‘An inveterate Nazi and anti-Semite’

In a compelling account, Deborah Lipstadt recreates the texture and tension of the Eichmann trial.

Eichman trial book 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eichman trial book 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, who was born in 1947 and grew up in a cheerful, loving, modern Orthodox home, doesn’t remember feeling victimized as a young Jewish girl in New York City. She admits she understood there were arenas she could not embrace, but this did not temper her zest for life and learning how to skillfully combine her love of Judaism with secular pursuits.
However, her childhood idyll was shortlived.
After spending three tumultuous years between 1966 and 1968 as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she returned home a changed woman; sensitized to the enormous traumatic impact the Holocaust had inflicted on the Jewish psyche. She immediately began to pursue her PhD at Brandeis in modern Jewish history, focusing her attention on how bystanders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had reacted during World War II. The young woman who had once seem disinclined to wade in psychological trauma now immersed herself in it.
When asked to conduct a research project about Holocaust denial that resulted in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, it prompted notorious Holocaust denier David Irving to sue her for libel for the assertions she makes about him in her book. Lipstadt perceived Irving to be a particularly dangerous threat and described him as a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers” who misrepresents data to reach historically untenable conclusions.
She was particularly disturbed by the number of mainstream journalists and publications who took Irving seriously and decided, against the counsel of many Jewish leaders who feared that the attention of a trial would hurt the Jews, to take him on in court. Lipstadt refused to back down and wrote movingly about her resounding victory in her National Jewish Book Award winning book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.
It is in this book that we get to know how Lipstadt thinks and feels, and come to understand her personal commitment to honoring the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. Lipstadt felt that by confronting Irving, she was tackling head-on an evil man who was maliciously attempting to ravage the history and memory of the Jewish people. She could not walk away.
Her latest project, The Eichmann Trial, is a compelling and tightly packed narrative.
In Lipstadt’s mind, there was a direct line connecting Adolf Eichmann and David Irving. She explains: “One of these men helped wipe out one-third of world Jewry.
The second had dedicated himself to denying the truth of this. Neither man had started his career expressing overt anti- Semitism. Both men seemed to have either effortlessly adopted the ignominious mantle or let it emerge from where it had always been when it served their purposes.
In the newly released memoir Eichmann wrote in prison while awaiting his trial and sentencing, he expressed himself as an inveterate Nazi and anti-Semite. In contrast to claims that would be made by Hannah Arendt that he did not really understand the enterprise in which he was involved, the memoir reveals a man who considered his Nazi leaders to be his “idols” and who was fully committed to their goals.
Lipstadt recreates for us the texture and tension of the trial. Eichmann was the head of the Jewish Office between 1941 and 1944 and oversaw the deportation of Jews to the death camps. After being captured in Argentina, he was brought to Israel to stand trial for war crimes for which he was executed. Lipstadt explains how prosecutor Gideon Hausner wished to use the trial as a chance to teach young Israelis about their history. Hausner hoped that this would help shape collective memory for a new generation of Israelis who were reenergized in their sense of mission after listening to firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors who testified.
We hear the chilling testimony from Ada Lichtmann, speaking in Yiddish, about the terror inflicted upon Jews in Poland. We listen to Prof. George Weller tell the court about the roundup of 4,000 children by French police in July 1942.
They were brought to Drancy and deported to Auschwitz and murdered, on Eichmann’s orders. Rivka Yoselenska recalls how a German shooter debated in front of her whether to shoot her or her child first and then shot the child, forcing them both to tumble into a pit. Yoselenska miraculously climbed out.
Throughout the testimony, Eichmann would sit stone-faced, repeatedly proclaiming that he was merely a cog in a bureaucratic machine who was simply following orders. He would often be evasive, and refused to acknowledge his guilt.
Lipstadt points out that Hausner would often press survivors about why they did not resist, a question she admits she still often receives from her undergraduate students at Emory University. She finds herself emotionally overwhelmed by the response of fighter Abba Kovner, who took part in the Vilna uprising in December 1941, then joined the Soviet resistance, before eventually making his way to Israel where he became a kibbutznik and poet.
Kovner addressed the judge, solemnly stating “A question is hanging over us here in the courtroom: How was it that they did not revolt? As a fighting Jew, I would protest with all my strength if someone asked that question with a vestige of accusation. In fact, rather than question why most Jews did not rise up, people should recognize that not resisting was the rational thing to do. Resistance organizations are created by calls from a ‘national authority.’ There was no Jewish authority to issue that call. Rather than demean the victims, contemporary generations should recognize how ‘astonishing’ it was that there was a revolt. That is what was not rational.”
Lipstadt recently praised the work of Rachel Auerback, who did extensive research on the Warsaw Ghetto and who declared: “The mass murder, the murder of millions of Jews by the Germans is a fact that speaks for itself... one most approach this subject with the greatest caution, in a restrained and factual manner.”
Lipstadt has done so for us here, and we are grateful recipients of this fine work.