“The Flat” uncovers a relationship between a Nazi and a Jew

The Israeli documentary “The Flat” begins in a Tel Aviv apartment, where half a dozen people are clearing out 70 years of clutter left behind by their grandmother, who has died recently at 98.

After this deceptively low-key start, Arnon Goldfinger, the film’s director, writer and narrator, embarks on a real-life detective thriller while exploring some very personal and haunting questions.

How much do we really know — or want to know —  about the lives of our families, especially our grandparents? What were the deep ties that bound German Jews to a fatherland that had just expelled them? Could a high-ranking Nazi SS official also be an ardent Zionist and a close friend of a Jewish couple?

Goldfinger’s grandfather, Kurt Tuchler, was a Berlin judge, an active Zionist and a German patriot who had been decorated in World War I. He and his wife, Gerda, left Germany for Tel Aviv in 1936 and, during the seven decades they lived in their flat, completely re-created their Berlin milieu and never threw away a single receipt, letter or pair of shoes.

As their surviving daughter and grandchildren throw sack after sack of litter into a garbage dump, Arnon rescues a copy of Der Angriff, a newspaper published by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself, dated April 1933.

Why would Kurt Tuchler carry such an anti-Semitic rag with him when leaving for Palestine?

Well, the lead story is titled “A Nazi Visits Palestine,” written by Leopold von Mildenstein, which gives considerable space to the accomplishments of the pioneer Jews reclaiming the land. The writer was accompanied by his wife and by a Jewish couple — Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, Goldfinger’s grandparents.

How was such a relationship possible? As one analyst in the film explains, at the time, the Nazis just wanted to expel all the Jews, and Palestine seemed like the place to go.

The Zionist organization also wanted the Jews to go to Palestine and, therefore, assigned two trusted members, the Tuchlers, to accompany the von Mildensteins.

But the relationship between the Nazi, scion of an old aristocratic family, and the Jew didn’t end there. The von Mildensteins accompanied the Tuchlers to the train as they left for Palestine. Even after the Holocaust, in which part of Tuchler’s family perished, the two couples resumed their friendship, with von Mildenstein, now the Coca-Cola representative in Germany, hosting the Tuchlers year after year.

So perhaps von Mildenstein was one of the “good” Germans — or maybe not.

During his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Adolf Eichmann testified that his SS superior and mentor in “solving the Jewish question,” and the recognized expert on Judaism, was a von Mildenstein, who later worked in Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.

Goldfinger finds von Mildenstein’s daughter, who receives him warmly but says that her father was merely a journalist and had been cleared of any war crimes charges.

Interwoven in this central drama are the relationships within the extended Goldfinger family.

Arnon’s siblings know practically nothing about their grandparents, and even his mother, the Tuchlers’ daughter, counsels initially that there is not much sense in digging up old stories.

“The Flat” was screened last week at the Museum of Tolerance, and afterward a highly engaged audience had a chance to question Goldfinger about his film.

In response, the 49-year-old director, obviously a thoughtful and sensitive person — as well as a one-time chess prodigy — explored some of the complexities of his life and documentary.

How could the Nazi and the Jew carry on a friendship, both before and after the war, a viewer asked.

Von Mildenstein was an educated and sophisticated man who found in Tuchler his intellectual equal, Goldfinger proposed.  So the SS officer found no contradiction in ordering the expulsion of Jews in the morning, and in the afternoon having a cup of coffee and stimulating chat with Tuchler, though, regrettably, the Jew would have to go in the end.

But why did the Tuchlers resume their friendship even after the horrors of the war and the Holocaust?

Goldfinger put the same question to a German scholar as part of the documentary, who answered that perhaps Tuchler needed the relationship more than did von Mildenstein.

The old, established Jewish community in Germany was so invested in its German identity that even after Hitler came to power, it wanted to believe that not everybody despised the Jews, that there were indeed some “good” Germans.

Did von Mildenstein’s daughter lie when she defended her father’s reputation, another audience member asked. Goldfinger replied that she may not have told everything she knew; she may have been in denial, but that did not make her an outright liar.

Deservedly, “The Flat” has been received with acclaim and awards in Israel and Germany and will be appreciated by anyone who values first-class documentary filmmaking with an open-minded exploration of human complexity. 

