understand that my parents whom I loved so much and their friends, whom I respected so much, had emerged, alive but deeply scarred from a unique form of hell. It took me years to realize that the survivors wore a mask, that they had erected a wall in front of them so they could pretend to the world outside, and to us, their children, that life was normal and that everything was just fine.

As an adult, I learned, slowly and painfully, all about the Holocaust. And then I recognized that the survivors put on that mask so that they could go on living, so that life could be as normal as possible for their children’s sake. Only as an adult did I finally begin to understand the trauma that the Eichmann trial represented for survivors. It forced them to confront the pain they carried within and to relive the past they had buried. That was why Reb Leibel was crying…

I was a young woman when my father passed away. When I got up from the shivah I promised to remove the mask, and thus Project Witness was established.

Now, 42 years after the sudden passing of my beloved father, I am committed to carry on with the mission he sacrificed his life for, to rebuild the Jewish intellectual property that was destroyed, and to follow in his footsteps. I look around at a world that is hard for me to recognize, which my father, z”l, would not recognize at all.

I think about the accomplishments of the past and the challenges of the future. Maybe the younger generation doesn’t get it yet; maybe to some people it looks like “enough with the Holocaust, time to move on.”

But for me? I, who still remember the crying of Reb Leibel Binnenfeld, z”l, as well as his smiles and his candies, I have the obligation and the drive to continue. As long as I am alive and well, I will do whatever I can not to disappoint my father and his mission, his hopes, and his dreams. I will do my utmost to carry on his legacy, b’ezras Hashem.

Ruth Lichtenstein, Publisher


By Dr. Michael Berenbaum

In Argentina, in 1960, Israel captured Adolf Eichmann, the SS official in charge of the deportation of Jews, and brought him by clandestine means to Israel for trial in Jerusalem. Ever since the war, various Nazi hunters had been searching for Eichmann, who was one of the most visible SS officers involved in the murder of the Jews, one who had direct contact with Jewish leaders from beginning to end and everywhere in between: in the early efforts to expel Jews from Vienna in 1938-39 and later in the massive effort to deport Jews from Hungary shortly after the German invasion in 1944. And Eichmann was again intimately involved in the fate of the Jews of Budapest, meeting directly with Rezo (Rudolf) Kastner and Hansi Brand, even advancing the idea of Jews for sale, 1 million Jews for 10,000 trucks to be used in the German effort on the Eastern front against the Soviet Union.

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Adolf Eichmann in the Jerusalem courtroom. (AP Photo)

Eichmann had evaded capture after the war and had been spirited out of Germany to Argentina, part of the ratline which provided a lifeline for Nazi war criminals.

The tip on Eichmann’s whereabouts came from a blind man, a German Jew who had converted to Christianity, living in Argentina. Unable to see, his hearing was more acute, and he recognized Eichmann’s voice, even though Eichmann was living with his family under an assumed name — Roberto Klement — modestly in Argentine. Israel did not get the information about his whereabouts directly; a German Jew named Fritz Bauer worked as the State Prosecutor in Germany. He did not trust the people in his office with the information, fearing that they would leak it and Eichmann would once again flee so he contacted the Israelis with whom he worked closely and gave them the information, uncertain that they would act.

One would imagine now that the Mossad would have jumped at the opportunity to capture Eichmann, but there was great reluctance. The Mossad was — and is — dedicated to protecting Israel and the then contemporary vulnerability of Israel came from the Arab world and German scientists working in Arab countries. Eichmann on the run posed no current danger for Israel. His capture would be difficult, Mossad agents would have to operate 10,000 miles from home and extradition would be impossible as Argentina and Israel had no extradition treaty and legal procedures would be difficult, if not impossible. So Mossad officials and their supervisors were hesitant, reluctant but also fearful that word might get out that they had missed the opportunity to capture such a major war criminal. So they were given the go-ahead.

He was captured getting off the bus and walking to his home, taken to a safe house, and the agents had to get him out of Argentina and on to Israel. They had thought that they had captured a superman. In their memoirs and their reports, each had indicated that this major Nazi war criminal had soiled his underwear upon capture, diminishing him in stature and importance, strengthening them as Jews, as captors of a big-shot Nazi. Many in the units, merely 15 years after the Holocaust, had lost family, even siblings, and they felt the mission keenly, resisting temptation to exact revenge, understanding, even when not approving, of the reason that he must be brought to justice, Jewish justice, Israeli justice. Peter Malkin, one of Eichmann’s captors, did not tell his survivor mother of his critical mission until she was on her deathbed.

