Sixty years ago I was assigned by a Brazilian weekly news magazine to cover the trial in Israel of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Even after so many decades, that moment, at exactly 9 a.m. on April 11, 1961, when he entered a bulletproof glass booth built inside the Jerusalem courtroom is etched clearly in my mind. It was a clear, cool spring day in the Holy City, and there was a thunderous silence as he stood still for a few seconds, his right hand trembling slightly. Eichmann seemed somehow absent, completely ignoring the hundreds of attendees crowding the hall.
My press credential indicated seat number 18, row H. It was a good seat on the left side of the hall entrance because the booth was in the same left location some 15 meters away from me. Eichmann held a pile of papers that he laid down on a small table in front of him. Close to the first row were the large tables occupied by the defense and the prosecution whose approaches differed significantly. The lead Israeli prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, 45, employed a theatrical and emotional style, while the German defense attorney, Robert Servatius, 65, was strictly technical.
I can still hear the court clerk calling out, “Beit Hamishpat!” ordering everybody to rise as the three judges walked to their bench. Moshe Landau, the presiding judge, ordered the attendees to sit down. Eichmann followed and started to adjust his earphones. He wore a dark, blue suit, white shirt and dark tie. The suit and shirt were visibly a bit oversized. He behaved normally and calmly during the whole trial, looking like an impeccably mannered clerk in some city hall department. He did display nervousness on few occasions. When witnesses described Nazi atrocities, his nose twitched. In one session, when the prosecutor exposed the working methods of the gas chambers, he pulled a handkerchief and wiped his mouth.
Hausner submitted to the court an indictment on 15 counts including crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. There were chills in the courtroom when he pointed to the booth and said he was not standing alone as prosecutor:
With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards he who sits in the dock and cry: “I accuse.” For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore I will be their spokesman and, in their name, I will recite the terrible indictment.
The first Holocaust survivor to testify was the father of Herschel Grynszpan, the young Jewish man who, in 1938, killed a German diplomat inside the German embassy in Paris. The murder was used by Nazis as a pretext for the infamous Kristallnacht. Other accounts by witnesses summoned to the stand emerged as the most crucial moments of the trial. Particularly significant were the statements by Zivia Lubetkin and poet Abba Kovner, both survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. Their testimonies helped rescue Jewish pride by demonstrating to the world that some fought back and that the People of Israel was not lacking in heroes.
The cafeteria downstairs from the main hall was the trial’s melting pot. As was typical in similar occasions, during the first two or three days the behavior among journalists was rather formal. But as the days went by, the cafeteria came to resemble a private men’s club (at the time, there weren’t as many women members of the press as there are nowadays).
English was the journalists’ common language. I remember a Japanese correspondent who didn’t speak English, French or German; heaven knows how he could follow the trial’s procedures. There was a bit of disagreement regarding the jurisdictional validity of the trial but the tearful and heartbreaking testimonies of Holocaust survivors diminished all other possible disagreements and left everybody devastated. In such circumstances, one doesn’t make friends, only acquaintances. But I developed a warm relationship with the American journalist Robert St. John. He was 59 years old and I was 27. (According to a note published in Maariv newspaper, I was the youngest of all the foreign correspondents). St. John would ask me about the main thrust of what I was writing and give me valuable advice. He was a deeply learned man and the author of an excellent biography of David Ben Gurion.
To this day, people ask me if I met Hannah Arendt while covering the trial. No, I didn’t. At the time, I was not even familiar with her books. It’s remarkable that her name became attached to Eichmann’s, given her characterization of his murderous journey as “the banality of evil.”
This label appears in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” published two years after the trial. The famous American publisher and intellectual Norman Podhoretz reviewed the book with this title: “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance.”
Arendt makes the unfounded claim that the “Final Solution” planned by the upper Nazi echelons, including Eichmann, needed Jewish cooperation through administrative work. It is obvious that in such a sophisticated and meticulous genocide plan there was no room at all for banality.