I was originally perplexed by the fact that my father’s second yahrzeit (anniversary of the death of a parent or other close relative) will fall on the exact 60th anniversary of Israel’s execution of Adolph Eichmann, this year. Even today, the architect of the Holocaust remains the only person Israel has ever executed. It gets weirder.
This year, May 31, corresponding to the first day of Sivan, is also the day after Memorial Day in the United States - when Americans remember their fallen military heroes.
Why was this all converging around my father’s yahrzeit?
More than anything else my father, Yoav Botach, taught me to be a fighter for the Jewish people. It was not enough that you lived as a Jew, you had to wrestle on behalf of your people throughout your life.
As a young boy growing up in Isfahan, Iran, my father organized vigilante actions against Muslim boys who tormented Jews. There was always something different about him. He never believed in Jewish passivity. If someone hurt Jewish people they would have to pay a price.
Iranian Jews were not directly affected by the Holocaust. But, the genocide of the Jews sickened my father to his core. He, like me, remained mystified throughout his life that six million Jews could be murdered by Germans, while the world watched in silence. He was committed to it never happening again, which is why he revered Israel’s soldiers and lived for Israel.
It’s fitting, therefore, that his yahrtzeit is on a day when Israel, in one of its bravest actions, sent a daring Mossad team to the other side of the earth to bring justice and retribution to the man who planned the logistics of the Holocaust.
But, even Eichmann’s capture and murder brings cold comfort to us Jews, knowing that the overwhelming majority of Nazis escaped punishment. At Auschwitz, approximately 8,000 SS served between 1941 and 1945. Only 700 faced trial and a much smaller number were sentenced. 90% of Auschwitz’s murderers just went on with their lives after the war.
Last week, I read Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hess. While Primo Levi’s introduction is mesmerizing, the book is sickening. It is easily the most disturbing memoir of the Holocaust I have ever read and its sole merit lies in its ability to assist in the response to Holocaust deniers.
In the most matter of fact way, Hoss explains how his assistant, Fritsch, stumbled upon the use of Zyklon B in 1941. The Einsatzgruppen units were murdering up to a million Jews in Ukraine and Russia, and were becoming alcoholics due to the site of all that gore and blood. What they wanted was a way for the SS to murder millions of people that was more humane in the eyes of these murderers. This is the use Hoss found for Zyklon B.
Thankfully, Hoss was tried and executed in April, 1947. But, think of all the Nazis who were not.
JOSEPH MENGELE, the angel of death, escaped capture by the Mossad, who were hot on his tail, and was never tried. West Germany went through mostly empty motions of promising to try and capture him, but never showing any serious will for it.
Hitler’s favorite, Albert Speer, was tried at Nuremberg and succeeded in pulling the wool over the court’s eyes with his fraudulence about being “the good Nazi,” who regretted Hitler’s terror and knew nothing of the Holocaust. He was sentenced to 20 years and then went on to an almost complete rehabilitation of his reputation and became a multi-millionaire author.
Particularly stomach-turning is the story told by David De Jong in his brand new book Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties.
How many people today who drive a Porsche know that it’s named after Hitler’s favorite engineer, who worked for Adolf Hitler and the Reich, and designed the Volkswagen for the regime that murdered six million Jews? How many know that the Quandt family – German’s second richest - has a controlling interest in BMW and similarly collaborated with Hitler, and the matriarch of half the family was Magda Goebbels?
It makes you wonder if there is any justice in the world.
My father was a deeply religious man. But, he believed that justice is of one’s own making. Yes, God controls the world, but He expects us to do and then blesses our doing. And in no sense is this more important that in Israel meting out justice to its enemies.
What did Israel’s capture of Eichmann sixty years ago accomplish? The Holocaust was already over and it was irreversible. Israel needed its intelligence service, the Mossad, to focus on current genocidal threats, not Hitler.
And still, Ben-Gurion gave the order that was carried out by legendary Mossad founder Isser Harel, who gave a lecture on the mission for my L’Chaim Society at Oxford in the early 1990s.
And why was the Eichmann trial so important?
Because the Jews had to believe in justice. They had to know that someone paid the price for murdering their parents and grandchildren. They needed to that there is a higher order in the universe and, as Martin Luther King said, it bends toward justice.
I once asked the great Elie Wiesel if he wished, as a boy in Auschwitz of just 16, that the allies would have bombed the death camp. He told me yes. I said to him, “But as an inmate, you would have died?” “Yes,” he said, “But I would have died knowing there is justice in the world.”
For my father, growing up in Iran and then moving to Israel as a teenager, justice for the Jews after the fact was not enough. He wanted a world where Jews no longer died. Where they were strong and invincible. He believed in the Jewish people punishing its enemies.
On Saturday night at the Havdalah service, he would look at the candle’s flame in the reflection of his fingernails and say in Hebrew, “The enemies of Israel should be brought low by the hands of the Jewish people.”
The Torah demands that Jews overcome the impulse toward revenge. No doubt, it’s one of the Torah’s greatest ethical demands and also, its most challenging. But, the very same Torah demands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
And in choosing to capture Adolph Eichmann and spirit him to Jerusalem to stand trial, the tiny fledgling democracy of Israel had one of its most glorious moments.
Harel told me that one of the reasons he actually traveled to Argentina to guide the mission was not only to guarantee its success, but to ensure that none of his agents – many of whom were Holocaust survivors whose families Eichmann had murdered – would not be tempted to take justice into their own hands.
In trying to bring to justice rather than merely assassinating one of the greatest monsters that ever lived, Israel became a light unto the nations and electrified the world with the possibility of justice.
And this year, on the 60th anniversary of Eichmann’s execution after a fair and comprehensive trial, I will say the Kaddish prayer for my father on his yahrtzeit and remember all those Jews murdered in the Holocaust and throughout time, for no offense other than being a child of Israel.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” is the author of Holocaust Holiday, Kosher Hate, and the upcoming Good Mourning: Finding Meaning in Grief and Loss (Gefen). Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.