An El Al flight became part of the ruse. Eichmann was dressed in the steward’s uniform and plied with drugs until he appeared drunk. And he was brought to Israel.

David Ben Gurion announced his capture to a stunned Knesset.

Eichmann’s capture was controversial throughout the world, though not in Israel, because Israel had violated the sovereignty of another state. Argentina was a bit reluctant to press its case against Israel; after all, it had become a haven for Nazi war criminals and the Peron regime was pro-Nazi in politics as well as in practice.

His trial before Jewish justices and the tribunal of a state that did not exist during the years of the Holocaust offended those who objected to “ex post facto justice” and argued for an international tribunal or trial before German courts. His defense attorney argued that Eichmann could not get a fair trial in Israel before Jewish justices. The court responded: “When a judge sits on a bench, he does not cease to be flesh and blood with human emotions; but he is bidden by law to overcome these emotions. If this were not so, no judge would ever be qualified to sit in judgment in a criminal case evoking strong disgust, such as a case of treason or murder or some other heinous crime.”

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People outside the Jerusalem courtroom cluster around a man holding a radio to listen to the broadcast of opening day sessions at the trial, on April 11, 1961. (AP Photo)

The trial was set for Jerusalem in the newly opened cultural center. Crowds flocked to the courtroom, survivors and other Israelis from every walk of life. It was an international event, the first such trial televised to the entire world. Judges had prohibited cameras in the courtroom lest it interfere with the conduct of the trial, so a wall was built around the courtroom and the cameras were behind the wall. One camera was focused on Eichmann, capturing his every twitch, each reaction. Each evening, the film of the trial would be taken to Lydda airport and flown to t.v. networks around the world. I remember waking up each morning at 6:30 to a special report from Jerusalem by Martin Agronsky of NBC News, covering the trial.

Israel’s lead prosecutor, Gideon Hausner — a prominent politician trying his first criminal case — decided to go big. Some observers thought that he went too big, invoking the Six Million as his fellow prosecutors, and beginning the Jewish narrative of persecution, by drawing a straight line between Pharaoh and Eichmann. Upon reading a draft of the opening statement, Ben Gurion wryly suggested that Hitler should come in between. Hausner, most probably at Ben Gurion’s urging, decided that it was his responsibility not only to convict the accused but also, perhaps even more importantly, to educate a new generation of Israelis, including the immigrants from Arab lands who had not experienced the Holocaust, about the Shoah. His means: inviting survivors to testify, even if they had no direct contact with Eichmann. And tell their story they did: about life in the ghetto and in resistance, about life in the concentration camps and death camps. Men and women testified, told their stories, many for the first time, and the Israelis listened, the Jewish world listened, and the world listened to emotionally compelling testimony, all of it filmed for posterity. There was a significant change in Israeli attitudes toward survivors; previously they were suspected of going like sheep to the slaughter, complying with German orders, not like the brave heroes of the Jewish state. Some even called them sabonikim — soaps, repeating the myths that Jews were made into soap.

After a long trial, Eichmann was convicted and hanged. His body was cremated — like the remains of his victims — and his ashes were scattered at sea so as not to sully Israeli soil.

Yet the aftermath of the Eichmann trial was perhaps more important than the trial itself. In Israel, a taboo had been broken. One could now speak about the Holocaust. The younger generation, native-born Israelis or Jews from Arab lands untouched by the Holocaust, became interested in learning about these tragic events. They found the testimony of survivors riveting.

In the world of ideas, the trial had other unexpected consequences. Hannah Arendt, the respected German-born American Jewish philosopher, was asked to cover the trial for the New Yorker. Arendt made two essential points in her problematic portrayal of the trial. Her reports struck a nerve among Holocaust scholars and the Jewish community worldwide. Her friend, the preeminent academician of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, himself a Jew born in Germany, accused her of lacking the most basic element of ahavat Yisrael — love of the Jewish people. She addressed him by his given German name, not his Hebrew name, a name he had deliberately given up more than three decades earlier, adding to the feud among former friends. She argued that, wittingly or unwittingly, the Jewish councils were tools of the Nazis. Jewish leadership made the destruction of the Jewish people easier for the enemy. Her second point was no less provocative. Eichmann, she claimed, was essentially a dull bureaucrat. His deeds were not monstrous, but ordinary acts, such as arranging papers, rescheduling trains, making a bureaucracy function, fine-tuning a system of destruction. Indeed, the subtitle of Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, was A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Arendt clearly violated the dialectic of the Holocaust in which the totality of the event is far greater than the sum of its parts. Her critics felt that if Eichmann was not the embodiment of evil, the moral significance of the Holocaust was somehow diminished. The sum total of Eichmann’s many banal acts was not banality, but monstrous evil of demonic proportions.

