The drama that had disappeared almost entirely from the official history of the Eichmann trial.
A few meters from the glass cell in which Adolph Eichmann sat in the courtroom at the People’s House in Tel Aviv, a team of shorthand stenographers labored to document what became known in the Israeli media as “the trial of the century.” The pressure imposed upon the members of the team, the many hearings and the scrambling for data that followed, took a heavy toll, almost sabotaging the course of the trial of one of the worst murderers of the Jewish people in history.
Five months before Adolph Eichmann, Head of the Jewish Department at the SS, went on trial, Police Superintendent Yitzchak Shapira invited Yaacov Maimon to his office and asked him a single question: How should the most important trial in the history of the State of Israel be documented? Maimon, inventor of the Hebrew shorthand and a veteran Aliyah activist, laid before Shapira the advantages and shortcomings of recording the trial on tape and instead recommended the deployment of a team of stenographers. During that initial conversation Maimon raised the difficulties the team of stenographers would face. First, the right stenographers would have to be found (among those whom the Knesset had yet to recruit). Second, they would have to contend with the amalgam of languages expected to be used at the trial.
At the second meeting between Shapira and Maimon, the latter was informed that his proposal had been accepted and he was asked to provide a detailed list of the equipment he would need. For the first time in his career as a stenographer, Maimon signed a multi-section contract detailing the obligations of the stenographers’ team, to be headed by Maimon himself.
During Maimon’s long career hitherto, he often had to contend with difficulties and complications stemming from the fact that his chosen field of occupation was in its infancy. In 1948, as a resident of Jerusalem under siege, he was tasked with creating a team of stenographers from scratch to document the work of the newly-formed Knesset. To meet the challenge, he started an expedited course in which he taught the tricks of the trade for 12-13 hours per day, five days a week. Fears that the course would fail due to the immense pressure proved false because, as he explained, “the work was too important.” But even that experience couldn’t prepare him for the hardships that the stenographers would face at the Eichmann trial.
Yaacov Maimon’s archive, which is kept at the National Library, provides a peek at the preparations for the start of the trial. Two documents dated February 1961 (both signed by Superintendent Shapira) approve Maimon’s request to borrow three books from the Israeli Police library: “The Final Solution,” “The Case Against Adolph Eichmann,” by Henry A. Zeiger, and “The Nuremberg Trials.” In the second document the Superintendent permits Maimon “to write notes and translations in the margins of the book’s pages.” These books (and probably others) were borrowed by Maimon for two purposes: to prepare a list of shorthand designations for approximately one hundred names and places, terms from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust era (such as various ranks in the SS and the German military) and other words in foreign languages which he anticipated being used during the trial. The second purpose was to help the stenographer team he was forming to study the dark period into which they were about to plunge – along with the millions who would follow the trial in Israel and around the world.
Early that month several candidates were summoned for “a day of tests for typists in the Hebrew language” – with the feminine form being used, betraying the gendered perception of the profession at the time. The four stenographers chosen were Gentila Bardo, Mina Eisenberg, Miriam Yardeni and Osnat Degani – all Knesset stenographers. Also joining the team was Benzion Maimon, son of Yaacov Maimon. Later the team was supplemented by Rafi Rubinstein, Malka Glassberg and Zvi Maimon – Yaacov’s brother – after some of the stenographers felt that the emotional toll of the trial was too heavy a burden, and asked to resume their more mundane duties at the Knesset alternately with the trial work.
The four stenographers, along with Maimon’s son, were summoned for training days in the month of March. During those four training days they practiced the strenuous working conditions expected in the hall where the trial would take place, memorized the shorthand notations which Maimon had prepared beforehand and coordinated their work procedures with the various interpreters. The training was held from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon, then resumed following a lengthy lunch break from three-thirty till six in the evening. The stenographers could expect to receive “full pay,” for each day of work, specifies the letter sent by Shapira to Maimon. Although he couldn’t know it at the this early stage of preparations, the many hearings of the Eichmann trial would come to equal and even surpass the long days of training.
About two weeks before the beginning of the trial, Maimon received a letter from Mr. M. F. Birnbaum, editor of “The Transcript,” the official publication of the Stenographers Association in New York City. Word of the upcoming trial had reached the distant shores of New York, (as they had almost everywhere else in the world) and aroused vast curiosity as to the technical aspects of the trial as well. Would Maimon – or anyone on his team – be interested in writing an article about the preparations for the trial?, Mr. Birnbaum inquired. Any information Maimon was willing to provide would be most welcome.
The option of presenting one of the lesser-discussed aspects of such an exceptionally resonant trial must have been significant to Maimon, and three days after the trial began he sent a minutely detailed reply (seven pages long) to the editor. In his archive we find the draft Maimon composed after it had been proofread by a woman who remains anonymous (“Correct it a little and tomorrow I will collect the documentation from you,” Maimon added in his own handwriting). This letter, along with another one sent later, formed the foundation of two articles which appeared in the stenographers’ journal in June and October of that year.
