Israel’s Astounding (and Imprecise) World Record

The unbelievable story of how 1,088 (or was it 1,122?) people flew aboard a single airplane as part of 1991's Operation Solomon

New immigrants from Ethiopian shortly after disembarking from the plane as part of Operation Solomon, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Over a 36-hour period in the last week of May 1991, more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews flew to Israel, with some 1,100 of them arriving on a single airplane!

That flight, in fact, still holds the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of passengers ever carried by a commercial airliner, though the exact number remains disputed three decades after the daring mission known as “Operation Solomon”.

As the immigrants boarded the plane they were counted. Official paperwork went to the relevant authorities and served as the basis for the official record of 1,088 passengers.

At a conference hosted by the Ben Zvi Institute commemorating 30 years since Operation Solomon, the plane’s pilot, Captain Arieh Oz, recalled the historic day (Hebrew).

After landing in Israel, Rafi Har-Lev, the CEO of El Al, asked Captain Oz, “How many passengers did you bring?” Upon hearing the tally, Har-Lev exclaimed, “That’s a world record,” and asked for a re-count just to make sure.

The new tally? 1,122.

A woman is assisted off the plane after landing in Israel, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Captain Oz soon realized the reason for the rather significant discrepancy.

A number of mothers had hidden their children under their dresses as they boarded the plane, not fully certain where they were going, nor who exactly was taking them.

Many of the passengers, refugees from the war-torn Gondar region, had never seen an airplane before, let alone many of the other reflections of modern society to which they were suddenly exposed.

Their concern was more than justified given the circumstances.

A mother with her children shortly after disembarking from the plane in Israel, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Captain Oz could certainly relate. Decades earlier, a Dutch family had hidden him for three years in their attic, saving him and his sister from being murdered during the Holocaust.

As he prepared to go to the Land of Israel after the war, the child was asked what he would do there:

“Will you be a shepherd? A camel herder?”

Arieh (born Harry Klausner) responded, “I will be a pilot!”

For decades Arieh Oz did just that, serving Israel and the Jewish people in ways his childhood self could not have even imagined, including taking part in the famous mission to free the hostages at Entebbe.

Arieh Oz as a young pilot (Source: Tkuma Leshchakim)

Long retired from active service in the Israeli Air Force, Oz was already senior staff at El Al when he was called to take part in Operation Solomon, flying the first Jumbo 747 ever to land at Addis Ababa airport. According to Oz, who had also spent time in Ethiopia training pilots in the 1960s, three Jumbos were set to land in Ethiopia’s capital as part of the operation. After two came in, local authorities complained that the weight of the massive aircraft had damaged the runway and the third Jumbo was forbidden from touching down.

This setback, as well as a technical issue with another plane, meant that the plan had to be changed. More passengers needed to join Captain Oz’s flight.

Captain Oz of course welcomed them aboard, later honoring the passengers’ request to inform them when the plane flew over Jerusalem.

At some point during the flight, after realizing that the Israeli team was kind and caring, the mothers who had concealed their children on the way onto the plane let them out of hiding.

Uncounted passengers? Mothers with their babies shortly after disembarking in Israel, 25 May 1991 (Photo: Gadi Cavallo). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When the flight finally landed in Israel – after flying over Jerusalem – there were some three dozen “new passengers”, Captain Oz recalled.

Though the higher number of 1,122 is noted by Guinness World Records, the lower number remains the official figure, as it is what appeared on the flight documents.

Kept secret for months, Operation Solomon would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of the global Jewish community and supporters worldwide; the countless Israelis who took part in all aspects of the mission, from planning through implementation; and, of course, the immigrants themselves, who longed for Zion and left all they knew to realize their dreams.

Regardless of whether the true number of passengers on that 747 was 1,088 or 1,122 (or something in between), Operation Solomon remains a rousing example of what can be accomplished when solidarity meets determination and sacrifice.