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Eichmann in prison, preparing his defense. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But in the years since Arendt wrote her book, we have become more willing to examine the role of bureaucracy in perpetrating the crime and to see the bureaucrat not as someone larger than life — a mystified monster.

Yet another taboo had been breached, and in Jerusalem, Berlin, Paris, and New York, scholars and writers had to face difficult questions such as what was the role of the Jewish Councils and Jewish leadership in the murder of millions of Jews? Among the issues that had to be confronted were the complicity of the victims in their own victimization and the relationship between bureaucratic evil and demonic evil. The bitter debate continues in Holocaust scholarship. At stake are not only issues of history; the pride of the living is salvaged from the conduct of the dead.

What manner of man was Adolf Eichmann? My approach is historical, not judicial. I am not a lawyer, merely married to one. Twenty years ago, I worked through the Israeli police interrogations of Eichmann. Some of those who interrogated him were survivors. Unknown to his fellow policemen, one, Mickey Rosenfeld, was himself a prisoner of Auschwitz with a tattoo on his left arm. Like many such Israelis — at that time — he wore long sleeves.

I approached Eichmann’s words differently than some other historians and even the lawyers. Methodically, I felt it best to suspend one’s conclusions as to whether Eichmann was telling the truth or lying to protect himself but best to listen carefully to his words, his self-perceptions, his subjective truths, paying attention to what he said, and, perhaps, even more importantly to what he did not say. To presume he was lying from the beginning might blind us to truly understanding his answers and thus the mindset of a perpetrator.

Eichmann described himself to his Israeli interrogators as a Zionist. When transferred to the Jewish department in SD (SS intelligence service), he prepared himself for the task that lay ahead by reading some Jewish history. He was influenced by Theodor Herzl’s book The Jewish State, or so he told his Israeli captors. Like Herzl, he wanted to make Europe Judenrein, free of Jews. Whether by founding a Jewish state and evacuating the Jews safely there or forcibly deporting the Jews to Madagascar, according to Eichmann, their goals were identical. Only the tactics differed. He never seemed to appreciate the significance of the “tactical” difference between annihilation and aliyah. Like Herzl, he, too, regarded the Jews as a non-European element.

Throughout the many hours of police questioning, Eichmann refused to describe himself as an antisemite. He said that he objected to the crude antisemitism of Julius Streicher and his colleagues, who published Der Stürmer. He was more sophisticated. On a trip to Haifa, which Eichmann had visited in the 1930s, he depicted himself as fascinated by the Jews, not the Arabs. He subscribed to Jewish periodicals. He purchased the Jewish Encyclopedia. He told the police that he had read The Jewish State, but that he never read all of Mein Kampf — and never carefully. Neither did he read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

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Eichmann paces in the yard at Ramle Prison, , ten days before the start of his trial. (John Milli/GPO via Getty Images)

More than a decade after Eichmann was interrogated, there emerged a historical controversy between the functionalists and the intentionalists. The intentionalists argued that the German policy toward the Jews was preconceived and only awaited the opportunity presented by war for its complete implementation. The functionalists countered that German policy evolved in response to changing conditions, such as the invasion of Poland and the capture of its large Jewish population. If Eichmann is to be believed, then, at least at his level of operation, the functionalists were correct. He told his captors that the policy evolved from discrimination to forced emigration and later to containment [ghettoization] and then from mobile killing units to death camps.

Eichmann portrayed himself as favoring emigration long after it was government policy. He told of a meeting with his superior, Reinhard Heydrich, after the war in the Soviet Union had started, and being told of the Fuehrer’s order for the physical extermination of the Jewish people. “I didn’t say anything; what could I say in August in 1941?”

He minimized his role at the Wannsee Conference on the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and thus his role in the promulgation of the decision to kill. “No one bothered with us. We were too insignificant.” He sat in the corner with the stenographers, or so he said.

