My Childhood Hero Witness for the Prosecution

The family of Neri Livneh all listened together to prosecutor Gideon Hausner's mesmeric speeches at the Eichmann trial in 1961. It was the first time she ever saw her father cry.

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

Around my seventh birthday, the infamous Adolf Eichmann - the architect of the Final Solution - was captured in a bold operation by Mossad agents in Argentina. A year later, right on my eighth birthday, the arch criminal's trial opened in Jerusalem and I heard on the radio for the first time the person who instantly became my childhood hero - prosecutor Gideon Hausner. Until I heard his high and sometimes cracking voice, my sonic heroes included Esther Kal, who presented the "Children's Corner" program; sportscaster Nehemia Ben-Avraham, who astounded me with his ability to talk even faster than my Aunt Herzela; Michael Ben Hanan, who always began his morning exercise program with "Good morning to all the listeners and, to all you exercisers - get ready" (which made me immediately shift from the fetal position in which I awoke to the "supine lying position" - a term he invented ); plus occasional listening to the hits of Helen Shapiro, who, according to the Davar Layeladim children's magazine, "wears lipstick even though she is only 13."

Like anyone born around the time that I was, the Holocaust was a daily thing in our lives. "It's from the camps," my parents would say, to explain any physical defect or peculiar behavior in anyone with whom we came into contact. And my father, who lost six siblings; six brothers- and sisters-in-law, his mother; 25 nieces and nephews and countless cousins, would call out in Yiddish in his sleep for his brothers and sisters. Which explains why, up until the moment I heard Gideon Hausner make his opening statement at the Eichmann trial in April 1961, my number one all-time hero was Lena Kichler-Zilberman, who wrote "My One Hundred Children" - a book I read every other week, alternating with "Havura Shekazot" ("Such a Gang" ) by Puchu.

Gideon Hausner captures the public’s attention at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.

My big brother would tell me about war criminals (names, ranks, jobs ) who were still at large. Joseph Mengele, he told me, was apparently hiding in the forests of "Little Switzerland," near the German guest house in the Carmel mountains; Hitler hadn't actually committed suicide and was really hiding in Nahariya, where there were lots of yekkes; while Eichmann's hiding place was somewhere near the big refineries in the Haifa Bay that we could see from the kitchen balcony. For my brother, no small Holocaust expert himself (what the grown-ups liked to call a "World War II aficionado" ), was well aware that before the Holocaust, Eichmann had come to this country and worked in the refineries.

So, my brother insisted we really ought to... no, we really must prepare cyanide pills for ourselves in case he should ever come near us. We were to hide the pill under the filling in one of our teeth and to swallow it the moment danger loomed. My brother even tried to figure out how to make such pills using his home chemistry set. But luckily, since there was no Internet in those days, moments before he would have successfully replaced the cyanide with his version of homemade arsenic (he was supposed to shoot an arrow dipped in this substance straight into the forehead of one of those war criminals while I, being too uncoordinated for such feats, was supposed to kill myself by jumping off the balcony ), Eichmann was captured.

Afraid of Eichmann

Because of the visible proximity, I was most afraid of Eichmann. All he had to do to catch me - the memorial candle for all those who perished, all those who went like sheep to the slaughter, as my mother said - was to walk up the mountain or catch a bus or a service taxi to Hehalutz Street and then get on the No.18 bus that would take him right in front of my building: Building No.2 in the municipal workers' housing project.

Therefore, I wasn't just happy and excited like everyone else, but I also sighed with relief when the papers and the news reports on the radio started describing how that enemy of the Jews, may his name be obliterated, was captured by the bold and clever Mossad agents. Like everyone else, I was disgusted by his lipless face, a face that I came to see as the embodiment of evil. Day after day I would sit with my girlfriends and plan what we would do to Eichmann after - with efforts just as bold as those of the Mossad agents - we managed to break into the prison where he was being held.

And then, after all those days plotting our revenge, I heard the voice of Gideon Hausner. On that day, my father took time off work and got all dressed up when the four of us (my mother was on Passover vacation from the school where she taught ) sat down by the black-and-yellow radio console that stood on a special table in the middle of the illuminated hallway.

"I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger toward him who sits in the dock and cry: 'I accuse.' For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore I will be their spokesman and in their name I will unfold the awesome indictment."

Never had the hall in our home been as silent as it was in those moments when Hausner's voice filled the entire apartment. My father - to this day I never understood why - got up at the end of the first sentence and stood tautly at attention until the end of Hausner's speech, in which he spoke about the suffering and agony, the various pharaohs who sought to destroy the Jews ever since the time of Pharaoh, about how since the time of Adam and Eve, when Cain killed Abel, the human race has known of individual acts of murder, "yet never, down the entire blood-stained road traveled by this people, never since the first days of its nationhood, has any man arisen who succeeded in dealing it such grievous blows as did Hitler's iniquitous regime, and Adolf Eichmann as its executive arm for the extermination of the Jewish people.

"In all human history," Hausner continued, "there is no other example of a man against whom it would be possible to draw up such a bill of indictment as has been read here." I remember asking my mother what he meant by a certain phrase but she shushed me and pointed toward my father, still standing mute but with his head bent and tears dripping onto his shoes. It was the first time in my life I ever saw my father cry.

Hausner continued talking for a long time and when he finished, amid the silence that followed his speech, the sounds of weeping could be heard in the audience. From that moment on, the Eichmann trial became the formative event of my childhood, and Gideon Hausner, then the attorney general, became the symbol of the triumph of the good and the just over evil and treachery. I learned not long ago that many people of my generation remember listening to the Eichmann trial every day, even though the live broadcasts from the courtroom only occurred three times - so powerful was the influence of the hair-raising testimony that Hausner prompted the witnesses to give, the people who fainted, the little girl in the red dress who disappeared without a trace. And I also remember my father sitting there each afternoon, listening to the broadcasts and afterward going into the bedroom, and then from behind the closed door came the sounds of choked sobs that underwent a transformation to a loud clearing of the throat.

For my ninth birthday, I requested and received from my uncle, a well known lawyer, a new copy of "My One Hundred Children," signed by none other than Gideon Hausner, my childhood hero. "With friendship," said the inscription.

Neri Livneh is a columnist for Haaretz



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