NEW YORK -– As a young reporter covering the Eichmann trial in Yiddish for The Forward, Elie Wiesel had a feeling he recognized the man accused of countless atrocities against humanity; knew him beyond the widespread media coverage. It was only much later that Wiesel realized Adolf Eichmann was one of two Nazi officers who oversaw the deportation of the Jews from his village.

Fifty years after Eichmann’s execution, Wiesel and a panel including Holocaust survivors, academics and an Israeli minister sat in an overflowing hall usually reserved for United Nations members to discuss universal respect for human rights. This Monday night the panel civilly discussed the trial of the mastermind of atrocities which irrevocably changed the face of international law, and arguably Israel itself.

“The Eichmann proceedings were covered everywhere — in every home, in every classroom, in every café — there was only one subject — the Eichmann trial,” said Wiesel. “I was there looking, taking notes, and somehow the man seemed familiar to me. Maybe it was because I read so many articles about him.

“Many years after the trial, still what bothered me was why did Eichmann look so familiar? I found out that Eichmann was in my town in Sighet supervising the deportation of the Jews. I remember there were two German officers; the rest of the work was done by Hungarian officers. Eichmann was one of them.

“The ‘great Eichmann’ to come to a little Yiddish town of 12,000 Jews?! He should be dealing with hundreds of thousands of Jews. But he really wanted to be everywhere to ensure that the last Jews should be deported. That was Eichmann.”

Eichmann was convicted on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against the Jewish people, and was sentenced to death on June 1, 1962 — the only time Israel has enacted the death penalty.

‘We learned that in those bitter times it was human to be inhuman’

“Now, fifty years later, what have we learned?” Wiesel asked. “We learned that in those bitter times it was human to be inhuman… but more than anything else it [the trial] contributed a lot to the memories of those times.”

According to Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “The Eichmann Trial” (available for purchase at the back of the hall), the proceedings were a turning point in Holocaust history, giving a voice and face to the millions of people who were persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.

“Listening to the victims may be the most important legacy of the trial,” she said. “It also opened the eyes of the world to genocide in an unprecedented fashion.”

‘In Nuremberg the victors sat in judgment, but now the victims would sit in judgment’

Comparing the Nuremberg War Crime Trials of 1945-46, where prominent Nazis, including Rudolf Hess and Hermann Göring, were prosecuted by Allied forces following the end of World War II, Lipstadt said the Eichmann Trial was different in that it was the first time that victims were represented. “In Nuremberg the victors sat in judgment, but now the victims would sit in judgment,” she said.

“The world has not lost interest in the trial after all these years,” said Ramu Damodaran, a senior official with the UN’s Department of Public Information. “This is due to the fact that it had enormous impact on public consciousness and the universal legal standards of justice and accountability.”

This lasting impact is largely due to the efforts of Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecuting attorney.

Calling over 100 witnesses to the stand during the trial, most of them survivors, Hausner proved to the world through their stories the enormity of the crime that was committed — not just a crime against a person or nation, but a crime against humanity.

In the Eichmann trial, the court in Israel also set an important modern precedent in the advancement of universal jurisdiction, the principle that every country has an interest in bringing to justice the perpetrators of grave crimes, no matter where the crime was committed, and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or their victims.

“At the time of the trial, the universal argument was not in existence,” said Israeli attorney Amos Hausner, son of the late Gideon Hausner, who was 14 at the time of the trial. “And this is why we are so proud that such a principle of the universal norm now takes precedence.”

Hausner highlighted a number of present-day cases that can be traced to the legacy of his father and the trial, including the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998 at the request of a Spanish judge on human rights violations committed in Chile, as well as the recent conviction of Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting children soldiers.

‘International law should be punitive to punish for past events, but it should also prevent crimes from happening’

But Hausner argued that the international criminal system often does not go far enough, citing the lack of legal intervention to respond to the incitement and threats by Iran calling for the “death of Israel.” “International law should be punitive to punish for past events, but it should also prevent crimes from happening,” he added.

Wiesel concurred, reiterating his campaign that calls for the arrest of [Iranian president] Ahmadinejad, just as Pinochet was arrested, and to bring him to the ICC on charges of intent to commit a crime against humanity.

Minister without Portfolio Yossi Peled, a Holocaust survivor from Belgium, reminded guests that just a few meters from where they were sitting, the president of Iran, a UN member state, stands on the podium of the General Assembly each year and denies the Holocaust while his government threatens to carry out another one.

“If a nation wants to survive, if a nation wants to have a future, we must remember the past,” said Peled.

Minister Yossi Peled, with Elie Wiesel next to him. 'If a nation wants to survive, if a nation wants to have a future, we must remember the past.' (photo credit: Shahar Azran)

Minister Yossi Peled, with Elie Wiesel next to him. 'If a nation wants to survive, if a nation wants to have a future, we must remember the past.' (photo credit: Shahar Azran)

For more information about a new Holocaust Studies Scholarship Program, visit: http://outreach.un.org/unai