Echoes from the Eichmann Trial

By Robin Jacobson. 

the-eichmann-trialSome time back, I discovered a tantalizing thread of family history. Neatly folded inside a book that once belonged to my grandfather was a publicity flyer. It announced an extraordinary event at a Boston synagogue on December 10, 1961 – an “eyewitness report” on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, which had transfixed the world in preceding months. Amazingly to me, Benjamin Jacobson, my grandfather, was the “eyewitness” slated to speak on “the trial, the personalities, the environment and the relation of the trial to Israel as a nation.” The flyer heralded Mr. Jacobson as a “special observer,” invited to the trial by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. Yet no one in the family ever mentioned it! So, I’m left wondering how my grandfather – a quiet, unassuming man who eked out a living from his small drugstore – wound up at the Eichmann trial as a guest of David Ben-Gurion.

All these decades later, the capture, trial, and psychology of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann continue to fascinate and appall, as witnessed by a steady flow of movies and books. Recent publications include: The Nazi Hunters by Andrew Nagorski (2016), Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth (2014), The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt (2011), and Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb (2009). These excellent books draw variously on previously classified material, newly mined archives, and interviews with former Mossad agents. Here is an overview.

Kidnapping in Buenos Aires

Adolph Eichmann organized the deportation of millions of Jews to death camps. When World War II ended, Eichmann eluded detection, eventually escaping to Argentina. A determined West German prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, secretly tipped off the Mossad that Eichmann was living in Buenos Aires under the alias Ricardo Klement. Bauer, a German Jew who had fled to Scandinavia during the war, did not trust West German authorities to apprehend Eichmann.
As dramatically described in Hunting Eichmann, a Mossad team tracked Ricardo Klement and gathered evidence to confirm that he was probably Eichmann. On May 11, 1960, they ambushed him on a lonely dark road as he walked home from the bus stop, shoved him into a waiting car, and whisked him to a safe house. To the agents’ relief, Eichmann readily acknowledged who he was. Shortly thereafter, El Al (which did not regularly fly to Argentina) sent a special plane on the pretext of transporting an Israeli delegation to honor the 150th anniversary of Argentina’s independence. When the delegation flew home to Israel, Mossad agents smuggled Eichmann aboard, drugged and disguised as an El Al steward.

Trial in Jerusalem

The Israeli chief prosecutor opened his case by proclaiming that “six million accusers” were standing with him. He used the trial to tell systematically, for the first time, the story of the Holocaust, calling scores of survivors as witnesses. This dramatic approach was instrumental in making the Holocaust part of the collective memory of the Jewish people, says Professor Deborah Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial.

As for Eichmann, he insisted that he was a small cog in the Nazi machine who passively followed orders and never personally killed anyone. Philosopher Hannah Arendt, reporting on the trial for the New Yorker, famously portrayed Eichmann as a mindless bureaucrat used by a totalitarian regime. But Eichmann’s own writings and recordings, exhaustively mined by Bettina Stangneth in Eichmann Before Jerusalem, reveal Eichmann’s initiative, zeal, and indispensability to the Nazi mission of exterminating Jews.

The Jerusalem court sentenced Eichmann to death on December 15, 1961, just days after my grandfather’s speech. I wonder whether that was what he predicted.