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More Heat on the Subject

Here is the latest contribution, five years after the event in Jerusalem, to the extensive literature provoked by the trial of Adolf Eichmann. It is the prosecutor’s own story and since it was the prosecution’s handling of the case which gave rise to much of the controversy about the trial, this book will undoubtedly add more fuel to an already overheated debate. To be sure, the author disclaims any intention of answering his most severe critic. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, he tells us, “has been refuted by many reviewers, most recently in a comprehensive point-by-point rebuttal in Dr. Jacob Robinson’s And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight…Consequently I refrain from dealing with her book at all in these pages.” But this assertion is hardly the whole truth. In fact, Hausner himself seems to share the reaction of those who doubted the efficacy of Robinson’s rebuttal, for he spends much effort in a new attempt to counter Miss Arendt’s main theses.

But no more than Dr. Robinson does the former Attorney General of Israel succeed in burying the ghost. Indeed at times his book has the unintended effect of strengthening his critics’ case. For example, many observers claimed that the trial had an obvious political intent; some, though not Hannah Arendt, had even used expressions like “legal circus” and “show trial” to describe the often highly dramatized proceedings. Hausner frankly admits that much of the prosecution’s evidence was introduced not in order to strengthen an already overwhelming case against the accused but in order to accomplish political or educational purposes: “In order merely to secure a conviction, it was obviously enough to let the archives speak; a fraction of them would have sufficed to get Eichmann sentenced ten times over. But I knew we needed more than a conviction; we needed a living record of a gigantic human and national disaster.” The youth of Isreal, who were asking why there had not been more resistance, had to learn the full truth in order to achieve “understanding and reconciliation with the past.” The world at large had to be reminded, “with as much detail as possible,” of this gigantic human tragedy. Hence the calling of numerous surviving witnesses who described their harrowing experiences at length, whether these related to the crimes charged to Eichmann or not. Hausner recalls how the judges grew increasingly impatient with the prosecution’s insistence on painting the “general picture” and how they repeatedly admonished the Attorney General to adhere to the framework of the indictment. The Chief Prosecutor then could not understand why the court showed so little sympathy for his educational designs and even today he is still resentful of the judges for failing to agree with him on “the point of the trial: the covering of the whole Jewish disaster.”

HAUSNER HAS NOW WRITTEN a voluminous book on the subject. Some two hundred pages of Justice in Jerusalem are taken up with a description of the workings of the Final Solution. The value of this part of the study is doubtful, for its purpose is not so much to give a well-rounded account but to demonstrate that Eichmann was “the central pillar of the whole wicked system.” Hence the frequent stretching of evidence. The documentary record does not contain conclusive evidence as to Eichmann’s share in the decision to use gas for the killing of the Jews, for example, or his role in the operations of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads operating behind the advancing German armies in the East. But Hausner sees himself in the role of the prosecutor who resolves all ambiguities in the case against the accused. Eichmann had attended a meeting, chaired by Heydrich, in March 1941, at which the commanders of the new murder units were briefed; he had also received reports of the units’ commanders and certain directives had been routed through his office. Using these facts and other more circumstantial evidence, some of which the court had thrown out as uncorroborated, the author concludes that Eichmann had played a leading role in the operations of the Einsatzgruppen. Since Hausner is determined to show that Eichmann was the key figure in the execution of the Final Solution, of which the mobile killing squads were an integral part—accounting for close to one and one half million victims—this conclusion was, of course, to be expected. However, it does not accord with the picture constructed by such experts as Raul Hilberg and Léon Poliakov, who completed their studies before the capture of Eichmann, and who had no special axe to grind. That Hausner was able to convince the generally fair-minded judges in Jerusalem of his version of Eichmann’s role in the activities of the Einsatzgruppen is one of the minor puzzles of the trial.

