Facing the Glass Booth
The trial of Adolf Eichmann began on April 11, 1961, at the Beit Ha’Am center in Jerusalem. The defendant, Adolf son of Karl Eichmann, was accused of crimes against the Jewish people, the Roma/Sinti, and others during the Nazi reign in Germany and in the territories that Nazi Germany occupied. He was placed on trial under a law passed for this very purpose—the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, 1950—and the trial was perceived from the start as an immensely important historical event. In a dramatic announcement in the Knesset, the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, revealed that Eichmann had been captured by the Israel security services in Argentina, to which he had escaped at the end of the war. After his abduction, Eichmann was delivered to Israel aboard a special flight on May 22, 1960, for the purpose of being prosecuted in Jerusalem. A special panel of judges comprised of the Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau and the District Court judges Benjamin Halevi and Yitzhak Raveh sat on a raised dais, facing a hall packed with world media and inquisitive Israelis including Holocaust survivors along with native-born Israelis. The prosecution was represented by Gideon Hausner, the Attorney General, and the defendant by a German defense attorney, Dr. Robert Servatius. Eichmann himself was seated in a reinforced glass booth for his own protection; the booth would become the symbol of the trial.
Source: Leora Bilsky, The Eichmann Trial, Six Million Accusers—the State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann
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The Defendant
Adolf Eichmann was born in 1906 in Germany and raised in Austria, where he joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and volunteered for service in the SS. As an Obersturmführer (lieutenant colonel), he was among the highest-ranking officers in the Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazi regime In 1938, he was named head of the apparatus in charge of organizing forced emigration, and in 1941 he was placed in charge of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs and Population Evacuation department—Department IVB4. Eichmann was considered an expert in Jewish affairs in all branches of the SS and even at the ministries of foreign affairs and propaganda. It was his duty to organize and coordinate the mass eviction of Jews and their transport to camps as part of the Final Solution, the scheme intended to exterminate European Jewry. In 1945, when World War II ended and Nazi Germany surrendered, Eichmann eluded the Nuremberg trials by hiding in Germany and Austria. In 1950, aided by the Vatican, he escaped to Argentina, where he lived with his wife and children on Garibaldi Street in the capital, Buenos Aires, under the pseudonym of Ricardo Klement. On the evening of May 11, 1960, Eichmann was captured by operatives of the Israeli Mossad and exfiltrated to Israel. On May 23, Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court issued the first warrant for his arrest.
The Capture
Several attempts to trace Eichmann’s whereabouts were made after World War II. Eichmann had found asylum in Argentina and was living with his family in Buenos Aires under the pseudonym of Ricardo Klement. The Mossad had received this information back in 1957 through the offices of Fritz Bauer, Prosecutor-General of Hesse state. In late 1959, the Mossad managed to locate his place of residence, and several months later, in May 1960, three of its operatives abducted Eichmann while the latter on the way home from work. Adolf Eichmann was exfiltrated to Israel on an El Al flight that was bringing home members of an Israel delegation to festivities surrounding Argentina’s sesquicentennial. None of the passengers on the flight knew about the special person on board with them.
Preparations for the Trial
Bureau 06 To prepare for the trial, the Israel Police set up a special unit—“Bureau 06”—under Police Major-General Avraham Selinger. The unit was charged with managing the interrogation of Eichmann and gathering evidence for the trial from all corners of the world. The Bureau was headquartered at “Camp Iyyar,” a detention facility at Yagour, Israel’s highest-security prison at the time. The investigation was divided by geographic cross-section among the areas that had been under Nazi occupation. Eleven investigators, some of them Holocaust survivors and all fluent in German, were put in charge of the various areas and instructed to track down the evidence, find suitable witnesses, sort the testimonies, and prepare the selected witnesses to take the stand. Over a nine-month period, the Bureau members carried out an investigation of unprecedented size. They analyzed and processed some 400,000 documents from Israel and elsewhere, shedding light on the magnitude of the Holocaust and Eichmann’s role in perpetrating it. Winding up its work on February 21, 1961, Bureau 06 forwarded the investigation material to the prosecution team headed by Gideon Hausner, who on its basis wrote up the indictment, prepared the prosecution file, and determined the order in which the 1,600 prosecution exhibits would be presented and the 110 witnesses would deliver their testimony.
