Text size

The Eichmann affair began on May 23, 1960, when prime minister David Ben-Gurion informed the stunned Knesset of the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. The Nazi war criminal's trial began on April 11 the following year, at the Jerusalem District Court in Beit Ha'am, headed by Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau. After about eight months, on December 15, 1961, the court condemned Eichmann to death for "crimes against the Jewish people, the crimes against humanity and the war crimes of which he was convicted."

The death sentence was not a surprise: From the moment the affair broke, the public and the media, and especially the evening newspapers, had determined that Eichmann was "to die." The daily Maariv stated that "there is one judgment for those who commit genocide: death" (May 24, 1960). Even then, before the start of the trial, it was obvious to everyone that Eichmann would receive the death sentence, even though, officially, he had only been accused and not yet convicted.

Immediately after the sentencing, Eichmann and his attorney, German lawyer Dr. Robert Servatius, appealed to the Supreme Court. Its deliberations began in March 1962, with a bench of the court's five most senior justices, headed by Supreme Court president Yitzhak Olshan. However, as expected, on May 29, 1962 the appeal was rejected. The Supreme Court justices said they "decided to dismiss the appeal, both as to the conviction and the sentence, and to affirm the judgment and the sentence of the District Court."

On that same day Eichmann hastened to submit a plea for clemency to Israel's president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. In his request, he wrote that he loathed the horrors that were committed against Jews as the greatest of crimes, and saw it as just that "those who are responsible be tried," but added that it is necessary to distinguish between "acts of state" and taking orders from superiors, and the actions of "a mere tool like myself." Therefore, because Eichmann claimed that he did not see himself as a leader or as being responsible, he requested that the president grant him clemency and cancel the death sentence.

Parallel to Eichmann's request, a group of prominent figures submitted a request for clemency of its own. Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergmann, Akiva Ernst Simon and Leah Goldberg had already organized during the trial and had won a certain amount of support from the media. In their letter to the president, the intellectuals wrote: "We do not want the enemy to lead us to bring forth from among us a hangman, and if we do so, this will constitute a victory for the enemy and we do not want this victory of his."

The president's bureau passed the clemency request on to the Justice Ministry. Gideon Hausner, the attorney general who had been the prosecutor in the trial, thought that the question of clemency should be brought before the highest instance in the state: the government of Israel. In his book "Justice in Jerusalem," Hausner wrote: "I was aware of the historical implications of the ending of the trial and suggested to the prime minister and the new justice minister (Dov Yosef, who had taken up the position about half a year earlier) that the government should be convened and a discussion of the issue be held. The government is entitled to discuss the recommendation that will be given by the justice minister to the president of the country with respect to clemency."

The government held a special meeting that same afternoon, at 3 P.M., convening not in its usual venue, the Prime Minister's Office, but rather in the Knesset (then in the Froumine Building, in downtown Jerusalem), in order to prevent it from being publicized. A number of historians have written briefly about this meeting, among them Tom Segev and Hannah Yablonka, but without having seen the transcript of the proceedings, which is in the State Archive, and which until now was classified. One person who did read it is Avraham Burg, who apparently found it among the papers of his late father, Yosef Burg, who was a member of the government at the time.

In his new book, "Defeating Hitler," the younger Burg relates to the transcript briefly, apparently without knowing that it was classified. This fact prompted State Archivist Dr. Yehoshua Freundlich to decide to declassify it and to afford me the possibility of reading it - something I had been looking forward to for years.

Buber's concerns

The meeting was opened by David Ben- Gurion. His remarks were brief. He told the ministers two things regarding the issue without presenting his own opinion, even though the press had reported that he supported the death sentence (Yedioth Ahronoth, March 13, 1962). The first thing he related concerned his conversation with Martin Buber, which had taken place at the latter's lovely home in Talbieh about three months earlier. Buber, said the prime minister, "thinks that executing Eichmann will engender a new 'legend' of an anti-Christ for generations, perhaps not this year and not in two years, but the legend will be created and there will be troubles for the Jewish people."

The second thing was a letter from Walter Kaufmann, whom he defined as "an important man, a professor from Princeton [University]. A Jew. I think he is of German origin." In his letter Kaufmann had suggested announcing that no punishment is too great for Eichmann - but because we are not bloodthirsty, to let him go. This, said Kaufmann, would demonstrate the Jewish genius in Israel. Ben-Gurion concluded his remarks with a brief sentence: "I have seen fit to tell you about these two [things]."

The second speaker was Gideon Hausner. His aim was to convince the ministers of the justice of the punishment. He stressed two issues. One was that the Israeli legislator had determined that there was no obligation to impose the maximal punishment - namely, death - on Eichmann, but nevertheless both the District Court and the Supreme Court sentenced him to the most severe punishment because of his "psychological attitude toward the work that was delegated to him."

To reinforce his remarks Hausner quoted from the ruling on the appeal, which had been published that same day: "It has been proved with unchallengeable certainty that he took his place not only among those who were active in the implementation of the [Final Solution for the] Jews of Europe, but also among those who activated others in this task ... The appellant never showed repentance or weakness or any weakening of strength or any weakening of will in the performance of the task which he undertook. He was 'the right man in the right place.'"