Maimon’s sincere concern for the team of stenographers which he headed led him into repeated clashes with the court and the police department – the entities overseeing the work of the stenographers at the trial. In response to “errors in the minutes, announced at hearing no. 16”, Maimon sent a letter of clarification on April 28th to the lead judge on the panel, Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau. At the start of the letter Maimon stressed that “each stenographer is but human, and may err.” Any stenographer would find it difficult to produce a perfect transcript, but as in this trial “we are making a special effort to achieve perfection.” Maimon and his colleagues expressed their thanks to the presiding judge for the “great help” he was giving them by “occasionally instructing people speaking at the trial to speak clearly.” After these words of praise Maimon turned to refute the claim regarding the stenographers’ error. The word is Michaelovich, which had supposedly entered the minutes by error, did not do so due to a stenographer’s mistake. “Proof of my assumption is to be found in the following facts: The French and German transcripts, which have no connection to the Hebrew transcript” also feature this word, and therefore “it is hard to assume that four people” (the fourth being the interpreter) “sitting apart from one another, all made the same mistake and heard a name that was not spoken.” Maimon ends his letter with an interesting comment regarding the confused and excited speech of more than a few of the witnesses and Holocaust survivors at the trial, writing that “the errors we ourselves make are enough, and we should not be tasked with the slips of tongue made by others. In any event, there is no basis to assume this was a stenographer’s slip.”
Further proof of Maimon’s devotion to his employees and his full commitment to defending their dignity and their rights is to be found in two separate letters sent on the same day (May 15th) to Major-General Yekutiel Keren. In both Maimon harks back to a hearing held ten days prior. In the first letter Maimon justifies in writing for a demand he had until then made only verbally: “to increase the pay of the stenographers to 40 Israeli Pounds for days on which two hearings are held.” The main reason Maimon gives for this irregular demand stems from the irregularity of the Eichmann trial itself: In other trials “it is customary to hold two hearings on the same day only very rarely.” “And yet here we are, five weeks into” the Eichmann trial, “and other than on Fridays, two hearings are held every single day.” In other trials, he continued, the stenographers are from time to time afforded “long breaks due to judges’ consultations,” whereas at the Eichmann trial “breaks for judges’ consultations are brief, and usually held before or after the hearing itself.” But it seems that what adversely affected the work of the stenographers the most, causing them to leave “each hearing exhausted not only that same day but into the next” was the fact that following each hearing they were forced “to scramble in search of foreign expressions and materials.”
““The issue of continuing of canceling the stenographic transcript in Hebrew,” was at the center of the second letter, in which Maimon states that “I can no longer continue keeping the minutes under these conditions.” At this point Maimon dwells at length on the supreme effort of the trial’s stenographers team in comprehending expressions in foreign languages and in searching for documents “which sometimes have no Hebrew translation and which the prosecutor,” meaning Attorney General Gideon Hausner, “sometimes garbles expressions and names of people and places and numbers while spontaneously translating.” Added to all these issues is the unfortunate fact “that the judges forget that officially they are not supposed to know German” and they use it freely at times in a manner detrimental to the work of the stenographers. Despite all this, Maimon opposed canceling the transcription and switching to tape-recording because “errors in the material will be less frequent in the work of the stenographers, for in addition to mechanical work there is also mind work at play, and sections copied by voice recording and compared to the work of the stenographers have proven this.” He ends this letter with a stern, yet respectful reprimand: “You may decide not to accede to my demands and to switch to another form of documentation, but you cannot leave the matter hanging and reply half-heartedly or not at all to the points I have raised.”
Four days after these letters were sent, victory was announced. “To the honorable Mr. Maimon,” wrote the Deputy Administrator of the trial, Commander Koppel, “in response to your aforementioned letter we are pleased to inform you that although a work contract exists for all stenographers, and in fact this contract is binding upon both parties; but on the other hand, we must accept the truth of your claims, that the workload as we have experienced during days of this trial was unanticipated when these contracts were signed.” Therefore, the daily wage of the stenographers was raised to thirty-five pounds per day – rather than the forty which Maimon demanded.
The fight for a pay raise wasn’t the only campaign waged by Maimon on behalf of his workers. In a letter dated April 5th he asked the security team to refrain from “the constant searches on the workers’ persons,” as most of them were “stenographers who document meetings for the government, the IDF Chief of Staff, the Security and Foreign Relations committee and such. Places where security is just as paramount as at the trial.”
Throughout the trial, Maimon let everyone know the difficulties he and his team had to face. The professional work of Maimon and his team, despite all hardships, did not go unnoticed by the judges at the Eichmann trial. In a letter dated December 22nd, the presiding judge expressed his sincere appreciation “to you and your assistants… for your excellent work in documenting the minutes of the trial and preparing them for print.” Landau went on to wax poetically about Maimon’s skills, stating that “if not for your superb professional abilities and indefatigable dedication, this trial could not have been held as it has. I trust that you feel, as I do, that your labor has not been in vain.”
We know that this was not just empty praise, for when Eichmann appealed, Maimon was invited once again to run the stenography effort – an invitation which he accepted. Keeping faith with the professional team of stenographers he had assembled, he asked to extend the contract of three of the original team members and relieve them temporarily of their work at the Knesset.
Added to the praise from the presiding judge and being chosen to keep the minutes at the appeal, was a letter from Superintendent Shapira sent on behalf of the entire Eichmann Trial Administration, in which Shapira expressed “our full appreciation – for your help in recruiting the team of stenographers and typists to keep the official transcript in Hebrew and training them; for your profession, dedicated and efficient work in the ongoing management of the team, and in carrying out the more difficult portions of the transcript.”
Despite the challenge and great interest Maimon found at the “trial of the century,” he was glad to end his part in it upon the rejection of Eichmann’s appeal. This was not so much because of the strenuous work, but because the Eichmann trial took away much of the time and energy he preferred to devote to what he saw as his life’s mission: volunteering in the absorption of new immigrants to Israel and teaching them the Hebrew language.