One of the most fascinating stories in the history of the early years of the state of Israel, is the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann. Today (Labor Day) some friends and I are going to see the new movie that features this story, Operation Finale. I have seen other movies about Eichmann and they always miss the mark regarding the significance and impact of Eichmann’s capture and trial in Israel. I have high hopes for this one however after watching the trailer. The true stories of Operation Finale and the trial of Adolf Eichmann are rich with history and moments of consideration.
The holocaust in the early years of the Israeli state was not looked at in the same manner we see it today. For the most part, the holocaust was not looked at by Israelis at all. The architects of the State of Israel had a clear vision of who and what Israel and the modern Israeli Jew were supposed to look like on the world stage after the establishment of the new nation.
The holocaust contradicted this vision.
The events of the holocaust captured Jewish people in the same image they had been bound to for centuries. It made them victims, helpless, pawns in the games and power plays of the leaders of the world they never fit into.
That was not what Israel and the modern Israeli Jew were supposed to be. They were supposed to be strong, defiant, enlightened, self-reliant, a bright light for all of the world to look to. That was the vision of the State of Israel and its founders when it was finally born in 1948.
Because the holocaust countered this vision, in those early years of the new nation most Israelis did not talk about the holocaust. This is particularly sad because so many of the Jewish immigrants arriving to the new nation of Israel were refugees who had survived the holocaust. Many came with the marks and scars, physical and psychological, from the horrors of the holocaust but social norms would not allow their experiences to be discussed or dealt with.
For the many Israeli Jews who did not experience the holocaust they had little idea how significant and devastating this event had been.
As the nation of Israel pursued its track of development as a new player on the world stage, a small group of holocaust survivors had a different vision in mind. They wanted to round up and punish the Nazi leaders who had survived the war. Their mission was done in secret and they were known as Nazi Hunters. They frequently had specific targets they would pursue around the globe to find where these former butchers and deviants were hiding from justice.
Adolf Eichmann was the most famous capture of the Nazi Hunters. Eichmann was not simply a murderer of Jews in the holocaust as other Nazis had been. He was one of the major architects and designers of the holocaust. It was Eichmann who utilized ruthless German efficiency to design a system that would kill as many Jews as possible in the course of the Nazi advance across Europe.
The story of his capture by the Nazi Hunters is incredible but what I find fascinating is the trial of Adolf Eichmann itself. When Eichmann was brought back to Israel his trial changed the way Israelis saw themselves and the holocaust.
The events of the Eichmann trial were broadcast across the nation and even across the world. For two months Eichmann sat behind a bulletproof glass wall as the trial unfolded for all of Israel to hear.
We can imagine it to be like the OJ Simpson trial for Israel during this time period. Everyone was watching. Everyone was listening. And almost everyone was shocked by what they learned!
Much of the testimony and evidence presented by the prosecution at the trial was simply the reading of statements by other Nazis or by former victims and survivors of the holocaust. What was taking shape through the presentation of this mountain of evidence was not simply the establishment of Eichmann’s guilty role in the holocaust. Many in Israel were hearing for the first time the full extent of what had taken place in the holocaust.
They were learning about the strange tattoos on their neighbors’ or their relatives’ arm and what those tattoos signified. They were learning about the gas chambers and the incinerators. They learned about firing squads and how the use of gas chambers was considered more efficient as more Jews could be killed at once and it was less expensive than the price of bullets in a firing squad.
The trial of Eichmann changed the way Israelis began to see their neighbors who had survived the holocaust. Many of these neighbors were the last surviving members of their family, all the others had been killed in the holocaust. For a decade these survivors had been unable to talk about what they had endured. It was something they carried around as a shame and a stain when contrasted against the vision of what a modern Israeli Jews was supposed to be.
As these survivors began to open up and share their stories the image and infamy of the holocaust took on a different significance for the nation of Israel and the history of the Jewish people.
That was really only the beginning though. As much as the Eichmann trial changed the Israeli understanding and awareness of the holocaust, both its victims and its survivors; it also changed the self-image of Israel.
One of the hallmarks of the vision for the new and modern Jewish state of Israel was how enlightened it was going to be. That was the vision of the founders of the state. If they were an enlightened and modern state then there would be no death penalty. The death penalty appealed to older civilizations, not to modern and enlightened civilizations.
But how could the nation deal with Eichmann after all the evidence of atrocities brought forth at his trial? Many commentators and philosophers at the time noted how ordinary Eichmann appeared. He did not look like the devil but the acts he committed were surely from hell. If Israel put him to death, if they violated their own moral code as a nation, would they also be guilty?
All sorts of questions about what is right and what is wrong, what is the basis for justice or morality were debated during this time.
In the end Eichmann was executed. He was hanged in the early hours of June 1, 1962.
I’m looking forward to watching the movie Operation Finale later this afternoon. This is an incredible moment of history and consideration and I hope the film captures it all.