This evening we will add special prayers and songs to our Shabbat Services in order to commemorate the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is officially observed on Sunday. It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies. But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy. Still it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar.
Fifty years ago Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial. David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large. To mark this anniversary and prepare for our Yom HaShoah observances I began reading Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, The Eichmann Trial as well as rereading Hannah Arendt’s controversial, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt provocatively claimed that evil appeared so ordinary and banal in Eichmann’s visage. Lipstadt expertly recreates the details of the trial in her gripping account. So many years later we still fail to recognize the significance of Eichmann’s trial and the historic shift it represented. It was pivotal in our understanding of the Holocaust and our formulation of modern Jewish identity. It was the day that survivors’ stories began to be told—and heard.
In 1961 Holocaust museums did not dot the landscape of American cities. Yad VaShem was only established in 1953 and Yom HaShoah declared that same year. The Eichmann trial brought the Holocaust to the world’s attention. The Nuremberg trials that immediately followed the end of World War II did not do the same. With the Eichmann trial the recent victims, now embodied in a fledgling state, tried their former tormentor. With this trial the memory of the Holocaust was forever tied to the State of Israel.
The prosecution paraded 100 Holocaust survivors before the judges in order to add human faces to the millions of victims and the crimes of the accused. Eichmann was one of the principal architects of the Nazi’s final solution. One of the most famous of these survivors was Abba Kovner, Israeli poet and leader of the Vilna ghetto’s resistance. While the intention of showcasing the testimony of survivors was noble and most certainly served to humanize the innumerable faceless victims, its long term effect may prove undermining to our future survival. The parade of survivors suggested that the modern State of Israel represents justice for the Holocaust.
We have been living with this unfortunate linkage ever since. We must stop perpetuating this myth. The modern Jewish state is not recompense for the suffering our people endured in the Holocaust. Israel is not about justice for the Holocaust. It is about an end to Jewish homelessness. It is about our return home. By contrast there can never be justice for the Holocaust.
Yes we must pursue Nazis and their sympathizers until they are no more. We must redouble our efforts to recover lost Jewish property. And we must always remember the Holocaust, but not as justification for the State of Israel. Instead we must remember so that we may forever prevent another holocaust. When others suffer we must speak out. We must bring the likes of Eichmann to trial not so much in the pursuit of justice but instead in the service of memory. Remembering can be ennobling and humanizing. Punishment for our tormentors: yes. Justice for the millions of victims: impossible. I believe there can never be justice for the six million. There can only be remembrance.
I have great faith in Israel’s judicial system. (I also witnessed its court overturn a guilty verdict against John Demjanjuk when it could not prove that he was in fact Treblinka’s Ivan the Terrible.) I believe Israel was right to capture and try Eichmann. It was the only place where Eichmann could be tried. Nonetheless the modern State of Israel must never be seen as justice for our suffering. There can never be adequate payment or recompense for suffering. Eichmann was found guilty, hanged and his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean Sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters, thus denying a grave for his followers to pilgrimage and a country to claim his memory. May his memory be erased by the ocean’s waves.
Abba Kovner wrote of his sister who was murdered during the Holocaust:
My sister, in her bridal veil, sits at the table
alone. From the shelter of the mourners
the voice of the bridegroom draws near.
without you we shall set the table
the ketubah will be written in stone.
May the memories of our murdered millions serve as a blessing, calling us to bring healing to our broken world. May Israel forever remain our home.
Addendum: If you would like to watch attorney general Gideon Hausner’s opening statements at the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, as well as some testimony by survivors, you may do so on YouTube:
Hausner proclaimed: “In this place, where I stand before you, judges of Israel, to serve as the prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone. With me, here, at this very moment, stand six million prosecutors.” I would also suggest that you visit Yad VaShem’s extraordinary website.