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We Watch and We Wonder: Who Was Eichmann, Really?

April 27, 2011 By:
Katie Beers
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He doesn't look like much, perched between two guards, hands folded in his lap, posture tilted slightly to the right. He looks almost unsuspecting beneath his horn-rimmed glasses, face wearied perhaps only by the passage of time. You would never be able to guess from looking at him that locked deep in the inscrutable recesses of his mind are the seeds that led to the slaughter of 6 million Jews.

This man, who I half-expected to be sporting a very different set of horns, his face marred by the atrocities he endorsed, is Adolf Eichmann -- or rather, the video footage that remains of him. Though placed on trial and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an Israeli court half a century ago, we are able to bear witness today via the far-reaching gaze of the Internet.

To mark the 50th anniversary of both his trial and death sentence -- the first and only time an Israeli court ever carried out the death penalty -- Yad Vashem has partnered with Google to launch a YouTube channel featuring more than 400 hours of film taken of the actual trial. This project not only allows a global audience to peer into the eyes of the oft-named "Architect of the Holocaust," but lets a younger generation come face-to-face with an almost inconceivable past.

From a class back in college, I learned the horrific bullet points of Eichmann's résumé. Learned of his eager role in executing "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question." Of his plan to trade captive European Jews like human cattle to the Western Allies in exchange for trucks and other goods. Of his systematic transportation of millions of Jews to the gas chambers. But while it is one thing to learn about the past from a blackboard, it's quite another to hear it speak, to watch it stand before a court and defend itself in the body of Eichmann himself.

He was just "following orders" he claimed, parroting the same defense some Nazi war criminals used during the Nuremberg trials. As if that argument could ever justify his decision to march over 400,000 Hungarians to their deaths. As if that argument could ever inspire its future listeners with anything but a potent blend of shock and disgust. It's no wonder they made him sit in a glass box during the trial's proceedings.

That Eichmann is capable of spurring heated reactions from a global audience is not a new phenomenon. Since the days of his seizure in Argentina by the Mossad and throughout the ensuing four-month trial that began on April 11, 1961, many have had something to say about him.

In fact, during the trial's duration, letters from all over the world flooded the General Post Office in Jerusalem, keeping Gideon Hausner -- Israel's attorney general at the time -- and his staff busy.

I recently became acquainted with the letters via my friend Jack Goldfarb, a writer who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and who was in Israel to witness both the trial and deluge of mail it prompted.

In one of those letters, a schoolgirl from Holland wanted to know how it was possible for Eichmann, a father of young children himself, to have treated Jewish children as cruelly as he did.

Upon learning that Eichmann was to be hanged, a German convict serving a life sentence wrote asking that Eichmann be sentenced to the same; life imprisonment, he said, was a far crueler punishment. An American, meanwhile, offered his congratulations to Israel for apprehending Eichmann, along with five dollars to buy the rope by which to hang him.

But not all letters were anti-Eichmann. "The Jews killed Christ," one letter declared. "This was the greatest miscarriage of justice. Therefore they have forfeited their right to sit in judgment of others."

While not rife with hateful vilifications, other letters opposed the trial on religious grounds. Letters from Western Europe and America pleaded for the sins of Eichmann to be met with forgiveness.

In response, Hausner's staff reminded all that Israel was not attempting to rival God's justice; rather, Eichmann's crimes were a secular matter. And no nation surrenders its right to judge those who transgress against its citizens.

In a moving letter sent to Hausner and his team, an Israeli woman who had survived the camps expressed nothing but gratitude for the trial and its proceedings. Through it, she was finally able to unburden her heart of its silent grief -- a grief we of the YouTube generation can never fully comprehend.

Instead, we watch and we wonder, not how such a monster as Eichmann could have existed, but how could such a man.

Katie Beers is currently enrolled in the M.A. English literature program at New York University.

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