The Flat” opens Oct. 24 at the Landmark in West Los Angeles, and on Nov. 2 at the Laemmle theaters in Pasadena and Encino, and at the Regency South Coast Village in Costa Mesa.

Eichmann revisited at Loyola Law School

In the midst of World War II, when a German general demanded that a noted Jewish radar expert be exempted from deportation to help the Nazi war effort, SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann icily replied that as a matter of principle he could not make any exceptions in ensuring the success of the Final Solution.

As the Soviet army neared Budapest and SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler himself told his subordinate to halt trains transporting Jews to death camps, Eichmann ignored the order.

Hardly the picture drawn by Eichmann in his 1961 trial, when he described himself as merely an obedient bureaucrat carrying out his superiors’ wishes.

Gabriel Bach, Israel’s senior prosecutor at the trial in Jerusalem and Eichmann’s only contact with the outside world, culled these incidents from thousands of documents.

Bach was the honoree and keynote speaker last week at the three-day conference (9/15-16) “Perspectives on Genocide: The Adolf Eichmann Trial – Looking Back 50 Years Later.”

The event was organized by the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, affiliated with Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution that has frequently been at the forefront of Holocaust studies and commemorations.

Bach was born in Germany, though his family left when he was 11, and he served in the Israeli army and studied for the bar in London. Following the Eichmann trial, he was named Israel’s state attorney, and he subsequently served as an Israeli Supreme Court justice for 15 years.

Now a vigorous 84, Bach spoke for more than an hour without any notes at a dinner during which he received the Center’s inaugural Raphael Lemkin Award.  The previous evening, he spoke at a screening of the film, “Memories of the Eichmann Trials.”

One strongly felt influence at the dinner, and at the following day’s three panel discussions, was that of the late Hannah Arendt, a political theorist who covered the trial for the New Yorker magazine.

In her subsequent book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Arendt argued that people like Eichmann were not demented fanatics, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accepted the rules of their current leaders and societies and then did their best to carry out their programs, like good technicians and bureaucrats.

“Banality of evil” quickly became a popular catchword but found little favor at the 50th anniversary discussions.

Based on his exhaustive research, Bach said that far from being just a cog in the machine, Eichmann frequently used his own initiative to hasten the extermination of Jews, even if his decisions defied common sense or went counter to his country’s war effort.

One of Eichmann’s jobs was to rule on requested exemptions to the deportation program for certain specific Jews or part-Jews.

Bach said that in all the notes and documents by and on Eichmann, he could not find a single instance in which the SS enforcer granted such an exemption, whatever the pressure from German leaders and allies.

In separate interviews, others among the 12 international scholars participating in the panel discussions generally backed Bach’s appraisal.

Christopher R. Browning of the University of North Carolina, who researched the brutal behavior of a group of ordinary middle-aged Germans in a killing unit, reached a split decision on the banality-of-evil thesis.

“Arendt had the right concept, but in Eichmann she got the wrong person,” Browning said. “Eichmann was a very ambitious ideologue, not a banal bureaucrat.”

Another key conference topic was the long-range historical impact of the Eichmann trial.

One result was to awaken the conscience and awareness of German’s post-war generation to Nazi atrocities, which in turn triggered a series of subsequent trials of concentration camp commanders and guards, and more recently of Holocaust deniers, Browning commented.

Leila Nadya Sadat, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and director of the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, said that the Eichmann case set important precedents in the area of international law, enabling courts in one country to try alleged perpetrators of war crimes committed in another country.

Sadat said she was a distant relative of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. “My father is Muslim, my mother is Jewish, and I was raised as a Christian,” she said. “I’m lucky I was born in the United States, otherwise everyone would be out to get me, one way or the other.”

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli prime minister who ordered the capture of Eichmann, saw the trial as an educational tool, not only for Germans but for Israeli youth ashamed of the supposed passivity of Holocaust victims, said Stanley A. Goldman, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Genocide.

In contrast to most non-public institutions of higher learning in the United States, Loyola Law School, opened in 1920, never limited the number of Jewish students through an admission quota.

The university also has active Jewish and Holocaust studies programs, and sponsors exhibits and lectures, plus study trips to Israel and Poland, and annual commemorations of Kristallnacht. Its conference on the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial is believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States.

Dinner guests included numerous Jewish faculty and alumni, and one guest jokingly asked Brian Costello, the law school’s media manager whether Loyola admitted any Catholic students.

