Thursday, April 28, 2011

Watching Eichmann

Somehow Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, always catches me by surprise. Maybe it’s because it comes so soon on the heels of Pesach. Or maybe it just seems strange to focus on the Shoah, which I for some reason invariably image in my mind in black-and-white, just when color is returning to the world. Or maybe it is just in the nature of the unfathomable things also to be unpredictable and a bit random in terms of when it imposes itself unexpectedly in anyone’s consciousness. But for whatever reason I am always slightly unprepared when the Men’s Club delivers the yellow candle and the calendar suddenly notes that Yom Hashoah is around the corner.

It is a strange day. Neither a fast day nor a day on which even the most pious refrain from work, Yom Hashoah also has no specific liturgy—no additions to or subtractions from our daily prayers, no special Torah reading, nothing of the before-the-fast and after-the-fast feel of Yom Kippur or Tisha Be’av. Nor was there even universal agreement at first about when Yom Hashoah should fall or even whether there should be a specific day given over to remembering the victims of the Nazis during the Second World War in the first place. But whatever arguments were adduced in the 1950s against having this one day devoted to this one thing, they have been more or less universally set aside in favor of this day of nothingness with which we have finally ended up—a day of no special prayers, no special ceremonies, no special Torah reading, no special customs, and no specific rituals that has somehow come to represent by its emptiness the inability of any of us reasonably, let alone eloquently, to articulate our feelings about a tragedy of the magnitude of the Shoah. Perhaps there simply are times when the deepest response to disaster can only be to say nothing at all and to find in silence the sole appropriate medium for coming to terms with unspeakable things! And, indeed, as the years have passed I have come to like the concept of a Yom Hashoah devoted to remembering that is specifically not weighed down with ritual. To feel paralyzed by sadness is usually a non-productive response to personal tragedy; to respond to tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust, on the other hand, by staring into the whirlwind and saying nothing at all does not seem to me illogical or pathetic. Just the opposite, actually.

I was born in 1953, more than eight years after V-E Day, but although I had friends in elementary school whose parents were survivors, I don’t recall ever understanding that about them until years later. If they spoke about their wartime experiences, they didn’t speak to children like myself about them. But I sense that they didn’t much speak to anyone else either—the sense in those days was that the “healthy” thing for those who had survived was somehow to move on, to put the past behind them, to begin anew in a new place, to find the inner strength to live in the present, not the past. As a result, I learned about the Shoah almost exclusively from books and movies, mostly from books. I’ve written in many places about the profound effect Andre Schwarz Bart’s book, The Last of the Just, had on me as a young man. The same is true about many other works I’ve read over the years, especially including Anatoly Rybakov’s Heavy Sand, Anatoly Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and more or less all the novels of Aharon Appelfeld. And the movies that have affected me, although fewer in number—I should mention Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg in this regard—have been equally important in terms of my development as a Jew living his life in the shadow of the Shoah.

I am not by nature an especially brave person, I don’t think. I don’t like being terrified. I don’t like roller coasters. I am not even a big fan of horror movies. Yet I find myself able to watch these movies (again and again, I should add) and to read these and uncountable other books, especially including first-person non-fiction accounts like Anne Frank’s, Emanuel Ringelblum’s or Moshe Zev Flinker’s, without turning away. Or at least without turning away much. (Mind you, I don’t read them at bedtime.) But just lately I’ve been watching something that I had barely even known existed until it was brought to my attention just the week before Pesach: the endless videotapes of the trial of Adolph Eichmann. I suppose I vaguely knew the trial, which lasted off and on from April of 1961 to May of 1962, was videotaped. I had even see clips here and there, mostly of the witnesses giving testimony about their personal experiences during the war. And I definitely remember once seeing a clip from an Israeli news program reporting on Eichmann’s execution. (His was hanged the day before my ninth birthday and his ashes scattered over the Mediterranean the following day. I vaguely remember my father telling me that the entire Jewish people was having a party that day not just myself and my friends. I’m not sure I knew what he meant. Maybe I did. Probably not.) As the years passed, I read all the big books and re-read several times Gideon Hausner’s Justice in Jerusalem and Isser Harel’s The House on Garibaldi Street. But I never actually watched the videotape of the trial itself.

