Monday 18 April 2011

The Eichmann Trial - 50 Years Later

Last week we marked the ominous date of 11 April. Fifty years ago on this day, one of the most remarkable and important events in the history of the State of Israel began. This was the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The trial was dramatic in every respect, and ultimately saw Eichmann convicted on all charges. He remains the only criminal ever to have been sentenced to death by the Israeli legal system. There can be no greater irony than the fact that this Jew-hater has on his death certificate as his place of death - Ramla, Israel. In my view, this says everything about Eichmann's failure to complete his work on "The Final Solution", despite having the blood of 5 million innocent men, women and children on his hands.

In the fifty years that have passed since Eichmann's trial we have had the chance to digest the events of the trial, and to absorb its significance. There can be no doubt that this trial played an important role in the rehabilitation of the Jewish people in those tumultuous years that followed the end of the Shoa - the holocaust. A number of new facts have also come to light which have served to reinforce the extent to which the verdict reached in the trial was correct and just. Some of these facts have also left us pondering on what may have been. As it turns out, the daring raid in suburban Buenos Aires to capture Ricardo Klement (the alias that Eichmann assumed when he fled Germany) came very close to capturing another Nazi war criminal, Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. It is understood that Mengele managed to evade capture by relocating only two weeks before the raid was launched to capture him and Eichmann. This followed many months of surveillance by the Mossad to make sure that they had the right men.

In his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann used the so-called "Nuremberg defence". This was the same defence used by those who were tried in the post-war Nuremberg trials. In all cases, those on trial declared that they were simply following orders and were not murdering millions of people of their own volition. In Eichmann's case, this fact was proved untrue at the time of the trial, and has been proved to be untrue numerous times since then. When Himmler ordered the extermination of Jews to stop and all evidence of the Final Solution to be destroyed, Eichmann was furious with this turnabout and decided to continue exterminating Hungarian Jews against official orders. Ultimately 800,000 Hungarian Jews were killed, many of whom were murdered after the order to stop.

Eichmann's guilt is further reinforced in my mind by the fact that he never once expressed remorse or regret for his actions. On the contrary, he seemed proud of them and admitted all the actions that the Nazis took to exterminate the Jews and others. In an astonishing letter that has recently been uncovered, Eichmann wrote in 1956 to German Chancellor Adenauer requesting that he be allowed to return to Germany. He was tired of living in anonymity in Argentina, and wished to return to Germany to recapture the fame and glory that he had enjoyed during the time of the holocaust. Reports say that Adenauer, who was already hiding the presence of a number of former Nazis in his government, never responded to Eichmann's request. Eichmann's audacity and lack of any regret are, however, plain to see.

For survivors of the Shoa who had made a new life for themselves in the new Jewish state, the trial represented a painful experience, but also one which cleansed them of an enormous burden. To be forced to relive through the trial the horrors which they were forced to endure at the hands of Eichmann, and other butchers like him, was enormously difficult. It did, however, offer an opportunity to show that there was resistance against the Nazi genocide machine. Standing up to the Nazi war machine without weapons or an army was an impossible mission. Despite this fact, there were countless acts of opposition and resistance which had gone undocumented until that point. Finally, they were able to cast aside the widely-used accusation that the Jews of Europe went to the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter.

The trial also allowed the Israeli legal system to be shown in its best possible light. That such an evil person, who had summarily executed so many innocent people without the benefit of a hearing, could be given his day in court and given access to all aspects of a democratic system of justice was a real triumph. He was given the opportunity to appeal his conviction in the High Court, sitting as a Court of Criminal Appeal, and then to the president of the State of Israel. Ultimately, the evidence was overwhelming and the death sentence was passed for the first and last time in the State of Israel. Eichmann's wife, Vera, wrote to Israeli President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi requesting clemency for her husband. In rejecting her appeal, Ben-Zvi wrote a quote from the first book of Samuel in his own hand on the telegram received from Vera, "As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women." With that, Eichmann's fate was finally sealed.

After his execution, Eichmann's body was cremated and his ashes sprinkled in the Mediterranean Sea beyond Israel's territorial waters. This ensured that no place of mourning or place of worship would be available to family, friends and supporters of one of the world's most prolific murderers.

One of the lessons learned from the Shoa has been embraced by the State of Israel more than any other. This is the lesson that it is necessary to have an organised fighting force to protect Jews wherever they may be. This we now have in the form of the Israel Defence Force, one of the world's strongest and most respected armies. As we approach Passover, the festival of our freedom from slavery, we also celebrate the freedom from the evil that the Nazis brought upon our people. We now know that we have the freedom of our own country and army, that prevents such a thing from ever happening again.

Chag Pesach sameach - happy Passover to all.

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