By Rolene Marks
“Not a day goes past that I don’t think about the Eichmann trial”. Judge Gabriel Bach greets us warmly as he welcomes us to his apartment in a leafy suburb of Jerusalem. His living room bears testament to an extraordinary life and career. Dotted with family pictures and impressive volumes of books, the eye is drawn immediately to a collection of books entitled “The Eichmann Trial”.
It is this moment when you are aware that the gentle, charming man who has welcomed you with a twinkle in his wise eyes is one of the men who sought justice for the millions. He is the mensch who put the monster, Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for sending millions of Jews to their deaths. I do confess to being more than a little star-struck. It is men like this, the quiet giants and their pursuit of justice and truth that hold a nation on their mighty shoulders.
Monsters are usually the stuff of fairytale lore but this one was real. The world was riveted when news broke that Eichmann was captured.
Hiding out in Argentina as Ricardo Clement, the devil was now in custody, thanks to a stealth and decisive operation by Israel’s Mossad. All that remained was justice.
Born in Germany, the Bach family managed to flee to Holland just two weeks before Kristallnacht (Night of broken Glass) which would result in the destruction of many synagogues and businesses and the rounding up of Jews, many who would be sent to camps like Dachau. The Bach family managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazi machine, leaving Holland just before the German occupation and sailed to British Mandate Palestine on the “Patria” which would sink on its next journey. It was here, before there was a State of Israel and safe haven for Jews, where Bach, young lawyer in the state’s attorney’s office with an exemplary record and a bright future was one of those chosen to join the team of prosecutors. He would also be tapped to be in charge of the investigation.
It was time to gather the evidence for the trial that would begin on the 11th of April 1961.
The team of prosecutors would have to wade through volumes of documents and evidence. Married with a small daughter, Bach would spend 9 months immersed in investigations and communication with Eichmann without meeting him face to face, that included ensuring that he was aware of his rights to a defense attorney of his choice. The time came to meet the devil face to face.
Judge Bach describes his first encounter with evil. “I will never forget it. I was sitting in my office in the prison, reading the autobiography of Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz who was eventually hanged in Poland, describe how they had many days when they killed a thousand Jewish children per day and he mentions how the children would kneel and beg to be spared and when he and his colleagues were pushing the children into the gas chambers his knees would hurt and he felt ashamed of this “weakness” but remembered how Eichmann had reiterated that it was the children who had to be killed first lest they grow to be a generation that would grow up to take revenge. And then 10 minutes after I read that, there was a request from Eichmann to see me. It wasn’t so easy to keep a poker face with him sitting opposite me.”
How does one even imagine what it was like to have to sit opposite such a monster?
Bach describes having to handle this like any other criminal case. Emotional moments would come later – and without warning.
The German government was most cooperative in ensuring that Bach and his team received documents from all the ministries. The evidence was irrefutable. It was time for the trial to commence.
The Eichmann trial was a game-changer in many respects. The first to be televised, the trial would allow millions around the world to enter the courtroom. The trial would also be the first opportunity that would allow survivors and witnesses to give emotional testimony. For many young Israelis who could not understand why the Jews of Europe seemed not to defend themselves, they now understood the severity, the genocide, the cruelty and the devious tactics of the Nazi killing machine that ended the lives of six million. There are accounts of Eichmann telling deportees on their way to the death camps to write postcards to their remaining loved ones and friends, not only telling them of the wonderful place they were going to, but also encouraging them to follow.
Eichmann sat behind the glass, in the dock, completely impassive. Eichmann showed no remorse and no regret.
His defense? He was just following orders. This would prove untrue when on several occasions evidence would come to light and on more than one occasion when asked to spare the life of a Jew, Eichmann would refuse absolutely.
As the trial progressed, so did day after day of emotional, harrowing testimony from survivors who gave heartbreaking account of the loss of their families and the excruciating cruelty they endured at the hands of the Nazis under the commands of Eichmann.
Most of us who have watched Schindler’s List can remember the searing image of the little girl in the red coat going to the gas chambers and her lifeless body on a pile of corpses.
A red coat would later affect prosecutor Bach’s composure! One day when hearing testimony from a survivor who during the selection process was spared for labour while his wife and daughter were sent to the gas chamber for immediate extermination. The SS were unsure of what to do with his son but eventually told him to join his mother and sister. The witness was concerned his son would not find them but saw the image of his little daughter in her red coat, no more than two-and-a-half, disappearing, never to be seen again.
Bach had just bought his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter a brand new red coat. His impeccable composure was shaken to the core.
The trial would proceed until the eventual verdict. On December 13, 1961 the court found Eichmann guilty on most articles of the indictment, and on the 15th of that same month, sentenced him to death. The defense appealed to the Supreme Court which on May 29, 1962, ratified the verdict of the lower court. Eichmann and his team appealed to the President, Yitzchak ben Zvi for clemency but were denied and during the night between May 31, and June 1, 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging at Ramla Prison. In his final moments, Eichmann expressed his unwavering love and loyalty to Germany and Argentina. After his body was incinerated, his ashes were scattered at sea outside Israeli territorial waters.
Justice had been served.
At the conclusion of the process, jurists from all over the world, including some who had initially questioned Israel’s right to judge Eichmann, noted the fairness shown by the judges and their strict adherence to the principle of a fair trial.
This was more than Eichmann ever showed his victims.
Prosecutor Gabriel Bach would go on to enjoy an illustrious career that would see him assume many titles. He would go on to be State’s Attorney and then a Judge on Israel’s Supreme Court. One title would accompany him through all of this – that of mensch. Today, at his advanced age, Judge Bach is still a most sought after and loved speaker and travels the world, engaging new audiences. He is particularly moved by the interest and willingness to learn by young Germans.
Judge Bach waves goodbye to us from the window of his modest apartment. Well into his 90’s his exuberance for life and gentle personality are testament to why this man is a giant amongst the heroes of the Jewish people. The lessons have been many.
The importance of bearing witness, of seeking justice and the example set by a man who can affectionately be called prosecutor, Judge and mensch.