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Film Study

The Eichmann Trial opened in Jerusalem 50 years ago today. Here are the six most significant moments captured in trial films archived at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Deborah E. Lipstadt
April 11, 2011
Adolf Eichmann.(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Adolf Eichmann.(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The trial of Adolf Eichmann was filled with memorable moments. Testimony by survivors painted a vivid picture of what Jews experienced during the Holocaust. Eichmann’s feisty response to Attorney General Gideon Hausner’s questions showed a side of the man who was greatly responsible for the murder of over a million Jews. The following clips, from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., are a small selection of the more memorable moments of this important trial. Click on the links below to view the videos.

Many Israelis, including those born well after the Eichmann trial, can recite Hausner’s opening paragraph by heart. In a few sentences it encapsulated how the young nation conceived of this trial. Here was yet another tyrant—in a long succession of tyrants—who was once again trying to destroy the Jewish people. This time, however, the Jewish people, acting through the agency of the State of Israel, could bring him to account for his evil deeds.

Though much of the testimony concerned the fate of masses of people, sometimes it was an individual’s story that entered one’s heart. George Wellers described the French children who were rounded up in July 1942, separated from their parents, and held at Drancy. He recalled one young boy whom he knew was destined for Auschwitz but whom he tried to reassure.

The murder of Hungarian Jews came late in the war even as the Allies were landing in Normandy, Rome was liberated, and the Soviets were pushing eastward. Close to a half million Jews were murdered in the space of seven weeks. This action gave Auschwitz its reputation as the epitome of the world’s killing field. Here a Hungarian Jew, Martin Foldi, described arriving at Auschwitz and watching his wife and children move further away from him toward what he ultimately learned were the gas chambers. He was able to see them because his little girl wore a red coat. Many years later Steven Spielberg would reprise that little girl and her coat in his film Schindler’s List.

Moshe Beisky was a respected magistrate in Tel Aviv. He had passed up opportunities to escape from the camp in which he was being held because he knew the other people in the barracks would be killed as a warning to others who might contemplate escaping. When he entered the witness box he declined the judge’s offer to sit. He spoke for a while describing his experiences during the war. Then Hausner, with no warning, asked him why he did not fight back. Why, when a massive number of Jews were surrounded by only a few hundred SS men, did they not escape? Beisky, taken aback, sat down and gave one of the most honest and plaintive descriptions of what Jewish inmates faced.

Many Israelis anticipated that the testimony of the resistance fighters would provide the one moment of uplift in the trial. Here, after all, were those who had fought back against their murderers. These were the heroes. Yet in their testimony both Aba Kovner and Zvia Lubetkin-Zuckerman cautioned against asking why people did not fight back. Fighting back, Lubetkin noted, came in many forms including continuing to educate children when the Germans outlawed it. Kovner observed that resistance is only possible when there is someone to coordinate it and organize it. The Jews had no one to do that. Don’t, he cautioned, blame the victims.

Pastor Heinrich Grüber was the only non-Jewish German to testify at the trial. He had met with Eichmann many times during the war to negotiate on behalf of Jewish converts in his congregation. He found Eichmann to be like a “block of marble.” At the end of his testimony, paraphrasing the words of the Hebrew Prophets, he expressed the hope that the Germans’ sin would be forgiven by a forgiving people. People in the courtroom wept. Israelis showered him with cards and letters. Many believed his words marked the beginning of the process of “redemption.”

Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press’ The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her Twitter feed is @deborahlipstadt.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press’ The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her Twitter feed is @deborahlipstadt.

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