The Jewish presence was also notable among the conference organizers and welcomers, consisting of three Jewish professors, Victor J. Gold, Loyola law school dean, Goldman, and Holocaust legal scholar Michael Bazyler of the Chapman University School of Law.

From the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, a challenge for today

Sixty-five years ago at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, 22 defendants stood in the dock. They represented a cross-section of Nazi diplomatic, economic, political and military leadership, and became the first people in history to be indicted for crimes against humanity.

A tribunal of judges from the victorious Allied countries—the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union—did not convict all of the defendants. While 12 were sentenced to death, three to life terms and four to prison terms of up to 20 years, three were acquitted.

Additional trials were held in the following years. Collectively, all of the proceedings are now commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Trials.

Well before the war ended, the Allies had decided to prosecute Germans who were responsible for crimes against civilian populations. They believed that trials would hold an important place in history. They also hoped that establishing a new legal precedent would extinguish the possibility of the world ever facing these crimes again.

Among its legacies, the military tribunal at Nuremberg codified a new law—crimes against humanity—to protect civilians, and it prosecuted Nazi war criminals for atrocities they committed not only against their own citizens but those of other nations. It rejected the long-standing doctrine of sovereign immunity, which exempted heads of state from prosecution for actions taken while in office, and the doctrine of superior orders, which protected subordinates from being prosecuted for crimes they committed under orders. 

The legacy of Nuremberg in preventing future atrocities has been uneven. The United Nations unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on Dec. 9, 1948. However, the United States did not become a party to the U.N Convention until 1988, and not until the 1990s were the first international criminal tribunals since Nuremberg established in the wake of the massive failure to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.

More recently, some encouraging signs that genocide prevention efforts are taking hold have emerged. In 2002, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court established the first permanent judicial body dedicated to trying those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Three years later the World Summit, a gathering of leaders from U.N. member countries, adopted language maintaining that member nations have a “responsibility to protect” civilians anywhere when their own government cannot or will not protect them from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.

Whether these trends continue will depend on the will of policymakers and the commitment of their constituents to making prevention and punishment a priority.

In addition to its legal legacy, Nuremberg had an enormous impact on our collective understanding of this pivotal era in history. The U.S. chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, made a crucial decision to base the prosecution on the voluminous documentary evidence produced by the perpetrators of genocide themselves rather than eyewitness testimony, in part because he feared the testimony of survivors and other witnesses to Nazi crimes could be dismissed as unreliable or biased.

Jackson’s decision to rely on documentary evidence presented a fuller picture of Nazi atrocities than anyone had previously imagined, and the trial stands as an eternal testament to the magnitude of the Holocaust. Never before or since have the perpetrators of genocide so thoroughly documented their own evil.

Some 3,000 tons of documents, photographs, film footage and artifacts were presented at the first Nuremberg Trial alone, and the prosecutors’ meticulous work provided the foundation for initial scholarship on the Holocaust and much of what we know about that event today. Jackson’s concept of proving “incredible events with credible evidence” probably ended up having as much of an impact educationally as legally.

Interestingly, 15 years after Nuremberg, a new approach to the evidence would be used but with equally powerful public impact.

One of the primary implementers of the Nazi genocide who escaped trial right after the war was Adolf Eichmann. Captured by the Israelis in Argentina, he was brought to trial in 1961. This time, however, the trial would not take place in occupied Germany but in Israel, home to many Holocaust survivors. This would not be victors’ justice but victims’ justice.

Nuremberg precedents invalidating the doctrine of superior orders again would be invoked.  But in addition to perpetrator documents, the survivors of genocide testified, giving a human face to the incomprehensible statistics, massive amounts of official records and countless piles of corpses.

While the primary focus of Nuremberg was to establish the actions of the killers and the facts of the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial put a spotlight on the survivors and established the individuality of its many victims. In the new era of television, the trial was broadcast all over the world, enabling people everywhere to hear searing personal testimony from one survivor after another.

Although the Eichmann trial did not set legal precedents as the military tribunal did at Nuremberg, it dramatically shaped public understanding of the Holocaust by bringing the personal experiences of this history into living rooms around the world. 

The legacies of Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial probably shape our world more than we understand. The question is, will they shape the future?

Recognizing that true justice is never possible in the face of such crimes, we are nevertheless increasingly learning the value of holding perpetrators accountable. But how do we work toward a world where such trials are not necessary?

