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Israel marks 50 years since landmark Eichmann trial

08 april 2011, 13:43
"Eichmann's trial was a watershed in the history of Israel, even more than I imagined at the time of his capture," says Rafi Eitan, the now 83-year-old secret agent who caught the man who sent millions of Jews to the Nazi death camps, AFP reports.

Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who was responsible for masterminding the logistics of the Final Solution -- the extermination of six million Jews -- was kidnapped from Argentina in 1960 by Israeli Mossad agents who brought him to Israel where he was put on trial on April 11 1961.

Although it was half a century ago, Eitan, who now runs a fund to help Holocaust survivors, remembers every detail about how they caught the notorious Nazi functionary.

"It lasted 30 to 40 seconds, three of us grabbed him and carried him to the car, then I blindfolded him and checked his scars. When I was sure it was him, I shook my colleague's hand and told him: 'We've accomplished our mission.'

"It was a very emotional moment for us," he told AFP.

"When I was given this mission, I knew that if we succeeded, we would enter Israel's history and the history of humanity," he says.

Isser Harel, who was the head of Israel's intelligence services at the time, told the team responsible for capturing him that they were operating as "representatives of the Jewish people."

Eitan, who would keep secret for another 30 years the role he played in the capture of the Nazi, was present at the trial and recalls "the impact it had on history."

The Eichmann trial and its impact on Israel is one of the areas of expertise of Holocaust historian Hanna Yablonka.

"Before Eichmann appeared in court, Holocaust was far from the concerns of native Israelis," she says.

"The changes brought about by the trial are still visible till this very day in the way in which Israel is perceived among the nations, with Holocaust becoming a founding moment, while the creation of the State of Israel was not."

For historian Tom Segev, the trial opened up the unspeakable subject of the Holocaust within Israeli society.

"Until the trial, the Shoah was almost a taboo subject in Israel," he told AFP, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

Until that point, the idea that millions of Jews were being slaughtered without being able to defend themselves was "a tragedy which concerned mainly the survivors," he says.

Since then, however, the Shoah has become "a central element of the Israeli identity -- for better or for worse -- the supreme justification for the creation of a state" -- which wasn't the case before the trial, he said.

One of the most celebrated accounts of the trial was written by the poet and journalist Haim Gouri, who covered the trial as a reporter and later wrote a book based on the events, called "Facing the Glass Booth" in reference to the enclosure where Eichmann was sitting.

"The trial gave the survivors of the genocide, for the first time, the possibility of being heard," explains the 87-year-old writer.

"One wonders how to judge one man for so many crimes," Gouri says.

"I remember the words of the prosecutor, asking not that we judge him for his involvement in the death of six million Jews, but for sending a child from Drancy to Auschwitz."

Gouri, who covered the historic trial alongside writers such as Elie Wiesel, Joseph Kessel, Roger Vailland and the philosopher Hannah Arendt, admits to "never having spent a single day of his life without thinking about the Holocaust."

Five decades have passed since the start of the trial but this elderly man can still not hold back his anger when he thinks of Eichmann's response to the charges against him.

"To see him justifying this genocide by arguing that he was only a cog in the Nazi machine and never apologising to the Jewish people, was really sickening," he said.

The trial lasted eight months and in December 1961, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for masterminding the Nazi's Final Solution.

Six months later, he was hanged on May 31, 1962. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered outside the territorial waters of Israel.

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