Eichmann, Revisited

50 years after his trial in Jerusalem, here are thoughts on the man in the glass booth, as witnessed by one of Israel's rare TV personnel at the time.

Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: JOHN MILLI / GPO)
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: JOHN MILLI / GPO)
IN APRIL 1961, I WAS A volunteer on a kibbutz in northern Israel, when suddenly I received an unexpected phone call. Could I come to Jerusalem and work on a program for Capital Cities Television as associate producer?
The call was from Milton Fruchtman, who had brought over a team from the United States to film the Eichmann Trial. Israel still didn’t have television and Milton had had the foresight to see this event should be broadcast to the world. But he needed a key assistant and there were few trained TV personnel in the country. I had sat next to Milton’s secretary Judy in my ulpan, Hebrew language school and had told her about my TV training and experience in San Francisco. So by pure chance, I became the right man in the right place at the right time.
So a few days later, I found myself in a small makeshift TV control studio located above a bank. Four flickering screens were set up across from me: three relayed pictures of the courtroom, full of black-robed lawyers and judges. The fourth monitor revealed a dark-suited middle-aged man, seated in a glass booth, flanked by two police sergeants: former Obersturmbannfuhrer Adolf Eichmann, the man whose dedicated task during World War II had been to organize and implement Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” – the total extermination of the Jews.
Eichmann’s capture in Buenos Aires and transport to Israel in 1960 had created a world sensation. But a year had to pass before he was brought to trial before the Jerusalem District Court. Knowing that hundreds of journalists and spectators would attend the proceedings, the court abandoned its usual venue and the trial was convened in the theater of then newly-built Beit Ha’am cultural center.
Like everyone else in Israel, I’d read about the preliminaries in the newspapers and listened to the radio accounts. But now, Eichmann was to become personal to me. For four months I was to watch him intimately, minute by minute, hour by hour, on a small screen, and then review his actions at the end of the day as we prepared an hour of trial highlights for world broadcast.
The course of the trial and the verdict are well known: On December 11, 1961, Eichmann was sentenced to death for crimes against the Jewish people, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. After his appeal was rejected, he was hung in May 1962. His body was cremated and his ashes were tossed at sea.
Five decades have passed. After all these years, the feel and sense of the trial still vibrate inside me, together with the haunting memories and the small murmurs that still come to the surface despite the passage of time.
And the ever-troubling questions still remain: Who was the real Eichmann? Who stood behind that immobile face of the bureaucrat of death? In my memory, witnesses rise again to tell their unforgettable stories of the Holocaust. They detail the world of the death camps, the murder marches, gas chambers and crematoria. It was a world that extended far beyond Dante’s “Inferno.”
I hear the story of Rivka Yosselevska climbing from the grave, Yitzhak Zuckerman’s description of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Shmuel Grynszpan’s forced expulsion from Germany to Poland in 1938.
I remember Dean Gruber, who’d spent years in the camps, preaching a doctrine of love and describing Eichmann as a “block of ice.”
And I remember Yechiel Dinur who, in a trance-like state, described Auschwitz as another planet, where the denizens had no names, no parents, no children… and where not a single concept or inhabitant resembled those on Earth. When he completed his testimony, he fainted on the stand.
Perhaps more than any others, Dinur’s statement helped those of us who had not been there realize that it would be futile to even try to understand the death camps. Our imaginations are not equal to the task.
WATCHING EICHMANN IN HIS glass box, day after day, everyone present or watching seemed to ask the same question: Who is Eichmann? And what responsibility did he bear for these monstrous actions?
To the very last, Eichmann’s appeared emotionless, a human iceberg. Only once did I see him show any expression other than injured innocence. Films of the concentration camps were being screened in the courtroom. The houselights were out, but from the control booth, on a monitor, I could see the close-up of Eichmann. As the corpses of Bergen-Belsen were bulldozed into their final pit, Eichmann, on camera, smiled.
