Opinion: 60 years ago, we saw the face of evil


Sixty years ago, in an internationally broadcast trial, millions of people around the world watched as a man — a monster, really, despite his human form and slight frame — sat in a courtroom in the newly-formed nation of Israel.

At the end of the trial, a three-judge panel found Eichmann guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other offenses, and sentenced him to death. He appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict and sentence. Eichmann was executed by hanging on June 1, 1962.
While the Eichmann trial is now firmly part of world history, the lessons still resonate today. Hatred based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation and ethnicity sadly remains a potent and growing threat in the United States and elsewhere. We need to remember the Eichmann trial for what it can teach us about our collective past — and future.

The prosecutor

Two of the men who tried Eichmann survive today: prosecutor Gabriel Bach and investigator Michael Goldmann-Gilead. Both men live in Israel, in their mid-90s, surrounded by warm, loving families. Sixty years after the Eichmann trial, they spoke with me about their roles in one of the monumental criminal cases in world history.
Bach, now 94, recalls a childhood spent repeatedly fleeing just ahead of the Nazis. He attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and sat close enough to Adolf Hitler to see him turn away in disgust when American sprinter Jesse Owens won the gold medal. Bach’s family left Germany for the Netherlands in 1938, just weeks before Kristallnacht — the infamous night when Nazis killed dozens of German Jews, arrested some 30,000 Jewish men, destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and burned or otherwise damaged more than 1,000 synagogues.
Gabriel Bach, 94, a former deputy prosecutor in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, poses for a picture during an interview in May 1, 2020.
His family fled the Netherlands one month before the Nazis invaded in 1940. Bach, then a young teenager, and his family settled in the territory that would later become Israel. He was bar mitzvahed during that trip, while on board the ship Patria — which, on its next journey, was sunk by a bomb, claiming the lives of more than 250 people. As Bach put it, he and his family were “always sort of just one step ahead.”
Bach eventually became a lawyer in Israel, and he was tapped to serve as one of the three prosecutors responsible for trying Eichmann on the worldwide stage. (Bach later would go on to serve as a justice on the Israeli Supreme Court). Despite the passage of time, Bach’s memories of the trial remain clear. He vividly recalls the testimony of one survivor, Martin Foldi, who was transported in a cattle car from Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944 with his wife, son, and daughter. Upon arrival, a Nazi guard signaled for Foldi to go right and instructed his wife, son and daughter to go left.

When Foldi looked up just after being separated from his family, he could no longer see his wife or son in the distance as they moved ahead in their line. But, Bach recalls, Foldi testified he had recently bought a bright red coat for his daughter, who was then two and a half years old. Foldi saw “that little red dot getting smaller and smaller — this is how my family disappeared from my life.”

In a trial filled with testimony about unimaginable horrors, Bach said the testimony about the red coat was the “only minute of the trial … I suddenly couldn’t utter a sound.” Keenly aware that the judges were waiting for him to continue, he pretended to shuffle papers on his desk to buy himself a moment to gain his composure.

Bach rejects efforts to soften the reality around the horrific crimes committed by Eichmann. Eichmann and his court-appointed attorney maintained during the trial that he was just following his superiors’ orders. Hannah Arendt, who covered the trial for The New Yorker, famously wrote in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” that Eichmann embodied the “banality of evil.” Arendt argued, “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth … Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all … He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.”

Adolf Eichmann listens in the prisoner's dock at the left, as presiding Judge Moishe Landau gives the verdict at the conclusion of his trial.
Bach flatly calls Arendt’s conclusion “rubbish.” Displaying the methodical care of a skilled prosecutor, Bach explains that after the Holocaust (but before his trial), Eichmann said that he regretted not having done more to kill Jews. He cites numerous examples where Eichmann took affirmative steps to prevent any Jewish person from being spared or shown mercy.

