Catharsis or neurosis?

50 years since Eichmann, has the country recovered? An in-depth look at the trial of the century.

YOSEF KLEINMAN at Eichman trial 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
YOSEF KLEINMAN at Eichman trial 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When prime minister David Ben-Gurion gave the Mossad the go-ahead to capture Adolf Eichmann, the highestranking Nazi exclusively responsible for Jewish affairs, it was the first time – and he knew it was likely to be the last time – Israel would be able to present the worst catastrophe in Jewish history to the nation and the world. “Our Nuremberg,” he told a French newspaper.
The decision to seize rather than assassinate Eichmann was not undertaken without trepidation, for it was inevitable that the trial of an arch-criminal who strove to murder every last Jew he could get his hands on would have unforeseen social effects on the Jewish state. Other countries might be less interested in bringing Nazis to justice, but many in Israel thought the country’s moral health would not be helped by revealing suppressed tales of the horrible passivity with which Europe’s Jews had gone to their fate.
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Israeli sovereignty and justice persuaded Ben-Gurion that Eichmann must be seized and that it would be possible to turn the trial into a means of reeducation, of healing wounds and enhancing the Zionist view of history. Documents would convict Eichmann with little difficulty, but articulate survivors from all the countries affected would address the nation and the world about what really happened.
However many of the best were not eager to unburden themselves, while others who relished the opportunity to bare their scars might not attract sympathy.
The effect on two generations of sabras, nurtured on stories of ancient Jewish heroism, was uncertain. They understood what it meant to die in battle but not in gas chambers.
It was perhaps during the trial’s 68th session in June 1961 that the dangers and the advantages of this broad approach became clear. The youngest survivor of Auschwitz was called as a witness and told the court of a flogging he saw administered to a fellow teenager.
Whippings were frequent, but this one was unusual because “this boy did not scream, he did not cry, not even a sigh escaped his lips. We had never seen anything like it,” said Yosef Kleinman, who was 14 when he arrived in Auschwitz in May 1944 from a small town in Slovakia. After the 40th blow the barracks commander turned him over and gave him 10 more blows “on his face and his legs.” When he was helped up, he was smiling. “It was worth it. I brought my friends a number of prayer books.” Here in Auschwitz was heroic life. The public was drawn in. Kleinman did not dwell on the horror. He just said what he saw. The whipped boy had taken the prayer books from the barracks of the sonderkommando who got better food rations for cleaning out the gas chambers and retrieving gold fillings and other valuables of the dead before cremating them. The prayer books were among items the Nazi guards did not collect.
The anonymous boy eventually disappeared into the maws of the furnace despite his moral strength.
Without Kleinman’s testimony he would have been one of “the sheep who went to the slaughter.” Instead Kleinman put flesh and bones on the official description of the six million dead “heroes and martyrs,” which had been considered a euphemism for “sheep” and “soap” to many. Even Ben-Gurion had talked of the “soap factory.”
KLEINMAN, 31 at the trial, testified at a pivotal moment. Chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner, a haughty man who was thought to enjoy grandstanding, was often reminded by the court president, Justice Moshe Landau, to cut short his detailed probing of witnesses designed to evoke emotional responses.
Hausner had just suffered a severe setback when Yehiel Dinur, who wrote several morbid (some say semi-pornographic) accounts of concentration camp life under the pen name of Ka-Tzetnik (meaning concentration camp inmate), fainted as he tried to convey the horror of what he called “Planet Auschwitz.”
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Hausner apologized, but the sabra writer Haim Guri jotted down, “I was.”
It was then that Hausner called Kleinman to the witness stand, where he began to speak of 3,000 boys aged 14 to 16 who stood before the infamous Dr.
Josef Mengele, who ordered a plank nailed across two goalposts where Gypsies played soccer after a boy clearly younger than others lied about his age in order to be assigned work. Walk, he commanded them. All who passed under the plank would die. All who were taller would work.
Hausner, wishing to redeem himself with the judges asked Kleinman politely to get to the point: “Did you pass the test?” “Nevertheless,” Justice Landau interrupted: “Let us hear how he got through.”
