Hell Is Something Else'

Poet Haim Gouri's coverage of the Eichmann trial, now reissued 40 years later, offers readers a rare glimpse of the tragedy and triumph of those days

Yechiam Weitz
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Yechiam Weitz

"Mul Ta Hazekhukhit: Mishpat Eichmann Be'Yerushalayim" ("Facing the Glass Cage: The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem") by Haim Gouri, Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 286 pages, NIS 69. (An English edition will soon be published by Wayne State University Press.)

On Sunday, April 11, 1961, at the newly refurbished Beit Ha'am auditorium in Jerusalem, Adolf Otto Eichmann was brought to trial. To mark the 40th anniversary of that trial, Israel has held a hyped-up "Eichmann Festival," replete with colloquiums, the publication of a new book by Hanna Jablonka, a festive Knesset session and a cocktail party thrown by the Knesset speaker. Only one "minor" detail has been overlooked: the reprinting of one of the most important and moving documents ever published about the Eichmann trial: Haim Gouri's book "Facing the Glass Cage."

The Eichmann trial marked a critical milestone in the painful history of the Israeli attitude toward the Holocaust, victims and survivors alike. On a blistering hot day, May 23, 1960, when David Ben-Gurion announced to the Knesset and the Israeli public that Adolf Eichmann was "already in custody and would soon stand trial in Israel," the hearts of all Israelis skipped a beat. In his weekly column in Davar, the poet Natan Alterman described the great surge of emotion that accompanied this announcement. He writes of a woman walking down the street in the late afternoon, as the news of Eichmann's capture reaches the public. She sees small clusters of people, their faces buried in newspapers hot off the evening press. She wonders what is going on. Has a war broken out? Catching a glimpse of the giant headlines on the kidnapping of Eichmann, the woman "stops short, reels and collapses in a faint."

Reading Gouri's book, one feels the rustle of history at one's fingertips. Gouri was sent by Lamerhav, the newspaper of Ahdut Ha'avoda, to cover the Eichmann trial. His observations were published in the paper every day, and in 1962, they were collected and published in book form. The choice of Gouri as the trial correspondent was a very natural one. Gouri was a well-known and respected poet in those days, but more than that, he was known among the writers of his generation for his special empathy for the Jews of Europe who had perished in the Holocaust.

In 1947, when Gouri was 24, he was sent to Hungary. It was a mission that seared his soul like fire. Without exaggerating, this brief sojourn among Holocaust survivors in war-torn Budapest changed Gouri's life. In a book he published last year, "Ad Alot Hashahar" ("Until the Breaking of the Day") he describes the tremendous gap - virtual light years - between himself, a pampered young man from the "new Hebrew city," whose parents had come to Palestine on the mythological S.S. Ruslan, and who were survivors in the DP camps. He writes about a trip to the "wounded, snow-covered city of Vienna," with a young woman "who refused to tell me what she had undergone in that camp where they tattooed her arm, insisting that `those who were not there will not understand.'" When Gouri used the word "hell" to describe the severe overcrowding at the Jewish hospital where he was working at the time, she gave him an odd smile. "If I am not mistaken," she said, "you are a poet. A poet should choose his words carefully. Hell is something else." In one lightening stroke, Gouri grasped the magnitude of the chasm between them. "Learned something, you coddled boy from Tel Aviv?" he chided himself.

In the introduction to this new edition of "Facing the Glass Cage," 40 years after its first printing, Gouri wrote about his year in Europe and the connection between this year and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem: "I was not in Europe during the destruction. As a member of the Palmach, I was sent to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria after the Holocaust, and there I met my unknown brother, the survivor. It was an encounter that changed my life. I lived among these people for a year, and little by little I began to understand. Many of these Jews kept their stories to themselves. Some felt that those who lived outside the circle of destruction were deaf to what had happened. But it was not only our supposed deafness that determined the borders. It was also the muteness of the survivors. The Eichmann trial enabled them to tell their story in full, to declaim portions from their personal scroll of suffering."

"Facing the Glass Cage" is a collection of articles penned by Gouri during the trial, from the first session, at which Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau read out the indictment, to the last session, when the court sentenced the accused to death. It was a trial punctuated with exciting, even breathtaking, moments, but Gouri manages to convey to his readers both the heavy, stifling atmosphere in the courtroom and the sense of elation.

On the first day of the trial, after hearing Justice Landau read out the charge sheet, Gouri tries to capture the drama of the day, beyond the "long, grueling court procedures." Down in the basement where a press room has been set up, Gouri watches "the news industry working at a frenzied pace: Hundreds of reporters clicking away at their typewriters and talking on the phone, the tables littered with dozens of beer bottles, some full, some empty, and the oppressiveness of the Jerusalem sharav [heat wave] bearing down, mixed with the smoke of every brand of cigarette and tobacco." It was here, in this bustling and sweaty hall, that Gouri sensed something of the greatness of the hour.

Several days later, Gideon Hausner, Israel's attorney general, delivered his first speech for the prosecution. Until today, his opening remarks are considered the "motto" of the trial: "Judges of Israel, as I stand before you today to prosecute Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone. With me, at this very hour, stand six million prosecutors." These words have long been part of the Israeli canon.