This was long before youtube, long before anything even remotely like youtube or any of the other on-line libraries of video clips. In those days to watch something like videotape of a trial, you had to start by figuring out where to find the tapes, then get permission to view them, then take yourself to wherever they were stored and watch them wherever that was. Now, of course, endless numbers of video clips stream almost automatically into everybody’s lives at such a pace that it feels impossible even slightly to keep up with what’s out there. But when I got an e-mail telling me that the entire Eichmann trial had been uploaded to youtube by Yad Vashem and was now available on-line I was drawn to the link almost like a moth to flame. It’s a lot of tape, four hundred hours’ worth. It’s available in two versions, one in the original Hebrew, German, and Yiddish (available at, and one with an English voice superimposed on the voices of the original speakers (available at It’s easier to find than to watch, however.

You need a lot of things even to start watching, in fact, but most of all the nerve to encounter evil unadorned and unapologetic. Contrary to Hannah Arendt’s assertion, there is in my opinion nothing even remotely banal about the footage. It is slow going. There’s no way to race through to the more interesting parts, just as there would not have been any way to do so in real life if you were attending the actual trial. As is the case in all courtrooms (other than on Law & Order), there’s a lot of endless sitting around and waiting. People speak slowly and deliberately. Translators spoke slowly and took their time, including the time to revise their own work while the cameras were still rolling. Through it all, though, is Eichmann himself, seated in the bullet-proof glass booth the court had ordered fashioned specifically to thwart any attempts on his life during the trial and apparently not only unrepentant but clearly contemptuous of the whole proceeding. Over and over he says plainly that he was simply following his orders, doing what government officials do, behaving with respect to his government in precisely the same way that government employees the world over, including in Israel, behave when they receive orders from their superiors. The disconnect between the icy calm demeanor Eichmann displays as he speaks dispassionately about his work annihilating the Jews of Europe and the reality of what was actually happening on the ground when others carried out the orders he issued is so immense as to be almost unfathomable. Just last night, for example, I was watching Eichmann talking about the deportations from Bialystok, a city in which about one hundred of an pre-war Jewish population of 56,000 survived. Of the deportations to Treblinka and Auschwitz, including a final deportation of one thousand children, of the efforts of the Einsatzgruppen to round up thousands of Jews in the first days of the occupation and murder them, of the famous uprising in the last days of the ghetto when truly there was nothing left to lose—of none of this does Eichmann seem even vaguely aware. There was a job to do, he says plainly—apparently meaning the annihilation of the Jews of that specific place—and there was a time frame to do it in, and he did his job and saw to it that others did theirs. He speaks clearly and without bombast, rather in the manner of a university science professor calmly describing some experiment he conducted successfully a few years earlier. He exudes neither confidence nor pride. His voice is almost completely without emotion. He simply describes his work, then allows others to think what they will. His German is clear and precise without being at all pedantic.

You can’t watch the whole thing through, obviously, just longer and shorter snippets. Nor is there any clear program available detaining what precisely is in which film clip (and there are hundreds and hundreds of separate clips to watch). I see what Hannah Arendt was getting at, but, as noted above, it doesn’t seem that way to me at all. Here is evil itself, the embodiment of the demonic in a clerk with a clerk’s glasses, a clerk’s demeanor and a good clerk’s pride in the accuracy of his workmanship. If this be a man, then we need to revise our sense of what it truly means to be human…and of where the bottom line of depravity might lie, the one beneath which no true human being even could, let alone consciously would, ever allow him or herself to fall. There is something fascinating about these clips, these simple black-and-white films of a man describing suffering of such unimaginable magnitude without remorse, without emotion, without any visible sense that the children he sent to their deaths were actual boys and girls and not mere figures in a ledger. If you start watching, I think you’ll stay for a long while just as I did. And then, also like me, you’ll come back and watch more, almost unable to imagine that this little man with his receding hairline and his thick glasses was not only a criminal in the normal sense of the world, but the embodiment of evil itself.

If you are looking for a way to observe Yom Hashoah, let me invite you to spend some time in front of your screen watching a trial we have all read about actually unfold, at least slightly, before your eyes. You won’t enjoy the experience. But I doubt you’ll be able to look away. In this man’s eyes are reflected the ghosts of his uncountable victims…and also nothing at all. And that is the paradox I wish to leave you with as we approach Yom Hashoah this year: that the Nazis’ victims are dead yet also alive in us, whereas their murderers, as embodied by Eichmann on youtube, were left alive at war’s end but also truly and unutterably dead.

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