This was the man who maintained that the SS oath justified everything, even killing one’s father if commanded to. This was the man who was able to say on the stand, “My heart was light and joyful in my work, because the decisions were not mine.” This was the man who sat through the trial unmoved, shuffling documents, wetting his lips, keeping his notes. The trial was not his concern. As if the acts were not his responsibility.
From April to August 1961, I led two lives. One was the life of darkness, memories, shadows and death. The other was a life of brightness, children’s voices, fragrant smells, warm evenings, and the sighs of a Jerusalem night. By the end of the trial, all my thoughts about being a human being and a Jew had changed in a way that would forever affect my future. As human being, I was appalled by the Eichmann’s crimes against humanity. As a Jew it made me think more and more that my only sane future lay in living in Israel.
In her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” released shortly after the trial, political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that Eichmann was an ordinary man, his actions arising from “the banality of evil.” At the time, I was not able accept her argument. I had to wait nearly 40 years before the answers became clearer to me.
WHILE AWAITING HIS verdict, Eichmann wrote a self-serving memoir that he entitled, “Graven Images.” He had hoped it would sway the judges’ opinions. The papers failed to help him and the authorities, fearing they might encourage neo-Nazis, locked them away for 40 years in Israel’s State Archives. Eichmann’s writings were not released until February 2000 for use in the Irving-Lipstadt Holocaust libel trial.
Hearing of their pending publication, Nissim Mossek, a brilliant Israeli documentary producer director, with whom I’d made a few films, asked me to help him write and direct a film based on those memoirs.
Until that time, only two major TV films had been released using the Eichmann trial materials. One, made by America’s ABC News, was basically a simple rehash of the trial. The second, “The Specialist,” made by an Israeli, Eyal Sivan, hardly featured any witnesses and the material had been frequently re-edited out of continuity. So there did indeed seem that there was a place for a new film, but could we really find something new to say about Eichmann or about the actions and attitudes of his fellow Nazis?
I was hopeful until I read the prison memoirs. They start off: “I have seen hell, and death and the devil, and the senselessness of destruction. I would like to write a warning to today’s youth as well as to the future… I want to comment on what has happened, and present an overall description of what took place… It was the most terrible dance of death of all times, and I describe all of it as a warning.”
But in fact, the pages tell us little of interest and virtually repeat what Eichmann said at the trial: that he was an ordinary man, that he was merely a small cog in the Nazi war machine, that he bore no responsibility at all. As I read this, I could see nothing that would act as a basis to tell us something revelatory about Eichmann.
THEN I REDISCOVERED THE Sassen tapes. Actually, I should have remembered them earlier, because a few of the few pages had been quoted at the trial, although nobody paid them much attention at the time.
The 67 tapes, which became more than 600 transcript pages, had made by Willem Sassen, a Dutch ex-Waffen SS officer, who had recorded his conversations with Eichmann over a period of six months in Argentina in 1957, when Eichmann was still free and on the run. Sassen had originally intended to publish them after Eichmann’s death and give the proceeds to his family. But in the end, he sold them to West Germany’s Stern magazine and to Time-Life publications in the US.
Life magazine published two extracts from the tapes in November and December 1960, but then suspended further publication due to protests by Jews. Because of financial bickering with Sassen, including his demand for an exorbitant fee for their use which the government refused to pay, the original tapes couldn’t be produced at the trial; the only transcripts allowed as evidence were a few pages signed by Eichmann himself.
Later, after the blaze of the trial, few apart from specialists in Holocaust history remembered Sassen and his recordings. They seemed relegated to the mists of history.
However, after going over the tapes, Mossek and I knew we did indeed have a film, which we called, “Adolf Eichmann: The Secret Memoirs.” We spent hours reviewing all the materials, rereading attorney general Gideon Hausner’s memoirs of the trial and the trial transcripts and comparing the prison memoirs with the Sassen revelations. Often the Sassen transcripts confirmed or enlarged what Eichmann had described in the prison memoirs. But they were at their most explosive when Eichmann ventured his real feelings, which had been so carefully guarded and concealed at the trial.
