Jspace was invited Monday to a roundtable discussion at the United Nations, marking the 50th anniversary of the notorious Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel. On the panel were a number of noted experts and officials, including Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and Knesset Member Yossi Peled.
The dais was assembled to share viewpoints on the well-remembered trial that brought national attention to Eichmann, one of the most instrumental organizers of the Holocaust. When he stood before Israeli judges, nearly two decades after the conclusion of World War II, a global audience tuned in to watch news reports of the highly anticipated proceedings. It was with bated breath that both Jews and non-Jews alike followed the prosecution of one of history’s most villainous characters.
This week, Wiesel and Peled were joined by Amos Hausner, son of Gideon Hausner, lead attorney during the 1961-62 trial; Mark S. Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association; and Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University and author of “The Eichmann Trial.”
During the discussion, participants laid out exactly why the prosecution was such a turning point in history. On the legal side, the case opened up questions about international jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, and the issue of punitive responsibility. On the emotional side, the trial marked an unmatched sharing of testimony, contrasted with the Nuremberg trials directly after the war, when the wounds were still too fresh for some survivors to come forward. In effect, the Eichmann trial created a space from which to begin the healing process.
“The trial opened the world’s eyes to genocide in an unprecedented manner,” Lipstadt said. “This was the first time the world really listened.”
Wiesel explained at the UN how he first met Eichmann as a child. The brutal SS official was one of the overseers when prisoners of Wiesel’s ghetto were forced onto the train cars that would carry them to Auschwitz. Seventeen years later, he would meet the war criminal once more, when Wiesel reported on Eichmann’s trial for The Forward.
“When I heard the verdict [guilty], I wanted to dance. And I’ve never danced in my life,” Wiesel said. “It showed history has a sense of justice.”
Minister Peled shared a bit of his own backstory as part of the roundtable. When he was just an infant, his parents gave him up to a local Christian family for safekeeping, a family who raised him for nine years. One day, his stranger of a mother came back for him, broken from her experience at the camps but not defeated. Every other member of his family had perished. That early experience, Peled said, still affects the way he lives his life today.
“Yes, we lost six million of our brothers and sisters,” Peled said. “But we exist and we are still here. We will exist forever.”
That theme of survival in the face of constant persecution was noted several times during the UN forum. Jspace asked Wiesel to comment on recent remarks by Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, when the two Israeli leaders drew a correlation between the Holocaust and the threat of the Iranian regime. It’s a technique the Nobel Laureate staunchly disavows.
“We call it ‘the uniqueness of the Holocaust,’ I’ve written so often about the uniqueness of it. It means it was, and therefore it must remain, unique,” Wiesel replied. “Ahmadinejad, I would accuse him of mass murder, I would accuse him of the intent to commit genocide, but Holocaust? This word which, by the way, I use with such trepidation, because even this word is not a proper word. Simply because there are no words, there are no words.”
Though subject matter relating to the Holocaust often draws out the emotional, panel members also spoke to the legislative significance of the Eichmann case.
“Universal jurisdiction, that is the legacy of the Eichmann case,” Ellis said. “The Holocaust changed the paradigm of international law and we have to ensure that we protect the fundamental issues of this cause.”
“Everything he [Eichmann] did was legal in the country he lived in and everything he did, he was told to do, which we call ‘an act of state,’” Hausner added. “Through the Eichmann case, we learned the law must not only be punitive, but preventative as well.”
The Eichmann roundtable took place following the opening of a special exhibit at the UN, titled "With Me Are Six Million Accusers: The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem". Produced by the Museums Division of Yad Vashem, the exhibit contains artifacts, recorded testimony and in-depth explanations from the case itself. The event was organized by the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme, in partnership with the State of Israel. For more information, visit www.un.org/holocaustremembrance.