Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Who Helped Convict Eichmann, Dies at 94

Gabriel Bach fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1938, first to Amsterdam and then to Palestine in 1940. He would later serve as a member of the legal team that prosecuted Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Former Israeli Supreme Court justice Gabriel Bach, 2017.
Former Israeli Supreme Court justice Gabriel Bach, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Former Israeli Supreme Court justice and member of the team that prosecuted Adolf Eichmann, Gabriel Bach, died on Friday at the age of 94.

Bach, who also served state prosecutor and deputy attorney general, was born in Germany in 1927 as Gert Gabriel Bach, and grew up in Berlin under Nazi rule.

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In October 1938, just a month before Kristallnacht, the family left Germany and moved to Amsterdam. In 1940, two months before the German invasion of the Netherlands, Bach made Aliyah with his family to Palestine. He celebrated his bar mitzva on the ship.

Bach's family moved to Jerusalem where he later joined the pre-state Haganah defense force at the age of 16. He later went to London to study at University College London, and began his public legal career when he returned to Israel.

His career lasted for 46 years: 31 years in the Military Advocate General’s Corps and in the State Prosecutor’s Office – 13 of which as State Prosecutor – and 15 years as a Supreme Court justice.

In 1953, Bach began working in the State Prosecutor’s Office. Two large cases that he was involved in connected Bach to his past as a young man who fled Nazi Germany. The first was the Kasztner libel trial, surrounding Rudolf Kasztner, a lawyer, journalist and civil servant who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis in his native Hungary during the Holocaust.

The Tel Aviv District Court determined that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil” when he cooperated with the Nazis in an attempt to save Jews – and indirectly contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Kasztner's connections with the Nazis made it possible for him to save 1,684 Jews.

Bach was asked to prepare the government’s appeal of the verdict against Kasztner, who was a civil servant. “I had a bad feeling about the tragedy and injustice done to him. I tried to put myself into Kasztner's situation, Bach said later. “Kasztner acted under conditions of terrible and unbearable tension, so to make such accusations – in my opinion there was no justification for it. To accuse him of treason, when it was clear that his goal was to save the maximum number of Jews from death, seemed to me to be unfair.”

In 1958, the Supreme Court accepted the appeal Bach submitted, and cleared Kasztner – but the historic disagreement over his image, between traitor and savior, continues to this day. Kasztner never heard the final ruling because he was murdered a few months before the Supreme Court’s ruling on the appeal was handed down.

The second case that revived memories of the Nazi regime was probably the most important, significant and central case in his life: The trial of Adolph Eichmann. Bach later described it as the height of his professional career. After Eichmann was abducted and brought to justice in Israel, Bach was appointed the legal adviser to “Bureau 06” – the special unit in the police in charge of the investigation of Eichmann.

As part of his job, Bach was responsible – along with attorney general Gideon Hauser and Yaacov Bar Or – for preparing and conducting the prosecution of the Nazi war criminal, which ended in Eichmann’s conviction and execution by Israel.

Gabriel Bach in the center at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, 1961.Credit: Fritz Cohen

When Bach met Eichmann for the first time, he felt shuddered: “When he, the prisoner, was led to my room, I saw myself for a moment as a child with my family in Germany, there on the platform, and a chilling thought passed through my mind – how easily it could have been a trap. It was not easy to keep my face neutral at that moment, a poker face,” Bach wrote in his memoirs “Attorney, Judge and Gentleman.”

“Until that time, we had no precedent whatsoever, how to conduct a trial of such a size,” he later said. First, they began collecting the “maximum amount of information on what happened in the Holocaust,” he said. Along with background material from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, Bach received files from Germany and other countries in Europe too, including files from the Gestapo. In the end, Bach was presented with thousands of documents, out of which he chose about 1,500 that seemed to him to be important in principle to the trial.

Later, Bach asked to search for witnesses among Holocaust survivors. At first, he ran into difficulties because many survivors refused to speak about it. “I invited some of the survivors to meet with me, and I told them that it was an obligation to history, to justice, to the Jewish people – to tell what they remembered about the horrible things that happened during the Holocaust.” he said.

The preparation of materials for the prosecution was very difficult work, emotionally. “Shocking and traumatic experiences every day, when we read those documents,” said Bach, who was 33 at the time. “I won’t forget the first moment of the trial, when the judges entered the courtroom with the symbol of the state behind them, and this man, whose entire desire was to destroy our people and exterminate it, stood before the court of the sovereign Jewish state. The importance of the establishment of the State of Israel was suddenly clear to me more than ever,” said Bach.

During the trial, when Eichmann claimed that he regretted his actions and that the Holocaust was "the most serious crime in the history of mankind," Bach did not believe him. "There was no truth in his words of remorse", he later said.

After Eichmann was sentenced to death, the prosecution received letters from all over the world, which included threats of retaliation and kidnapping of Jews if he was executed. Still, Bach recommended against delaying his sentence.

In 1969, Bach was appointed State Attorney. As part of his work in the State Attorney's Office, he worked on many famous cases, among them espionage cases and security offenses that made headlines. He represented the state after the Six Day War in 1967 in cases concerning the expropriation of private land in newly occupied territories.

In 1982, Bach was appointed a judge at Israel's Supreme Court. One of his most important contributions to Israeli law was his ruling in the Nevo case, in which gender-based discrimination in age of retirement was abolished. The ruling later become the foundation of the courts' views on equality.

"Discrimination is a scourge which creates a sense of deprivation and frustration. It impairs any sense of belonging or one's motivation to participate in and contribute to society. A society in which discrimination is practiced cannot be called a proper state," Bach wrote.

Another one of Bach's famous decisions, which went down in history books, was delivered in 1984, when he served as chairman of the Knesset Election Committee and rejected Meir Kahana's party because it advocated racism. The court reversed his decision, and Kahana was permitted to run, ultimately elected to the Knesset. By the next election, the law was changed and Kahana was banned from running for parliament.

Speaking on his tenure as Supreme Court Justice, former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch later concluded: "When a label can be attached to a judge, by way of studying his judgements and searching for a thread across them, it is possible to label Bach as a liberal judge, who gives great weight in his ruling to human rights, to the importance of fairness in the legal process and to human dignity. An attentive judge both to the parties before him and to the interest of the public, he gives weight to the arguments raised before him and does not take things for granted without serious examination."

Bach, a resident of Jerusalem, leaves behind his wife Ruthie, children and grandchildren.

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