An Ethiopian Israeli at the Jewish Agency Office in Tel Aviv celebrates after hearing that his parents have just arrived as part of Operation Solomon, 26 May 1991 (Photo: Vered Peer). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Jerusalem’s “Prussian Island in an Oriental Sea”

Letters from Edith Gerson-Kiwi, the Grande Dame of Israeli musicology, reveal particular and universal truths about the 'age-old capital of the world'

Edith Gerson-Kiwi and the Jerusalem "garden suburb" of Rehavia, where she lived (Images: Gerson-Kiwi in 1933, from the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music / Photo of Rehavia in 1937 taken by Shmuel Joseph Schweig, from the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)

It is December 5, 1935, when a young woman from Berlin arrives in Mandatory Palestine.

Equipped with an alert mind, a fair amount of ambition and astonishing energy, she has decided to turn her back on her homeland and build a new life in the ‘Land of the Fathers’. It seems she takes great pleasure in what she finds: in a letter written shortly after her arrival to her friend Eva, who was then exiled in Amsterdam, the young woman effusively describes the purifying and uplifting effect the country has upon her, drawing on the arsenal of Zionist metaphors and images:

“There are also wonderful people here, the country embraces and nurtures them; for many of them it was a complete rebirth, I myself have gone through it in a very intense way. And then: all these young people, suntanned and strong, and a rhythm of work, freedom and hope that is inspiring and quite intoxicating.”

The author of the letter is the German-Jewish musicologist Edith Gerson-Kiwi, remembered today as a pioneer of Israeli musicology; one who made lasting contributions to the field, and connected Israel to the wider world.

Letter from Edith Gerson-Kiwi to Eva Newman, 1936. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music. Click to enlarge

It was written on September 29, 1936, and is just one of over 6,000 letters being catalogued as part of a research project at the European Center for Jewish Music (ECJM) in Hanover, Germany. They are part of the extensive Gerson-Kiwi Estate, the bulk of which is housed by the ECJM. A smaller number of documents can be found in Israel, including the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Archive at the National Library of in Jerusalem.

It is the earliest known letter written by the young woman after her arrival in Palestine, and reflects that fateful turning point in her story: referring to the life she left behind, while at the same time mapping out the horizons of her future.


From Berlin to Jerusalem

Edith Gerson-Kiwi was born in Berlin in 1908 into an assimilated Jewish family and enjoyed a typical bourgeois upbringing. As a young girl, she attended a humanist Gymnasium (selective high school), and her evident musical talent was nurtured by piano and composition studies at the Sternʼsche Konservatorium, a renowned music academy. After gaining her university entrance qualification, she reads musicology, minoring in philosophy and literary history, at the universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg and Leipzig.

At home in Berlin at the grand piano, 1927. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

One searches in vain for a Zionist socialization in this biography. The ‘push factor’ driving this young woman to the Orient is not the idealistic longing for the ‘new Jew’, but rather the increasing anti-Semitic pressure in Germany. The first thing to fall victim to this is her relationship with her non-Jewish fiancé and fellow student Fritz Dietrich (1905–1945): while her parents, after initial hesitation, agree to the match, his parents do not accept her because of her Jewish identity.

The year 1933 finally brings the decisive turning point: while defending her dissertation in Heidelberg on January 30, the day of the transfer of power to Hitler, she hears soldiers and students clashing in the street.

The young musicologist no longer sees a future in Germany.

She goes to Bologna to study paleography and library science. Meanwhile, Fritz Dietrich gains clarity about his future aspirations, deciding in favor of an academic career in Germany and thus against a relationship with a Jewish woman.

A single encounter is all that is needed to prompt Gerson-Kiwi to take a big step: she meets a group of young Zionists from Palestine in the university cafeteria in Bologna and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to immigrate there.

Many, if not most, Jewish immigrants from Germany who relocated to the Land of Israel after 1933 did not feel at home or even uplifted upon arrival, given that they came as refugees rather than idealists.

While the Land of Israel represented a place of yearning and a Jewish home for the Eastern European Jews, for assimilated German Jews it was an exile.

Yet, Edith Gerson-Kiwi’s encounter with her old-new homeland is thoroughly positive, all the more so since “everything in my personal life suddenly became good once more”: newly arrived in the country, she meets Kurt Gerson, an engineer and architect from Hamburg.

Four months later, they get married.

