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Was Eichmann Trial ‘Most Important TV Event’?

More than almost any other event, it was the trial of Adolf Eichmann that, in 1961, brought the Holocaust into the public consciousness of the world. In both Europe and Israel, the trial marked the beginning of the end of a period, immediately after the Second World War, when the Holocaust was deliberately ignored and forgotten. The cause of the change: the medium of television.

A new 90-minute BBC drama, “The Eichmann Show” — which aired in the United Kingdom January 20 as part of a season of programming to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — captures the making of the Eichmann Trial as a television spectacle. It was an American producer, Milton Fruchtman (played by Martin Freeman), who persuaded David Ben-Gurion that “only television can show the world what Eichmann did,” and that the trial of Eichmann would be “the most important television event in history.”

Fruchtman hired Leo Hurwitz (Anthony LaPaglia), who was blacklisted in the United States during the McCarthy period, to direct his show. “The Eichmann Show” homes in on Hurwitz’s singular obsession with Eichmann, what the camera could do to inspect him, and his failure to get the much-desired close-up of him showing even a scintilla of regret. “Come on, do something!” Hurwitz bellows, as Eichmann watches stony-faced images of trucks plowing piles of skeletal corpses into mass graves. His face barely even twitches.

But what “The Eichmann Show” is wise to emphasize in its narrative of events is the significance not necessarily of Eichmann’s testimony, but of the witnesses to his crimes. After the immediate excitement surrounding the opening of the trial, the print media and the wider public began to lose interest, particularly as other stories such as Yuri Gagarin in space and the Cuban Missile Crisis took over. This worried not only Fruchtman but the Israeli authorities, who very much desired the eyes of the world.

But as the 112 survivors of the Holocaust spoke, one after another, their faces seen and voices heard for the first time, the trial took on a new and even greater significance. Both in Western Europe and Israel, the testimonies of Jewish survivors — of Sonderkommando, child prisoners, and slave laborers — meant the subject of the Holocaust could no longer be avoided.

In Europe, the Eichmann trial had its greatest impact in West Germany, where postwar denazification was incomplete and, argues Tony Judt, while Nazism was seen as responsible for war and defeat, “its truly awful aspects were consistently downplayed.” The trial of Eichmann was the event that “belatedly brought to German public attention the evils of the Nazi regime.” More than that, with 80 percent of people tuning in to the televised events at some stage, what Germans themselves had done to Jews became undeniable. An awareness of collective guilt and individual responsibility was, through Eichmann, raised for the first time.

In Israel, meanwhile, prior to 1961 there was no room for the Holocaust. In a collectivized state that was in the process of building itself, the trauma of the Shoah was rejected and the pain suppressed. “The message was clear: Quiet now, we are building a nation. Don’t ask unnecessary questions. Don’t dredge up dangerous ghosts,” Ari Shavit writes of Israel in the 1950s. “It’s not a time to remember, it is a time to forget.”

As part of this collective amnesia, survivors were not expected to tell their stories. “They didn’t want to listen and so people stopped speaking about it,” Mrs. Landau (Rebecca Front), a hotelier and refugee from Czechoslovakia, tells Hurwitz about life in postwar Israel. People remembered the Holocaust only while they slept. Amos Oz captured something of the mood of the time in his novella “Late Love” when he wrote, of Tel Aviv, that “there is no other city in the whole world were so many people dream such terrible dreams every night.”

During the Eichmann trial, people stopped, watched, and listened. In particular, it raised awareness among young people who, unlike their parents and grandparents, were spared the trauma of experience, while survivors of the Holocaust came to be recognized as such. Over time, as the Holocaust became central to Israeli discourse, the Eichmann trial would change how Israelis saw themselves; as David Cesarani observes, “undermining the image of the Sabra as the sole defining model of Israeli identity.” Now closer to the fate of European Jewry, Eichmann in Jerusalem would be “the first giant step on Israeli identity’s long and tortuous path back to the Jewish people.”

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