Israeli sees Eichmann trial as pivotal for Jewish state, survivors

“The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann” unfolds this historic story from the Nazi’s capture in Argentina in May 1961 to his hanging two years later — the only execution ever to be held in Israel.

His trial is analyzed by the Israeli author and historian Hanna Yablonka, as evolving from the bitterest chapter of Jewish history and profoundly affecting the Jewish state.

Her study of the Eichmann trial was an offshoot of her 2000 book, “Survivors of the Holocaust.” She sees the trial to be the key to survivors’ integration into Israeli society.

Herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Yablonka vividly recalls the impact of Eichmann’s capture on her parents, who ended their “conspiracy of silence” concerning the family history. She notes the laborious gearing up of the nation’s educational system in the 1960s to instruct a citizenry largely ignorant of the Holocaust.

Her interpretation of the survivors’ experience of the trial reads like a classic Freudian case history. Having repressed their memories of the Holocaust, they were traumatized at first when those horrors came to light, but in the long run found it cathartic. They composed the majority of the 110 witnesses who testified to Eichmann’s crimes.

The author believes survivors played a pivotal role in the trial, as their testimony led to a wave of sympathy and respect from other Israelis, who until then had neither understood their ordeal nor recognized their courage.

Before the Eichmann trial, the state had prosecuted only members of the Jewish councils (Judenrat) set up by the Nazis to deal with the captive Jewish population. One such person was Dr. Rezso Kastner, a Zionist leader in Romania and Hungary, who was found guilty in 1955 under the 1950 “Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law” but was posthumously cleared. “With Kastner’s exoneration,” writes the author, “Israel began to shake off the victim complex.”

At Eichmann’s trial, prosecutor Gideon Hausner would announce that it was the murderer who was being tried, not his victims.

Each stage of that trial was attended by passionate, sometimes bizarre controversy about Eichmann’s kidnapping, Israel’s jurisdiction to try him, the absence of defense witnesses and the death sentence.

The most famous of critical voices was that of Hannah Arendt, an American and a Holocaust refugee, as well as author of the controversial “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” originally published as a series of articles in 1963. She objected to the prosecutor’s describing the accused as a “perverted sadist.” Apparently convinced by Eichmann’s oft-repeated excuse that he had been just a cog in Hitler’s machine, she pronounced the defendant and his ilk “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

“But the facts show clearly,” writes Yablonka in reply, “that Eichmann was not a marginal or a banal figure. … He could be found at every step in the process that destroyed European Jewry.”

Yablonka attributes the trial’s irregularities to the Israelis’ history and pessimistic worldview, and she believes that Israelis drew from the trial great pride in their sovereign nation and heightened respect from the world.

Her book is scholarly in tone, but it has moments of high emotion and drama. It’s an interesting and fair-minded scientific research study of a 40-year-old event, updated with current interviews. It might well be helpful when the time comes to understand the trial of Saddam Hussein.

“The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann” by Hanna Yablonka, translated by Ora Cummings with David Herman (303 pages, Schocken Books, $26).