The letter, handwritten by Adolf Eichmann in German, was made public for the first time Wednesday in Israel. The documents had been discovered by researchers only in the past few weeks, when they were digitizing files from the president’s archive.
JERUSALEM — After he was convicted and sentenced to death in Israel for his role in the annihilation of millions of Jews by Nazi Germany, Adolf Eichmann pleaded for his own life.
“There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders,” pleaded Eichmann — the Nazi war criminal who oversaw the lethal logistics of the Holocaust — in a letter dated May 29, 1962, the day that Israel’s Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
Eichmann asked the Israeli president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, for a pardon, arguing, “I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.”
The letter, handwritten by Eichmann in German, and other documents from the case, were made public for the first time Wednesday by Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, during an event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
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The documents had been discovered by researchers only in the past few weeks, when they were digitizing files from the president’s archive.
In the letter, Eichmann repeated the defense offered at his four-month trial in 1961: that he was a low-level functionary following orders, and he should not be held accountable for the crimes of his superiors. He wrote that the judges who convicted him were “not able to empathize with the time and situation in which I found myself during the war years.”
“It is also incorrect that I never let myself be influenced by human emotions,” he added, noting: “Specifically after having witnessed the outrageous human atrocities, I immediately asked to be transferred. Also, during the police investigation I voluntarily revealed horrors that had been unknown until then, in order to help establish the indisputable truth.”
In his request for clemency, Eichmann wrote he had only been following orders.
“I am not able to recognize the court’s ruling as just, and I ask, Your Honor Mr. President, to exercise your right to grant pardons, and order that the death penalty not be carried out,” he concluded, before signing his name in blue ink on lined paper.
Eichmann’s wife, Vera, and his five brothers, made their own appeals for a pardon for Eichmann, and these were included among the documents released Wednesday, along with Ben-Zvi’s reply, in a letter typed in Hebrew and dated May 31, 1962.
A telegram, in German, from Vera Eichmann asked, “as a wife and mother of four children,” for her husband’s life to be spared. A handwritten note, in Hebrew, attached to the telegram by the president, contains a quotation from the Torah: “But Samuel said, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.’ (Samuel 1 15:3)”
In a letter typed in Hebrew and dated May 31, 1962, Ben-Zvi wrote to Israel’s justice minister, Dov Yosef, that, “After considering the pardon requests made on behalf of Adolf Eichmann and after having reviewed all the material presented to me, I came to the conclusion that there is no justification in giving Adolf Eichmann a pardon or easing the sentence imposed on him.”
At midnight on June 1, 1962, two days after he wrote his request for mercy, Eichmann was executed by hanging.
Rivlin, whose audience in unveiling the documents at his official residence included Holocaust survivors and people who played a role in the Eichmann case, asserted in a statement: “Not a moment of kindness was given to those who suffered Eichmann’s evil.”
“Eichmann’s application for amnesty revealed here today proves that Eichmann and his family recognized that in the state of Israel, a murderer such as Eichmann would be convicted and that justice would be done,” Rivlin said.
For many Israelis, the 1961 trial of Eichmann — who had been captured by Israeli agents in Argentina the year before — was the first time they were exposed to the shocking testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
Eichmann’s role and level of influence in the Nazi machine has been debated. David Cesarani, a historian of 20th-century Jewish life who died last year, wrote a biography of Eichmann that sought to cast him as a committed subscriber to Nazi ideology to refute Hannah Arendt’s famous appraisal of him as a banal bureaucrat who simply followed orders.
In the letter requesting a presidential pardon, Eichmann wrote, “It is not true that I was personally of such a high rank as to be able to persecute, or that I myself was a persecutor in the pursuit of Jews.”
He continued, “I declare once again, as I did in the presence of the court: I detest as the greatest of crimes the horrors which were perpetrated against the Jews and think it right that the initiators of these terrible deeds will stand trial before the law now and in the future.”
By then his fate was sealed.