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Earlier this month, Russian missiles hit a radio and television tower in Kyiv, Ukraine, and damaged the nearby Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which commemorates the site where tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by the Nazis during World War II. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew with many family members who were killed in the Holocaust, tweeted directly and poignantly, “To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…”
Indeed, history does repeat itself — and it takes work, and occasionally a fight, to keep that history alive. Sometimes history is attacked by brute force, as we were reminded when Russian missiles damaged the Babyn Yar Memorial this week. Other times, history fades slowly but surely with the passage of time. We lost an important piece of our collective history when Gabriel Bach, an Israeli prosecutor who fought to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, died on February 20, at age 94, just days before the unprompted Russian attack on Ukraine.
The lessons of Bach’s life remain all too relevant, even today.
When Bach was nine years old, he went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. He sat in the stands just feet away from the private box of Adolf Hitler, who used the games as propaganda in an effort to convince the world that the Nazi regime posed little threat to the international order. Bach watched as each gold medal winner proceeded from the track to Hitler’s box, where Hitler would shake the new champion’s hand in congratulations. But after the historic gold medal run by the great American Jesse Owens, Hitler stormed away; Owens had in one burst of brilliance exposed the Nazi lie of white supremacy, right there on Hitler’s own turf.
At the time, Bach only vaguely understood the dynamic between Hitler and Owens and its broader significance, and he had absolutely no conception that Hitler’s Nazis were about to chase his own Jewish family across Europe. Over the ensuing years, Bach and his parents managed to stay “just one step ahead” of the Nazis, as he put it to me during a 2018 interview. They left Germany for the Netherlands weeks before Kristallnacht in 1938, and then fled the Netherlands just before the Nazis invaded in 1940. But millions of Jews, and other ethnic and racial minorities, were less fortunate and would soon meet their deaths at the Nazis’ hands.
A decade and a half after the end of the Nazis’ reign of terror, Bach sat in a decidedly different posture. In 1961, when he was 34 years old, Bach was one of three Israeli prosecutors who tried and convicted the monstrous Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, in the first war crimes trial televised live across the globe. Eichmann was widely known as the “Architect of the Holocaust” or the Nazi “logistics manager.” But those monikers belie the true horror of it all; Eichmann oversaw the “logistics” of rounding up, deporting, and slaughtering millions of human beings.
Israeli special forces had captured Eichmann in a daring raid in Argentina in 1960 (later depicted in books including The House on Garibaldi Street and movies like 2018’s Operation Finale), and brought him back to face justice on the soil of the newly-formed country of Israel. Bach and his colleagues tried Eichmann in 1961, before a global television audience. The image endures to this day of Eichmann, the accused, sitting inside a protective glass box, as Bach and his colleagues presented astonishing evidence of Nazi atrocities to the world.
Bach was in charge of identifying and presenting testimony from witnesses who had survived the Holocaust, many of whom had lost their entire families to the Nazis. One memorable witness, a Hungarian doctor, described how he and his family were transported in a cattle car to Auschwitz in 1944. Upon arrival, a Nazi guard signaled for the doctor to go left, and his wife, son, and daughter to go right. The doctor watched as his daughter, then two-and-a-half years old and wearing a newly-purchased red coat, faded into the distance as a diminishing red dot. That was the last the doctor ever saw of his family. Bach told me that, at the end of the doctor’s testimony, he had to pretend to shuffle some papers around on the prosecutor’s lectern, to buy a few moments to compose himself.
The court found Eichmann guilty of the mass murder of Jews, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to death. In 1962, he was hanged and cremated in Israel. One of Bach’s colleagues, the investigator Michael Goldmann – who I also interviewed in 2021 for a CNN documentary piece – scattered Eichmann’s ashes at sea. Bach, Goldmann, and their team had achieved all the justice that men are capable of administering. But, in a question Bach would later pose to me: how can the conviction of any one man make up for the deaths of millions?
I had the great honor of meeting Bach, and getting to know him and his family, over the final three years of his life. There’s a lot I’ll remember and carry with me about him. When we first met, he was immediately drawn to me, despite our differences in age and nationality, because I had worked as a prosecutor. Even though we had done the job fifty years and an ocean apart, we instantly bonded over our common experience. He was taken with the criminal justice process, with the importance of administering justice in a fair, orderly, and dignified manner. We talked about the rules of evidence, and trial tactics, and the art of persuasion. It felt almost like catching up with an old colleague from the federal prosecutors’ office in New York where I used to work.
When I interviewed Bach in 2018 at his home in Jerusalem, I was received warmly, as family. (I believe Bach held a special affinity for me because two of my grandparents were Holocaust survivors.) Like any good Jewish grandparents, Bach and his wife showed me every photograph and keepsake in the house. And they made sure I had a plate of cake and a full cup of tea before me the whole time.
In 2021, I interviewed Bach on camera for the aforementioned CNN documentary. It would be the last interview he ever gave. Even at age 94, he remained sharp, warm, and passionate. In all of my talks with Bach, he seemed to understand the magnitude of his career, but he also carried an abiding sense of humility. He understood that he had done historic work, but he never felt like he had done anything particularly special, that any other decent person in his position wouldn’t have done.
Bach, who went on to serve as a justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, took pride in the fact that Eichmann was given a fair trial. Bach told me repeatedly that, in his view, the process was as important as the ultimate verdict. He understood that the trial would stand through the ages only if it was conducted fairly. Accordingly, even though he was tried in another country and in another era for crimes of almost incomprehensible barbarism, Eichmann was given many of the due process protections that we afford to the accused in our American system: the right to counsel, the right to a public trial, the right to inspect the evidence against him in advance, the right to cross-examine witnesses and to present his own evidence, the right to an appeal. As a result, nobody can rightly question Eichmann’s conviction, or the fairness of the Israeli trial process.
Bach has left us now, after a life of almost unimaginable consequence. It is impossible to conceive of a life more fully lived, and more meaningful, than his. He leaves behind a large, close-knit, loving family, and a permanent legacy as a guardian of equality and a warrior for justice.
The recent Russian attack on the Babyn Yar Memorial, and on the sovereign nation of Ukraine as a whole, brings to mind these words from Bach, reflecting on the Holocaust: “The fact that this terrible thing happened should never be forgotten. And everything should be done to teach young people and older people to prevent something like that from happening in the future. That is my hope.”
The Holocaust is now part of history, but Bach’s words remain as relevant today as ever.