The reversal in the customary roles of the stern judge and the garrulous prosecutor was so startling, and the story so engaging that it triggered “a ripple of laughter in the courtroom,” one reporter said.
The horror was there, but so was the humanity. The audience identified with Kleinman’s innocence in a way they could not identify with the horror of Ka- Tzetnik’s “crucified nation” and “the planet of ashes.” He was Maus to Ka-Tzetnik’s Apocalypse Now.
The Eichmann trial, as many have said, marked the cathartic turning point in Israeli attitudes to the Holocaust, as a recent colloquium at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sh’ananim put it. Kleinman’s testimony was a turning point within the trial. He didn’t grow much but added stature to the status of ordinary survivors, after explaining how, thinking quickly and urged by his taller and older brother, he gained critical centimeters by stuffing his shoes with pebbles.
It was only one obstacle. He also darted from the wrong line to the right one, gazed into the eyes of a Jewish doctor whose job was to weed out the weak and who risked his own life by passing him for work duty.
One could almost forget that no light entered the place. Certain places remained impenetrable. He tried to talk to the sonderkommando from whose barracks boys stole food as well as prayer books, but those who stood guard at the center of Ka-Tzetnik’s heart of darkness “were always silent. They never smiled even though they had very good conditions.” He survived, most of the thousand boys with him would pass through the furnace.
Kleinman reached Palestine with his elder brother after spending 18 months in a British detention camp on Cyprus. For years afterward, he and his brother, who became carpenters, kept their own company or that of other teenage survivors. “At school no one wanted to know about you unless you were a partisan or in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.” He found more sympathy, he said, in Czechoslovakia immediately after the war. “There I was welcomed into people’s homes.”
All that changed after the trial, though it was not immediate. Years later Kleinman would conduct tours for Israeli youth at Auschwitz in the uniform he kept along with other mementos. He was a meticulous collector of information about the war. Recently he addressed the Ghetto Fighters’ Association and received a warm letter of appreciation. At 81, always cheerful and still conveying youthful innocence, he and his wife have 16 grandchildren.
BUT WAS Kleinman’s testimony relevant to a criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, or was it part of a “show trial” that Hannah Arendt maintained was tagged on to the criminal trial for political purposes? In a revealing comment, Hausner’s senior assistant Gabriel Bach, a future Supreme Court justice, said in a videotaped interview at Yad Vashem that if he personally had been free to arrest and try any single surviving Nazi, he would have chosen Eichmann precisely because “he was connected with every aspect of the death camps from drafting regulations, collecting property, hunting Jews down, transporting them to camps and ensuring what happened to them.”
Two days after Kleinman was transferred out of Auschwitz on October 5, 1944, the silent sonderkommando attacked SS guards, blew up a crematorium and engineered a brief inmates’ escape. All were caught, all were killed. Three weeks later, with the Russians approaching the camp, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler ordered the gas chambers shut down, apparently infuriating Eichmann. One of the most damning indictments against him was that far from merely obeying orders as he claimed, he tried to countermand his superior to keep the death camp running.
Eichmann insisted he had nothing to do with gassing concentration camp inmates. Bach instructed police to show Eichmann a document of uncertain authenticity, which mentioned that his subordinate Günther had ordered Zyklon B gas, but not to mention it. Eichmann read it, assumed it was to be used as evidence against him, and attempted to forestall its use by recalling that Günther had made such an order but that he had said, “What has that got to do with us?” Until then the court may have had only the word of another war criminal, Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, who wrote in his prison “autobiography”: “During Eichmann’s next visit [in autumn 1941] I told him about this use of Zyklon B and we decided to employ it for the mass extermination operation.” The testimony of a war criminal was not nearly as good as a document verified, however inadvertently, by the accused.
Bach also introduced testimony that toward the war’s end Eichmann had pleaded that the killing rate at Auschwitz be accelerated from 10,000 to 12,000 a day to accommodate all the Hungarian Jews being brought in. Kleinman was from a part of Slovakia annexed by Hungary. Hoess wrote, before he was hanged in 1947 near his villa in Auschwitz, that after he began to have doubts about killing hundreds of thousands of women and children, he talked about it with SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann. “He was completely obsessed with destroying every Jew he could get his hands on... After these conversations with Eichmann, I almost came to regard such emotions as a betrayal of the Führer.”
