This is the week that Jews throughout the world observe the anniversary of the Holocaust -- the mass killing that took place in Europe when 6 million Jews and many more millions of other people deemed to be inferior were systematically exterminated by Nazis in World War II.
Remembering the mass slaughter in Europe reminds us that, in every generation, there have been villains for Americans -- and for freedom-loving people throughout the world.
The villain for the World War II generation was Adolf Hitler, the ruler of Germany, and his henchman, Adolf Eichmann, the man who supervised the mass slaughter.
After Hitler’s suicide, the war ended and Eichmann fled Europe. But years later, Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, tracked him down in Argentina. They kidnapped him and brought him back to Israel for trial.
Toward the end of that trial, Eichmann insisted he was only following orders. He did not recognize that he had committed any wrong. As author Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial, put it, the defendant showed no sign of an anti-Semitic personality or any psychological peculiarity.
She believed he displayed neither guilt nor hatred. Rather, she added, he was the embodiment of the “banality of evil.” This has been interpreted to mean that anyone, even a lowly bureaucrat, can be transformed into a mass killer.
In recordings made by German officials, Eichmann insisted that, at heart, he was “an idealist.”
When Eichmann’s wife wrote to the Israeli president, Yitzak Ben-Zvi, asking for clemency, he denied it, adding in his own handwriting a passage from the First Book of Samuel: “As your sword bereaved women, so will your mother be bereaved among women.”
Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, at an Israeli prison. It was the only civil execution ever carried out in Israel.
In a strange twist to the story, Eichmann’s son, Ricardo, born after World War II, said he had no resentment against Israel for executing this father. Ricardo became a professor of archaeology at the German Archaelogical Institute.
Archaelogists try to unearth the story of past civilizations. One can wonder what his father’s life taught him about the Nazi culture and civilization.
The mass extermination of the Hitler years was carried out and little noticed by the rest of the world.
That is one of the aspects of the Holocaust. As Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote and later told me:
“The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference," he said. "As new generations arise, it is our duty to teach them with more and more fervor lessons of what seems like eternities ago."