Not once did Eichmann voice either objection or even surprise at the German policy regarding the Jews. When asked how he felt about the denial of Jewish citizenship, Eichmann answered crisply: “I didn’t give these details a thought.” He did object to Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of November 9-11, 1938, in which hundreds of synagogues throughout the Reich were burned, 7,000 stores were looted and 30,000 Jewish men from 16-60 were arrested and detained in concentration camps; yet his objection was purely functional. “Senseless destruction,” he calls it. Not the work of the police or the SD (SS intelligence service).

Eichmann depicted himself as a loyal bureaucrat. Honorable and faithful to the oath he had taken. When asked “Were you loyal to the SS?” he answered: “I had taken an oath. In the first few years there were no inner conflicts of any kind. I sat at my desk and did my work.” He was undisturbed by the tasks at hand, interested in “bread and work,” not in the Jewish question. Himmler once remonstrated with the German people for having a favorite Jew, a good Jew who should be saved. Eichmann is apologetic about the Jew he did help escape as a favor to his uncle, who reminded him of previous assistance the Jewish man had given him in obtaining a job. “As a loyal SS man, I should not have done it.” His values are clear: “Orders are orders, you’ve got to obey and that’s that!”

He recalled with considerable embarrassment the time that anger got the best of him. He had lost control, which seldom happened. He had slapped Dr. Lowenherz, a Jewish communal official in Vienna. “I did not tolerate physical violence. That is why I apologized in uniform and in the presence of my staff.” As to his responsibility, Eichmann denies he behaved illegally.

He was a truth teller, even to his subjects — or so he reports: “I didn’t lie. I am the kind of man who cannot tell a lie.” Thus, he told Jewish officials where the shipments were going, if they asked.

He was not responsible for the order: “It was none of my doing that they were deported or arrested,” he said. When asked about his function within the extermination unit, he demurred. He was responsible only for evacuation. “I never claimed not to know about the liquidation. I only said that Bureau IV B4 had nothing to do with it.” He returned to that theme later in his questioning: “I couldn’t help myself because I had orders but I had nothing to do with this business.” When pressed on the killing, he again resorted to that psychologically comfortable explanation. “I couldn’t help myself because I had orders but I had nothing to do with this business.” Again he proclaimed the limits of his responsibility. “I had nothing to do with killing Jews, I never killed a Jew, and I never ordered someone to kill a Jew. I’ve never done such a thing. That what gives me an inner tranquility. I’m guilty because I helped with the evacuation.” He saw himself guilty of complicity, not murder.

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Lord Edward Russell, 2nd Baron Russell of Liverpool, presenting his pass to officers at the tightly guarded entrance to the court buildings. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He displayed considerable compassion for his own psyche by not drawing too close to the killing process. He even expressed horror at what the Nazis were doing. “I saw a gassing installation and was horrified.” He was somewhat chagrined at his lack of inner strength. “My nerves weren’t strong enough. I couldn’t listen to such things without their affecting me. … I didn’t look inside, I couldn’t stand the screaming, I was much too shaken.” But he only took steps to keep himself away from the killing, not to remove himself from responsibility for deportation.

He cloaked himself in the mantle of legality. The order was legal: “I wouldn’t have considered any of those actions illegal. … The government was elected by a majority.” As to his role, he reported, “Who is a little man like me to trouble his head about it? I get orders from my superiors. My job is to obey and comply.”

Eichmann was not the first of the Nazi defendants to argue obedience and legality. From time to time during the interrogation, he did take credit — not responsibility — for the zeal with which he performed his task. He boasted of his effectiveness and he took a measure of pride in the conveyer belt that he established to facilitate emigration and later deportation. He followed orders, he said, but only hesitantly revealed his own initiatives, how he made the system work.

Naturally, no one should accept all that he said at face value. Bureaucrats did far more than follow orders; they, and Eichmann in particular, acted innovatively and creatively to set up new procedures, accomplish unprecedented tasks. Eichmann did not succeed in managing the deportation of millions of Jews by merely following orders. He was a skillful manager and had to resort to a wide variety of strategies and tactics in order to provide the rolling stock to deport Jews, the cattle cars that were so urgently needed in other spheres of operation. Time and again, he solved problem by initiating unconventional solutions and using unorthodox methods. He must have been assured of the backing of his superiors and his antennae must have sensed who within the transport ministry and the Reichsbahn would cooperate by sharing a common ideological zeal or who could be cajoled into cooperation by threats or intimidation, even by sheer force of will.