In the Sassen tapes, Eichmann was talking about himself and the workings of the Nazi system while he was still free. He was not yet under the threat of the gallows, and he was not cautious. Here was Eichmann without any remorse, boasting and glorying in what he had done. Here Eichmann reveals himself as a passionate zealous man, happy to celebrate a weekend with his mistress at a Hungarian lake, slightly surprised to find that the killings and roundups in Hungary had gone so easily. And here, finally, was the real Eichmann, ready to talk not just about himself but about the actions and attitudes of other Nazi officers.
Thus, although we used a great deal of trial footage and also did extensive interviews for our two-hour documentary, the heart of the film is based on the Sassen documents.
IN STRUCTURING THE FILM, Mossek and I looked at Eichmann in three contexts: his relationship with the system, his fellow officers and the hierarchy; his nature and character; and actions that revealed particular viciousness or savagery. The film has been broadcast in Germany, Europe, and the US, but has yet to be broadcast in Israel.
Eichmann most clearly reveals his own callous nature and that of two of his superiors in his comments after the end of the 1942 Wannsee conference, a meeting set up to plan the extermination of eleven million Jews of Europe. Initially, Eichmann expresses his astonishment that all present had unanimously agreed to proceed with the death plan.
Then, describing events following the conclusion of the proceedings, he says, “After the conference, Heydrich [General Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office until his assassination later that year], Muller [General Heinrich Muller, head of the Gestapo] and myself sat cozily around the fireplace. We had drinks. We had brandy. We sang songs. After a while, we got up on chairs and drank a toast. Then we got up on the tables and went round and round. On the chairs. On the tables. Then we sat around peacefully, giving ourselves a rest after so many exhausting hours.”
In short, they celebrated a job well done.
Eichmann then goes on to tell Sassen how he and his superiors planned to hide the nature of their extermination plans: “We had words for the concealment of annihilation such as ‘special treatment’ or ‘expulsion to the east’ or ‘the final solution to the Jewish question.’” What would have happened if the people sent on the trains would have known what was supposed to happen to them? Only those at the last stop knew what the meaning of the words was. The Nazis only used the word “kill” infrequently.
Eichmann was an enthusiastic supporter of the deception, no more so than in Greece. Here, Eichmann’s memoirs reveal how he informed the Jewish population that Auschwitz and Krakow were holiday camps, but only married people could go there. So get married quickly and sign up, he encouraged them.
Since 1945, the world has wanted to know the extent to which the local populations were aware of what was going on. In fact, it was a secret that could not be contained. Trains moved in the night. Drivers gossiped. Loot piled up. Letters arrived for the dead. Banks canceled names. Thus Eichmann tells Sassen: “Towards the end the sparrows were already chirping from the rooftops.” To put it bluntly, everyone – not just the SS and the prison guards – knew about the trains and the death camps.
GRADUALLY, THE SASSEN memoirs reveal an arrogant, boastful man, disdainful of his subordinates, totally indifferent to the fate of his victims and distant from his family. Capable of peacefully playing the violin at home, he is not above tearing up his wife’s bible and throwing it at her. He is a man cocooned in self-deception.
Above all, he is a man passionate about his job and his mission who can say, “I must confess I did not greet this assignment with the apathy of an ox. I was fascinated by it.”
Essentially a desk man, Eichmann fantasizes about himself in the memoirs as a man of action and courage, deftly rewriting history in the process. When mentioning his discussions about the creation of false documents for officers for protection after the war, Eichmann purports to have rejected such an action.
“I showed Muller my gun. ‘Gruppenfuehrer, I don’t need these papers. This gun is my certificate. When I see no other way out, it is my last medicine.’ Of all the Gestapo heads in Berlin, I was the only one who spat on these false certificates.”
Conveniently, while dictating all this to Sassen, Eichmann puts aside all details of his flight and deceptions after 1945. His arrogance and imagination know no bounds, and culminate with words he put into the mouths of Generals Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Muller. After allegedly telling Kaltenbrunner, then head of the Reich Main Security Office, that he is going to lead a troop of partisans and fight on in the mountain, he has Kaltenbrunner say, “That’s good. Good for [SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich] Himmler too. Now he can talk to Eisenhower differently in his negotiations, for he will know that if Eichmann is in the mountains he will never surrender, because he can’t.”