The second issue was that if Eichmann had been tried at Nuremberg, his punishment would have been the death sentence. To support this argument, Hausner related to Julius Streicher, who had edited the poisonous Nazi journal Der Stuermer. His main sin, according to the Nuremberg court, was "propaganda, hatred and anti-Semitic propaganda and not a single action, but nevertheless they sentenced him to death and executed him."

After these opening remarks, Ben-Gurion began the discussion phase with the question: "Is there anyone among the members of the government who believes that it is necessary to advise the president in the matter of clemency, reduction in punishment, life imprisonment or anything else?" The ministers were opposed to clemency. The first speaker was justice minister Dr. Dov Yosef. His remarks supported the comments of the attorney general, even though there was a great deal of tension between the two men, something that led to Hausner's resignation several months later. Yosef asked why the question was being raised at all - after all, among the nations of the world, they execute people without discussion. In this context he spoke about the Nuremberg trials: "At Nuremberg there were 77 judgments, if I am not mistaken, that were carried out, and people were executed. Nobody said a word, countries large or small, but all of a sudden when the Jewish people comes to do the same thing, this is illegitimate. In my opinion this is untenable. We have a law and we have to carry out the sentence."

Yosef then related to the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who had been executed in New York in 1953 for spying for the Soviet Union: "Do I need to mention the endless applications to [president Dwight D.] Eisenhower in the matter of the Rosenbergs? I am not saying whether Eisenhower was right or not ... [but] there have also been cases in England and in all the other countries for the murder of a single person and they received the death sentence."

Foreign minister Golda Meir's remarks were quite similar to Yosef's: "There has been a trial, there has been a ruling in accordance with the law of the State of Israel - this has been done by all nations. This has been done by the Poles with Rudolf Hoess [the commandant of Auschwitz 1940-43, who was hanged in 1947], this has been done by the Czechs with Dieter Wisliceny [an aide of Eichmann's, who was hanged in Bratislava in 1948] ... the Norwegians with [Vidkun] Quisling; nobody said to them that they have to show some sort of supreme sensitivity. This is only being demanded of us, because the world has not yet become accustomed to seeing the Jewish people acting like all other nations."

Yosef Almogi, who was a minister without portfolio and had been imprisoned for four years in a German prison camp, was also opposed to clemency: "We are facing a symbol here. It is true that the punishment isn't enough, but there is no other, harsher punishment."

The person who broke with the consensus was finance minister Levi Eshkol. He asked whether it might be possible for the punishment to be reduced and for this to be announced together with an explanation for the move. The prime minister's answer was: "It is possible." The finance minister's response was: "I would lean toward that." Then Eshkol explained his fraught position: "From the moment I caught myself saying to myself, If it were possible that after the trial he would go around with a mark of Cain on his forehead and people related to him like they would to Cain - I thought that this would be much more than the five minutes of the carrying out of the ruling."

The only cabinet member who agreed with Eshkol was welfare minister Dr. Yosef Burg. He argued that "the State of Israel has said what it said in the trial and it can allow itself to let the murderer die every day anew. I can't bring up the concept of a reprieve in the context. If, formally, this has to be called reprieve ... but if there is a possibility of 'pending,' so that the sentence would be hanging in front of his eyes every day ..." A number of the participants responded to the welfare minister's remarks. One of them was minister of labor Yigal Allon, who said: "I regret that Eichmann is continuing to torture us even now and is forcing us to carry out a death sentence, but there is no getting around it, this is someone who has committed genocide. The punishment has to be clear and decisive."

No 'holy tomb'

The prime minister brought up an additional issue: the question of Eichmann's body. What should be done with it? Ben-Gurion's position was decisive: "We don't need for the place where [Eichmann] is buried to become a holy site and we shouldn't give the body to the family." Dov Yosef suggested dealing with the body "like at Nuremberg - they incinerated the bodies and scattered the ashes." Ben-Gurion, who was afraid of a "holy tomb" reaction, was sharp: "This is what I wanted, that not a trace of him will remain."

The attorney general reported to the ministers on a change in the Mandatory ordinance that dealt with this issue: Instead of handing the body over to the family, "We determine that the body will be dealt with in a way that the commissioner of prisons orders." Allon, who feared that giving the body to the family would bring about "the addition of another holy tomb," suggested burning the body "and scattering the ashes at sea beyond the territorial waters of Israel."

At the summation of the discussion Ben-Gurion made a formal proposal to the effect that Eichmann's plea for clemency would be rejected, and supporting the immediate organization of the process of hanging, "to delegate to the minister of police to ordain, at the behest of the government, Amendment 302 to the Prison Ordinances of 1925." Eleven ministers supported the proposal and two ministers supported Eshkol's position: Eshkol himself and Yosef Burg.

At the end of the tense discussion Ben-Gurion suggested holding a re-vote, in order to create a sense of consensus with respect to the final chord struck during the trial. This time all the ministers supported the proposal unanimously - "not to recommend to the president of the country to grant clemency to Adolf Eichmann." That same day the president rejected the plea for clemency. On the request itself he wrote what was written about Amalek in 1 Samuel 15:33: "As thy sword made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women."

Two days later, on May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann was hanged at Ramle Prison. His body was burned and the ashes were scattered in the waters of the Mediterranean, beyond the territorial boundary of Israel.