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'Eichmann Trial' recalls Holocaust victims' worldwide testimony

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Elaine Justice

Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, “The Eichmann Trial,” is being released just prior to the 50th anniversary of the opening of the world’s first internationally televised trial. But the trial’s biggest legacy, she says, is that victims of the Holocaust got to tell their stories to a worldwide audience.

Lipstadt’s account provides a behind-the-scenes historical window to proceedings that riveted millions and revealed the evil behind the actions of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, chief operational officer of Hitler’s Final Solution.

“American television networks broadcast special telecasts,” Lipstadt says of the trial, which opened in Jerusalem April 11, 1961. Although it was not the first Nazi war-crimes trial, “there were more reporters in Jerusalem than had gone to Nuremberg,” she says. And for good reason.

Captured in Argentina, Eichmann had been spirited out of the country to Israel by Israeli security services. As Lipstadt says, “the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of his capture ere eclipsed by the ‘who’: who found him and more important, who would try him. Now the victims’ representative—Israel—would sit in judgment.”

Read an in-depth interview with Deborah Lipstadt about "The Eichmann Trial".

Unlike Nuremberg, where very few Holocaust victims gave testimony, approximately 100 survivors testified at the Eichmann trial, which became a centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. “It was a chance for them to tell their stories, one by one by one, to be present and to put a face on the suffering in a way that hadn’t been the case at Nuremberg,” Lipstadt explains.

Lipstadt remembers being intrigued as a child by televised news clips of the trial on the evening news, but not fully understanding the connection between the Eichmann trial and the anti-Semitism that gave rise to the horrors of the Holocaust. Lipstadt’s own encounter with anti-Semitism occurred much later, after she published her 1993 groundbreaking work, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.”

In that book Lipstadt described the views of a leading British Holocaust denier, and was subsequently sued by him for libel in Great Britain. The 2000 trial, which resulted in a resounding victory for Lipstadt, was lauded by the British press as comparable to the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials.

While Lipstadt says “the importance of the Eichmann trial dwarfed mine,” she does see some parallels. “One of these men helped wipe out one-third of world Jewry. The second had dedicated himself to denying the truth of this.”

Both trials also addressed the phenomena that had a common source: anti-Semitism. “Without centuries of persistent hatred,” says Lipstadt, “the Third Reich would have found it impossible to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to despise, scapegoat and ultimately participate in the murder of European Jewry.”

The lessons of the Eichmann trial still resonate today, says Lipstadt. “It reminds us that the victim has a name and a face and a history. The Holocaust didn’t happen to numbers or just a large group. It happened to people.”

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