Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Chapter nine

The world’s biggest war crimes trial


< Chapter 8 | Chapter 10 >

Assigned to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, I joined a reporting team composed of myself and Peter Johnson from the Reuter Bonn bureau, our Jerusalem correspondent Arye Wallenstein, and Cyprus correspondent Shahe Guebenlian. We were joined by a trio of teleprinter operators from London, who set up communications from our tiny office just behind the court room. I well recall the appearance of Eichmann as he took his place in the bullet-proof glass dock in the Jerusalem courtroom. Clad in a modest grey suit, the ex-Obersturmbannfuehrer looked like an unimpressive bank clerk. There was nothing to suggest that he had for years masqueraded as Argentine citizen Ricardo Clement and had been diverted from a peaceful existence by an Israeli snatch team, drugged and smuggled on board an El Al flight from Buenos Aires. Adolf Eichmann went on trial for crimes against the Jewish people. His role in deporting the Jews of Europe to concentration camps had made him the target of a 15-year manhunt by Israeli agents. His defence, like that of other Nazis, was that he was “just following orders.”

Eichmann’s trial was the first televised trial in the history of television. Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wanted to broadcast the trial to educate a generation that had come of age after World War II about the atrocities of the Holocaust. The trial was an emotionally explosive event that revealed to a shocked world audience the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jewry.

There were few survivors. Most of them made their way to Israel in rust buckets, as described in the movie Exodus, based on the novel by Leon Uris.

Eichmann's name first surfaced during the post-war Nuremberg trials. In 1950 he fled to Argentina with the help of the Nazi underground. Israeli agents found him living in Buenos Aires with his wife and three sons.

In May, 1960, the Israelis kidnapped him and forcibly brought him to Israel to stand trial as a war criminal.

Eichmann was the mastermind behind moving the Jewish people out of their homes into the ghettoes, and then into the concentration camps. He became Nazi Germany’s foremost Jewish specialist. His ability to organize, categorize, and supervise enabled him to bring over six million Jews to their deaths. By organising the system that piled men, women, and children in rail trucks, he sent millions to their deaths.

During the trial, Eichmann sat enclosed within a bullet-proof glass booth. The Israelis built the booth for his protection because they feared someone would try to kill him before the trial was over.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the Eichmann trial is that most people in the western world knew little about the Holocaust when the trial began. Holocaust survivors did not speak about their ordeals at the hands of the Nazis until the trial. To many, the Holocaust was unspeakable remembrance, but the trial was a catharsis, and people began to tell their tales. Gideon Hausner, Attorney General representing the State of Israel, called over 100 witnesses to the stand. Country by country, they recounted the stories of the jews of each European country, how they were marshalled in holding camps, like Drancy, in Paris, then loaded into cattle trucks for shipment to Auschwitz and other extermination camps in eastern Europe like Sobibor and Maidanek.The courtroom was always packed. 

Eichmann was defended by an elderly German lawyer, Dr Robert Servatius, who had volunteered for the job. After an emotional 16 weeks, Eichmann was found guilty on all 15 counts of the criminal indictment against him. He was hanged, his body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.

Throughout the trial, the Reuter team stayed in a pleasant little hotel in Jerusalem. The luncheon menu always seemed to feature chicken livers. After extensive enquiries we discovered a bacon-and-egg speakeasy which soon received our custom.






 Eichmann as he once was




One weekend, I climbed the side of the temple on the mount, sacred to Jew, Christian and Arab alike, with my water colour kit and a drawing board on which I had stretched water colour paper. It was the Sabbath, and I should not have done any painting. A group of orthodox Jewish children, recognisable from their long dreadlocks and weird headgear, tried to stop me painting, shouting ‘Shabat, Shabat’. They finally gave up and decided to watch me at work.

This was the only water colour I painted during my career as a Reuter correspondent. For years it hung on the walls of my flat outside Paris. 

During the trial, the Israeli government organised trips for correspondents covering the trial. 

I joined a trip to spend a weekend in Yad Mordechai, one of the oldest kibbutzes in Israel. In the kibbutz, named after Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, there is a giant statue of Anilewicz clutching a grenade, set on a hilltop next to the kibbutz's water tower which was destroyed by the Egyptians in 1948.

The kibbutz has constructed a museum memorizing both Anielewicz and his fighting in the Ghetto, and also the attacks sustained by the kibbutz. There is a reconstruction scene of bitter fighting during the War of Independence. Life-sized, blackened cut-outs with helmets and rifles represent the advancing Egyptians, reinforced with tanks set around the hill. Obsolete weapons of the defenders are in position in slit trenches on the hill. Recorded explanations of the battle, the retreat of the heavily outnumbered Israelis, and the eventual recapture of the kibbutz six months later, are given in all major languages.

Before flying home, the Reuter team was able to enjoy a short week’s holiday on the Mediterranean shore. Swimming in those warm waters was an unforgettable pleasure.

Some weeks after we left, Arye Wallenstein filed his report on Eichmann’s execution.

By then, I was back home with my wife and baby son in Bad Godesberg, preparing for my next Reuter assignment, as Bureau Chief in Geneva. I had become an ardent supporter of the State of Israel, and have remained so all my life, especially during the current trials of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


My last watercolour. Click to see a bigger version



Next: Chapter 10 >> Interlude in Geneva

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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh