11

ISRAEL CONFRONTS THE HOLOCAUST

This is a chronicle of the planet of Auschwitz. . . . [The] inhabitants of this planet had no names, they had no parents nor did they have children. . . . [T]hey were not born there and they did not give birth; . . . [T]hey did not live—nor did they die—according to the laws of this world.

—Yechiel De-Nur, Testimony at Eichmann Trial1

At four o’clock in the afternoon on May 23, 1960, the plenum of the Knesset was packed to capacity. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion apparently had unprecedented news to relay to the nation. As those assembled waited to hear what the prime minister had to say, the feeling in the chamber was electric.

Ben-Gurion approached the podium and began:

I have to inform the Knesset that a short time ago one of the great Nazi war criminals, Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible together with the Nazi leaders for what they called the Final Solution, which is the annihilation of six million European Jews, was discovered by the Israel security services. Adolf Eichmann is already under arrest in Israel and will be placed on trial shortly under the terms of the Law for the Trial of Nazis and Their Collaborators.2

With that, Ben-Gurion walked away from the podium and departed the chamber.

The hall was silent. Each person in the room struggled with the enormity of the announcement and its implications. Would the State of Israel finally exact even a modicum of justice from one of the architects of the annihilation of European Jewry? Would some measure of retribution finally be found for the millions murdered and tortured, gassed and burned or buried alive, and the million children whose lives had been cut off by the Nazi genocidal machine? Would there be an accounting for those delegates of the Zionist congresses who had perished, for the sisters and brothers, parents and spouses of many of those who sat in the room and of the hundreds of thousands of others who made up Israeli society?

Adolf Eichmann had been a Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) and one of the architects of the Holocaust, a central figure at the Wannsee Conference that decided on the Final Solution, and, at the time of his capture, the highest-ranking Nazi official still alive. He had spent most of his time after the war living under a pseudonym in Argentina. And now, the Mossad (one of Israel’s security agencies) had located him, captured him, and secreted him out of Argentina and into Israel.

It was almost too much to imagine. Then, as if continuing the ten-minute ovation that Theodor Herzl had received in Basel sixty-three years earlier, those in the plenum shook the hall with spontaneous and thunderous applause.

PREDICTABLY, MUCH OF THE WORLD did not applaud. Condemnations poured in from around the globe. Argentinean officials, who unabashedly gave Nazis refuge, claimed that Israel’s action was “typical of the methods used by a regime completely and universally condemned.”3 The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 132, stating that Israel had violated Argentina’s sovereignty and warned that future similar actions could undermine international peace. The United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union all joined in condemning Israel.

Argentinean civilians, following the lead of their government’s reaction, responded with violent anti-Semitic attacks on the Argentine Jewish community. Both the Washington Post and the New York Post published condemnations, while the Christian Science Monitor said that Israel’s decision to “adjudicate crimes against Jews committed outside of Israel was identical to the Nazis’ claim on ‘the loyalty of persons of German birth or descent’ wherever they lived.”4 Time magazine, inexplicably, called Ben-Gurion’s actions a form of “inverse racism.”5

Israel proceeded, undeterred, animated by a sense of justice. David Ben-Gurion also had an educational agenda. Israel’s young people had been raised in a society that had thus far avoided confronting the Holocaust. It was time for a public reckoning, the prime minister believed. “Israeli youth should learn the truth of what had happened to the Jews of Europe between 1933 and 1945.”6

So in a bold move in which Israel claimed jurisdiction for a crime that had taken place on a different continent, before the state had been established, by a murderer nabbed from yet a third country, Israel placed Adolf Eichmann—symbol of the Nazi regime—on trial. This time the guards were Jews, not Nazis. Now it was not Jews who stood trapped behind barbed wire, but the accused Nazi who sat behind a protective glass cage in a court of Jewish judges, in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state.

