Holocaust memoirs offer few revelations

Israel opens writings by Eichmann to public to help scholar in trial

March 01, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Four decades after they were written in prison, the memoirs of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who oversaw Hitler's drive to exterminate Europe's Jews, were made public yesterday.

The document, handwritten in German on 1,300 lined pages, provides horrid first-hand descriptions of the mass murder Eichmann directed as head of the Gestapo's Department of Jewish Affairs. It also minimizes his role in what he calls "humanity's biggest crime".

Several Israelis who had gained previous access to the memoirs said yesterday that they offered little that was new to historians, because much of what Eichmann wrote could be found in evidence offered at his 1961 trial after Israeli agents tracked him down in Argentina.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's editions of The Sun on Israel's release of Adolf Eichmann's memoirs incorrectly named a journalist for the newspaper Ha'aretz who has written widely on the Holocaust. His name is Tom Segev. The Sun regrets the error.

"I didn't see anything in this manuscript," said Yehuda Bauer, director of the International Institute of Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, describing the prose as "turgid" and "not very enlightening."

But a columnist for the newspaper Ha'aretz, Tom Seleg, who has written a book about the Holocaust, told Israel Radio, "It will help us understand the criminal himself -- his life, childhood and the route he took to the crimes."

Eichmann wanted the book published. But the Israeli government kept it under wraps because officials didn't want his version to compete with the mass of evidence produced at the trial and the verdict. They also feared that Eichmann's family would try to profit from it.

Suit sparks release

The memoirs were all but forgotten until two years ago, when state archivist Evyatar Friezel discovered them and began the process of making them public.

Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein made the decision to release them in computer diskette form to help American professor Deborah Lipstadt, who is being sued by British historian David Irving for accusing him of denying the Holocaust.

Irving says he doesn't dispute the killings, but questions the number and manner of the deaths.

Eichmann certainly offers no help to deniers of the Holocaust, according to people who have read the memoirs. His introduction tells of "gruesome workings of the machinery of the death machine; gear meshed with gear, like clockwork."

Claims no responsibility

"I personally had nothing to do with this. My job was to observe and report on it," he wrote. But he did observe some killings.

Recounting a visit to the German-run Chelmno death camp in Poland, he said he lacked words to describe it. "It was superhell."

"I pinched myself to see whether it was reality or a dream. I even forgot to check how long it took to kill people, something for which I had been sent."

He writes of the Auschwitz commander's descriptions of how Jews were poisoned, and describes sites where bodies were burnt.

Readers of his court testimony can encounter similar horrors. He described there how victims were killed in ditches and covered with earth and the geysers of blood spurting from the ground.

Values `thrown overboard'

He writes that he was a small cog in a campaign dominated by others, chiefly Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and Gestapo leader Heinrich Himmler, both of whom he worshiped at the time but who he later realized were idols and not gods.

"I had thousands of ideals and I slid, like many others, into a situation from which there was no exit. Time has given me distance to the events. Many things that were valid then, are no longer valid now. Things I considered to be basic values, I have thrown overboard over the years," he wrote.

He attributes the drive to wipe out the Jews to the Nazis' overwhelming sense of their power and a lack of "civil courage" among officers who followed orders, but also blamed it on the behavior of states in wartime. In one passage, he accuses Israel of committing horrors in Egypt during the Mideast wars.

`Lip service'

Gabriel Bach, one of Eichmann's prosecutors who later served as a Supreme Court justice, maintains that Eichmann's confession and apparent change of heart were mere "lip-service." In an interview with a Dutch journalist four years before he was captured, Eichmann described the death trains that carried prisoners to camps in Poland "in almost lyrical terms," Bach said.

Eichmann faulted himself for not doing more to prevent a German defeat that allowed for the creation of Israel and a revival of the Jewish "race" there.

At his trial, prosecutors were successful in demolishing Eichmann's claim that he played a minimal role, Bach said. In pursuing the "final solution" -- the aim to rid Europe of Jews forever -- Eichmann maneuvered to keep trains hauling people to the death camps even as commanders of Germany's collapsing eastern front were clamoring for the same trains be used for war materiel.

Eichmann betrayed no regret when he was hanged in 1962.

"Long live Germany, long live Argentina [where he lived after the war], long live Austria [where he grew up]. I had to obey the laws of the war and my flag," he said.

His body was cremated and its ashes scattered on the Mediterranean because Israeli officials feared a burial plot could become a shrine for neo-Nazis.

Amos Hausner, son of another prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, questioned why the memoirs would be useful in a court case.

"We still have many Holocaust survivors with us. They can testify on the gas chambers," the Associated Press quoted him as saying Monday. "But instead of believing those people, we take the document of a Nazi criminal before he was executed."

Despite the controversy over the documents' value, few thought they should be kept out of public view.

"Any document that confirms the Holocaust must not be hidden by the Israeli government," Bauer said.

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