Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday released several documents, including a handwritten request for clemency from Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann sent to then President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Eichmann, one of the masterminds of the Holocaust, was captured by the Mossad in Argentina and sentenced to death by an Israeli court in 1961.
At a ceremony in Jerusalem to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rivlin made public Eichmann’s petition, written after he had been brought to Israel in 1960. In it, he said the Israeli court had overstated his role in organizing the logistics of what the Nazis called the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question'.
"The judges made a critical mistake when assessing my personality, because they cannot place themselves in the time and situation I was in during the war years," Eichmann wrote to Israel's second president. "It is untrue that I was such an important person that I could oversee, or would independently oversee, the persecution of the Jews."
Eichmann argued that the judges had ignored his claim that he had "never served in such a high-ranking position that would have involved such decisive and independent authorities."
He went on to write: "I also never gave any orders in my name, but always operated according to orders. Had I been, as the judges assume, the fanatical driving force in the persecution of the Jews, this should have been reflected in a promotion and other rewards, but I was never granted any favor. A line must be drawn between the leaders who are responsible and people like me, who were forced to serve as the leadership's tools. I was not in charge of things, and therefore I do not feel that I am guilty. And I ask of you, Honorable President, to use your right of pardon and order that this death sentence not be carried out."
Eichmann's wife Vera also wrote to Ben-Tzi with a request for a pardon "as a mother of four children". A letter by Eichmann's five brothers was attached to Adolf's letter, which argued that the trial had exposed the horrors of the past to the world. "If people thus attain tolerance and an understanding of brotherhood, the purpose of the trial was achieved. As a conclusion to this worldwide rebuke, an act of mercy would emphasize the altruism of the Jewish people and help it by means of advancing friendship between peoples and races."
Eichmann's German attorney, Robert Servatius, noted in the request that his client was "an unimportant person who was thrust by fate into political events." Servatius added that the court had not taken into account the historical context of events, which he claimed were grounds for overturning the death sentence. "The condemned did not act out of a position of anti-Semitism, but because he was bound by a bureaucratic system that forced him to do so."
Ben-Zvi rejected the request in a concise letter. "After considering the parson requests submitted regarding the Adolf Eichmann case, and after I gave my attention to all the materials available to me, I reached the conclusion that there is no justification for giving Eichmann a pardon or mitigate the punishment passed down by the Jerusalem District Court on 15 December 1961, which was approved by the Supreme Court on 29 May 1962," wrote Ben-Zvi.
"Thus, I am informing you that I have decided to refuse the requests and not use my powers to pardon and reduce punishments in this case."
Adolf Eichmann was hanged a few minutes after midnight on 1 June 1962, three days after his letter to the Israeli head of state. Israel has since not executed any convict.
Also among the documents released on Wednesday were notes by Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner in preparation for his opening statement in the Eichmann trial. "When I stand before you, judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I do not stand alone," Hausner told the court. "With me here are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point their finger at the man in the dock with the cry 'J'accuse!' on their lips.
"For they are now only ashes – ashes piled high on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka and strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is stilled. Therefore will I be their spokesman. In their name will I unfold this terrible indictment."
The Eichmann trial and the surrounding media coverage sparked renewed interest in wartime events, and the resulting increase in publication of memoirs and scholarly works helped raise public awareness of the Holocaust. It received widespread coverage by the press in Germany.
In Israel, the testimony of witnesses at the trial led to a deeper understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on survivors, especially among younger citizens who had never suffered state-sponsored oppression.