Monday, April 8, 2013

"Eichmann?! I met him once!"

As noted in our previous post, today being Yom Hashoah, one should be focusing on Holocaust matters, and for that the most important Israeli archives are at Yad Vashem. Although given the trajectory of Jewish history in the 20th century, there is Holocaust-related documentation in just about every Israeli archive.

The ISA has, among other collections, the entire documentation of the Eichmann trial, much of it German. Yet since the overarching theme of this blog is to tell Israel's documented story, here's a record that tells about Israel in respect to the Eichmann trial: the transcript from the day David Ben Gurion told the members of the cabinet that Eichmann had been captured and brought to be tried in Israel. His announcement in the Knesset later that day (May 23, 1960) is the more famous; but the announcement in the cabinet tells us more about people's immediate response, since the ministers were a small group and they were having a conversation, not listening to a speech.

Ben Gurion's announcement itself was a low-key as you can imagine: one single sentence. "The security services have been looking for Eichmann, they found him, he's here and will be put on trial." He then added that he'd make the announcement in the Knesset, and finished by noting that the Law for Doing Justice to Nazis and their Accomplices allowed capital punishment.

The gasp of astonishment this was greeted with is audible from the immediate response of Yitzchak ben Aharon, who slipped into Yiddish: "How? Where? Wie macht men das?" To which Ben Gurion responded curtly "that's what the security services are for". Levi Eshkol congratulated them (the spooks), but Ben Aharon wasn't finished: "I met him in Vienna in 1936"; Moshe Haim Shapira: "And I met him in 1938".

The discussion that followed was anything but structured. The transcript is linear, but probably the ministers were talking all at once. While Ben Gurion wanted to talk about the legal process, and definitely didn't want to talk about how and where or even by whom the arrest had been made, Shapira was still reminiscing about that meeting. "He asked me if I'd come to remove Herzl's bones. I remember I was there with Dr. Senator, who didn't stand when Eichmann entered the room; Eichmann told him that if he wasn't gone from Austria within the day he'd be sent to a camp".

Dr. Yosef Burg, ever a cautious politician, worried that Eichmann might make a scene in court which would have a negative effect on Israel's image. This led to a discussion of the identity of his lawyers; the general assumption being that not only would no Jewish lawyer be willing to take the case, not even any Israeli Arab lawyer would. (Eichmann was represented at the trial by a German lawyer.) It's pretty clear from this part of the discussion that Pinchas Rosenne, the Minister of Justice, had prior knowledge of the matter.

Shapira, who seems to have been interested in the man, not the legal issues, asked how he was behaving in prison; this occasioned the only comment by Issar Harel, Israel's legendary spymaster who was present in the room: "He doesn't understand our behaviour. He was convinced we'd harm him and be cruel. Instead we're acting according to the law".

Finally, a puzzling recurring theme was the credit to be given to the agents. Eshkol, Pinchas Sapir and others felt they deserved public thanks, and perhaps some sort of award; Ben Gurion would have none of it. Israel didn't hand out medals in those days (and not much now, either), and he saw no reason to make an issue of the agents' actions. Given that at that moment he wasn't divulging even the country of arrest to the cabinet members - a group accustomed to top-secret deliberations - he clearly wanted to stay far away from anything that might reflect on the kidnapping action.

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