EICHMANN’S TRIAL WOULD BE the first time that Israeli society would publicly engage with the horrific details of the atrocity and with the nightmares that many Israelis—survivors of the inferno of Europe—carried with them every day. But the Nazi genocide had already colored Israeli policy on more than one occasion. In 1951, almost ten years before Ben-Gurion made his announcement to the stunned Knesset plenum, the governments of Israel and the German Federal Republic (West Germany) had begun negotiations over an agreement in which Germany would pay Israel monetary reparations for what it had done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Konrad Adenauer, the postwar German chancellor, said on September 27, 1951, that Germany was “ready, jointly with the representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel, which has received so many homeless refugees, to bring about a solution of the problem of material restitution.”7

The announcement that Israel would even speak to a German government brought Menachem Begin out of a self-imposed political retirement. Begin had left the public stage, at least temporarily. Yet when Ben-Gurion announced that he would bring a motion to the Knesset on the subject of the reparations, Begin’s longtime associates called him into action, convinced that Begin (who was still a member of the Knesset) was the only one who could give voice to the sentiment that making any deal with the Germans was unthinkable. Reparations, they also understood, would afford Begin an opportunity to reenter the political fray not as the object of Ben-Gurion’s dismissive disregard, but as the Jewish voice accusing Ben-Gurion of abandoning the obligations of Jewish history and Jewish honor.

Begin, whose father, mother, and brother had been murdered by the Nazis, launched a merciless attack on Ben-Gurion and on the mere idea that Israel would accept monetary compensation from the Germans. The Germans, he raged, were not people with whom Jews with even a modicum of pride would ever consider negotiating.8

In the course of the debates that followed, Begin said, “They [the government] are on the verge of signing an accord with Germany and of saying that Germany is a nation, and not what it is: a pack of wolves whose fangs devoured and consumed our people.”9

Arguably the finest orator in the country at that time, Begin aroused the passions of much of Israeli society. Ma’ariv, one of the country’s leading newspapers, published a cartoon depicting a German holding a blood-soaked bag of money, extending his arm to give it to an Israeli. A December 1951 headline in Herut (Freedom, the newspaper of Begin’s political party) asked, “How much will we get for a burnt child?”

Ever the pragmatist, Ben-Gurion countered that an economically flourishing Jewish state would arouse international admiration; Jews could safeguard their honor in more than one way. Ben-Gurion knew that the Israeli economy was on the verge of collapse. The government had instituted food rationing, Israel possessed virtually none of the heavy machinery necessary for getting the country on its feet, and the Jewish state desperately needed housing for the hundreds of thousands of destitute Jewish immigrants who had made their way to its shores. If German money could further Israel’s becoming a stable country, that, too, would be a form of exacting justice.

The national dispute, which elicited unprecedented acrimony, reached its climax on January 7, 1952, the date set for the Knesset’s vote. On a cold, wintry day, a huge crowd from all over Israel gathered in Jerusalem’s downtown Zion Square to protest the debate in the Knesset, then unfolding only a few hundred yards away. Begin, who refused to enter the Knesset until the vote itself, addressed the crowd in a tone he had never previously assumed. He referred to Ben-Gurion as “that maniac who is now Prime Minister,” the “now” pregnant with numerous possible implications.

Then Begin threatened the government. “There will not be negotiations with Germany, for this we are all willing to give our lives. It is better to die than transgress this. There is no sacrifice that we won’t make to suppress this initiative.” Referring to the fact that he had commanded his men to hold their fire on the day of the Altalena, he now changed his tune. “This will be a war of life and death,” he told his supporters. “Today I shall give the order: ‘Blood!’”10

Suddenly, the man who had helped avert civil war in the Altalena incident seemed to threaten civil war.

Ben-Gurion was neither convinced by Begin’s rhetoric nor worried by his threats. To him, Begin was nothing more than a demagogue, a Polish Jew ill-suited to the Knesset’s podium in a country of new post-European Israelis. The two men, beyond even their deep personal enmity, simply saw the Jewish world through profoundly different lenses. Begin insisted that a Jewish state that abandoned Jewish memory and a sense of the sanctity of the Jewish past would have no soul and no reason for being. For Ben-Gurion, the Jewish state was about looking forward, acknowledging the horrors of the European past but moving beyond it. For Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, who had left Europe long before the Holocaust, the Diaspora Jew for whom Begin still mourned was the pitiful, weak Jew of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s painful epic poem “The City of Slaughter.” Israel, he thought, had created something better.