Like Eichmann, Hoess claimed he only followed orders though his humanity revolted against what he was doing. Eichmann’s was the standard Nazi defense.
Bach was 11 when an SS boot kicked him onto a train “and out of Germany” in 1938. His family left Holland a month before the Germans arrived and came to Palestine on the Patria, which sank on its next voyage, so he understood how much blind luck had directed his own fate and that of many witnesses who spoke on behalf of the dead.
Nahum Hoch was one of 50 boys pulled out of a gas chamber after it had been sealed with hundreds of boys inside. In the dark interior some were crying and some were singing when the door swung open. Hoch’s savior was a truckload of potatoes which arrived when the guards were temporarily short-staffed and someone had the bright idea of taking fit youths from the gas chamber.
While he was unloading the trucks the doors were relocked and the hundreds of boys who remained inside were gassed. A sonderkommando was so astonished that he spoke: “This has never happened before.”
From Hoch we know that some of the gassed boys had participated in an escape attempt which ended with their recapture.
If the extrajudicial aspect of the trial focused on the relentless question: “Why did you not resist?” It was because that was what bothered Israeli youth.
Responses to the Trial
One of the oddest responses to the Eichmann trial was the reservation expressed in several countries about Israel’s right to try him, let alone execute him. If the response to Eichmann’s capture in Israel was electric, older relatives who were at college in England at the time have told me that the general attitude was that it was time for Jews to do the Christian thing and forgive their enemies.
Even many Jews thought he should be tried anywhere but in Israel and argued that his execution would be “un-Jewish.”
Vengeance, not justice, was the motive often attributed to the Jews. It was important to avoid the taint of Old Testament “eye-for-an-eye” justice, a comment which in the circumstances was ludicrous.
Philosopher Martin Buber thought victims should not judge their persecutors and gave a series of mutually contradictory reasons for letting Eichmann live.
I was too young to be aware of the trial, but not too young to be aware that the foe of the day was Russia, not Germany. Hitler was mentioned in the same breath as Nikita Krushchev when I first heard the two described as “bad men” by my pretty Jewish Sunday school teacher. By 1961 the Cold War had gotten a lot colder and was even threatening to become a lot hotter.
Nazi trials were a distraction to many.
Four days before the trial opened The Times in London questioned the wisdom of trying Eichmann in Israel. “Why not Germany?” it asked. The ambition of Jews “to be treated as normal human beings capable of entering into the family of nations as an equal” had been a laudable one, it said, but “the catastrophe which forced the State of Israel into existence makes complete normality impossible.”
A state which is not completely normal is presumably not capable of judging a criminal who has contributed to its abnormality.
It was essentially an attack on Israel’s sovereignty. The editorial was concerned that “the profound effects the trial must have inside Israel and on her relations with the rest of the world will not necessarily be good.”
Retroactive laws passed to allow Israel to try foreigners for crimes committed in other countries before the country existed meant it had cast its legal net wider than other states. It could not claim a sovereign right to violate another country’s sovereignty, which Eichmann’s abduction amounted to. The Times wondered why the generation of the catastrophe should even want Israel’s youth to “feel themselves still a scattered and persecuted people” just when the notion of “Israeli” was coming to have a nationalist connotation of its own, free of the burden of the Jewish past.
THE TRUTH was Israel had not exactly been hunting for Eichmann. It never followed up a weak lead by Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in 1952 that he was in Argentina. At that time other matters bothered it more. His more exact whereabouts were revealed later in the decade by a half-Jewish, half-blind prewar German exile called Lothar Hermann, who became convinced his daughter’s boyfriend was Eichmann’s son. Cleverly, he passed this information on to a German-Jewish prosecutor in the state of Hesse called Fritz Bauer, who passed it to the Mossad, warning, after Israel did nothing at first, that he would call on the West German government to demand his extradition from Argentina, a request which was likely to be rejected, and would warn off Eichmann.
Israel was thus obliged to act.