But even this claim is not enough for Eichmann, so he adds, “My immediate superior, General Muller, said to me ‘If we had 50 Eichmanns we could have won the war!!’”
Bold? Courageous? This was certainly not the opinion of his deputy-in-crime Dieter Wisliceny, who wrote in his prison confessions, “Eichmann was personally a cowardly man, who was at great pains to protect himself from responsibility…He was amoral and completely ice cold in his attitude.”
Throughout the memoirs, Eichmann never seems to realize how he repeatedly contradicts himself. After describing watching a mass killing, he says,“At heart I am a very sensitive man. I simply can’t look at any suffering without trembling myself,” and then continues, “Even if today I see someone with a deep cut, I have to look away.”
IN THE END, ACTIONS rather than attitudes reveal the man. In the Sassen memoir, Eichmann boasts about all the actions he later tried to conceal or play down at the trial. He lauds his own efficiency in speeding up trains from France to the death camps. He delights in his successes in Holland. He claims to have been the one to suggest the use of Zyklon-B gas in the death camps. He is also very offhand but happy when he discusses his responsibility for the 120 mile “Death March” of 50,000 Jews in Hungary in 1944.
“I was responsible for the march. I admit it. As it turned out, the march was more trouble than if I had sent a hundred trains to Auschwitz. I wanted to show the allies my hand, as it were, to tell them, ‘You smashed our transportation routes, but we will carry on in the most elegant manner.’”
Eichmann is at his most flippant when talking about the deaths on the march. “They were old people. It is clear when you chop wood, chips will fall.”
While not claiming the total honor for himself, Eichmann hints in the Sassen tapes that he had a not insignificant part in the initial plans for the murder of Europe’s Jews. On July 31, 1941, Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering had written to Heydrich to “make preparations for a final solution of the Jewish problem and submit to me a general plan for its execution.” Talking to Sassen, Eichmann claims the letter was the result of Heydrich’s initiative, but adds, “I dictated the letter. They are my words. The letter was drafted by us. It was only signed by Goering.”
The one thing that emerges clearly from the Sassen memoirs – and something he clearly tried to conceal at his trial – is Eichmann’s refusal to let any Jew escape from the death sentence. Again and again, Eichmann tried to prevent any Jew from slipping through his net. In Holland, a Nazi officer wanted a Jewish diamond merchant to be released to help him. Eichmann refused. In Yugoslavia, another officer wanted to keep over 30 Jews on an island. Eichmann’s answer: “Shoot them.”
Amazingly, Eichmann – if one is to believe him – wanted to take up arms against another officer who wanted to free a Jew. Thus, Eichmann tells Sassen, “One of these officers was a certain Obergruppenfuehrer Wolff, whom I once wanted to challenge to a duel because he made a swine of me over the telephone. He wanted to grant a particular Jew an extraordinary status, and this I could not allow under any circumstances. If I were to make exceptions which were not covered by the Reichsfuehrer’s instructions, it would have started an avalanche.”
One could go on and on sifting the memoirs for clues about the nature of Eichmann, to see whether he was just another version of Arendt’s ordinary banal bureaucratic little man, or someone darkly evil. Two final comments from the Sassen memoirs make me believe the latter.
On leaving Berlin at the end of the war, Eichmann claims he told Muller, his superior: “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.” He is happy not only because the millions died – but because they died like animals.
And finally, he says, “I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire. I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist… I am only sorry for one thing. That I wasn’t tough enough. That I didn’t fight these interventionists. Now you see the damned results. The creation of the State of Israel and the reemergence of the race.”

Alan Rosenthal, a writer and film director living in Jerusalem, is Professor of Communications at the Hebrew University. His latest film, “The First Fagin,” will be shot in Australia.