Yigal Cohen, the general director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, and Nadav Heidecker, the member of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum archives team.
On 23 May 1960, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a dramatic announcement: Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” for the extermination of the Jewish people, is being held under arrest in Israel, and will be tried for his crimes. Thus opened the historical affair that fascinated the country and resonated around the world.
Among the first to realize the trial’s historical significance were the leaders of the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz, and its museum, the Ghetto Fighters’ House, the world’s first educational Holocaust museum. Its founders were veterans of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the most significant case of armed resistance in the Holocaust. As survivors, filled with a sense commitment to the memory of the Holocaust, they understood the gravity of the moment. At a time when historical research on the Holocaust was still limited, the Ghetto Fighters’ House contributed to the police investigation by locating documentary evidence and witnesses.
Indeed, for the young Jewish State, established only thirteen years earlier, the trial became a formative event. Up until then, the “longtime” Israelis who had not experienced the Holocaust struggled to sympathize with the survivors, who came to the new state after 1948. Many criticized the conduct of the Jews during the Holocaust and could not understand why so few of them took up arms to defend themselves against mass murder. For many survivors, the trial was the first chance to express their anguish, and the public slowly realized the scope of the brutal, systematic genocide.
The Eichmann trial resonated in the Arab world as well. On one hand, many were shocked by the atrocities described in the trial. On the other hand, there were fears that the trial might raise sympathy for Israel, which was at that time perceived as the Arab world’s foremost enemy.
Throughout his trial at the Jerusalem District Court, Eichmann sat in a custom-made bulletproof glass booth, to protect him from assassination attempts, as he faced the charges. The verdict sought was the death penalty, but only through due process.
The indictment consisted of fifteen counts, including “crimes against the Jewish people,” “crimes against humanity,” and “war crimes.” His answer to each count was, “In the sense of the indictment, not guilty.” Eichmann did not deny the evidence against him, but tried to downplay his accountability, presenting himself as a minor bureaucrat merely carrying out his superiors’ orders.
In August 1961, the court found Eichmann guilty on all counts, and sentenced him to death under a special law for Nazis and Nazi Collaborators. To this day, Eichmann remains the only person given a death sentence by an Israeli court. On the night of 31 May/1 June 1961, Eichmann was hanged, cremated, and his ashes scattered in the sea outside of Israel’s territorial waters.
This year, the Ghetto Fighters’ House will dedicate its International Holocaust Remembrance Day events to the sixtieth anniversary of the trial, and its lasting consequences. After the trial, in gratitude for its service, the Israeli Police granted the Ghetto Fighters’ House a unique artifact: the glass booth in which Eichmann had sat during his trial. The exhibition that centers on the booth explores the ethical challenge that emanates from the trial. It implores a recognition that while the most horrible crime in human history was committed by its share of bloodthirsty barbarians, it was also, and perhaps more importantly, perpetrated by mundane bureaucrats behind grey office desks. Facing the glass booth, we must come to the understanding that we all share responsibility to prevent becoming “small cogs” in an evil system.
Today, at the outset of the 2020s, almost eight decades since World War II, the challenge of Holocaust education becomes increasingly difficult, as the few remaining Holocaust survivors pass away. Teaching about the Holocaust, and understanding Eichmann as an emblem, is vital not only for the basic knowledge that every member of a democratic society should acquire, but also as a warning sign for the future: the constant soul-searching that every society must perform, to ensure that the dark past will never be repeated.
The Ghetto Fighters’ House believes in the constant and uncompromising study of the past, but, no less importantly, of the dangers facing every democracy today. We have taken upon ourselves a mission that is not only pedagogical but also ethical: to learn from the past and educate for a better future. Now, more than ever, we feel a duty to look around us, in Israel and elsewhere, and see the warning signs.
The Ghetto Fighters’ House’s location in the Western Galilee, a multicultural region where Muslims, Christians, and Jews live side by side, gives an even greater meaning to its call to every person, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or nation, to make sure that an event such as the Holocaust will never happen again.
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