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Excerpt: 'The Eichmann Trial'

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt


In the early 1990s, when serving as a consultant to the team planning the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I attended a meeting of the Content Committee, the group of laypeople who reviewed the plans for the museum's permanent exhibition. It promised to be a spirited gathering. At issue was the question of displaying hair that the Germans had "harvested" from Jewish women at Auschwitz and sold to factories that produced blankets and water-absorbent socks for U-boat crews. When the Soviets liberated the camps, they found storehouses filled with hair. The Auschwitz Museum had given the USHMM a number of kilos of it. The museum designers planned to display it near a pile of victims' shoes, which also came from the camps. When the plan was first proposed, some staff members objected, arguing that it degraded and objectified the women. Although it was appropriate to display hair at Auschwitz, they did not think it should be displayed a continent away from there. Some feared that teenagers would find it, given the particular world that this age cohort often inhabits, ghoulishly amusing. Their opposition notwithstanding, the committee voted nine to four to display it. Then a number of survivors grew wary and asked that the matter be reconsidered; hence this meeting. The project director had come equipped with scholarly, psychological, and even rabbinic arguments to counter the opponents. Scholars, including one of the most eminent Holocaust historians—committee member Raul Hilberg—argued that the hair should be displayed because it demonstrated the Final Solution's "ultimate rationality." The Germans considered a body part something to be transformed into an "industrial object" and a salable commodity. Psychologists believed that the display of the hair would be no more disconcerting than many other aspects of the exhibit. Leading Orthodox rabbis determined that displaying it did not constitute a nivul hamet, desecration of the dead, and transgressed no religious rulings. In an attempt to allay some of the objections, the designers proposed that a wall be built in front of the exhibit case. Visitors would have to choose to see the display and not just happen upon it.

But then two committee members, both of whom were survivors, rose. One argued that this would be a "violation of feminine identity." A second spoke more personally. "That could have been my mother's hair. She never gave you permission to display it." When she sat down she said, in an aside, "It could have been my hair." The conversation soon ended. There was no vote, but all those present knew that the decision had been made. As we left, a committee member mused to no one in particular: "I don't object to the hair. But who am I to challenge survivors?" Shortly there­after, the chair of the Content Committee announced that the hair would not be included in the permanent exhibition. Today it sits in a storehouse outside of Washington. It has never been displayed. Survivors, speaking in the first person singular, had a semantic, historical, and moral authority that trumped the psychologists, designers, historians, and other experts.

But for the Eichmann trial, this might never have happened.

There was no vote, but all those present knew that the decision had been made. As we left, a committee member mused to no one in particular: "I don't object to the hair. But who am I to challenge survivors?"

This trial, whose main objective was bringing a Nazi who helped organize and carry out genocide to justice, transformed Jewish life and society as much as it passed judgment on a murderer. In the general world it changed our perception of the victims of genocide.

On April 11, 1961, the theater of Beit Ha'am, Jerusalem's brand-new cultural center, was packed. Over seven hundred people filled the room for the trial of a man accused of being the chief operational officer of the Final Solution. Newspapers worldwide carried news of this event. American television networks broadcast special telecasts. This was not the first Nazi war-crimes trial. Yet there were more reporters in Jerusalem than had gone to Nuremberg. Why was this trial, coming just after the conclusion of Passover, different from the Nuremberg tribunals, where far more prominent figures in the Nazi hierarchy had been tried? Some of the differences were connected to the when of these two events. Nuremberg occurred in the immediate aftermath of the war, when many people wanted a mental respite from the horrors of the preceding five years. At Nuremberg multiple defendants had stood together in the dock. Now one man stood alone. The drama of this proceeding was further intensified by the way Eichmann had been brought to trial. Captured in Argentina, he had been spirited out of the country to Israel. Even then, a full year after his capture, there was still some mystery about precisely how he had been found. But the when and the how of his capture were eclipsed by the who: who found him and, more important, who would try him. At Nuremberg victors had sat in judgment. Now the victims' representative would sit in judgment. Immediately after the war, most Jewish Displaced Persons, as Holocaust survivors were once known, were focused on trying to piece together a new life, not on seeking punishment. Even if they had wanted to bring those who had destroyed their world to justice, they had no mechanism to do so. In contrast, by 1961 the immediacy of the war and its consequences had passed. The survivors, whose wounds had begun to be bound up by the passage of time, now had more physical and emotional stamina to demand justice. Most significant, how­ever, now there was a sovereign entity to deliver it. The State of Israel, which was then entering its Bar Mitzvah year, exemplified the victims' emergence from the very powerlessness that had helped make the Final Solution possible.

The excitement and interest surrounding the trial had little to do with questions about its outcome. Most people, both those in the courtroom and those beyond, expected Eichmann to be found guilty. What was unknown was what would happen when history, memory, and the law met in this Jerusalem theater. Would the law prove adequate to adjudicate such an unprecedented event? Would the proceedings deliver retribution or genuine justice? Would Eichmann's defense strategy of obedience to orders hold sway? Would he try to justify the genocide? And what, if anything, would be the lesson for the future?

Excerpted from The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt. Copyright 2011 by Deborah E. Lipstad. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House Inc.

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Deborah E. Lipstadt