Just married: Edith Gerson-Kiwi and Kurt Gerson, 1936. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

“A Prussian island in an Oriental sea”

“We live in a new garden suburb of Jerusalem that is populated by many German immigrants. […] We have a charming attic apartment on top of a brand-new complex of houses – and a large terrace as well, from where there is an extensive view over the hill country of Judea with its fantastic colors [and] scenery.”

The garden city is Rehavia, Jerusalem’s noble villa district, designed on the model of Berlin’s Grunewald, to which chroniclers such as S.Y. Agnon and Amos Oz have created a literary monument. Built in the 1920s according to plans by German-Jewish architect Richard Kauffmann, this oasis, which was then on the outskirts of the city (though long since swallowed up by the city center), soon became the preferred place of residence for educated people and intellectuals of the German cultural world: professors and staff of the still-young Hebrew University, writers and journalists, doctors, pharmacists and lawyers, cultural workers and civil servants.

Quite a few of them had made their way from Berlin to Jerusalem, where this “Prussian island in the Oriental sea” became their home. Here they cultivated the German way of life and culture to which they were so strongly connected, yet which now had come to an end in Germany itself.

Edith on the terrace of her apartment in Rehavia, 1936. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

New paths to a new future

Many Germans succumbed to the feeling of foreignness. Unable to heed the demand for integration, they retreat into their inner circles. Gerson-Kiwi, by contrast, opens herself up to the wealth of new impressions, is inspired by the Zionist spirit of optimism and enchanted by the “completely different atmosphere” of Jerusalem: this “age-old capital of the world” with its “Jews from all over the world, Persian, Bukharic, Yemeni, Moroccan, Samaritans, and others, representatives of all peoples, races, and religions”.

New immigrants from Hadhramaut, Yemen in Ein Shemer Transit Camp, Israel, 1950 (Photo: Edith Gerson-Kiwi). From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

After years of professional and personal hardship and disappointment, she discovers in the Land of Israel new forms and ways of being Jewish.

Shortly after her arrival in Palestine, she meets Robert Lachmann (1892–1939), who also arrived in 1935, and joins him as his assistant. Lachmann, of the Berlin School of Comparative Musicology, has been tasked with the establishment of a phonogram archive for Oriental music in Jerusalem, and introduces Gerson-Kiwi to Middle Eastern musical cultures.

Robert Lachmann with his secretary in Jerusalem, ca. 1936. From the National Library of Israel collection

At the same time, she rediscovers Judaism: the writings of Gershom Scholem bring her, an assimilated Jewish woman of Berlin’s educated bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum), closer to a Judaism in its deeper, mystical form that transcends enlightened, rational thinking, “in a time when I was rather in controversy with the principles of our Jewish religion” (letter to Chanah Milner, June 20, 1972).

She finds and appreciates this mystical form of faith and thought adopted by her new neighbors, the Oriental Jews.

Tirelessly, she devotes herself to documenting, researching and popularizing their “melodic treasure trove” that is in danger of being lost in the modern melting pot that is the Land of Israel. In addition, other musical cultures of the Middle East attract her interest – those of Arabs, Druze, and Oriental Christians. She will make around 10,000 sound recordings during her lifetime, documenting the Land’s polyphonic soundscape.

Edith Gerson-Kiwi, Renaissance woman, becomes a connoisseur of Oriental music.

Invitation for Edith Gerson-Kiwi to come to the residence of Shams Pahlavi, the Shah’s sister, during the International Folk Musik Council conference, held in Tehran on April 6-12, 1961. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

Conflicting reality

Rehavia is also characterized by a climate of tolerance towards the Arab population of Palestine, resulting from the German-Jewish immigrants’ own minority experience and the values of liberalism and universalism that Central European Jewry acquired with the emancipation. It is no coincidence that “Brit Shalom” was founded in Rehavia: a short-lived peace alliance (1925–1933), which adopted a moderate position in the Jewish-Arab conflict, respected the Arabs and their territorial claims, and advocated a binational state solution.