The debate inside the Knesset was vicious. And outside the Knesset’s acrimonious session, violence erupted. Some of Begin’s supporters had followed him up Ben-Yehudah Street* from Zion Square to the Knesset and, in rage, threw rocks at the windows. Suddenly, the sound of shattering glass interrupted the Knesset’s debate. Tear gas that the police had used to disperse the crowd outside wafted into the Knesset, and the proceedings were temporarily suspended. Eventually, though, the debate continued, and as expected, the Knesset voted 60–51 on January 9 to proceed with the negotiations with Germany. Begin conceded defeat, but for his inflammatory rhetoric, both outside the building and in the plenum, he was banned from the Knesset for three months.

As Ben-Gurion had hoped, the reparations, combined with other foreign aid sources, got Israel on its feet. The money was used to improve housing, create an Israeli shipping fleet and national airline, build roads and telecommunication systems, and establish electricity networks. Reparations also helped finance Israel’s National Water Carrier project, critical to bringing water to arid parts of the country, making them habitable—no small challenge in the parched Middle East. Per capita (and adjusted for inflation), the tiny state spent on the National Water Carrier roughly six times the amount that the United States had expended to build the Panama Canal, and “far more than other iconic U.S. public works like the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge.”11 At the height of the project, one of every fourteen able-bodied people in the country was working on the carrier, whether digging, pipefitting, welding, or performing some other task.12 It cost about 5 percent of Israel’s GDP, an extraordinary amount for any country—all the more so in an economically fragile one like Israel. Without the reparations, the project would likely not have been possible then.

By the mid-1950s, Israel had the world’s fastest-growing economy, ahead even of Germany and Japan.13 There were also unanticipated consequences to the reparations, as well, far beyond the financial. For years, both Holocaust survivors and Israeli society had avoided speaking about what had happened in Europe in the 1940s. For the survivors, the memories were simply too painful. For Israeli society, the subject evoked both images of the Yishuv’s inability to help, and the image of a European Jew-as-victim that Israel sought to transcend.

Now, in the aftermath of the reparations, the Israeli refusal to engage the subject of the Holocaust had its first crack. And the man now associated with the role of safeguarding Israel’s Jewish conscience was David Ben-Gurion’s political adversary, Menachem Begin. The reparations debate had afforded Begin the opportunity to represent Israel’s Jewish soul, the sanctity of Jewish memory, no matter how painful.

It was not only the seeds of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party’s fall that had been planted. This was also a turning point for the kibbutzim. Until that point in Israeli history, many of the kibbutzim outlawed private property with no exceptions. Members shared everything, including clothing and other gifts that kibbutz members might receive from friends or family. Children were raised not by their parents, but in communal children’s residences, where they slept from infancy.

With the reparations, though, a crack in that policy also appeared. Survivors suddenly resisted the notion that the money they would receive for their own indescribable suffering should be shared with those who had not been through the Holocaust. Some kinds of property, they insisted, were simply not meant for everyone. On some kibbutzim, the debate that the issue evoked was no less vociferous or acrimonious than the heated debate in the Knesset.

Several kibbutzim settled on a compromise position; members could keep some of the reparations that they received, but the rest would be deposited in the collective coffers. The kibbutz as an institution would survive for decades, but the absolute egalitarianism of the kibbutz was over. Decades later, when kibbutzim would privatize and abolish public property, some would ironically see the roots of the change in the influence that German reparations money had on Israel’s signature socialist institution.14

