The Eichmann trial still reverberates after 50 years
JERUSALEM — In 1961, at the closing of his trial, SS Lt.-Col. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who helped orchestrate the Holocaust, reportedly referred to the war as “one of the worst crimes in history.”
But former Israeli Supreme Court judge Gabriel Bach, who was a senior prosecutor at the trial in Jerusalem, says this sentiment was made only “because he was fighting for his life.
“I’m justified to be more than skeptical about the reliability or truthfulness of such a remark,” Bach told The CJN in an interview at his home in Jerusalem.
“We had proof that he spoke in 1956, when he was in Argentina, to a Dutch journalist. We had the typewritten pages with Eichmann’s corrections in his own handwriting,” Bach said. “This Dutchman asked him if he felt sorry sometimes for what he had done, and [Eichmann] said, ‘Yes, I feel sorry, for one thing that I wasn’t hard enough, that I wasn’t tough enough, that I didn’t fight these damn interventionists enough, and now you see as a result the creation of the State of Israel and the re-emergence of that people there’.”
Canada marked Holocaust Education Week this month. The theme was accountability, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Eichmann’s trial.
“If any person should be accountable, it’s Eichmann,” Bach said.
Though Eichmann tried to present himself at his trial as just a cog in the machine, Bach said his research showed that this Nazi criminal frequently used his own initiative to hasten the execution of Jews.
“The evidence was really overwhelming. There were hundreds of documents with his own signature describing what happened. He also didn’t deny that he was in charge of the Jewish department of the Gestapo all during the war,” said Bach, who following the Eichmann trial was named Israel’s state attorney and later an Israeli Supreme Court justice. “We had proof that he even countered [Adolf] Hitler’s orders when he saw it might mean saving a few thousand Jews. Toward the end of the war, he said to his friends, ‘I know the war is lost, but I am still going to win my war,’ and then he went to Auschwitz to get the death rate increased from 10,000 a day to 12,000 a day.”
The Eichmann trial is still very much a part of Bach’s daily schedule.
“I never had routine cases. I had adventures all the time. Espionage cases, attacks against El Al planes… But there is no case like the Eichmann trial. There’s no day that goes by and something doesn’t remind me of the trial,” said the German-born Bach, who was Eichmann’s only contact with the outside world.
His interview with The CJN was given between two other appointments on the same subject that day.
Sitting in his armchair in his living room, he pointed to a black-and-white photograph of himself looking much younger. “That’s a photo of me at the Eichmann trial,” he said.
A quick look at his bookshelves shows that Eichmann is prominent there, too. Sharing shelf space are family photographs, encyclopedias, art history books and the hardback transcripts of The Trial of Adolf Eichmann.
The 84-year-old grandfather of eight is almost as busy in retirement as he was as a Supreme Court justice.
“I’m astonished, 50 years have passed and interest in the Eichmann trial seems to grow from year to year,” he said between sips of Earl Grey tea. “The interest all over the world is getting stronger and stronger. Every week people invite me to speak somewhere.”
He has been all over the world as a guest speaker – to Holland, Australia, Japan, Sweden and other countries. Next he is off to Germany to speak about lessons learned from the trial. He also recently returned from the United States where he was honoured with two awards. The Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at Loyola Law School presented him with the inaugural Raphael Lemkin Award. A week later, Creighton University honoured him for “a lifetime commitment to service and justice in the name of humanity.”
The trial was a historical event. But, as Bach noted, the positive results to come out in its wake are still being felt today, half a century later.
Bach points to the subsequent trials of death camp commanders and guards following the Eichmann sentencing as the best evidence to combat Holocaust deniers today.
“The terrific importance – in addition to the justice of putting these people on trial – is that we now have a lot of documents from German judges who describe what happened in the death camps,” Bach said. “This is of particular importance to fight the people who deny the existence of the Holocaust all over the world.”
There were many unforgettable moments in the trial that have stuck with Bach over the years: his first meeting with Eichmann (“Obviously, it was not easy to remain calm in the face of such a man”) and survivors’ horror stories.
But the most lasting memory etched on his mind was the first day of the trial.
“I’ll never forget the first moment of that trial when these judges came into the courtroom with the Israeli emblem behind them and when that man whose only object in life had become to destroy this people, when he got up and stood to attention before a sovereign Israeli court, before a sovereign Jewish state,” Bach recalled. “I felt at that moment the importance of the creation of the State of Israel, more than any parade or any demonstration or any article. That was a moment that I think was felt by everyone in the country.”