Photo of Gershom Scholem, one of many Rehavia-dwelling German-Jewish intellectuals active in the Brit Shalom organization. From the National Library of Israel collection

Edith Gerson-Kiwi shows solidarity with the Arabs throughout her life. As an “old pioneering champion of Jewish-Arab friendship, of peace, and, above all, of intellectual awakening” (letter to Hellmut Federhofer, June 29, 1973), she not only maintains memberships in institutions striving for dialogue and understanding, but also supports Arab musicians and music researchers, committing herself to the dissemination of Arab music through research and teaching.

Already proficient in several European languages, Gerson-Kiwi also learned the Arabic language and script.

And yet, from the very beginning, there was also a downside and a complexity to this new life in the Land of Israel and among its different communities. This complexity is revealed quite starkly as Gerson-Kiwi’s description of the advantages of her living situation in Rehavia transition into acknowledgement of a bitter reality:

“We live here in a quiet and secluded environment; that’s ideal for us, and it’s also a consequence of the unrest. It’s precisely here in and around Jerusalem that the contrasts are particularly stark, because everyone lives cheek by jowl. Almost every night there are gunshots in our area; during the day there are only a few streets in the Jewish ‘center’ where you can move freely, and for more than five months now a curfew has kept everyone at home from 6.30 in the evening. Overall, this is a severe shock and the first big challenge to be faced. But we all believe that we will meet this challenge, because we know what we are fighting for and how much blood has already been shed in this cause.”

The mass influx of Jews, especially after 1933, had triggered the Arab Revolt (April 1936–1939), with insurgents demanding that the British Mandate government stop Jewish immigration, prohibit the transfer of Arab land to the Jews, and establish a national government.

The Palestinian Arabs initially react with a general strike affecting trade and commerce. A series of acts of violence against the British and Jews followed, until the mandate government finally put down the revolt with military force.

Over the decades, numerous letters written by Gerson-Kiwi tell of how attacks and wars overshadow and restrict her life and work. “It is indeed a bad fate of ours, always to be after or before a war”, she lamented in a 1970 letter to Grace Spofford, a colleague in New York.

Not all the hopes of the early years were fulfilled.

The visions of a better social order and peaceful coexistence with the Arab neighbors turned out to be illusions. Political tensions, economic shortages and inner-Jewish conflicts, Arab uprisings and wars dominated everyday life.

While the 1956/57 Suez Crisis and the 1967 Six-Day War may have brought new, fascinating and promising worlds to light for musical orientalists like Gerson-Kiwi, later catastrophes such as the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Lebanon War (1982) and finally the Intifada (from 1987 onwards) created only horror, helplessness and resignation.

In a 1989 letter to an unknown correspondent, she wrote:

“We still live here in western Rehavia in our peaceful surroundings, but the gates of hell have suddenly been opened, and the killing is taking on new and ever worse forms every day. […] No peace treaty will restore things to how they were…”

In addition, she increasingly realized that her life’s work – the collecting, preserving and spreading of the endangered Jewish Oriental traditions – had become a thing of the past, that it could not withstand the dawning future. “A radical fault line has formed between the generations,” she lamented in a 1976 letter.

Edith Gerson-Kiwi died in Jerusalem in 1992. Fifty years after her immigration, her episteme – born of the never-ending tension between exile and Europe –  already belonged to a bygone age, yet many of the themes and sentiments described in her earliest letter endure until this day.



This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Story of the Daring Pilot Zahara Levitov

Zahara Levitov was a Palmach fighter and among the first women to fly planes in the newly established IDF, but her service was cut short by a tragic crash


Zahara Levitov, courtesy of the Palmach Archive

It was a dark night. The force descended the slope and approached their objective. They had already caught a glimpse of the operation’s target, the A’Ziv (Achziv) Bridge —but just as they spotted it, they too were detected and immediately fired upon.  An incoming bullet apparently set off the explosives they were carrying to blow up the target. The result was dire: 14 Palmach fighters were killed.

About forty people, including a female soldier named Zahara Levitov, took part in the failed strike. It was just one of eleven similar actions carried out on what became known as the “Night of the Bridges”, an operation by the Haganah’s elite Palmach force which targeted strategic bridges and transportation routes used by the British Mandate authorities. Zahara sustained an eye injury in the explosion, but she managed to reach the nearby Kibbutz Matzuva. There, disguised as one of the children, she hid from the British forces in the children’s dormitory. The caregiver at the scene told the police they could not see her because she had a dangerous illness. The ruse worked, and although her injury was substantial, the British did not arrest her.

