It wasn’t until the Eichmann trial that any significant number of Israeli Holocaust survivors felt able to talk about what happened to them, Amos Hausner said.
That trial, in 1961, which ended in the execution of the Nazi war criminal — still the only execution in Israel’s history — brought stories of the unbearable cruelties Eichmann oversaw into public discourse.
Mr. Hausner knows about that firsthand. His father, Gideon Hausner, was Israel’s attorney general then, and he prosecuted the case. Mr. Hausner will talk about it at Temple Emanu-el of Closter on Shabbat (see box).
Like his father, Amos Hausner is a lawyer with a formidable set of accomplishments, including advocacy work that curtailed smoking in Israel. He is motivated by his father’s work, he said. Partly that’s because as a lawyer who has thought a great deal about the Eichmann case, he believes that “the trial was one of the foundations of international criminal law as it is used today.” And it’s partly because he remembers some of the witnesses at the Eichmann trial, who came to his house when he was a child to discuss their testimony.
The issues surrounding Eichmann’s trial, Mr. Hausner said, are about “a country trying someone for crimes committed many years before the state of Israel was founded, which raises issues of jurisdiction, or retroactivity, and also of extraterritoriality, because the crimes were committed thousands of miles beyond Israel’s boundaries.”
It also elicited questions of impartiality, “because we are talking about a man who exterminated one third of the Jewish nation, and all the judges were Jewish,” he added.
“And last but not least is the issue of his defense, which is known as an act of state. Eichmann’s defense was not that he was just following orders, but that he was executing the policy of his own government. The only way that you can find somebody guilty is when you absolutely deny this defense. And the only reason why it was not valid is because of the universality of the issue; because some principles of law transcend the issue of local jurisdiction, including local or domestic laws.” That some things are so immoral — so evil — that they cannot ever be legal.
For example, Mr. Hausner said, “Let’s not talk about mass murders. Let’s talk about mobilizing children, at the age of 10 or 12, for a local army.” That’s happened recently in more than one country in Africa. “This certainly is the policy of the ruler in that jurisdiction, the general, who could say, ‘Not only am I doing this, but so is my opponent.’ In other words, if I didn’t do it, someone else would — which incidentally is the defense of the tobacco people, when they are asked why they manufacture something that kills so many people.
“That defense had to be quashed altogether to find mass murderers guilty of crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and war crimes. And those are the legal implications of the trial, and of its importance to international criminal law.”
Another aspect of the trial was its impact on the Jewish psyche, Mr. Hausner continued.
“Before the trial, people thought about the Jews outside of Israel as weak, people who couldn’t defend themselves. And arrogant Israelis thought that if they had been there, things would have been completely different.
“My father showed, with many witnesses, that it was a completely false allegation. That if the Israelis had been there, and the European Jews had been in Israel, things would have been exactly the same.
“In one place, the Jews could defend themselves. In the other place, they could not. The difference was the situation, not the people.”
Witnesses would come to the Hausner home to prepare for trial, Amos Hausner said. “My father wanted a friendlier ambience” than an office could provide. The witnesses often were reluctant to talk. “I remember them saying, ‘Look, my own family won’t believe me, so why would a judge?’”
One of those reluctant witnesses who Mr. Hausner remembered at his house was Yehiel De-Nur, a writer whose pen name was Ka-Tsetnik 135633. “He wrote many books on the Holocaust,” Mr. Hausner said. “He told my father that he didn’t believe he could withstand the trial.” He testified, and “he collapsed on the the witness stand.”
At the time of the Eichmann trial, Mr. Hausner said, fully one quarter of Israelis — about 500,000 of the two million in Israel then — were Holocaust survivors, but they did not talk about it. Part of that reticence was because the stories were so awful that they sounded unbelievable. How could anyone survive that? And how could anyone be so inhuman as to inflict it?
Another reason to stay silent was “the pain,” he said. “It was just too huge.” And another part was shame. People believed that somehow it was their fault; that in some way they deserved or had earned what happened to them. It wasn’t a rational belief, but it was a human one.
But after the trial, “that completely changed, and people started talking,” Mr. Hausner said. “Films were made about it. People came to Yad VaShem to tell their own stories.”
Mr. Hausner’s family has its own story.
His grandfather, Dr. Bernard Dov Hausner, “was one of the Zionist leaders in Poland before the war,” Mr. Hausner said. He also was a Polish diplomat, and he “chose to be appointed as the Polish attaché to Tel Aviv in 1927. Later, he became the Polish consul to Tel Aviv.”
How could Dr. Hausner have worked for the Polish government? “We don’t really know the specifics, because my grandfather died in 1938, before the war, but he said that he thought that something terrible was going to happen to the Jews in Poland.
“He didn’t know what, but he knew something would happen.
“When he was asked how he, as a Zionist, could represent anti-Semites, he said, ‘The anti-Semites and I have a goal in common. We both want to get as many Jews out of Poland as possible.”
Dr. Hausner did not go back to Poland.
When his son, Amos’s father, Gideon, became attorney general, “he established the principle of the supremacy of law over politics,” Amos Hausner said. “That means that the attorney general is completely independent, and acts independently in indicting people. This principle was not certain when my father became attorney general.” That’s why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be under investigation now, as he is. “Now, generally speaking, there are some calls to lower the position of attorney general, and not to have it above politicians’ decisions.” But so far, at least, that position stands.
“My father was attorney general for less than three years — and look at what he has done,” Mr. Hausner said.
Who: Amos Hausner
What: Will talk about his father, the Eichmann trial, and Israeli jurisprudence
When: At Shabbat morning services on Saturday, September 14
Where: At Temple Emanu-El of Closter, 180 Piermont Road
For more information: Go to templeemanu-el.com