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George Baumgarten

Adolf Eichmann

UN Building New York


George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, may 4, 2012

His capture electrified the world. His trial riveted the attention of Jews everywhere…and all those who—for the first time since Nuremberg—could watch the trial of a major Nazi War criminal. And—for the first time ever—the world could watch how the nascent Jewish state (only twelve years old at the time of Eichmann’s capture) would bring justice to one who committed not only “Crimes Against Humanity”, but also, for the first time, “Crimes Against the Jewish People”. This, therefore, was a trial apart. Adolf Eichmann was something very, very different.
The United Nations Holocaust Remembrance office had put together both an exhibit on Eichmann and the Trial and a panel of scholars, relatives and a few of those still alive who were actually involved in the trial, that half century ago.
Pursued for fully 15 years by Israel as well as several self-proclaimed “Nazi Hunters”, Eichmann had finally been found living in a quiet suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. After having been briefly in Allied custody at the end of the War, Eichmann had escaped to the South American country (notoriously welcoming to fugitive ex-Nazis), and was living with his family under the alias “Ricardo Klement”. The Israelis sent a team headed by Mossad Chief Isser Harel, who rented a local house and quietly stalked their prey. Watched for weeks, Eichmann was finally snatched on a street near his local bus stop by Mossad Agent Peter Malkin. Questioned by his captors, he finally admitted to his true SS member number, which they knew to be Eichmann’s number. On the afternoon of 23 May 1960, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion stood before the Knesset in Jerusalem and announced
    “ Adolf Eichmann is already under arrest in Israel and will be placed on trial shortly under the terms of the law for the trial of Nazis and their and collaborators”.
Needless to say, it was by far the momentous and shocking announcement yet made in the Knesset. Many of the members were left quite literally speechless.
A year later, Adolf Eichmann would come to be tried—before Israel and before the world—for Crimes Against Humanity and the Jewish People. Gideon Hausner, only recently appointed Israel’s Attorney General, would act as Chief Prosecutor for the trial. Hausner’s Daughter Tami Raveh, like her brother Amos Hausner herself an attorney, read her father’s opening statement on 11 April 1961, the first day of the trial. With due solemnity and an awareness of his momentous place in history, Hausner had intoned, in words that stood out in a banner of the Eichmann exhibit behind his daughter and all the other speakers,
       “With me today are six million accusers…”,
 referring to the six million Jewish victims of the very Holocaust that Eichmann coordinated.
That exhibit itself is both fascinating—even riveting—and comprehensive. It shows wartime photos of Eichmann, and others of him in his now-famous “glass booth”, on trial in Jerusalem’s “Beit Ha’am” (House of the People). Another panel shows the vast Nazi bureaucracy of the holocaust, from Hitler down to Eichmann, whose title was Chief of the Jewish Section of the Reich Sicherheits Haupt Amt   (Reich Security Head Agency), or RSHA. The website of the U.N.’s Holocaust Remembrance office also features an admission card, issued to this correspondent’s Mother, Estelle Baumgarten, for 21 April 1961, just ten days after the opening.
Several days after the exhibit opening, the U.N. held a Panel Discussion on the Trial, with scholars and some of those involved, or their descendants. It was presided over by the Department of Public Information’s Ramo Damodaran, an Indian with no seeming connection to this European genocide (leading this correspondent to recall that Eichmann’s jailers were all Sephardic or non-European Jews, who could not have had any relatives among his victims). Damodaran, however, spoke movingly of the moral basis for the Trial, noting that his captors and jailers “had found it difficult to look into the eyes” of their prisoner.
Yossi Peled, the first of the Panel’s speakers, is a career Israeli Army officer, who rose to the rank of Major-General. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, he was left as a “hidden child” during the War, along with his two sisters. At the age of nine, they were introduced to a lady in Israel and told “this is your Mother”. Peled’s Mother had been a survivor of Auschwitz’s most notorious Block 10, presided over by the experimental sadist Dr. Josef Mengele. Sent to Germany with General Yitzchak Rabin, he described his feelings there as simultaneously “shamed, angry…and proud” . But the Jewish people, he concluded, exist forever, ending his statement with the cry “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel lives)!
Mark S. Ellis serves as the Executive Director of the International Bar Association. He mentioned the legal principle of “Universal Jurisdiction”, under which Israel had felt it had the right to try Eichmann. Recently perverted into efforts by some countries to put Israeli leaders (particularly, for some reason, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni) on trial as war criminals, it was also used in the case of ormer Cilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Ellis did note the risk of using Universal Jurisdiction, and said that the International Criminal Court may render it obsolete.
Amos Hausner, son of Eichmann’s prosecutor and himself an attorney of vast experience, showed a surprising familiarity with legal history and precedents of various countries. Eichmann’s defense, he noted, was that everything he did was inherently legal, since it was an act of the State. He had—in the notorious phrase that has come down to us from the Trial—“only followed orders”. Therefore, the World must take care (in a principle reminiscent of the U.N.’s concept of “Responsibility to Protect”, or simply “R2P”) to prevent future genocides. They must be stopped, when they are at the conspiracy or incitement stage, before the would-be perpetrators actually take action. The experience of Rwanda in 1994, however, tells us that they have not always succeeded.
Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has come to be know as the “Poet Laureate of the Holocaust”. Born in Syghet, Transylvania (formerly in Hungary, now Romania), he was sent to Auschwitz with his father, who died there (as described in his searing memoir, Night). Wiesel—who has an almost poetic style of speaking—told of Humanity’s moral responsibility to prevent future genocides, or attempts at the same. The experience of Bosnia & Herzegovina, whose war and siege was finally ended by the Dayton Accords, suggest that people of moral conscience can prevail, when they concert their efforts.
The final speaker, Deborah Lipstadt, is an historian of the Holocaust, but especially of the growing phenomenon of “Holocaust denial”. After bringing the attention of the world to the work of the holocaust-denying pseudo-historian David Irving, she and her publisher, Viking Penguin, were sued by Irving in court in the United Kingdom. After a protracted trial that effectively put Irving on trial for his perversions of history, Lipstadt and her publisher were completely vindicated, and Irving found effectively culpable. Recently, Lipstadt produced a book about Eichmann, titled simply The Eichmann Trial . It tells of Israeli efforts to demonstrate the accused’s guilt to the world, and debunks the efforts of  philosopher Hannah Ahrendt to transfer culpability.
The Eichmann Trial is now a seemingly-remote judicial process of half a century ago. But Humanity’s recent experience—in Camboldia, Rwanda, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, to name just a few—tells us that its lessons have not entirely been learned.
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