“Every survivor had a Holocaust of their own.” The world learned this from the testimony of survivors at the trial of Adolph Eichmann. This history is dramatically retold in The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes, a new documentary by Yariv Mozer.
The Eichmann trial of 1961 was a turning point in the world’s engagement with the story of the Holocaust. Survivor testimony at the trial was broadcast on televisions across the world. The stories of individual survivors captivated the general public. “The Eichmann trial was the beginning of the process of the Holocaust emerging from the shadows of history.”
In 2023, we are at another turning point in the world’s engagement with the Holocaust. Soon, there will be no one left who witnessed these atrocities. Soon, we will not be able to sit in front of a survivor and listen to their story. Without careful attention to ensure that survivors’ stories continue to be widely heard, this could be the time when the Holocaust fades back into the shadows of history.
Survivor stories are important because survivor testimony shifts the narrative of the Holocaust. When we listen to survivors, we stop viewing the Holocaust through the eyes of what the Nazis did. We instead see the Holocaust through the eyes of what the Jews endured. We begin to understand not just how people died, but also how they lived in almost impossible circumstances.
In The Devil’s Confession, director Yariv Mozer goes a step further. This documentary tells not a survivor’s story but a perpetrator’s. In fact, Mozer tells the story in Eichmann’s own words, in his own voice. And he tells it through the eyes of Jewish witnesses.
In the 1950s in Argentina, Nazi journalist Willem Sassen interviewed Eichmann over the course of several weeks. Although transcripts of the interview were released shortly before Eichmann’s trial, the tapes themselves have never been heard by the general public. Until now.
“With us, he lied the entire time. To Sassen, he told the truth.” Michael Goldmann-Gilead’s frustration is palpable. Goldmann-Gilead, a Holocaust survivor himself, was the police interrogator and investigating officer for the Eichmann trial.
Many of the Israelis involved in the trial were Holocaust survivors like Goldmann-Gilead. Their perspective on Eichmann’s behavior is illuminating. Mozer interviews people who were involved in all aspects of the trial: the Mossad agents who kidnapped Eichmann, the guards who watched him in prison, the police interrogator, and the judges who oversaw the trial. Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor, died in 1990, but we hear about his reactions from his children. These people’s recollections of Eichmann and their own reactions to him draw a compelling picture of anger and frustration mixed with a keen desire to ensure he receives a trial based on justice not revenge.
The Devil’s Confession cleverly juxtaposes Eichmann’s braggadocios confession on the tapes with his gaslighting denial in the trial. Over and over, we hear him proudly admit to something on the tapes and a moment later deny it at his trial.
On the tapes, he smugly describes his role in organizing the ghastly efficiency of the centralized murder camps. His confession is mixed with self-aggrandizing bravado that reflects a complete lack of remorse. His chief lament is that they did not kill more Jews. In fact, he seems to be trying to cement his legacy, to ensure that he is remembered as an architect of the Holocaust.
This documentary is a valuable addition to Holocaust education programming, even for teens or preteens, but it is not for the faint of heart. As we hear Eichmann describe his role in organizing the genocide, we see pictures from the Holocaust, except they are in color now. The use of color in the old pictures gives them a striking immediacy that draws the story into a modern context.
The Devil’s Confession is beautifully directed, seamlessly sliding between time periods with the help of a visual timeline. As we hear from the various participants, we fade from photos and testimony taken during the trial to modern interviews. The old is shown side-by-side with the new. As with the choice to use color in pictures and video that are usually seen in black and white, this juxtaposition makes the story feel fresh and current.
The documentary delves into Hausner’s failed attempts to find the original tapes from Eichmann’s interview. Eventually, the Israeli court disallows most of the transcript from the interview because the provenance of the transcript cannot be adequately demonstrated. Without the evidence from Eichmann’s confession, Hausner calls survivors to the stand.
This decision to broadcast eyewitness testimony from Holocaust survivors permanently shifted how the world related to the story of the Holocaust. The powerful testimony of the survivors’ personal horror at the hands of the Nazis etched a new narrative for how the Holocaust is remembered. After the Eichmann trial, the world understood the importance of listening to survivors. Now, 60 years later, we are once again forced to shift how we relate to the Holocaust, because we no longer have survivors to whom we can listen. The Devil’s Confession reminds us to ensure that the voices of the survivors continue to be widely heard.
Deborah Fripp is the executive director of Teach the Shoah. Teach the Shoah is an international nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that the story of the Holocaust remains relevant and resonant. Teach the Shoah’s programs focus on using storytelling techniques to tell true stories of the Holocaust, commemoration ceremonies for both Jewish and interfaith audiences, and age-appropriate Holocaust education.