The Eichmann in the Room

About once a month since we got married, we spend a shabbat in Holon with my in-laws. We are fortunate in that we get on very well, the food is delicious, and best of all, we always get doggy bags that keep us going through the rest of the week!

On Friday evening, I always accompany my father-in-law to his synagogue (on Shabbat morning they begin at 7am; I am yet to make it!). He is Yemenite, and I have always found the service fascinating. Broadly speaking, it is the same as any other service, but there are two main differences: nearly every part of the liturgy is chanted out loud in unison; the Yemenites have their own very unique pronunciation of Hebrew (which many believe is the closest pronunciation to the original Hebrew language). A non-yemenite, familiar with the prayer service, but not with the local ‘slang’, as my father-in-law likes to call it, would be a bit bemused on walking in, but once you learn the rules it is actually quite easy to follow; by now I am pretty much at home with the service and am doing my best to adapt my pronunciation accordingly!

My father-in-law has a fixed seat in the synagogue, and next to him is a space for my brother-in-law. As my brother-in-law now normally prays elsewhere, this has become my seat when I visit. On entering the synagogue last Friday, I saw a gentleman that I had not seen before in the synagogue, sitting in the seat I usually occupy. He was an elderly, pious looking man, in a long black gabardine and a small black hat; his silver payot (sidelocks) curled in the Yemenite style.

Shalom Nagar
Shalom Nagar

Someone must have said something (not us), as he moved, and ended up sitting directly behind me. As we approached our seat, my father-in-law whispered in my ear: “haish hahu tala et Eichmann” (“that man hanged Eichmann”).

Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution, was famously apprehended by the Mossad while hiding in Argentina, smuggled back to Israel, and put on trial in 1961. It was a seminal moment in the history of the state, when for the first time the majority of the country really began to come to terms with what had happened in the Holocaust. It was also the first time in Israel’s history that a death sentence was actually carried out (in other cases it has been ordered but cancelled on appeal).

I vaguely remembered hearing that they had selected a Yemenite to perform the execution. This was in order to avoid any hint of this being revenge, as opposed to justice. Too many of the European and even North African Jews living in Israel were affected personally by the Holocaust, but the Yemenites were not. It was remarkable to think that this diminutive man sitting behind me had been responsible for the death of this most famous criminal.

Even if I had wanted to forget about this during the service, it was not possible. The vast majority of a Yemenite liturgy is chanted aloud, in unison, and often in a loud voice. I kept hearing his voice, with a very strong Yemenite accent, sounding in my ear. I kept being reminded of him, and thinking about what he had done. Thinking about the morality and virtues (or not) of capital punishment. Thinking about Eichmann and the horrors he perpetrated. Thinking how it must have felt to carry out this sentence.

The service broke for the rabbi’s sermon. The weekly Torah portion mentioned the obligation of a man witnessing a murder to bear witness against the perpetrator. He suggested that part of this was a sort of catharsis for the witness who had seen a terrible crime, as well as the need to bring justice. He began speaking about the large amount of violence in modern media, both theatrical violence in film and TV dramas and real violence on the news or available in the latest ISIS broadcasts. He argued that by watching this violence, one is like a witness, and one needs to cleanse one’s soul somehow.

I could not help thinking about the gentleman behind me, and what he had not just witnessed, but actually done. I was not the only one; a fellow congregant began to rib him, asking him how he had cleansed himself of what he had witnessed. I felt so sorry for this poor man. Fortunately, other congregants stepped in and ordered that it came to an end. But I could still hear the old man behind me, muttering “there were three witnesses”, as if somehow the shared burden made things easier. It was heart-wrenching.

The service concluded, we stood up to leave. Our new friend was still busy praying, reading the aleinu prayer which they do not normally recite in this synagogue. He shook my hand as we left, wishing me a “Shabbat Shalom”; the hand which shook mine was no doubt the hand that ended Eichmann’s life.

It was a bizarre experience. I was filled with pity for this man, who is famed for performing this most terrible of deeds. And yet there was something about his demeanour which was just so pure; his dress, his side-locks, his extra prayers, his elderly cracking voice escaping the gaps in his teeth. I was excited to have met this man who was a part of history, and desperate to question him on it, yet aware that this was far from the time or the place. I was horrified by the thought of what had happened.

After Shabbat, with the help of Google, I learned a bit more about Shalom Nagar. It seems that he has come to terms with his past and lives a happy, uncomplicated life. If you are interested, you can read an in-depth interview here.

In Israel, it so often happens that what would appear to be an entirely normal evening ends up being extraordinary; thought-provoking; somewhat emotional. It never ceases to amaze me.

What do you think?