Today, in this week of Holocaust remembrance, as we honor the memory of the victims, that question should be the challenge we set for ourselves. Responding to that challenge would be the most meaningful tribute to those 6 million innocent men, women and children for whom justice came too late.

Sara J. Bloomfield is the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Europe remembers how Eichmann trial and TV changed perceptions of Holocaust

The face, with its twisted mouth, receding hairline and dark-framed glasses, is familiar around the world today.

But 50 years ago, when Adolf Eichmann—former head of the Nazi Department for Jewish Affairs—first sat in a Jerusalem courtroom to face war crimes charges, his visage was known to very few.

Television changed that. For West Germans, the impact was profound. Twice a week, for four months, entire families—and sometimes neighbors, too—gathered in living rooms to watch the reports from Jerusalem.

“There was a lot of watching, and it changed the discussion about the Holocaust,” said philosopher Bettina Stangneth, whose book “Eichmann vor Jerusalem” (“Eichmann Faces Jerusalem”) is set to be published in Germany on April 18.

It wasn’t as if most Germans wanted to watch the trial.

“But back then, there was not such a big choice of programs,” Stangneth said. “They could not change the channel so easily.”

Now, as historical institutes and museums in Europe and elsewhere look back at the pivotal trial that began 50 years ago, on April 11, 1961, media coverage of the event is a key theme.

In Frankfurt, German TV reports from 1961 will be shown at the Fritz-Bauer Institute, which is hosting a symposium on the Eichmann trial this month. At Berlin’s Topography of Terror documentation center, videotaped testimony by witnesses and by Eichmann are part of a new exhibit. In Paris, the Memorial de la Shoah is dedicating a program to documentary filmmaker Leo Hurwitz, who directed the videotaping of the four-month trial.

Back then, Israel was practically a country without TV, said Ronny Loewy, an expert on cinematography of the Holocaust at Frankfurt’s German Film Institute. Israelis either listened to a broadcast of the trial live on the radio or attended a simulcast in an auditorium near the court.

“Beside the United States, there was no other country where they were reporting to the same extent as in Germany,” Loewy told JTA.

A survey showed that 95 percent of Germans knew about the trial, and 67 percent favored a severe sentence, according to the 1997 book “Anti-Semitism in Germany: The Post-Nai Epoch Since 1945” by German scholars Werner Bergmann and Rainer Erb.

To get out the news at the end of each court day, two hours of clips were flown to London for dissemination to European and U.S. news programs, recalled cinematographer Tom Hurwitz, who was 14 when his father was assigned to direct the taping. In Germany, the clips were used to produce biweekly, 20-minute reports called “An Epoch on Trial.”

These broadcasts, and other coverage by some 400 German journalists in Israel, had a decisive impact, according to Stangneth.

Until the trial, many Germans had dismissed the few books about the Holocaust as biased. Teachers largely had avoided the subject.

Once the broadcasts of the Eichmann trial began, however, they could ignore it no longer. Young Germans looked at the wartime generation differently. Dozens of new books about the Holocaust were written.

The story of how Eichmann was brought to justice seemed made for TV. He escaped an American POW camp in Germany after the war, got help from the Catholic Church to flee to Argentina, and lived there for years under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement. Recently it was revealed that German intelligence officials knew of Eichmann’s location as early as 1952.

Before his capture, Eichmann had boasted to friends of his involvement in the Final Solution and shared his dreams of resurrecting National Socialism. He even told Dutch fascist journalist Willem Sassen in the late 1950s that he regretted his failure to complete the job of genocide. Eichmann reportedly said he hoped the Arabs would carry on his fight for him, according to Stangneth, who recently recovered some 300 pages of “lost” interview transcripts.

In 1960, the Mossad captured Eichmann in a dramatic operation that ended with his being brought clandestinely to Israel.

As the date of the trial neared, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer became intensely worried, according to historian Deborah Lipstadt, whose new book, “The Eichmann Trial,” came out in March. Adenauer feared “that Eichmann might expose the number of prominent Nazis who served in his government,” she said.

Even worse, Lipstadt said, by 1951 Adenauer was fed up with the guilt he felt was being foisted on the Germans for perpetrating the genocide of the Jews.

“He thought it was time to move on,” she said. “It is shocking that he could say that. And here it was, coming back, in a very strong way.”

