New theatrical performance revisits Eichmann trial 60 years on

Each member of the core performance triad approached the court case from a very different angle, thereby providing Dekel-Avneri with plenty of room for interpretive maneuver.

DIRECTOR LILACH DEKEL-AVNERI and the cast use a wide range of means to convey the ambiance and emotions of the Eichmann trial (photo credit: SASCHA ENGEL)
DIRECTOR LILACH DEKEL-AVNERI and the cast use a wide range of means to convey the ambiance and emotions of the Eichmann trial
(photo credit: SASCHA ENGEL)
In this postmodern world with its plethora of social media platforms where users can sometimes make the most – actually, the worst - of their virtual vantage point to unleash a stream of unsolicited invective in a most unsavory and insensitive manner, there now appear to be few areas that are considered to be taboo. Etiquette barriers have shifted or simply crumbled. Even the f-word, which in my youth and early adulthood was viewed to be beyond the pale, is bandied about now with gay abandon, even on TV.
But the odd realm of life remains where caution is exercised and one treads lightly, with due sensitivity and delicacy for fear of opening up old – and still open and very raw – wounds. One such is the Holocaust. There are still quite a few survivors among us and emotions can run high.
All of which makes Lilach Dekel-Avneri’s slot in this year’s – deferred – Israel Festival all the more daunting. Dekel-Avneri is founder and artistic director of the Pathos Mathos theatrical performance company, and is director of The Eichmann Project – Terminal 1, which will be presented to a limited, purple badge-compliant live audience and many more Zoom viewers on September 9 and 10 (both at 9 p.m.). The show will take place at the Multidisciplinary Cultural Center, Jerusalem, at the site of the former Rav Chen Cinema complex, in Talpiot.
ON MAY 11, 1960, Adolf Eichmann, one the principal architects of the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question, was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina and thereafter smuggled out of the country and brought to Israel. When the episode came to light, a diplomatic incident ensued, but somehow a bilateral middle ground was found and Eichmann was duly brought to trial several months later. The court proceedings took place at Beit Ha’am on Bezalel Street in Jerusalem, now known as the Gerard Behar Center cultural venue.
The capture/trial of Eichmann was a watershed point for the State of Israel and the Jewish people around the world and radically changed the way the Holocaust was perceived. Prior to that, the Shoah was ignored by many or considered an undesirable historical footnote at odds with the image of the strong, independent sabra, who, had he been unfortunate enough to be living in Europe at the time, would certainly have put up a robust fight. A few years ago, late painter and author Yoram Kaniuk, who was born in pre-state Palestine, told me he remembered seeing Holocaust survivors as ghost-like figures on the streets of Tel Aviv in the early years of the state, and how they were looked down upon or, at least, viewed with suspicion.
All that changed with the Eichmann legal proceedings, as scores of Holocaust survivors related their harrowing experiences at the hands of the Nazis, in the presence of the accused.
That sentiment comes very much into the performative evolution mix, as Dekel-Avneri looked to capture some of the sense of unfolding drama and palpable tension that took place almost six decades ago in the Jerusalem auditorium. She says she approached the project reverentially, and also did her homework.
“I am not looking to give testimony on behalf of the witnesses [in the court case]. There are no witnesses [in the performance]. I do not pretend to bring anyone to bear witness on behalf of the witnesses. There are testimonies in the most authentic and most powerful way, in the archival show that exists on the Internet. I watched them scores of times,” she says referencing the footage of the war crimes tribunal filmed by American media outfit Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation and airlifted daily to the United States, for screening by various TV stations on the morrow.
DEKEL-AVNERI and Pathos Mathos employ a wide palette of techniques and formats to convey the courtroom continuum, with their finger placed firmly but gently on the emotive pulse. The director says that great pains are taken to ensure that no one steps over the line and ventures too deeply into areas that may elicit an inappropriate response from the members of the audience, particularly as there may very well be some among them with a direct connection to the Shoah and trial, or have highly personal baggage as the offspring of survivors.