Insofar as Ben-Gurion had a political agenda, it grew out of the decision that abducting rather than shooting Eichmann was the right thing to do. Zionist historian Anita Shapira of the Israel Democracy Institute told a colloquium recently that it was absurd to think Ben-Gurion had long harbored the idea of a show trial. She recalled that when he was asked at an endof- year celebration in 1960 to identify its major events, he immediately mentioned archeologist Yigael Yadin’s discovery of letters written by anti-Roman resistance fighter Bar Kochba. He had to be prodded to add the capture of Eichmann.
Israel’s retroactive Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law 1950 allowed for the death penalty, but it had never been expected to net any Nazi big fish. It was meant to entrap Jewish collaborators, kapos, who were hated by Holocaust survivors more than Nazis themselves. In the 1950s several Jews had been tried under the law and at least three received death sentences, which were then commuted.
Hannah Arendt’s much-resented contention in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil that the Judenrate, or Jewish councils, were almost as guilty as the Nazis themselves in sending Jews to their deaths would not have raised many eyebrows before the trial. One of the trial judges had himself been involved in such a case in 1955. The Israeli government sued survivor Malchiel Gruenwald, who had libeled an official in Ben-Gurion’s government who, before his immigration, had successfully negotiated with Eichmann to release more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews, including his relatives, for valuables. Some thought he was a hero, but Judge Benjamin Halevy who would later become a Knesset member for Menachem Begin’s Herut party said Rudolf Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil” by abandoning all the others. His reputation ruined, Kastner was assassinated before the Supreme Court reversed Halevy’s decision, which resonates to this day as a tragic error of judgment.
Prosecutor Bach had been his counsel.
Justice Landau was loaned from the Supreme Court to preside at the trial so that Halevy, who was president of the Jerusalem District Court, would not.
Eichmann in Russia
The day after the trial began Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth and launched the space race.
The same week the CIA invaded Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the disastrous Bay of Pigs affair. In August East Germany erected the Berlin Wall and a year later the Cuban missile crisis would bring a terrified world to the verge of nuclear war.
And yet this paranoid atmosphere strengthened the impact of the Eichmann trial in the Soviet Union, according to the Hebrew University’s eminent specialist in Soviet Jewish history Prof. Mordechai Altshuler.
Although most Soviet Jews had escaped the Holocaust behind army lines, the Soviet press ran regular reports on the trial in Jerusalem.
“They were very anti-Israel” and anti- Western, highlighting collaboration between “Zionist” Israel and “neo-fascist” West Germany, the unrepentant heir of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the reports “revealed for the first time since 1947 (when Stalin banned their mention) that Jews were killed as Jews and not just as Soviet citizens.”
This was not really an act of goodwill since the Soviet press could not pretend that Israel was prosecuting Eichmann for killing Soviet citizens. But this change permitted the publication of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” in September “in the context of the Eichmann trial” explicitly identifying Jews as the 33,771 victims of the Nazis’ first major genocidal massacre in the Soviet Union.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.

A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.

I am afraid.

Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people.

Now I seem to be a Jew.
The public identification of Jews as the victims at Babi Yar and at Auschwitz was a bombshell for Soviet Jews.
Despite the fact that the genocide of the Jews had been little reported in the Soviet Union since the war, consciousness of it had filtered through by word of mouth. Citing one survey conducted in the 1970s, Altshuler said he was as surprised as its authors to learn that the Holocaust (57 percent) contributed more to Jewish identity in the USSR in the previous decade than either the establishment of the State of Israel or the Six Day War, which has often been cited as the trigger of
the refusenik movement. Instead, the Eichmann trial, which linked the Holocaust to Israel, was the key “component” of Jewish identification with Israel that burst into flame with the Six Day War.
The Sabra Response
It has been said that by 1967 the Holocaust had become a key component of the collective Israeli mentality because of the Eichmann trial. How does one measure the extent of its influence? In 1947-48 Holocaust survivors were flooding into the country, there was tremendous sympathy for survivors in the US, president Harry Truman demanded that Britain permit the immediate admission of 100,000 displaced Jews. Yet Parchments of Fire, which documents soldiers’ feelings during the War of Independence, scarcely mentions the recent fate of Jews in Europe despite the fact that the odds against Israel’s survival were greater than they would ever be after that.
