Escaping the clutches of the Nazis as a child, years later he would face the arch architect of “The Final Solution” in an Israeli court. ‘Insights and Revelations’ from the man who prosecuted Adolf Eichmann.
By David E. Kaplan
“What was it like staring into the face of pure evil?”
It was my opening question to 93-year-old Judge Gabriel Bach, regarding his first meeting with Adolf Eichmann, whose case he investigated in 1961, and then prosecuted. As Israel’s Deputy State Attorney, he was the only member of the three-man prosecution team who had one-on-one contact with Eichmann.
We sat for the interview in the former Supreme Court justice’s modest apartment in the leafy Talbiya neighbourhood of Jerusalem, just a stone’s throw from the official residence of Israel’s State President.
Conspicuous on the bookcase were leather-bound volumes – in English and in Hebrew – of the transcripts of the Eichmann trial.
An estimated 500 journalists from around the world converged on Jerusalem in 1961 to cover what was dubbed the “Trial of the Century” and what was televised live to 56 countries. The trial was the first time that testimony about the death camps had ever been broadcast live – and directly from the victim’s mouths.
TIME magazine described the accused as:
“A thin, balding man of 55 who looked more like a bank clerk than a butcher: a thin mouth between protruding ears, a long, narrow nose, deep set blue eyes, a high, often wrinkled brow. He looked puny beside two burly, blue-clad Israeli policemen. When he stood, he resembled a stork more than a soldier.”
Yet this “bank clerk” or “stork” was the architect of the ‘Final Solution’ that meticulously murdered six million Jews.
Following the audacious capture of Eichmann by the Mossad from a street in Buenos Aires in May 1960, he was brought to Israel where he was imprisoned near Haifa for nine months preceding the trial in Jerusalem. Tasked in heading the investigation, Deputy State Attorney Gabriel Bach left his young wife Ruth and their 2-year-old daughter in Jerusalem and moved into a hotel in Haifa.
He recounts before that fateful first meeting sitting in his office at the prison engrossed in reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp and who had been executed in 1947. Suddenly, Bach came upon a startling reference to Eichmann.
“Höss was writing that they often killed a thousand children a day in the gas chambers and that the children would often go on their knees pleading to be spared. At times, when he and his colleagues had to push them into the gas chambers, he admits “my knees got a bit wobbly” but added “I always felt ashamed of this weakness of mine after I talked to SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, because he impressed upon me that it is especially the Jewish children that have to be killed first, because where is the logic, that you kill a generation of older people and you leave alive a generation of possible avengers who might afterwards create that race again.”
Ten minutes after Bach read this passage, a policeman walked in and said: “Adolf Eichmann wants to see you.”
A father of a young daughter facing the man who had plotted the extermination of all the Jewish children in the world, “it was hard for me to keep a poker face.”
But that is what this professional lawyer did.
One can only imagine the thoughts that went through Bach’s mind.
Sitting a metre away from the monster – separated by a desk – he recalled of sitting 20 metres away in 1936 from another Adolf – Adolf Hitler – separated by stadium seats. It was at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “I saw when Jesse Owens won the gold, Hitler walked out so he would not have to shake the hand of a Black.”
At that time, Bach was attending Theodor Herzl School off Adolf Hiller Square in Berlin. As good timing would have it, “Two days before Kristallnacht, my family left for Holland.”
Within a few years, Gabriel was the only student of his class at Theodor Herzl School – ALIVE!
The mild-mannered monster sitting opposite him was responsible for that!
Bach’s departure from Germany was not without incident or violence. At the Germany border with Holland, we were ordered off the train by the Gestapo and told to open our suitcases. After an unpleasant search on the platform, the train began pulling out and “the German SS officer kicked me in my behind as I was running, and I lunged with my case onto the train. That is how I left Germany – LITERALLY kicked out.”
In Amsterdam, Gabriel attended a non-Jewish school, but as good fortune would have it, the family left for Palestine one month before Germany invaded. If again the Bach family were blessed with good timing, the ship the “Patria” that brought them to Palestine, sunk “on its very next voyage with a huge loss of life. So, as you can see, our family was always just one step ahead of imminent disaster.”
All these thoughts percolated in the mind of Gabriel as Eichmann requested, “If he could have Robert Servatius – who had represented Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg – as his defense attorney. We agreed; even changed Israeli law to allow it and Servatius was paid by the Israeli government for his services.”
“Only Following Orders”
For this writer who had studied the Eichmann trial at law school in South Africa over four decades earlier, I recalled the two salient issues:
(1) one of jurisdiction, that is, the legality of kidnapping a man from one country to stand trial in a second for crimes committed in a third
(2) Eichmann’s defence that he had been a functionary, a bureaucrat “following orders.”
“Arguing jurisdiction did not pose a problem,” explained Bach. “The Argentine objection was mostly token, and Germany – the only other country to realistically try the case – was perfectly happy Israel took on the responsibility and cooperated fully in providing much of the material and documents from the camps to help build our case. In any event, the global sentiment shifted enormously to the view that it was most important to present the facts of what Eichmann did, and preserve them for historical record.”
Addressing the second issue of “I was following orders,” Bach refuted this with one horrifying example after another.
