Every year on Yom HaShoah, my grandmother, Miriam, who was not a Holocaust survivor, curled up in her overstuffed tan leather chair in front of her black and white TV to watch the rebroadcasting of the Eichmann trial. It was disconcerting and unsettling to witness my normally assertive and outspoken grandma reduced to a pile of tissues and tears, whispering to herself in Hebrew and Polish. I prayed it would pass quickly so we could return to the business of our mundane lives, not understanding that her need to witness and confirm justice again and again, brought her the clarity necessary to make peace with leaving her family behind.
My grandmother married my grandfather in Poland and emigrated to Israel a year or two after he did, in 1933. Leaving her parents, numerous brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, she never imagined not seeing them again. As news trickled in, she realized the enormity of the horrors unfolding in Europe and ultimately learned that her entire family, except for her sister, Laika, had perished in Auschwitz. Although unbearably painful, reliving the trial of the architect of the final solution for the Jewish problem provided closure.
Chris Weitz’s new film, “Operation Finale,” portrays the Mossad’s brilliant and brave capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. The film reverently grapples with serious moral issues, while at times taking liberties and paying some inevitable homage to Hollywood. For example, Hannah Elian is portrayed as the anesthesiologist tasked with sedating Eichmann throughout the operation, but in reality, Dr. Yonah Elian was part of the real-life team. The contrived affair between Hannah and Malkin, who nabbed Eichmann, is also a made-for-Hollywood detail. Nevertheless, the film flawlessly depicts the Mossad’s humanity in the face of the greatest inhumanity of our time.
During the 10 or so days in the safe house before being transported to Israel, the team took turns guarding Eichmann. His assigned interrogator never laid a hand on him, and the civility of repeatedly attempting to convince him to sign a document consenting to the transport to Israel stands in stark contrast with the lack of choices Eichmann gave the millions of victims he transported to their death. In one scene, the team dines together, complaining about the flavorless local cheese, while Malkin is upstairs hand feeding Eichmann the very same meal in his room. He was not fed lesser quality food, much less starved like his victims. The camera pans closely in on Eichmann, played by the brilliant Ben Kingsley, opening his mouth intimately to accept bite-size morsels from Malkin, who seems to visibly fight every urge to not suffocate the monster responsible for his sister’s death.
The civility displayed by the Israelis continues during the preparation for trial and through its aftermath. A glass enclosure was built for the courtroom to protect Eichmann during the proceedings. When he could not pay for his own legal fees, the Israeli government not only changed the law to allow a foreign attorney to practice before the Israeli court, but also paid his fees. The first week of the trial was focused on procedural issues, exploring and validating the capture and Israel’s jurisdiction, ensuring that due process was afforded every step of the way.
The trial lasted for months, with 99 survivors giving testimony. Ultimately, the Israeli court found Eichmann’s “just following orders” defense invalid. At that moment the world witnessed the consequences of human accountability; following immoral and criminal orders does not exonerate an individual from culpability. During those months, public consciousness bore witness to the greatest depths of human depravity, but also to the meaning of seeking justice, rather than revenge. Throughout the public trial, the world observed the true meaning of meticulous universal legal standards and procedures.
In his opening statement, Israeli attorney general, Gideon Hausner invoked the voices of six million victims who perished: “When I stand before you here, judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards him 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 unfold the awesome indictment.”
Eichmann was sentenced to death, his appeal was denied, and he was hanged in May 1962. It was the only time in Israel’s history that a capital punishment was carried out. Many Israeli Jews argued for a commuted life sentence, again, showing humanity, in stark difference to Eichmann’s treatment of his victims. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered at sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters.
I didn’t understand it back then, but I hope that each time my grandmother watched the trial, she felt empowered that justice was served for her family and millions of other victims. During my childhood in the 1970s, she often took me to the seashore to watch the spectacular sunset — that famous huge ball of red fire that slowly descends into the horizon over the Mediterranean. I imagine that knowing that Eichmann’s remains are somewhere out there, obliterated over the horizon brought her some modicum of peace.