“We don’t ask if there are survivors watching the performance, but we do ask if anyone actually attended the trial, or even remembers five, or four, or less testimonies given at the time.”
There are three important human referential hooks to The Eichmann Project – Terminal 1, three characters who played a pivotal role in the 1961 event: 1) Attorney-general Gideon Hausner, who served as the chief prosecutor, 2) German-born Jewish American political thinker Hannah Arendt, who came to Israel to attend the trial, and 3) Israel Prize laureate writer Haim Gouri, who covered the hearing for the Lamerhav newspaper and subsequently published a book called Facing The Glass Booth: The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, based on his daily reportage.
Each member of the core performance triad approached the court case from a very different angle, thereby providing Dekel-Avneri with plenty of room for interpretive maneuver. While Hausner saw the trial as a golden opportunity to convey the horrific enormity of the Holocaust to Israelis and the rest of the world, Arendt took the view, after following the accused’s deportment at the hearings, that Eichmann bore no responsibility for the murder of millions of Jews, and he was simply “doing his job” and obeying orders. A couple of years later she put out a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in which she posits that “despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.” Gouri, on the other hand, delivered an incisive account of the hearings, bringing his journalistic and poetic sensibilities fully to bear, in portraying the psychological and dramatic twists and turns, observed in real time, with great passion and empathy.
Dekel-Avneri, whose Polish-born grandmother lost almost her entire family in the Holocaust, laid the foundations for Pathos Mathos in 2014, following a pretty stormy period for her in which she drew fire for her choices as artistic director of the country’s theater showcase. She had already made professional strides with Tmuna Theater, and paid her first visit to Warsaw as the director of a work called Adam Geist by German playwright Dea Lohr.
“I didn’t want to go to Warsaw before that because of my grandmother, but I agreed to go there with a German play and an Israeli cast,” she notes. The performance was well received and Dekel-Avneri was subsequently invited back to Poland, this time to oversee a production of the Holocaust-related black comedy called Muranooo.
THAT PAVED the way to what eventually grew into the work the Israel Festival audiences will see next week.
“I started examining the testimony given by Katsetnik,” said Dekel-Avneri, mentioning the pen name of Holocaust survivor writer Yehiel De-Nur who fainted while giving testimony at Beit Ha’am in what was one of the most dramatic and momentous occurrences of the entire trial.
“I wanted to do something based on the six books Katsetnik wrote, but I couldn’t get a budget for it. That idea gestated with me over the years since 2012.”
At the time, Dekel-Avneri was searching for a theme for a final PhD assignment. She initially thought of something along the lines of a Greek tragedy but changed tack in the wake of her experiences in Poland.
“I decided to do something based on the Eichmann trial,” she explains. Plenty of water flowed under the project bridge, and the performance went through various configurations before the director settled on the current stage format.
Dekel-Avneri says she and the work went through a protracted process of distillation and elimination before arriving at the current version.
“It is like [20th century figurative painter] Francis Bacon, who starts with a single image and then erases more and more until he ends up with almost nothing. I want to believe that, despite all the deletions [from the original The Eichmann Project], there is still something there. There is really nothing left from all the work I did over five years, but it still fuels what we have now.”
NATURALLY, THE pandemic has left its mark on what we will see next week in Talpiot and on Zoom, if only in terms of logistics.
“We didn’t know whether there would be a live audience so I had to decide whether to design the work for the camera or for an audience in the auditorium,” says the director. “In the end I went for the camera, which will be on the stage and will have an important role in the performance.”
Won’t that leave the paying customer feeling a little sidelined? Dekel-Avneri has no problems with that, in the best possible constructive sense.
“I always like to leave my audiences with some work to do. It will be a little like coming to a set where some filming is going on. You see the actors working with the camera, and you can see a screen at the side showing what is being ‘broadcast.’ The camera is like your eyes, a bit like virtual reality. The camera searches for what is happening in the show for you, for the audience.”
Sounds like a highly engaging and emotive time is in store for us, both in Talpiot and at home.
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