Following orders is far too simple an explanation. And on some level Eichmann knew it. He was accurate when he said: “I had to strain every muscle to make full use of the rolling stock of trains.” He was correct in his portrayal of his role: “I did my job with unusual zeal. I regarded my work as a binding duty.”

When asked: “One could say no evacuation, no gas chambers,” Eichmann answered: “Yes, you could put it that way, though I had nothing to do with that sector.” He then protested: “But not all the people I evacuated were killed. I had no knowledge whatsoever of who was killed and who was not.” He protested his innocence of murder. “From a juridical point of view I am guilty of complicity.” He stresses the point again and again: “I had nothing to do with these things. I can tell you truthfully. And nobody will ever prove to the contrary.”

The very same mantra continues throughout the many months of interrogation. His struggle for inner self-justification: “I had my orders.” “I didn’t kill them. I didn’t hang them.” “My very latest responsibility ceased when the military police took over the shipments at the evacuation stations.” Tom Lehrer, the math professor turned folk singer, once sang out, “We send up the rockets, but where they come down? ‘That’s not my department,’ says Werner Von Braun.” So, too, Adolf Eichmann.

His description of slave labor is both interesting and accurate. It reveals the Nazi mentality. Slave labor was a means of the death of many, what Eichmann termed “natural diminution.” What asked what he meant by the term, he quickly answered, “Perfectly normal dying.” It was those who survived the work that were to pose the greatest danger. They were to be killed or as Eichmann put it, “They must be treated accordingly since this natural elite, if released, must be viewed as potentially the germ cell of the new Jewish order.”

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People outside the courthouse on April 11, 1961. (AP Photo)

He considered himself an honorable man, as he told his captors: “The loyalty oath itself called for unquestioning obedience. So naturally we had to comply with these laws and regulations.” The orders were legal, Eichmann maintains throughout the questioning. “The Final Solution itself — It was a Fuehrer’s Order, a so-called Fuehrer’s order.” The Fuehrer’s order had the force of law. “Himmler, Heydrich and Pohl, the heads of the Administration and Supply each had his own part in the implementation of this Fuehrer’s order. According to the then-prevailing interpretation, which no one questioned, the Fuehrer’s order had the force of law. Not only in this case, but in every case. That is common knowledge.” He repeats the very same words as if to convince himself: “The Fuehrer’s orders had the force of law.”

Eichmann is to be believed on this most important matter.

He spoke of himself as a moral man: “I have taken Kant’s categorical imperative as my norm. … I ordered my life by that imperative and continued to do so in my sermons to my sons when I realized that they were letting themselves go.” Perhaps he should never have taken the oath, but an oath once taken must be carried out to the end, he argued. One could almost sense that he expected his Israeli captors to concur with his moral reasoning.

On some level, Eichmann took his argument of obedience to its own logical conclusions: “If they had said to me, ‘Your father is a traitor’; If they had told me, ‘Your father is traitor,’ and I had to kill him, I’d have done that. At that time I obeyed my orders without thinking. … It made no difference what the orders were.” Elsewhere, he reiterated: “I had no responsibility whatsoever, because the oath I had to take obligated me to loyalty and obedience. The order came from a hierarchical superior.” Someone else was responsible, not him!

Eichmann’s self-portrayal is haunting: “An oath is an oath.” He boasted of his integrity: “I never lied to Jewish functionaries.”

He limited his responsibility. “I was only a receiver of orders,” the receiver, never the initiator.

He limited his exposure: “On principle, I never went to look at anything unless I was expressly ordered to.”

He ran a clean shop: “I trained my subordinates to be punctilious. Nothing could be undertaken unless it could somehow be justified in black and white.”

He was willing to carry out orders regardless of the nature of the order. His reasoning is quite simple: “During war, in any case, that’s all there was to that.”

When I started to review his interrogation, I wondered what would happen if I truly understood Eichmann, would I gain a certain appreciation for his situation, a measure of feeling for who he was and how he behaved? But the more deeply I read, the more intense my anger; the greater my understanding, the less I sympathized.

To understand the Holocaust, we must comprehend Adolf Eichmann. The interrogation records, even more than the trial, may tell us much more than he wished us to know.

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is a renowned Holocaust historian, scholar, professor, writer, and filmmaker, who has dedicated his life to the study of the Holocaust. He served as Deputy Director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, Project Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Director of the USHMM’s Holocaust Research Institute and he currently is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute in Los Angeles.

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