Zahara Levitov, courtesy of the Palmach Archive

Zahara was not even 19 years old when she took part in the daring “Night of the Bridges” operation. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1927, the youngest of three siblings. She spent her early childhood in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, before returning with her family to Tel Aviv at the age of nine. While studying at the New High School in Tel Aviv, Zahara joined the Haganah and began her underground activities.

In the second year of Zahara’s service in the Palmach, she became a squad commander, teaching trainees at Ein Harod. There she also fell in love with Shmuel (Shmulik) Kaufman. Their romance became the basis of Devorah Omer’s best-selling book Until Death Do Us Part (Leʹehov Ad Mavet). The book is based, among other things, on the many letters they wrote to each other, which showed the young couple’s flair for writing. Shmulik, who was considered gifted, had planned to travel to the United States with Zahara in 1947. He was to study economics and she would study medicine.

Zahara and Shmulik, courtesy of the Palmach Archive

Shmulik’s Palmach commanders tried to persuade him to stay in Israel due to the tense security situation, but in the end, after meeting with Yigal Alon, the head of the Palmach, Shmulik obtained his release permit. He asked Zahara to leave for Jerusalem right away, but she insisted they stay at the kibbutz for a few more days and organize a farewell party. Two days later, Shmulik was asked to help in grenade training at a neighboring kibbutz. A defective grenade exploded and Shmulik, not yet twenty, was killed, along with two other trainees.

After several months, the broken-hearted Zahara traveled to the United States to begin medical school. She excelled in her studies and received a letter of recommendation that allowed her to transfer to Columbia University in New York. All the while, she continued writing letters to her beloved Shmulik, who was no longer among the living.

Zahara Levitov (at left). Courtesy of the Palmach Archive

The news from Israel, and in particular the news about the fall of the Convoy of 35 during the War of Independence, many of whose members were friends and acquaintances, shocked Zahara. She left her studies and signed up for a pilot’s course that was being organized in California—she was one of only two women in the course. She completed it with distinction and returned to Israel as a licensed pilot. Her squadron was stationed at Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airfield and she was soon appointed deputy commander. She embarked on long solo flights to keep in touch with isolated settlements whose only access was by air. She even set out on her first leave vacation by plane.  Zahara flew to Jerusalem to meet with Shmulik’s father in order to prepare a memorial book about her beloved.  She was scheduled to fly back to Tel Aviv on August 3rd, 1948, with pilot Emanuel Rothstein, but a malfunction caused the plane to crash in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross, killing both pilots. Zahara was just twenty years old.

Zahara in the cockpit. Courtesy of the Palmach Archive

At the time, the sisters Ruth and Reuma Schwartz (who would go on to marry Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, respectively) were at their parents’ house in the Rehavia neighborhood, situated on the slopes of the valley. Ruth saw the plane crash from the kitchen window and she hurried with Reuma to the scene. In an interview with the newspaper Israel Hayom, she told about what she saw: “We arrived at the site and what I saw I will never forget. It was terrible. The two bodies were intact and lying next to the broken plane. Zahara was so beautiful. I do not remember him, but she—her black hair fell around her face. She had on a red shirt and a green skirt and she was lying there—whole, but still. What could we do? We opened the back doors of the car and loaded the bodies into the car with the feet sticking out and made our way up to the road. An ambulance took them from there.”

Zahara next to an IDF plane. Courtesy of the Palmach Archive

The tragic story of the young Zahara and Shmulik has been immortalized in a number of Hebrew books and plays.  In the early years of the State of Israel, her story was a source of inspiration, and many girls were named after her. Zahara’s mother used to send a sweater to mothers who had named their daughter Zahara after her own. Over the years, the Israeli Air Force has also contributed to her commemoration as an iconic figure in Israeli history. Today, after many years of women not being able to serve as Air Force pilots in Israel, this possibility is now open to them once again.