Bach proudly notes that, despite the intense emotion and publicity surrounding the case, Eichmann was tried in accordance with rule of law and principles of fairness. With his vast experience as prosecutor, defense attorney and judge during his career, he recalls with pride that “we wanted to handle this case like we handled any other case.” Bach understood that, with history on the line, “it was important for history’s sake that every point of legal decency had to be followed.”

The investigator

Unlike Bach, Goldmann-Gilead was unable to escape the Nazis as they expanded their control over Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. When Goldmann-Gilead was a teenager in 1942, his mother and sister were “deported” by the Nazis on a railcar to the Belzec extermination camp. He never saw them again.

Goldmann-Gilead lived through the ultimate of horrors. As a teenager, he was caught trying to hide books about railroad construction to keep them from falling into Nazi hands. A SS officer then called Goldmann-Gilead out to a public square in view of his friends and neighbors, and lashed him over 80 times. Goldmann-Gilead himself passed out during the brutal beating; he only learned the number of lashes later from his friends who stood by, horrified, counting.
Michael Goldmann-Gilead, one of the lead investigators in Adolf Eichmann's trial, speaks to CNN.
Goldmann-Gilead then survived multiple concentration camps, including the most notorious one of all, Auschwitz. The Nazis branded Goldmann-Gilead’s forearm with his prisoner number: 161135. He still bears his tattoo today, with a sort of defiant pride. In an iconic image, Goldmann-Gilead is seen, years later, sitting at the prosecution table during the Eichmann trial, with his shirt-sleeve rolled up to reveal a muscular forearm bearing the tattoo branded on him by the Nazis years before.

Sixty years after the trial, Goldmann-Gilead told me he vividly recalls his face-to-face interrogation of the Nazi’s chief architect of death and destruction. “When he opened his mouth — I cannot forget this — when he opened his mouth, I saw the doors of the crematorium open,” Goldmann-Gilead says.

At one point during the trial, the prosecution team was struggling to authenticate a document that appeared to reflect the transport of Jewish prisoners to the Nazi extermination camps. Goldmann-Gilead realized that his own prisoner number, permanently branded on his arm, was among the numbers listed.

After the Israeli court found Eichmann guilty and sentenced him to death, Goldmann-Gilead was one of the few people chosen to witness Eichmann’s execution. Eichmann’s body was cremated, and the ashes were given to Goldmann-Gilead, who was instructed to scatter them at sea. Goldmann-Gilead told me he recalls noticing just how small the quantity of ashes were from one person, compared to the mountain of human ashes he was forced to shovel, many years before, from outside the crematorium at the Birkenau concentration camp.

Goldmann-Gilead and a few others boarded a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. He then took the container with Eichmann’s ashes and poured them out. Goldmann-Gilead recalled that afterward he “stood quietly at the edge of the boat and I thought quietly to myself about my parents, my family, and those who did not have the privilege to see one of the greatest murderers brought to justice.”

The memory of the Holocaast

My grandfather, Lazar Nuchem Honig, was a Polish Jew born in 1911. (I am named after him; my full name, Eliezer, is a variation on his first name). Lazar survived the Holocaust, in part because he was the right age (he was old enough to be put to work but young enough to endure), because he was useful (he was a furrier who could make warm hats the Nazis valued), and because of pure happenstance. Allied forces liberated him from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1945. My family still has a makeshift refugee passport of sorts that he was issued after the war. Across the front, just over his photograph, is a stamp that reads “Liberated by Allies.”

Like so many Jews who survived the Holocaust, my grandfather had nothing to go back to. Most of his family had been murdered, he had no home or formal education, and he found himself a refugee in Europe. He eventually emigrated to Sweden, where he met my grandmother, Gusta Zagorski. She, too, had survived the concentration camps and she, too, had lost nearly her entire family to the Nazi genocide. Toward the end of the war, she survived the infamous “Death March” to the interior of Germany, and she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, another notorious Nazi concentration camp.

My grandfather died in 1960 from cancer. I never met him, and even my father, who was 10 years old at the time, has mostly fleeting memories. But my grandmother lived until 2008, and I knew her well. (She would have turned 100 just this past June). She was fiery, brilliant, stubborn, blunt, funny, difficult and deeply traumatized.

