Nazi tapes offer a chilling sequel to the Eichmann trial

TEL AVIV — Six decades after the historic Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief engineers of the Holocaust, a new Israeli documentary series has delivered a dramatic coda: the Nazi war criminal’s boastful confessions, in his own voice.

The hours of old tape recordings, which had been refused to Israeli prosecutors at the time of Mr. Eichmann’s trial, formed the basis for the series, called “The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes”, which has sparked great interest in Israel as it aired last month.

The tapes fell into several private hands after being created by a Dutch Nazi sympathizer in 1957, before finally ending up in a German government archive, which in 2020 will contain Israeli co-creators of the series – Kobi Sitt, the producer; and Yariv Mozer, the director — permission to use the footage.

Mr. Eichmann went to the gallows and insisted that he was only an officer following orders, and denied responsibility for the crimes of which he had been found guilty. Describing himself as a small cog in the state apparatus that managed train timetables, his alleged mediocrity gave rise to the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil.

The documentary series intersects Mr Eichmann’s chilling words in German defending the Holocaust, with reenactments of Nazi sympathizers’ meetings in 1957 in Buenos Aires where the footage was shot.

Exposing Mr. Eichmann’s entrenched, ideological anti-Semitism, his zeal for the hunt for Jews, and his role in the mechanics of mass murder, the series brings the missing evidence of the trial to a mass audience for the first time.

Mr. Eichmann can be heard slapping a fly that buzzed around the room, describing him as having a “Jewish character”.

He told his interlocutors that he “didn’t care” whether the Jews he sent to Auschwitz lived or died. After denying knowledge of their fate at his trial, he said on tape that the order was that “Jews fit to work should be sent to work. Jews who are not fit to work should be sent to the Final Solution, period,” meaning their physical destruction.

“If we had killed 10.3 million Jews, I would say with satisfaction, ‘Okay, we destroyed an enemy.’ Then we would have fulfilled our mission,” he said, referring to all the Jews in Europe.

Mr Mozer, the director, who was also the writer of the series and himself the grandson of Holocaust survivors, said: “This is proof against Holocaust deniers and a way to see the true face of Eichmann.”

“With all modesty, the series will allow the young generations to learn the process and ideology behind the Final Solution,” he added.

The documentary was recently shown to intelligence corps commanders and officers — an indication of the importance with which it has been viewed in Israel.

Mr Eichmann’s trial took place in 1961 after Mossad agents kidnapped him in Argentina and chased him to Israel. The shocking testimonies of survivors and the full horror of the Holocaust were outlined in horrifying detail for Israelis and the rest of the world.

The court had a wealth of documentation and testimony on which to base its conviction of Mr Eichmann. The prosecution had also obtained more than 700 pages of transcripts from the tapes recorded in Buenos Aires, marked with corrections in Mr. Eichmann’s handwriting.

But Mr. Eichmann claimed that the transcriptions distorted his words. The Supreme Court of Israel did not accept them as evidence other than the handwritten notes, and Mr. Eichmann challenged the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, to produce the original tapes, assuming they were well-hidden.

In his account of the trial, “Justice in Jerusalem,” Mr. Hausner recounted how he had tried to obtain the tapes up to the last day of Mr. Eichmann’s cross-examination, noting, “He could hardly have denied his own voice .”

Mr. Hausner wrote that the tires had been offered to him for $20,000, a huge sum at the time, and that he was willing to approve the expenditure “given their historical importance.” But the unidentified seller made a condition that they would not be taken to Israel until after the trial, Mr Hausner said.

The tapes were made by Willem Sassen, a Dutch journalist and Nazi propagandist during World War II. As part of a group of Nazi refugees in Buenos Aires, he and Mr. Eichmann embarked on the recording project with a view to publishing a book after Mr. Eichmann’s death. Members of the group met for hours each week at Mr. Sassen’s, where they drank and smoked together.

And Mr. Eichmann talked and talked.

After the capture of Mr. Eichmann by the Israelis, sold Mr. Sassen submitted the transcripts to Life magazine, which published an abridged, two-volume extract. Mr. Hausner described that version as “cosmetic.”

After Mr. Eichmann’s execution in 1962, the original tapes were sold to a publishing house in Europe and eventually acquired by a company wishing to remain anonymous and depositing the tapes in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz, with instructions to use them only for Research.

Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher and historian, based her 2011 book “Eichmann Before Jerusalem” in part on the tapes. German authorities released just a few minutes of audio for public consumption more than two decades ago, “to prove it exists,” Mr Mozer said.

mr. Sitt, the producer of the new documentary, made a film for Israeli television 20 years ago about Mr. Hausner. The idea of ​​getting the Eichmann tapes had haunted him ever since, he said. Like the director, Mr. Mozer, he is an Israeli grandson of Holocaust survivors.

“I’m not afraid of the memory, I’m afraid of the forgetfulness,” Mr Sitt said of the Holocaust, adding that he wanted to “provide a tool to breathe life into the memory” as the generation of survivors dies away.

He approached Mr. Mozer after seeing his 2016 documentary “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue,” which revolved around a long-lost taped interview with Israel’s founding Prime Minister.

The German authorities and the owner of the tapes gave the filmmakers free access to 15 hours of leftover audio. (Mr. Sassen had recorded about 70 hours, but he had recorded many of the expensive reels after transcribing them.) Mr. Mozer said that the owner of the tapes and the archive eventually agreed to allow the filmmakers access, in the belief that she would treat the material respectfully and responsibly.

The project grew into a nearly $2 million joint production between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Sipur, an Israeli company formerly known as Tadmor Entertainment; and Kan 11, Israel’s public broadcaster.

A 108-minute version premiered as the opening film at the Docaviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv this spring. In June, a 180-minute television version was broadcast in three episodes in Israel. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is seeking partners to license and broadcast the series worldwide.

The conversations in Mr Sassen’s living room are interspersed with archive footage and interviews with surviving participants in the process. The archive images have been colored because, according to the filmmakers, young people regard black-and-white images as unrealistic, as if they come from another planet.

Prof. dr. Dina Porat, the chief historian of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, said she had listened to the Eichmann trial on the radio as a 12th-grader “from morning to night.”

“The whole of Israeli society listened – taxi drivers listened, it was a national experience,” she said.

Professor Porat said the last major Holocaust-related event in Israel was likely the trial of John Demjanjuk in the late 1980s and his subsequent successful appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court.

“Every few decades you hear a different type of Israeli society,” she noted. “The youth of today are no longer the same as in previous decades.”

The documentary also examines the interests of Israeli and German leaders at a time of growing cooperation, and how they may have influenced court proceedings.

It argues that David Ben-Gurion, then Israeli Prime Minister, preferred the tapes not to be heard because of embarrassing details that could surface about a former Nazi who worked in the German chancellor’s office, and because of divisions between Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian Jew who brought many Jews to safety, but who was also accused of collaborating with Mr. Eichmann.

Now that I hear the tapes, Mr. Eichmann’s unequivocal confessions are shocking.

“It’s hard for me to tell you this,” Mr. Eichmann says in the recording, “and I know I’ll be judged for it. But I can’t tell you otherwise. It’s the truth. Why should I deny it?”

“Nothing annoys me more,” he added, “than someone who later denies the things he’s done.”

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