Who Opposed Eichmann’s Execution?

The trial of Adolf Eichmann had a profound effect on Holocaust discourse in the young State of Israel. During the trial, a heated debate raged within Israeli society over the appropriate punishment for the senior SS officer…


The Eichmann trial, photo by David Rubinger

What is the punishment for absolute evil? What is the proper response to war crimes? Is it necessary to avenge inconceivable murders or does criminal punishment serve a different purpose? These are some of the enduring questions of jurisprudence, but exactly 60 years ago, they were being debated in Israel. The country’s political leaders and public intellectuals, along with leading figures from across the Jewish world, were all preoccupied with one question: what is the appropriate punishment for the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, one of the key figures in the effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

A concise summary of previous events: In May 1960, the Mossad abducted Eichmann from his home in Buenos Aires and brought him to Israel to stand trial. The trial, which began in April 1961, was a milestone in the history of Holocaust remembrance and consciousness in Israel, and it is considered to have significantly influenced the treatment of Holocaust survivors living in the country. Prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s opening speech, the dramatic testimonies of personalities like writer Yehiel De-Nur (Ka-Tzetnik) and Zivia Lubetkin, the documents and public discourse the trial evoked, left lasting impressions. The videotaped trial was covered by many international journalists, among them Hannah Arendt, as well as Israeli poets Nathan Alterman and Haim Gouri.

At the end of the year, the trial concluded with Eichmann being sentenced to death. His appeal was denied, as was his request for a presidential pardon. The execution was finally carried out at two minutes before midnight on May 31st, 1962. Throughout this period between the sentencing and the execution, a heated public debate raged on the morality of the punishment. While there was widespread support for the death penalty for the senior SS figure, there were also many prominent figures who opposed it. An examination of materials preserved in the National Library of Israel’s Archives Department as well as the Historical Jewish Press collection offers us a view of these dissenting opinions.

Eichmann’s case attracted worldwide attention, and Jews living in the Diaspora expressed their views on the issue. A review of the newspapers reveals that world Jewry—and world citizenry in general—also saw fit to make their voices heard, and some certainly opposed the death penalty, even for a man who had committed crimes of the magnitude of Eichmann’s. A letter from New York, preserved in the archive of Samuel Hugo Bergmann, then director of the National Library of Israel, is one example of several expressions of protest from around the world. The sender addressed the letter to “all true Jews in the United States, Britain, the State of Israel, and people of good will everywhere.” On a blue sheet of paper, at the bottom of which is typed three times, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” the writer claims that the death penalty is an act of vengeance and does not accord with Judaism. He concludes by asking his readers to work to change the decision.

From the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, the National Library of Israel

One of the most famous examples of world Jewry’s resistance is that of Nelly Sachs, who was herself a Holocaust survivor, and later a Nobel Prize-winning author (1966). Sachs sent then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion a letter in which she asked for the death sentence to be changed to another punishment. She writes in the letter, which is preserved in the State Archives, “Israel is blessed with the words of Abraham: ‘Perhaps ten righteous people will be found there [in Sodom]?’ And I myself know such righteous people, who risked their lives and often even paid the price just to save [others]. These righteous people also worked in the time of Hitler, and the undersigned is one of their survivors. Please do not allow a death sentence for Eichmann. The righteous also worked in Germany, and if only for them there should be a measure of grace.” She ended her letter with a poem she wrote, which begins with the words:


So lonely is Man

seeking eastwards

where melancholy shows in dawn’s face.

The east turns red with the rooster’s cry


A page of Nelly Sach’s letter to David Ben-Gurion. Courtesy of the Israel State Archives

At the same time, the most pronounced opposition to Eichmann’s death penalty came from a group of intellectuals in Israel. Among the prominent members were the philosopher Prof. Martin Buber, the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and members of the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, Samuel Hugo Bergmann mentioned above, and Nathan Rotenstreich, among others. Even the poet Leah Goldberg was among those involved. Their opposition stemmed mainly from moral grounds and a fundamental opposition to the death penalty. They did not seek to protect Eichmann or diminish the severity of his actions. They sought, they said, to prevent the Jewish people from committing what appeared to them to be a moral injustice. Beyond that, some feared that the execution would provide a basis for the assertion that this would atone for the Nazis’ sins and silence claims of the Jewish people against its murderers and executioners.

