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Nazi tapes provide a chilling sequel to the Eichmann trial

July 4, 2022 Updated Mon., July 4, 2022 at 9:11 p.m.

By Isabel Kershner New York Times

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

The hours of old tape recordings, which had been denied to Israeli prosecutors at the time of Eichmann’s trial, provided the basis for the series, called “The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes,” which has generated keen interest in Israel as it aired over the past month.

The tapes fell into various private hands after being made in 1957 by a Dutch Nazi sympathizer, before eventually ending up in a German government archive, which in 2020 gave the Israeli co-creators of the series – producer Kobi Sitt and director Yariv Mozer – permission to use the recordings.

Eichmann went to the gallows insisting that he was a mere functionary following orders, denying responsibility for the crimes of which he had been found guilty. Describing himself as a small cog in the state apparatus who was in charge of train schedules, his professed mediocrity gave rise to philosopher Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil.

The documentary series intersperses Eichmann’s chilling words, in German, defending the Holocaust, with reenactments of gatherings of Nazi sympathizers in 1957 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the recordings were made.

Exposing Eichmann’s visceral, ideological antisemitism, his zeal for hunting down Jews and his role in the mechanics of mass murder, the series brings the missing evidence from the trial to a mass audience for the first time.

Eichmann can be heard swatting a fly that was buzzing around the room and describing it as having “a Jewish nature.”

He told his interlocutors that he “did not care” whether the Jews he sent to Auschwitz lived or died. Having denied knowledge of their fate in his trial, he said on tape that the order was that “Jews who are fit to work should be sent to work. Jews who are not fit to work must be sent to the Final Solution, period,” meaning their physical destruction.

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

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, through the series, the young generations will get to know the trial and the ideology behind the Final Solution,” he added.

The documentary was recently screened for commanders and officers of the intelligence corps – an indication of the importance with which it has been viewed in Israel.

Eichmann’s trial took place in 1961 after Mossad agents kidnapped him in Argentina and spirited him to Israel. The shocking testimonies of survivors and the full horror of the Holocaust were outlined in gruesome 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 Eichmann. The prosecution had also obtained more than 700 pages of transcripts of the tapes recorded in Buenos Aires, marked up with corrections in Eichmann’s handwriting.

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

In his account of the trial, “Justice in Jerusalem,” Hausner related how he had tried to get hold of the tapes until the last day of Eichmann’s cross-examination.

Hausner wrote that he had been offered the tapes for $20,000, a vast sum at the time, and that he had been prepared to approve the expenditure “considering their historical importance.” But the unidentified seller attached a condition that they not be taken to Israel until after the trial.

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

And Eichmann talked and talked.

After Eichmann’s capture by the Israelis, Sassen sold the transcripts to Life magazine, which published an abridged, two-part excerpt. Hausner described that version as “cosmeticized.”

After Eichmann’s execution in 1962, the original tapes were sold to a publishing house in Europe and eventually acquired by a company that wished to remain anonymous and that deposited the tapes in the German federal archives in Koblenz, with instructions that they should be used only for academic research.

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

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

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

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

German authorities and the owner of the tapes gave the filmmakers free access to 15 hours of surviving audio. (Sassen had recorded about 70 hours, but he had taped over many of the expensive reels after transcribing them.) Mozer said that the owner of the tapes and the archive had finally agreed to give the filmmakers access, believing that they 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; Toluca Pictures; and Kan 11, Israel’s public broadcaster.

A 108-minute version premiered as the opening movie at the Docaviv film festival in Tel Aviv this spring. A 180-minute television version was aired in three episodes in Israel in June. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is looking for partners to license and air the series around the world.

The conversations in Sassen’s living room are interspersed with archival footage and interviews with surviving participants of the trial. The archival footage has been colorized because, the filmmakers said, young people think of black-and-white footage as unrealistic, as if from a different planet.

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

“The whole of Israeli society was listening – cabdrivers were listening, it was a national experience,” she said.

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

“Each few decades you have a different type of Israeli society listening,” he said. “The youth of today are not the same as in previous decades.”

Hearing the tapes now, the unambiguous confessions of Eichmann are startling.

“It’s a difficult thing that I am telling you,” Eichmann says in the recording, “and I know I will be judged for it. But I cannot tell you otherwise. It’s the truth. Why should I deny it?

“Nothing annoys me more,” he added, “than a person who later denies the things he has done.”

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