“He’s in Israel, and will stand trial here.”
Thus begins the meeting on May 23, 1960, when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, informed the cabinet that Adolf Eichmann had been caught.
Eichmann’s arrest and subsequent trial became a pivotal moment in Holocaust history, as both the Jewish and non-Jewish world tuned in to relive witness testimony and, in some ways, finally begin to heal from the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Eichmann was a notorious Nazi officer and one of the most instrumental organizers of the Holocaust. Following the war, he evaded capture for years, until finally seized by the Mossad in Argentina.
When he stood before Israeli judges, nearly two decades after the conclusion of World War II, a global audience watched with bated breath the prosecution of one of history’s most villainous characters.
“In this place where I stand, to serve as the prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone,” said chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner at the start of the trial. “With me here at this very moment stand six million prosecutors.”
What followed was 14 weeks of testimony, filled with survivor accounts of not only Eichmann’s crimes, but the atrocities of the Nazi camps as a whole. Witness after witness took to the stand, sharing tear-filled stories as a sort of catharsis, as Eichmann watched from behind bulletproof glass.
Eichmann was eventually found guilty and, after an appeal process, hanged to death. It is to date the only instance of Israel issuing the death penalty.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Eichmann’s capture and trial, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the event shaped Jewish history, adding, “Eichmann’s capture and bringing to trial were a turning point at which the State of Israel and the Jewish people began to exact justice on their persecutors.”
Last year, a group of esteemed guests spoke at the United Nations, sharing remembrances and reflections on the trial, including Shoah survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel witnessed the Eichmann trial first hand as a young journalist for the Forward. While watching the proceedings day after day, Wiesel told the audience that he wondered how Eichmann, a man who orchestrated such atrocities, could actually be human.
“When I heard the verdict [guilty], I wanted to dance. And I’ve never danced in my life,” Wiesel said. “It showed history has a sense of justice.”
Amos Hausner, son of Eichmann’s prosecutor, was also present at the UN forum last year, explaining that the case was not only one of retribution, but of legal precedence as well. The trial changed forever how war criminals could be prosecuted.
“Everything he did was legal in the country he lived in and everything he did, he was told to do, which we call ‘an act of state,’” Hausner added. “Through the Eichmann case, we learned the law must not only be punitive, but preventative as well.”