The Trial
The Attorney General vs. Adolf Eichmann The trial of Adolf Eichmann began on April 11, 1961, before the Jerusalem District Court. Eichmann was prosecuted under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, 1950, which provides for the death penalty. He was accused of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and membership in a hostile organization. The trial took place at the Beit Ha’Am center in Jerusalem. Eichmann sat in a special defendant’s booth made of reinforced glass, lest he be assassinated. The court was comprised of three judges: the Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau (presiding) and Judges Benjamin Halevi and Yitzhak Raveh. Gideon Hausner, the Attorney General, was the prosecutor. The prosecution based itself on the testimonies of 110 witnesses, of whom ninety-nine were Holocaust survivors, and 1,600 evidentiary exhibits. The chief defense counsel was Dr. Robert Servatius, an attorney from Köln, Germany, who had represented two of the highest-ranking defendants at the Nuremberg trials. Unlike the Nuremberg trials, in which senior Nazi leaders faced prosecution, the Eichmann trial was the first in which the main charge was the extermination of the Jewish people. The trial, which the prosecution had prepared as both a criminal and a historical proceeding, was meant to reveal the broad contours of the Holocaust of European Jewry, and it attracted far-reaching media coverage in Israel and around the globe.
The Judges
Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem District Court before a special panel of judges, headed by the Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau and accompanied by the President of Jerusalem District Court, Judge Benjamin Halevi, and the Tel Aviv District Court judge Yitzhak Raveh. The three jurists had been born in Germany and had immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1933. All three were fully fluent in German. At the outset of the trial, the court rejected defense counsel’s attempt to challenge its authority to try Eichmann on four grounds: the judges’ Jewishness, exterritorial legislation, retroactive incidence, and offenses committed outside of Israel territory and before the State of Israel had been established. Justice Landau managed the trial on a topical basis, wielding a firm hand and adhering to all points of criminal jurisprudence. He forbade eruptions of emotion and guided the witnesses in delivering only pertinent testimony. He instructed the prosecution team to focus only on the counts of the indictment and adjourned the court whenever the level of passion interfered with the sound progression of the trial. The Holocaust survivors’ testimonies are engraved in the collective memory as the core of the Eichmann trial. The court based its reasoned verdict on the evidentiary material that the prosecution and the defense had shown it.
The Witnesses Have Their Say
One hundred and ten witnesses
The testimonies at the Eichmann trial were presented to the court in Jerusalem from April 21 to June 12, 1961. Of the 110 ten witnesses who were called to the stand, 101 were Holocaust survivors who had experienced the inferno in their flesh. (Two of them testified behind closed doors for reasons of personal privacy.) They were called up in keeping with the chronology and the geography of the events, in accordance with their occurrence from the time of Hitler’s accession to power in Germany to the ghettos, the death pits, and the transports, culminating with the extermination camps.
The Eichmann trial gave the Israeli public its first exposure, via the media, to the stories of ordinary Jews and not only to the heroism stories of the resistance leaders. The web of testimonies at the trial covered the experiences of all European Jews in the Holocaust and presented the complexity of their responses to the disaster that had befallen them.
The Media Discourse
The announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann and his transport to Israel stunned the public in Israel and around the world. The media coverage in Israel, via the press, radio, and cinema newsreels, and the daily reportage on foreign television networks and the press, were central in making the Eichmann trial a constitutive world event.
The Sentence
The lengthy series of testimonies ended on June 12, 1961, and the examination of the defendant did so on July 24. Five months later, on Monday, December 11, 1961, the Jerusalem District Court handed down its verdict. It found Eichmann guilty of all fifteen counts in his indictment, including crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. On Tuesday, December 13, the Court heard the prosecution and defense arguments ahead of the issuance of its sentence. The chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, asked the Court to sentence Eichmann to death. The defendant stated his intention of appealing the verdict. On December 15 at 9:17 a.m., in a brief thirteen-minute session, the special court in Jerusalem sentenced Adolf Eichmann to death by hanging. Eichmann appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, before a five-member panel chaired by Justice Yitzhak Olshan. The court rejected the appeal and the President of the State of Israel, Izhak Ben-Zvi, turned down an application for clemency. The sentence was carried out on the night of June 1, 1962: Eichmann was hanged to death, his body cremated, and the ashes scattered outside Israel’s territorial waters.