IF REPARATIONS PRECIPITATED ISRAEL’S first serious reckoning with the Holocaust, matters only intensified several years later with the riveting trial of Rudolf Kasztner. In June 1955, Malkiel Gruenwald, an eccentric Holocaust survivor, published a pamphlet in which he accused Kasztner, who had been head of the Zionist Rescue Committee in Hungary during the war, of having made a pact with the Germans in 1944. The deal, which became known as “blood for goods,” involved Kasztner’s transferring trucks to the Germans in exchange for a trainload of Jews who would not be sent to Auschwitz. The deal led to the release of some seventeen hundred Jews, among them Kasztner’s own family and other wealthy Jews who had paid a premium price to get spots on the train. There were also orphans, Hasidim, and select others included in the deal, which was entirely public. And because in addition to saving those lives, Kasztner had also arranged for a significant number of Jews to be sent to labor camps rather than to Auschwitz, many Hungarian Jews thought him a hero of that horribly dark period.

Others, though, held a much less charitable view. They argued that Kasztner had saved his own family, had lived very well under the Nazis, and perhaps most egregiously, had failed to tell the Jews whom he could not save what awaited them. Kasztner, they said, was no hero, but rather, was complicit in the deaths of many thousands of Jews.

After the war, Kasztner moved to Israel, began to work with Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party, and lived his life mostly out of the limelight. When Gruenwald made his accusation that Kasztner was the “vicarious murderer” of five hundred thousand Hungarian Jews, fifty-eight of whom were members of Gruenwald’s own family, Kasztner was serving in a senior position of the Israeli Ministry of Industry and Trade. To protect its reputation, the government decided to prosecute Gruenwald for slander.

Though elderly and without resources, Gruenwald refused to go down without a fight. He hired a lawyer named Shmuel Tamir, who had been a member of Begin’s Irgun. In a stunning display of ingenious courtroom strategy, Tamir, a talented advocate and skillful rhetorician, managed to turn the trial on its head. Tamir argued that Gruenwald was right, and that Kasztner had been a collaborator. In essence, Kasztner—and by association, the government that had taken up his cause—now had to defend itself against Gruenwald’s accusations.

The court eventually exonerated Gruenwald and declared that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.” Publicly humiliated, Kasztner became a virtual recluse. The Supreme Court eventually reversed that decision, but too late for Kasztner. On March 4, 1957, Kasztner was assassinated by Ze’ev Eckstein outside his home in Tel Aviv.15* Eerily similar to the Arlosoroff murder in 1933 in apparent response to the Transfer Agreement, Kasztner’s murder was the second time a high-profile Jew was assassinated for his role in negotiating with the Germans. This time, though, the killing took place in postindependence Israel. It was the first time a Jew had assassinated a Jew for political reasons in the Jewish state. Tragically, it would not be the last.

Just as the reparations agreement had unexpected consequences, so, too, did the Kasztner trial. In condemning Kasztner, the judge—however unintentionally—essentially reinforced a perception that those Jews who had survived the Holocaust must have done something distasteful. Otherwise, many implicitly wondered, why had they survived when so many millions of others had perished?

Ironically, the public attention to the Holocaust actually made some survivors less inclined to talk about their experiences. Their burden became one they would bear alone and that, too, reinforced the sense that they were somehow “different.” Ariel Sharon, commander of Unit 101 and eventually prime minister, would recall that on the kibbutz in which he grew up, survivors seemed to live in a world of their own:

The survivors had their own codes, and [one] could never be sure what they were really saying. They were either not speaking to each other because of some obscure insult or else ready to die for each other. A kibbutz was supposed to be a place of trust; who could build a commune with such people?16

FAR FROM THE PUBLIC EYE, the Holocaust was having yet another major influence on Israel’s development. By 1955, David Ben-Gurion had come to a far-reaching decision. The Arab-Israeli conflict, he understood, was not going to be resolved at any time in the near future. Given the vagaries of world history, he did not wish to be exclusively dependent on the West. He decided that Israel needed to become a nuclear power.

At that time, only the United States, Britain, and the USSR had nuclear weapons. Israel did not even manufacture transistor radios. The mere notion that a small country with no technological expertise and that was home to fewer than two million citizens would go nuclear seemed fanciful to some of Ben-Gurion’s advisers and a bad idea to others. But for the prime minister, the conflict with the Arabs coupled with the sense of vulnerability that the Holocaust created was a deciding factor. Israel was meant to end Jewish vulnerability, whatever that would take.

