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50 years later, Adolf Eichmann’s trial still has meaning

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A photo of convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of his trial, the first Holocaust trial to be held in Israel.

A photo of convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of his trial, the first Holocaust trial to be held in Israel.

Associated Press

April 11, 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the start of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the event that brought the full significance of the Holocaust to the world's attention.

The Holocaust has played a major role in my life. First, my parents were fortunate to escape from Vienna shortly after Hitler and the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938 — "Anschluss," as it was called back then.

My parents were then able to get their parents out of Vienna a year later. I was born in 1942 in England and my parents and I moved to the U.S. in 1950.

Other members of my family were not so fortunate. Many of them died in the Holocaust. On several occasions in the early years after we moved to the U.S., I was the recipient of anti-Semitic remarks. All of these events made me feel that Jews were a very hated people.

In 1993, I learned that the late Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, was a distant cousin. I got to know his widow, son and daughter and we became very close. I learned that Gideon was attorney general of Israel at the time of the trial. Later, he was the founding President of the Yad Vashem, the Israel-based center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. He also served as a member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) for many years, and a minister at large in Golda Meir's Cabinet.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt has just written a vital account of the trial of Eichmann, the SS officer who managed the logistics of setting up death camps and transporting Jews to them.

In "The Eichmann Trial," (Nextbookpress), Lipstadt makes the point that it was the volume of witnesses who testified that finally put a face on the horror of the Final Solution. Even though many who testified were not directly affected by Eichmann's cruelty, their eyewitness accounts of calamity and destruction were riveting. They ensured that the unspeakable tragedy did, in fact, have a voice.

In contrast, Lipstadt notes, the Nuremberg trials just after the close of World War II were chiefly examinations of documents. The most poignant moment of those trials was the use of film of emaciated survivors taken by liberators of the concentration camps.

The decision by Gideon Hausner to call a multitude of witnesses was a risk. Lipstadt writes that it was a questionable legal strategy and that Eichmann's judges questioned the relevance. But the personal narratives won out.

The testimony "would transform the trial from an important war-crimes trial into an event that would have enduring significance," Lipstadt said. "It would give a voice to the victims that they had not had before."

The Eichmann trial was one of the first times the world heard that many Jews actively fought German tyranny. Witnesses recalled the Warsaw ghetto uprisings, fierce and brave resistance ultimately crushed by the Nazis who leveled the area with tanks and heavy artillery. This challenged a prevailing view of passivity in the face of the German regime's power.

The trial was significant in showing that the Holocaust was unique and was not just another example of anti-Semitism throughout world history. The enormity of the testimony proved the Holocaust "was an unprecedented crime. ... No one had ever tried to wipe out an entire people and then erase any vestige either of them or the crime," Lipstadt wrote. The trial's location also was key. The Eichmann trial was the first of the Holocaust aftermath to be held in Israel. It became a national obsession, with citizens glued to radios for hours listening to the proceedings. Although Hausner was opposed to the death penalty and later supported the banning of capital punishment from Israeli law, he made an exception in Eichmann's case.?

The significance and reach of this legal case has been much debated, particularly by political theorist Hannah Arendt, who wrote "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil," a book that was highly critical of the trial. Arendt particularly took Jews to task for failing to fight back against the Nazis, and even in some cases helping to facilitate their own destruction. Lipstadt points out that they did fight back in some instances and that in any case, the rest of the world made very little attempt to help the Jews.

Lipstadt also disagrees with prosecutor Hausner's version of Eichmann's role, which was described in his book, "Justice in Jerusalem." Hausner considered Eichmann as the chief architect behind the entire Holocaust, including the concentration camps, ghettos and mass graves. He believed that Eichmann developed the plans that led to most of the deaths in the Holocaust. But Lipstadt describes Eichmann as the chief operating officer carrying out orders, pointing out he made only minor changes to commands. Yet she details how Eichmann allowed a number of people to escape by leaving Europe instead of reporting to death camps. Such autonomy seems to argue against her view that he was more functionary than commander.

Lipstadt also underplays the significance of Simon Wiesenthal in the Eichmann trial and Wiesenthal's role in capturing many other Nazi war criminals. She correctly notes that he did not play the key role in Eichmann's capture in Argentina. However, as was described by author Tom Segev in his recent biography of Wiesenthal, Weisenthal fought the efforts of the Eichmann family to have their relative declared legally dead. This led to the continued efforts to find and ultimately capture him.

Like the Eichmann trial, Lipstadt herself played a significant role in convincing the world that the horrors of the Holocaust actually occurred. She and her publisher, Penguin Books, were sued by David Irving over her earlier book, "Denying the Holocaust." She had described some of Irving's writings and public statements as denying the Holocaust. An English court ruled in Lipstadt's favor after a highly publicized trial, constituting an important victory against deniers.

Similarly, 50 years ago, the Eichmann trial played an essential role in convincing the world of the truth of genocide. Although it strains credulity that deniers continue to exist, the dismissive statements of some world leaders in Iran and elsewhere show that attention must be paid to eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. "The Eichmann Trial," as well as a video of the trial produced by the Public Broadcasting System in 1997 are needed antidotes to the resilience of misinformation that pollutes truth.

Tony Hausner lives in Silver Spring, Md.