“In 1944, Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy wished to leave the Axis and make peace with the Allies. Hitler convinced him to stay but only on Horthy’s condition that 8,700 Hungarian Jewish families be allowed to emigrate to a neutral country. Hitler agreed – not out of any sense of humanity – but because it was more important to have Hungary remain on the side of the Axis powers, and would ensure that the remaining 800,000 Jews would be exterminated.”
Eichmann, however, would not have any of it.
“We found a telegram from the Nazi appointee in Budapest to German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, reporting that Eichmann was very upset about releasing these families, saying they were important “biological material,” who could proceed from the neutral country to Palestine, where they could help reconstitute the Jewish race. According to the Nazi telegram, Eichmann tried to speed up deportations so those Jews would be taken before their visas arrived. Eichmann thereby acted in defiance of Hitler himself, belying his claim – of just following orders.”
Documents from various countries showed Eichmann was often requested to spare particular Jews. However, “no matter how seemingly strong the request, Eichmann invariably said NO.” Bach presents the case of a German general in Paris who wrote to Eichmann requesting he spare a professor Weiss – an expert on radar – for his value to the German war effort. Eichmann refused. When the general replied saying, “How dare you refuse me, I am a General!” Eichmann responded:
“And I am a SS Obersturmbannführer and I understand you already took over his patents, so there is no need to delay his deportation.”
When the SS came, professor and Mrs. Weiss managed to drop off their infant daughter at their neighbors, who sent her to America. During the trial, this young woman came to Israel and visited Bach in his office. She said she had no memories of her parents, and asked Bach to help her locate photos. He tried but was unsuccessful.
In Lithuania, the Germans arrested a Jewish woman who was the widow of an Italian war hero. This Italian officer had died fighting the Allies with the Germans. The Italian ambassador to Lithuania asked Eichmann to spare her, saying that, “All of Italy feels this lady should be allowed to return,” and “the Italian authorities demand her return, in memory of her husband.”
Eichmann refused and sent her to the camps.
For Eichmann, there were no exceptions.
Postcards From The Edge
Always Gabriel thought there might be “one case” where Eichmann might find reason not to send a Jew to his death – but it was not to be.
In Holland, the Dutch Fascist leader requested Eichmann spare a dozen or more Jewish Dutch Fascists, “on the grounds that their deportation would demoralize their party comrades, and because they could help identify other Jews.” Eichmann agreed only to delay their deportation to Auschwitz for two weeks.
After that, Eichmann said, “their comrades would be used to it.”
Far from “following orders”, Eichmann proved a master manipulator at devising ways to keep Jews unsuspecting on their path to destruction. One such devilish stratagem, explained Bach “was forcing the new arrivals at Auschwitz, moments before being sent into the gas chambers, to write postcards to their relations – the wording determined by Eichmann – such as:
“The conditions are good here, come before all the best places are taken.”
During the trial, “We came across a survivor who had received such a postcard before himself arriving at Auschwitz with his family. This witness came to Jerusalem the night before he was to testify but because it was already 11 o’clock at night, I told him to come to my office in the morning. However, he arrived late the next morning, and so I proceeded blind, putting him on the witness stand, without having heard his testimony.”
The witness testified of how he arrived at Auschwitz on the train, with his wife, 12-year-old son, and 2 1/2-year-old daughter. “The guards told his wife and daughter to go to the left, which he later learned were the gas chambers. Telling the guard he had been a metal worker in the army, he was told to go to the right. However, the guard was uncertain where to send his son. They waited some time until the guard returned and told his son to “run along after your Mama.” The son went off to the left, and the father stood there trying to see them, wondering if his son caught up with his mother and sister. Meanwhile hundreds of people had gone between them, and soon the father could not see his son anymore, nor his wife. But his young daughter was wearing a red coat, which he suddenly spotted. He watched this red dot get smaller and smaller, and so his family disappeared from his life. His last recollection of them was of a red dot.”
Bach points to a family photograph on a shelf. “Here is our daughter Orly, who was roughly the same age as the girl in the red dress. Only the day before hearing this testimony, my wife had photographed me standing with Orly wearing her new red-coated dress that we had bought for her two weeks before. Hearing this testimony, culminating with the red dress moving inexorably towards the gas chamber, I suddenly was unable to speak — I could not utter a word. The judges looked to me to continue, but all I could do was shuffle my papers for three minutes before I gained my composure and was able to proceed.”
Day after day over a period of four months, live testimony brought to the world the horrors of the Holocaust.
Did Bach at any time during the trial ever get the impression that Eichmann felt any remorse?
“NEVER – he showed no sign of it.”
Supporting this assertion, Bach referred to an admission made by Eichmann in 1956 – eleven years after the war and five years before his trial – that he had only one regret:
“that I had not been tougher because now you see what has happened, the Jews have reconstituted their State.”
Yes, a Jewish state that would hunt him down and expose his crimes to the world.
As I stood up after an enthralling three-hour interview, staring at me from framed photographs were Bach’s children and grandchildren. Their smiling faces left no doubt that Eichmann’s biggest fear – couched in the instruction to Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss, “to kill the children first” – was realised.
The smiling children of Israel, today, tomorrow and forever are the message to the Eichmanns of the world – “Never Again”.
*Feature picture – Adolf Eichmann on trial in April 1961. Photo : Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.