When she later reflected on the importance of Israel’s nuclear capacity, Golda Meir harked not back to the Holocaust but to the pogroms of her childhood. She called Israel’s nuclear capacity varenye; that was the name eastern European Jews used for the fruit preserves they kept secreted away so that should a pogrom erupt, they would have that to eat until the threat passed.

Ben-Gurion sent Shimon Peres to Paris in 1956 to try to convince the French (who were developing their own nuclear program at that time) to help Israel develop its nuclear capacity. Mired in anti-Arab sentiment (which came to the fore most obviously in the 1956 Suez Campaign) and a sense of obligation to the Jews in light of the pro-Nazi Vichy French government’s treatment of the Jews, France agreed.* Its desire to extend its reach in light of its misfortunes in Algeria and the dimming light of colonialism undoubtedly made the idea of cooperating with Israel even more appealing. France made a commitment to provide engineers and technicians, a facility for separating plutonium, and missile capabilities. Israel would become one of only a handful of countries to have nuclear capacity. In the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel’s insightful journalist and commentator Avi Shavit notes, it was not lost on the very few who knew about the plan that for the first time in history, the Jews could have the ability to annihilate other peoples.17

By 1960, the United States knew that France was helping Israel build a nuclear reactor. When he became president in early 1961, Kennedy, committed to nuclear nonproliferation, was deeply concerned; accordingly, Israel and the United States signed an agreement that stipulated that beginning in 1962, U.S. officials could visit Dimona, where the reactor was situated, once a year. For some time, the Americans could uncover no evidence of a nuclear program. As the Americans became more suspicious, Israel went to ever greater lengths to hide what was really taking place at Dimona. The Israelis built simulated control rooms; they covered entrances to the underground portions of the facility and even spread pigeon droppings around some buildings to make it appear that they were not in use.

Though Israel passed these inspections, it was clear that the ruse would not work forever. In 1969, Golda Meir, by then prime minister, reached an agreement with Richard Nixon—who had just been elected president—that Israel would pursue its program, but would not reveal that it had the weapon. Israel could have the security that it needed to ensure that Holocaust-like genocidal campaigns against the Jews were a relic of the past, without goading the Arab world into seeking a weapon of its own.

IT WAS AGAINST THIS complex background—German reparations, the Kasztner trial, and (though known only to a small elite) Israel’s pursuit of a protective nuclear weapon—that Eichmann’s capture hit Israelis like a thunderbolt. Israelis applauded, foreign countries condemned, and even American Jews were very conflicted. Indeed, with Eichmann’s capture, the fragile agreement between Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein reached ten years earlier came close to unraveling. Not wishing Israel to establish itself as the central address for world Jewry, the American Jewish Committee believed that the Eichmann trial should not be held in Israel; some of its members even met with Golda Meir to emphasize their displeasure at the prospect. Infuriating the Israeli officials, AJC leaders charged that trying Eichmann in Jerusalem would undermine the fact that he had committed “unspeakable crimes against humanity, not only against Jews.”18

Ben-Gurion, incensed by these sentiments, unleashed his criticism in a number of public ways. As to the charge levied against the Israelis by the American Jewish Committee, Ben-Gurion took to the New York Times the following December to say:

Now I see it argued, by Jews among others, that Israel is legally entitled to try Eichmann but ethically should not do so because Eichmann’s crime, in its enormity, was against humanity and the conscience of humanity rather than against Jews as such. Only a Jew with an inferiority complex could say that; only one who does not realize that a Jew is a human being.19

The reference to “a crime against humanity”—as opposed to a crime against the Jewish people—was a thinly veiled attack on the AJC’s greater comfort in speaking about crimes against humanity than crimes against the Jewish people.*

Ben-Gurion’s anger was directed not only at the AJC, but at American Jews at large, whom he now accused of downplaying Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. The “Judaism of Jews of the United States is losing all meaning and only a blind man can fail to see the day of its extinction,” he said. Those Jews who did not live in Israel faced “the kiss of death and the slow . . . decline into the abyss of assimilation.”20 Rhetoric such as this constituted a flagrant violation of the spirit of the Blaustein agreement just ten years earlier. Ben-Gurion had to know that these comments would send Blaustein into a rage. He apparently did not care.