A special chapter is devoted to the conduct of the victims and here Hausner deals with the emotionally charged problems of Jewish resistance and the behavior of the Jewish leadership. It was the Attorney General who at the trial time and again asked witnesses: why did you not rebel?—a question which Hannah Arendt has dismissed as “silly and cruel.” Hausner had wanted to elicit accounts of rebellion so as to silence the harsh criticism leveled at European Jewry by the youth of Israel. In the present study he summarizes the relevant testimony of important witnesses as well as of some published accounts of Jewish resistance, and he gives his own assessment. Hannah Arendt had noted the infrequency of Jewish armed resistance. But she had added that the same was true of the behavior of other people under Nazi rule, and that explanations based upon specifically Jewish factors, like the so-called ghetto-mentality, therefore were inadequate. Hausner at first appears content with making the same point. He mentions that close to a million Russian prisoners of war were shot by the Germans, that thousands of English, American, and Norwegian fliers and commando fighters were murdered—all without turning on their executioners. Yet nobody had accused these men in the prime of their life of going “like sheep to the slaughter.” He describes the difficulty of obtaining arms, the hostility of the local population in the East toward the Jews, and many other hardships faced by the Jewish underground. Finally, he goes so far as to argue that the young Israelis, who had the good fortune to be at the time outside the reach of the Nazis, could and would not have behaved differently from the Jews of Europe.

HERE HAUSNER appears to have gone too far. To be sure, if the Israelis were faced with the Nazi machinery of extermination there would have been among them, as among all people of this world, heroes and cowards, with a majority probably falling into neither of these two extremes. But there is no need to invoke an innate desire for death or other elaborate theories in order to note traits and ways of thinking peculiar to orthodox European Jewry which facilitated the task of the killers. Hausner himself cites instances where Jews regarded their death as a sign of approaching national redemption, where rabbis and spiritual leaders encouraged their communities to face martyrdom with joy. A religious tradition that enabled men, women, and children to confront their murderers with poise and dignity should not be scorned or equated with cowardice, but neither can it be ignored as a factor which encouraged submissiveness.

It would seem equally well established by Hausner’s own evidence that resistance and flight indeed increased the chance of Jewish survival. No one who has not lived through the horrifying events of the Nazi era has the right to point a self-righteous or accusing finger; but surely Jews studying the period must be allowed to draw attention to facts supporting this thesis without being accused of self-hatred. Some Jews revolted and organized mass escapes, even when behind the barbed wire of the death camps. The rebellion in the Sobibór camp resulted in the escape of three hundred inmates, of whom one hundred succeeded in joining partisan units. We know that the Jewish underground struggled desperately at times against the illusions of the ghetto dwellers and the soothing assurances of some of the leaders of the Jewish community. It was neither Raul Hilberg nor Hannah Arendt but the Wilno underground in 1942 which, according to Hausner’s account, called upon the Jews not to “go like sheep to the slaughter. True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only answer to the murderers is to fight.” A surviving leader of the resistance told the court in Jerusalem how he attempted to instill a fighting spirit into people who refused to believe the mounting evidence of mass murder, or who denied that struggle and flight made sense: “Any revolt will undermine German strength and dislocate their organization. Let our people only know that they have nothing to risk. Then they will escape in great multitudes. Not singly, but in masses, onto railway stations, to the roads, to flood the country…. Of course this will turn into a blood bath, but there is nothing to lose.” It is one thing to understand the reasons for the paucity of resistance and mass escape, or for the tactics of many Jewish elders trying to stave off disaster, who cooperated with the Germans in order to persuade them to keep alive Jewish skilled labor. It is quite another thing to argue with a perverted historicism that the extent of the Jewish catastrophe could not have been diminished by anything the Jews themselves might have done. If nothing else, the testimony at the Eichmann trial of numerous survivors of the holocaust which Hausner cites calls this thesis of inevitable disaster into serious question.

Much careful scholarly work remains to be done before definitive judgments of the role of the Jewish Councils or of the extent of Jewish resistance will be possible. We need more light and less heat, more men of learning investigating the issues with disinterested scholarship, and fewer writers who lack close knowledge of the facts scoring points in popular magazines. The diversity of European Jewry with its capitalists and communists, Hassidim and atheists, collaborators and heroic fighters for human dignity, will continue to make generalizations hazardous and difficult. But the general direction which further study must take is clear. To this important enterprise, it is regrettable to note, Gideon Hausner’s book does not contribute.

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