Now we know that Gideon Hausner used this trial to boost his own reputation, and we know about the drama that went on backstage. Tom Segev reveals the details in his book "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust." Every word of that opening speech was approved by the highest authority in the land: David Ben-Gurion. When the attorney general finished working on it, he sent it to the prime minister. "An unusual procedure," Segev gently remarks. Hannah Arendt was not far from the truth when she cynically observed that Ben-Gurion, without attending any of the sessions, directed the trial behind the scenes. "In the courtroom, he spoke from the throat of Gideon Hausner" ("Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil").

We know all this, and yet Gouri's words penetrate to the quick. Even today, they evoke the sense of catharsis that permeated the courtroom back then. "I know now that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. I am inscribing the date in my notepad: April 17, 1961," Gouri begins. "Never has a man born of woman said to another man born of woman the things that Gideon Hausner said today to Adolf Eichmann," he continues. Gouri approaches this speech as a kind of religious act, or miracle. "A wondrous thing has happened in Jerusalem, something I was almost sure would never be," he writes.

Gouri reports on the testimony of dozens of witnesses, but three stand out in my mind. One is the testimony of Joel Brand, "the strangest emissary in the history of emissaries." If this man were a Christian, writes Gouri, "he would have been hailed St. Brand." But Joel Brand was neither a saint nor a martyr. He was a Hungarian Jew, "a broken man, whose hands trembled as he lit a cigarette," a man who had accepted a cruel and hideous offer from the devil, now sitting in the glass booth: "10,000 trucks for 1,000,000 Jews." This despicable bargain "ruined my life," the witness moaned in anguish. "On my shoulders I carried a million people who were murdered by him anyway. On the other hand, I - we - had to do it, even if it was grasping at a straw."

The second report concerns the testimony of Yehiel Dinur, known to the public by his pen-name, K. Zetnik. Dinur was to be the first witness for the prosecution in a "long, melancholy line" of witnesses from the "planet of ashes," Auschwitz-Birkenau. After coining the terrible phrase "another planet," Dinur fainted, bringing his testimony to an abrupt end. Of the 114 witnesses who took the stand, his testimony was the shortest, but quite possibly the most important - although such matters are hard to measure.

Gouri tries to make some sense of the drama unfolding in the courtroom, hinting at the doubts in his own mind about the prosecutor's decision to call on K. Zetnik. He says he heard Hausner mutter under his breath "I didn't expect this," whereas he, Gouri, expected just that. He goes on to ponder the prosecutor's motives, and what led to the witness's collapse. "Why did they bring him to the witness stand?" wonders Gouri. Did the prosecution think that "this man could perform the miracle of familiarizing us with that planet he had come from, a one-time miracle achieved though words and sentences uttered in language comprehensible to man?"

Next, Gouri touches on the mysterious swoon of the star witness from that remote planet. He points a hidden accusing finger at the prosecution: "What happened here was inevitable. [K. Zetnik's] desperate attempt to leave the courtroom and return to the planet of ashes so that he could bring it back to us, was too much for him. He broke down."

The third report sheds light on the testimony of the living myths: poet and partisan Abba Kovner, a member of the Jewish underground in Vilna, and the Warsaw ghetto heroes Zivia Lubetkin and Antek (Itzhak Cukierman). Gouri had looked forward to their testimony from the first day of the trial. "Their appearance is what we were waiting for," he writes. Indeed, one feels the great rush of admiration that wells up in him as he describes Lubetkin's account of "a battle unlike anything in the annals of history," and "the war of the most miserable rebels the world has ever known since the rise of the first rebel."

Yet with all his admiration, Gouri's attitude toward rebels and uprisings contains a certain duality. In one sentence, he portrays uprisings as the polar opposite of "shame," and in the next, he claims that the victims - not only of the Nazis in Europe but in all danger zones - were not ashamed of their victimhood. "Were earthquake victims in Agadir or Chile ashamed at being caught in a landslide or a river that suddenly changed its course?" asks Gouri.

Gouri takes his empathy for the victims of the Holocaust a step further. The Jews, he says, were not only ones who went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. The same holds true for "millions of others in occupied Europe who found themselves caught in the gears: the Poles, the Russian prisoners ... and all the others in vanquished Europe whose names were on the death list."

This sense of empathy comes across in Gouri's report on the testimony of Judge Moshe Beisky, who was a prisoner in Plascow, a labor camp outside Krakow. To the attorney general's tactless question "Why didn't you revolt?" the witness replies that 18 years later, it is impossible to describe the terror and fear of death that gripped the inmates of the camp. "A machine gun is trained on you. You watch a young boy being hung. You lose your ability to respond," he explains in short, deceptively matter-of-fact sentences. Gouri, born in Tel Aviv, abutting the golden sands of the Mediterranean, has never felt this paralyzing fear. Yet we sense the tremendous awe he feels for the witness and his impossible situation, even in low-key passages like this: "Sometimes his voice was weak and inaudible, but all of a sudden he would raise it, as if seeking to justify himself, to explain to the judges, to his fellow Jews, to the whole world."

Gouri's attitude toward the millions of Holocaust victims says something not only about him personally, but about the shift that took place in the minds of Israelis as a result of this trial. Those who perished were no longer "sheep" or "heroes." They were ordinary people "who did the best they could to preserve their human dignity in the face of one of the most, if not the most, horrendous chapters in the history of mankind" (Baruch Hoffman, "Hazara," Shdemot, Spring 1976).

"Facing the Glass Cage" is a canonical work. It is also proof that the importance of the trial held at Beit Ha'am in the spring and summer of 1961 cannot be overestimated.

Yechiam Weitz is the author of "From Etzel to Herut," published by Ben-Gurion Books.