It took extended effort to get Blaustein back from the brink, and some of the damage was irreparable. Just as reparations had hastened the unraveling of the kibbutz’s foundational ethos, it was ironically the capture of a Nazi that drove a further wedge into the relationship between the Jews of Israel and those of the United States.

THE EICHMANN TRIAL BEGAN in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961.

The prosecution began by evoking centuries of Jewish history. It accused Eichmann of standing in a long line of enemies of the Jewish people, including Pharaoh and Haman.* The prosecution was intent on making the trial about not only what had happened to the specific survivors who would testify, but what the Nazis had done to the Jewish people as a whole. While some witnesses called to the stand had actually crossed paths with Eichmann during the war, the trial also heard from survivors who had not encountered Eichmann but could speak of the horrors of the war, of the indescribable suffering and the devastation wrought by the Nazis’ assault on Europe’s Jewry. Some observers objected to this decision, but Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor, insisted that their ultimate responsibility was to give the Holocaust “its place in history.”21

Israel’s youth received the education Ben-Gurion believed they needed. The trial spared no details. Witnesses described watching women, men, and children murdered in cold blood. One witness described how her child was shot as she held him in her arms. Another described a horrific scene in which thousands of French children, separated from their parents and without any adult supervision, were herded into dank, squalid rooms: “It was not uncommon for them to awake during the night screaming for their parents. Some were too young to know their own names.”22 The children were deported—“struggling and screaming”23—to Auschwitz, where they were murdered and incinerated.

Another witness attempted to read the last letter her husband would ever write to her and the last words he would impart to his children: “My dear wife and children . . . We are setting out upon a very long journey. . . . I shall somehow bear my fate whatever it may be. I do not want to make you sad but I would want very much to live yet in your midst. May God grant us that we may be allowed to achieve that.”24 The woman to whom the letter had been addressed became so overwrought that she could not read it; she passed it on to one of the lawyers to read on her behalf, but he, too, found reading the letter almost unbearable.

A prisoner at Birkenau described being separated from his wife and daughter, who were “sent to the ‘left’—that is, the gas chambers. He recalled that, despite the crush of people, he could identify them because of his little girl’s red coat. ‘The red spot was a sign that my wife was near there. The red spot was getting smaller and smaller. . . .’ He never saw them again.”25

Perhaps the most memorable testimony was given by Yehiel De-Nur, who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz. De-Nur had already written under the pen name Ka-Tsetnik 135633,* but when he testified at the trial, his true identity became known to many Israelis for the first time. De-Nur began his testimony with a spell-binding description of the world of Auschwitz, a world, he said, which was for all intents and purposes a different planet. He called Auschwitz the “planet of ashes.”

Quickly, though, De-Nur’s testimony became quirky and then incoherent, and then he fainted.26 The image of De-Nur slumped on the witness stand with police officers trying to revive him gave Israelis a sense of the horror of which many were hearing for the first time.

Just as world Jewry had huddled around radios in November 1947 to follow the vote on partition at the UN’s General Assembly, Israelis were now glued to their radios, transfixed by the stories and horrors. Implicitly, the testimony of the witnesses gave the thousands of Israeli survivors “permission” to begin speaking about their experiences. That had not always been the case. Given the Israeli focus on the “new Jew” who could defend himself, these survivors with tattooed numbers on their arms, who seemed psychically and physically broken, had represented precisely the Jews that Israelis wanted to forget and to transcend. They often unfavorably compared Holocaust victims to the new, powerful Jews of the Yishuv who dislodged the British and fought off the Arabs with strength and military might. Tellingly, “[t]hose killed in the Holocaust were said to have ‘perished,’ while Jews who died fighting in Palestine had ‘fallen.’”27