The Eichmann trial was full of drama, drawing the world’s attention to the perpetrator and to his victims. Eichmann faced 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Many millions of eyes studied Eichmann through TV sets, trying in vain to discern in his word, manner and expressions signs of remorse.

Tom Hurwitz recalled how his late father once filmed Eichmann viewing a selection of film clips taken after the liberation of concentration camps; Eichmann had the right to see the clips before they were shown in the courtroom. During the screening, one cameraman focused on Eichmann as he watched one horrific image after another. Eichmann sat impassively.

Hannah Arendt described the stony figure in her 1963 work, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” launching a debate that continues to this day as to whether Eichmann was a cog in the Nazi machine or a true believer in genocidal anti-Semitism.

The guilty verdict was pronounced in December 1961, and Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962—the only judicial execution ever carried out in Israel. Eichmann’s ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.

Even once Eichmann was gone, the impact of the trial and its coverage continued. With so many German journalists in Israel, reports about life in the young Jewish state abounded. An era of exchange began.

And the obvious fairness of the trial—Eichmann had a German lawyer and obviously was not being tortured—“looked like justice, not revenge,” Stangneth said. “This also had an impact on the image of Israel. One can say that Israel came a little bit closer to Germany.”

The trial also helped Germany come closer to confronting itself.

Soon afterward, in December 1963, Germany launched its famous Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, which lasted through the summer of 1965 and lay out the brutality of former neighbors and relatives for all to see.

“The Eichmann trial put the theme there,” Stangneth said. “One could not ignore it.”

Germany knew Eichmann’s whereabouts, documents show

The notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann could have been caught sooner if Germany’s intelligence agency had assisted, new information has revealed.

The German Information Agency knew as early as 1952 that Eichmann, a chief organizer of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, was hiding in Argentina under a false name, the German tabloid Bild reported. The information was revealed after the newspaper sued the agency to force the release of all remaining documents on Eichmann, who was captured by Israeli agents in 1960.

After a trial in Israel, he was executed in 1962—the only person ever executed by the Jewish state.

“The revelations are very troubling because they clearly show the Germans never had any interest in bringing people like that to justice,” Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, told JTA Monday. “Today they are making the effort, but with criminals who played a far lesser role than Eichmann.”

According to the documents viewed by Bild reporters, the German secret service received information in 1952 that Eichmann “is not in Egypt but is living under the name CLEMENS in Argentina. The editor in chief of the German newspaper ‘Der Weg’ in Argentina knows E.‘s address.”

In fact, Eichmann’s fake name was Klement. Not until 1958 did the German secret service inform the CIA about Eichmann having fled to Argentina. The newspaper reported that virtually all of several thousand microfilmed pages about Eichmann were destroyed. Bild sued for the right to see all the remaining documents.

Historian Bettina Stangneth, whose book about Eichmann is due to be published in April, told Bild that she considered the file card “sensational. No one knew until today that the West German secret service knew of Eichmann’s whereabouts eight years before his arrest.”

Zuroff said he planned to appeal to the German government to release all the secret service documents that may contain information about accused war criminals who have escaped justice.

German court OKs release of Eichmann files

A German court has paved the way for the release of secret files about executed Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

In a decision announced last Friday, the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig found the German government’s objections to release of the documents too vague.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has a final chance to prove that release of the files could endanger foreign policy interests, according to German news reports. Otherwise, some 3,400 pages of documents could finally see the light of day due to the efforts of a freelance journalist in Argentina.

Gabriele Weber of Buenos Aires requested the release of the documents from the German Federal Intelligence Service from the 1950s and 1960s, which have not been released for 50 years under orders from the Chancellery.

The Chancellery had claimed their publication would damage German relations with countries in the Middle East and compromise Germany’s cooperation with foreign intelligence services. Sections of the documents would have to be blacked out to protect private individuals and the identity of informants, according to reports in the German press.

The Chancellery and intelligence agency must now decide whether there are additional objections.

Eichmann, who oversaw the mass deportations of European Jews to death camps, fled Germany after World War II and was captured in 1960 in Argentina by the Israeli Mossad spy agency. He was tried and executed in Israel in 1962.

One of Eichmann’s sons, the Berlin-based archeologist Ricardo Eichmann, told Der Spiegel Online that “Whatever is in those files, the time has come for them to be accessible to scholars.”