Invitation to a discussion on Eichmann’s death penalty sentencing, sent to Prof. Dov Sadan by Prof. Martin Buber. From the Dov Sadan Archive, the National Library of Israel

During the hearing of Eichmann’s appeal in 1962, this group urged the president to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. In Martin Buber’s archives in the National Library, we found a draft of a letter—without the names of the signatories. “We do not ask for his soul,” it says, “because we know that there is no man who deserves less mercy than he. . . . We do not want this hateful person to turn us into the hangman. . . Antisemites around the world wish for us to fall into this trap. For carrying out the death penalty will enable them to claim that the Jewish people have been paid with blood for the blood that was shed [by the Nazis].”

Letter to President Yitzhak Ben Zvi requesting that he consider changing the sentence of Adolf Eichmann. From the Dov Sadan Archive, the National Library of Israel

When word spread about the petition’s existence, some supporters of the death sentence protested and others wanted to know why the professors were asking to spare Eichmann’s life. In the archives of Samuel Hugo Bergmann, we also found a letter written by three female students (apparently), as well as the draft of Bergmann’s reply. The students wrote to the professor in July 1961 asking for clarification, “We heard a rumor about a petition regarding the pardon of Adolf Eichmann of which you are among the initiators and signatories . . . We would be grateful if you would also explain to us the reasons that motivated you to take such a step.”

The letter to Prof. Bergmann, the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, the National Library of Israel

Bergmann explained in his reply that he was opposed to the death penalty in principle, and in particular to the idea that those responsible for the sentencing need not be involved in the execution. He stressed that in his opinion only He who gives life may take it. Bergmann also detailed other issues in his letter: he believed that even though there was no statute of limitations on genocide, the many years that had passed since the acts necessitated further consideration. He argued that the death penalty was a lighter punishment than life imprisonment in Israel (adding that there was no adequate punishment for Eichmann’s actions). Bergmann’s first concern, he stated, was for the soul of the Jewish people, and he explained his thinking that Israel must spread love throughout the world, whereas hanging Eichmann would only serve to perpetuate the cycle of hatred.

First page of Prof. Bergmann’s reply to the students’ question, the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, the National Library of Israel

Another intellectual who dealt with the subject was the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem. In his archive, we found a draft of an article published in the journal Amot around 1962, which dealt with the issue of execution. According to the draft, Scholem believed that there was no effective punishment for Eichmann’s actions under any circumstances, and that his hanging might seem an unsuitable “atonement.” Scholem wrote: “There is no question whatsoever that Eichmann deserves the death penalty. I have no doubt about it, I do not seek his acquittal, nor do I discuss the arguments concerning his actions and his responsibility for them. All this belongs to the legal aspects of this trial. My assumption is that in this respect nothing can be argued in his defense, he deserves to die a thousand deaths a day and is unworthy of mercy . . . there is no appropriate punishment in the laws of humane society for Eichmann’s crimes . . . whether he is to be hanged or not, there is no conceivable correlation between his crime and his punishment. Furthermore, there is nothing in his execution that can serve for “the sake of watch and learn”, [as an example] to the antisemites and others who seek to destroy our people . . . carrying out Eichmann’s death sentence is a mistaken ending [emphasis in the original – A.N.]. It distorts the historical meaning of the trial by creating the illusion as if something of this event can be settled by hanging a man or the obliteration of one person. This illusion is extremely dangerous, because it may give rise to the feeling that something has been done to ‘atone’ for something for which there is no atonement.”

Section of the draft of an article written by Gershom Scholem about Eichmann’s death penalty. From the Gershom Scholem Archive, the National Library of Israel

As we know, the arguments against Eichmann’s hanging were not accepted. President Yitzhak Ben Zvi rejected the request for clemency. Eichmann’s sentence was not commuted and the execution was carried out. Eichmann’s ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea. This year marks exactly 60 years since the beginning of the trial that drastically changed public perception and discourse concerning the Holocaust in Israel.