essays kaddish in two-part harmony

a kaddish for eichmann

Has anyone ever said kaddish for Eichmann? I had this argument tonight. Rh insisted that someone somewhere has mourned him. But that’s not what I meant. I did not mean just a Mourner’s Prayer. I meant a real live authentic kaddish. Maybe even with a minyan. And my thought was no. That it was very likely that no one on earth has ever said a kaddish for Eichmann.

Rh thought I was insane. That I was underestimating the power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness? This is Eichmann we’re talking about.

Maybe Hanna Arendt came the closest. Not that she forgave. Not that she said kaddish. But in a sense she excused him. Said he operated ‘unthinkingly’ with no consideration of the effects for those targeted by his bureaucratic assignment. It was she, after all, who coined the term ‘banality of evil’ in reference to Eichmann.

I mean, think about Adolf Eichmann.

He was a mechanic at heart. A mechanic and a manager. Not a philospher. Not even a polemicist. He was good on order. As in ‘following orders.’ And, as he said in his trial, it wasn’t just about following orders, but about following the law. So give him a break.

I was supposed to be at that trial.

It was late June, early July, 1961. Jerusalem. I was 13 at the time. Great Bat Mitzvah present, don’t you think? Tickets to the Eichmann Trial? My parents were attending. Kids did not attend — but my mom worked like hell to get me those 2-day tickets. Only problem was that I was sicker than I’d ever been in my life, and had ended up curled up in a tight little ball for days, while they attended the trial. Jerusalem, it turns out, always makes me sick to my stomach.

And you might think it downright child abuse to want to take a kid to hear the proceedings of a trial on crimes against humanity. Genocide. But for her it was about being a witness to history. And witnessing firsthand the confrontation between the survivors of the Holocaust and the monster finally on trial.

I remember that I hadn’t thought anything of attending. I took it for granted that I would go. After all, I’d been raised on the Holocaust. Grew up with the scars of bullet holes through the arms of my friends’ moms. Saw the numbers tattooed on older people’s arms. Saw photographs. Heard stories told firsthand. Heard the screams of parents during sleepover nights. Saw the yellow stars that had been preserved. Saw the Torah scrolls used as canvasses for crappy Nazi oil paintings of pastoral scenes. Mengele stories. I was raised on Kafka’s Trial. Durrenmatt’s Quarry — and after The Quarry nothing at all is scary.

I was supposed to be at that trial. But instead I had to make do with transcripts of the trial. Which you can find at the Nizkor Project website put out by the State of Israel’s Ministry of Justice. The site includes the text of the Wannsee Protocols from January, 1942. Now that’s something to read.

Imagine all of them sitting around the conference table at Wannsee. Sipping their tea, lunching on fancy china. Surrounded by the pristine snowy, wooded estate. Such beauty! All the while trying to figure out what to do with the Jews. Looking for the ‘Final Solution.’

Eichmann’s job was to find a way to get the Jews out of ‘every sphere of life’ of the German people. Out of ‘every living space’ of the German people.

He saw it as a transport issue.

At Wannsee they had lists. The number of Jews in every country targeted for expulsion. The final count, including Russia, was 11 million people.

A real headache for Eichmann.

The first idea was to ship ’em to Palestine. In 1939, Eichmann had been made head of the Office for Jewish Emigration, and had a number of Zionist contacts. Unfortunately, he was having trouble getting a visa to go to British Palestine to figure it out. The idea was to tax the Jews in Europe to pay the costs of deportation. By 1941 he was told essentially to forget all this emigration stuff; the Jews were to be exterminated. At Wannsee, a year later, it was determined definitively that the notion of ‘accelerated emigration’ was just too damned slow. Genocide was just a whole lot more efficient.

Lists were made up to work out bloodlines. What about those who are half Jewish? A quarter? Those married to Germans? Those who had little Jewish blood but ‘looked’ Jewish? Every category had to be documented.

And transport still had to be arranged — though now it would be to death camps. And Eichmann was in charge of all those trains that would carry them all to the gas chambers.

No wonder I was sick those days in Jerusalem.

But shouldn’t we think about the early Eichmann? The Eichmann whose transport problem was British Palestine. Think about maybe a Michael Chabon novel of alternate histories. An Eichmann responsible single-handedly for the creation of a Jewish Homeland. It was, after all, all the same to him. Transport is transport. He had, after all, even met with an agent of the Haganah to talk transport. Think of the might-have-beens if only the British had given him that damned visa. Can we say a kaddish for that Eichmann?

Consider, just consider for a moment all the other unthinking banal bureaucrats of the world who get their kaddish.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

3 replies on “a kaddish for eichmann”

Mir, this is brilliant.

With that point about the visa 'what if,' you have pushed me further on the path of meditating on the vast scope of unintended consequences, not to mention the sheer ridiculousness of blaming any individual for systemic meshugas.

Thank you.

[…] up way too early, I reread Mira’s post “we dying dogs” along with a bunch of others including “a kaddish for eichmann,” where Mira speculated that nobody had ever said a Kaddish for Eichmann — a kaddish Kaddish, […]

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