Elie Honig, at age 2, with his grandmother, Gusta Honig.

Many Holocaust survivors have spoken or written poignantly of their experiences. That was not my grandmother’s way. She never brought it up. The few times my brothers or I would try to get her to talk about it, she’d respond with a wave of the hand and a dismissive remark along the lines of, “I lived through it once; why would I do it again?”

She had a large group photograph of herself with her extended family taken when she was about 12 or 13 years old in Poland. I once asked her to tell me what happened to the people in the photograph. She started by saying “Most of them, killed.” She then pointed to specific people pictured: “This one, dead. This one, dead. I don’t know what happened with this one. That one, killed.”

Like I said: she was blunt. Once, I spent an entire summer day driving her from her home in South Jersey to my grandfather’s gravesite, about four hours roundtrip. Again, I tried to pry into her memories of the Holocaust. All she said was that it all felt like a nightmare, she didn’t want to re-live it, but she remembered being liberated at the end by people wearing red crosses on their jackets.

My grandparents had two sons, nine grandchildren (including my two brothers and me), and seven great-grandchildren (so far). My grandmother knew her grandchildren well, and she met one of those great grandchildren, my son, several times. I remember her doting on him, stroking his chubby arm and hovering over him to protect him.

Just days before my grandmother passed away, when we all knew what was coming, she met another great-grandchild, my daughter, who was a baby at the time. My grandmother had almost no strength left, and she could barely open her eyes — but she managed to force herself awake to take in her first great-granddaughter. I believe my grandmother passed on a piece of her fiery spirit to my daughter in those final few moments.

Bach and Goldmann-Gilead understood in 1961 that they carried a massive, perhaps impossible, responsibility: to serve justice on one of history’s most treacherous mass murderers. In the six decades since, the legacy of the Eichmann trial, and the work of Bach and Goldmann-Gilead and many others who have since passed on, has only grown. The images of the trial are indelible: Eichmann in the glass box, Goldmann-Gilead quietly but defiantly displaying the Auschwitz prisoner number tattoo on his forearm, Bach’s examination of the man who last saw his daughter as a shrinking spot of red on the horizon.

Bach and Goldmann-Gilead were, in a sense, just doing their jobs, in the noblest tradition of any prosecutor or law enforcement agent. Their day-to-day courtroom work reminds me in many respects of the work I did as a prosecutor, many decades later: debriefing witnesses, preparing documents, arguing evidentiary points in court, delivering opening and closing arguments.

But Bach and Goldmann-Gilead also knew, six decades ago, that they were fighting for justice for millions of people. Some of those people, just a miniscule fraction, were my own family members — my grandparents who miraculously survived, and many other family members who didn’t.

The lessons from the Eichmann trial resonate today. In 2015, a racist shooter murdered nine black worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2017, White supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” and invoked racist symbols and slogans in Charlottesville. In 2018, a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. At the January 6 Capitol insurrection, rioters wore neo-Nazi gear, including a shirt emblazoned with “Camp Auschwitz.” In the last few months, a member of Congress has carelessly made nonsensical, ignorant public remarks that trivialize and mischaracterize the true horror of the Holocaust. And, just last week, barracks at Auschwitz were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti and Holocaust-denying slogans.

Goldmann-Gilead told me, “With the death of Eichmann, the murderous ideology of nationalist socialism was not scattered. It is still existing … in the form of hatred, hatred that is dangerous. And we must be on guard so that catastrophes do not repeat themselves.”

Goldmann-Gilead is a living reminder that, in his own words, “We must educate the new generation not to hate, and to avoid such hatred. Otherwise, our struggle against such evil will be in vain.”

Video for this piece written by Gena Somra and Elie Honig; produced by Gena Somra, Farhad Shadravan and Elie Honig; and edited by Farhad Shadravan and Andre Murphy

Text edited by Yaffa Fredrick



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