Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Purim Sermon: Esther and Eichmann

 “The greatest living enemy of the Jewish people,”[1] who conspired at their very extermination, is set to be executed by hanging.[2]These words have not been taken from Megillah Esther this evening, but could easily be inserted verbatim into the story we have read. These words echo the memorable episode from Megillah Esther, Chapter 8: verse 4 in which Achashverosh states in an edict that he has relinquished “the house of Haman” and ordered that they “have hanged upon the gallows Haman, because he laid his hand upon the Jews.”

The opening quotation I used this evening is not from Megillah Esther, but instead from press releases spanning from 1960 and 1962 detailing the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann. The press clipping should echo within us, eliciting a resounding sensation of déjà vu after reading Megillah Esther. Imagine once again that: “The greatest living enemy of the Jewish people,”[3]who conspired at their very extermination, is set to be executed by hanging.[4]

Earlier this year, Operation Finale was released in American cinemas. The film documents the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann by a group of Israeli secret agents functioning under the wing of the Mossad, who cooperated on the ground with a small group of local Argentinian Jews. The capture, as the film documents, was tricky. Eichmann was kidnapped and flown in secret from Argentina to Israel to face trial for his crimes against the Jewish people.

This was not Eichmann’s first visit to Israel. Eichmann first visited Palestine in 1937 to meet with agents of HaGadna in the hope to resettle Europe’s Jews in Palestine. As the film points out, Eichmann later abandoned these plans in favor of the botched resettlement plan for European Jews in Madagascar. Only after it becomes appeared that the Madagascar plan is also scrapped does Eichmann adopt the moniker “the architect of the Final Solution.” The film suggests that Eichmann leans on this defense during his capture, trial, and interrogations.

The film received mixed reviews. It humanizes a monster by suggesting his moniker was only awarded after failures of resettlement. It gives a face to Eichmann as a caring family man. The film portrays him as a loving parent, a loving husband, and a loving son. These are aspects we prefer to remain disconnected from with criminals. We prefer to relegate Nazis, bigots, Klansmen, and Amalakites to demonization. It sterilizes us from emotional pain. For this reason, many Jewish groups reviewed the film poorly. Matt Lebovic of the Times of Israel wrote an article entitled, “The banality of lies: In ‘Operation Finale,’ Eichmann’s falsehoods are validated.”[5]In the article, Lebovic suggests that the “film, focused on the kidnapping of Holocaust ‘architect,’ humanizes its notorious antagonist and allows his deceptions to go unchallenged.”[6]

However, the film does offer us a valuable lesson on the story of Purim.  The story Lebovic did not pick up on in his piece on Operation Finale is the earth-shattering aspect of the film. Operation Finale is not the first film documenting the capture, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann. Operation Eichmann was produced in 1961, The Man who Captured Eichmann showed in 1996, and Eichmann was produced in 2007. The films of 1961, 1996, and 2007 all sidelined the most essential character of the Eichmann capture: our contemporary Esther of this story.

Operation Finale opens with a scene inside of a movie theater in 1956. As the film reels are in motion inside of the theater, two sets of eye lock in flirtatious stares at one another. The sets of eyes belong to Adolf Eichmann’s son, Hermann Eichmann, and across the other end of the cinema, the other set of eyes belong to a young Jewish woman known as Sylvia Hermann, a modern-day Esther, and Jewish heroine. The daughter of Holocaust survivor Lothar Herman, Sylvia was raised with limited knowledge of her Jewish identity. Her father only informed her of her Jewish identity and his internment in a German concentration camp upon meeting her then-boyfriend, Hermann Eichmann. Sylvia then made a fateful, noble decision: Sylvia concealed her own Jewish identity from Hermann and collaborated with Israeli Mossad agents to collect information on Hermann’s father Adolf for his capture and extradition to Israel.

Sylvia’s story is eclipsed by dramatized accounts that tell the story of the men who captured Eichmann. However, it was a female Jewish hero who is most responsible for Eichmann’s capture and therefore extraction from Argentina. It was a female Jewish hero who held accountable The greatest living enemy of the Jewish people, both during the time of Queen Esther and during the tumultuous period of Eichmann’s capture. May the centrality of Jewish heroines not go underappreciated by our people. We are forever grateful to them.

[1]https://www.theguardian.com/world/1960/may/24/israel.secondworldwar

[2]https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/EICHMANN,%20ADOLF%20%20%20VOL.%203_0089.pdf

[3]https://www.theguardian.com/world/1960/may/24/israel.secondworldwar

[4]https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/EICHMANN,%20ADOLF%20%20%20VOL.%203_0089.pdf

[5]https://www.timesofisrael.com/banality-of-truth-in-operation-finale-eichmann-propagated-lies-are-validated/

[6]Ibid

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native of Israeli-American nationality, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both a M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European anti-semitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience from teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading Shabbat and Holiday services at Greenwood House in Trenton, New Jersey, and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently, in Cincinnati, he leads services for Beth Boruk, in Richmount, IN and teaches at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.
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