Tommy Lapid, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto and ultimately a well-known Israeli journalist and successful politician (and father of Yair Lapid, also a much admired journalist and founder of the political party Yesh Atid), recalled years later how veteran members of the Yishuv essentially accused the survivors for what they had endured. “‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ they would ask. ‘Why did you go like sheep to the slaughter?’ They were First-Class Jews who took up arms and fought, while we were Second-Class Yids whom the Germans could annihilate without encountering resistance.”28 Perhaps worse still, those who had been born in the Yishuv and come of age there made light of the horrific uses that Nazis had for the bodies of the murdered Jews. They knew, for example, that the Nazis had used the bodies of Jews to make soap. Lapid recalled:

At the time, there was a cook . . . who was a survivor of Auschwitz with a number tattooed in blue on his arm. The long-time staffers called him Soap, a twisted play on the famed Nazi plan to use Jewish body fat to make soap. “Hey, Soap,” they would say. “What’s for lunch today?” to which Soap would chuckle uncomfortably and fill their plates.29

Now, with the trial, matters began to change. The prosecution made no attempt to dodge the question of why survivors had not resisted. One poignant moment silenced those questions. A witness by the name of Beisky was describing, in traumatic detail, how fifteen thousand prisoners watched while a young boy was hoisted up on a chair to be hanged. The rope on the noose broke, agonizing the poor boy, who began to cry out for mercy. The SS soldiers then reissued the order for the hanging. In a seemingly merciless move, one of the lawyers in the case asked the witness describing this horrific scene why the thousands of prisoners who watched this unfold did not react. The witness said the following:

I cannot describe this . . . terror inspiring fear. . . . Nearby us there was a Polish camp. There were 1,000 Poles. . . . One hundred meters beyond the camp they had a place to go to—their homes. I don’t recall one instance of escape on the part of the Poles. But where could any of the Jews go? We were wearing clothes which . . . were dyed yellow with yellow stripes. [In] the hair at the centre of [our] head . . . they made a kind of swath in a stripe 4 centimeters in width. And at that moment, let us suppose that the 15,000 people within the camp even succeeded without armed strength . . . to go beyond the boundaries of the camp—where would they go? What could they do?30

IN 1943, YEARS BEFORE the establishment of the state, as news of Nazi atrocities had begun to spread in the Yishuv, the Ukrainian-born Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz published “The Sermon.” The short story’s main character is Yudke (a diminutive of Yehudah, Hebrew for Judah), a kibbutz member usually reticent to speak. One evening, though, Yudke erupts with a speech that became an Israeli classic.

I want to state that I am opposed to Jewish history. . . . [W]e didn’t make our own history, the goyim made it for us. . . . What is there in it? Oppression, defamation, persecution, martyrdom. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: “Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play soccer.”31

Finally, even if belatedly, the Eichmann trial forced Israeli society to see that Yudke was wrong. No Jewish person present could have meaning unanchored from a Jewish past. The new Israeli had wanted to start the Jewish narrative over, but the trial had made it clear to Israeli society—Jewish life could not be lived without a profound attachment to Jewish history, no matter how painful that might sometimes be.

THE COURT SENTENCED EICHMANN to death. (Coincidentally, one of the three judges was Benjamin Halevy, who had presided over the Kafr Kassem trial.) He was hanged on May 31, 1962, two years after his capture. In order that his grave not become a shrine, he was cremated and his ashes were dumped into the sea outside Israel’s territorial waters. No mere murderer, Eichmann was an almost mythical enemy of the Jewish people. His execution has been the only instance of capital punishment by a civil court in the history of the Jewish state.*

The Holocaust had long been a troubling dimension of Jewish history for the Yishuv and the early state. In large measure, that was because the new Jew of the Yishuv was seeking to create an image of Jews very different from the helpless, tortured victims in Europe. Now that new Jew had come to be. It was time to add nuance to the story that Israelis told about themselves and their people.

It was a painful process for the young state, but if anything, it made even clearer to a generation that had known little of the Holocaust how critical it was that the Jews have a state they could call their own.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!