Losses were expected to be great, but nobody thought to prepare mass graves in May 1948 as they did in May 1967. However, in The Seventh Day, a book of conversations with soldiers who participated in the Six Day War, allusions to the Holocaust are frequent.
Some soldiers compare Arabs to Nazis, others reminisce about destroyed East European villages they never knew or worry that they might be brutalized by military success.
“Our feelings are mixed. We carry in our hearts an oath which binds us never to return to the Europe of the Holocaust [a term that had only recently become the generic term for the destruction of the Jews]; but at the same time we do not wish to lose that Jewish sense of identity with the victims,” wrote kibbutz teacher and scholar Muki Tsur of the new consciousness.
The new sensitive Israeli had arrived.
The trial continued to affect Israeli society long after the Six Day War. Its impact was heightened by Arendt’s account, which often seemed to blame the victims for participating in their own destruction and thus undermining the whole educational purpose of the trial. “She was not right, but maybe precisely because of that her book touched off the entire field of Holocaust studies,” says Shalmi Bar-Mor, who between 1972 and 1995 was director of the department of education at Yad Vashem.
The effects of the trial “unfolded slowly.” In 1963, before Arendt’s work was published, Abba Kovner, a leader of the Vilna Ghetto uprising and a selected witness at the trial, could still say, “We shall not bestow the title ‘hero’ on those who were exterminated in the slaughter pit. We, unlike others, shall not reserve a place for them in the Temple of Heroism. We dare not even say they died a martyr’s death.” During the 1966 economic recession suggestions were even made to close down Yad Vashem.
Bar-Mor, whose parents left Warsaw before the war, believes one of the trial’s long-term effects was the 1979 introduction of compulsory Holocaust studies in high schools under education minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, which led to organized school tours to sites of death camps in Poland.
Following the 1977 mahapach, another “turning point,” which brought Menachem Begin’s Herut party to power, Holocaust consciousness rose to an entirely new level, culminating in talk of saving Lebanon’s Christians from a Palestinian-Syrian holocaust and besieging Yasser Arafat in Beirut as though he were Hitler in his Berlin bunker. The feeling of many writers on the subject is that the Holocaust has become too much a part of Israeli consciousness.
IN CONTRAST to Arendt, whose attitude to the trial seemed to be well established before it began and did not change, Palestine-born Haim Guri, sabra, poet and Palmah fighter, emerged from it in a more sympathetic frame of mind. The Holocaust “had been a source of shame to us, some awful blemish,” he wrote in Facing the Glass Booth, but it was not, he adds, because Israelis were hostile. They just did not understand how it could have been. “A catastrophe this big takes time to digest and in 1948 there was no time to think about it.”
As the testimony of witnesses unfolded, he too began “to understand from their detailed stories the utter paralysis in which the victims found themselves the whole time.” In that sense Hausner’s relentless questioning of witnesses, much derided by Arendt, was a success.
Guri later made a documentary film called Maka Ha-81 (The 81st Blow) which accompanied film footage of Nazi persecution of Jews with a sound track of witnesses testifying at the trial. The title of the film referred to a dramatic episode during session 24 of the trial when Dr. Josef Buzminsky, who married the Polish woman who protected him, spoke of witnessing a beating administered to a teenager in the Przemysl ghetto in eastern Poland. He was astonished because “as a doctor I know that no child can survive more than 50 lashes like that.” He counted 80 and the boy survived. “And do you see him here? asked Hausner. “Yes, there,” he said pointing at the police interrogator seated next to Hausner.
Though he had often mentioned the 80 lashes he received police officer Michael Goldman, specializing in Polish affairs, felt that no one believed him. “That was the 81st blow” said Guri. “It has entered Hebrew usage to mean a warning of peril which no one believes, as happened for example on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.” More broadly it means that after expecting to be consoled by friends, one finds oneself not only disbelieved but abandoned.
Has this then become a national trait? Did the Eichmann trial have the effect that Ben-Gurion intended? According to Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University and author of The State of Israel versus Adolf Eichmann, “Two long-term effects of the Eichmann trial were felt by youngsters of both eastern and European origin. One was a new understanding of the importance of the existence of the State of Israel, and the other, perhaps even more significant, was the crystallization of a pessimistic outlook with regard to Israel’s place in the world.”