During the Eichmann Trial

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Poem by Denise Levertov, 1961

In "During the Eichmann Trial," a poem about the Holocaust that was included in The Jacob's Ladder (1961), Denise Levertov provides her thoughts about the trial of the Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The poem is divided into three sections: "When We Look Up," "The Peachtree," and "Crystal Night."

The poet begins with an epigraph from fellow poet and friend Robert Duncan: "When we look up/each from his being." Duncan's epigraph concerns introspection, looking at oneself objectively, from without. The epigraph is correlated with the first section of Levertov's poem, which is about Eichmann's cruelty. Levertov suggests that Eichmann's evil derives at least in part from his refusal to look at Jews as he does himself, his inability to consider them as human beings. Instead, because "he had not looked," he considers Jews to be "the other." Levertov adds that people "must pity if they look/into their own face." The word "if" suggests that people in general are not introspective, that people cannot look at themselves from without in order to be objective. Instead, people are self-centered and egoistic, which helps to explain how countless bystanders neglected to help Jews during the Holocaust. They did not see themselves and the Jewish victims as part of the same whole but rather as separate.

Eichmann subsequently issues his excuse for his part in the atrocities: he was a mere cog in the machine, merely following orders. Eichmann remarks, "I was used from the nursery/to obedience/All my life … Corpselike/obedience." The defendant claims that he is not an evil man but merely a loyal and an obedient one, a passive man who carried out the orders of others. The phrase "from the nursery" suggests his position that such passivity is now part of his being and cannot be altered; in fact, it makes him lifeless, corpselike. But the term "corpselike" also suggests that he was part of an emotionless bureaucracy and thus acted not out of malice but without thinking. Eichmann stresses legal positivism and social law but chooses purposefully to ignore moral law, ideas such as "Thou shalt not kill." Eichmann's claims of innocence con-flict with what other prominent Nazi officials had declared in their testimony during the Nuremberg trials when they blamed him for the atrocities they themselves were accused of. Levertov implies that Eichmann's defense that he simply followed orders is merely a sham, a feeble excuse.

Levertov makes her position clear in the second segment of the poem, "The Peachtree." This section is based on a incident, brought up during the trial, in which Eichmann was charged with murdering a young Jewish boy in his garden. The charge was unique because in the other accusations against Eichmann, counts such as crimes against humanity, he was not said to have taken part in the killings personally. According to Levertov's account, a Jewish boy working near Eichmann's villa climbed a wall into his garden and, out of desperation and hunger, stole a yellow peach. Angry because he had planned to eat the peach with sour cream and brandy, Eichmann murdered the boy. The crime was malicious and senseless, in part because Eichmann committed it over a mere peach. Furthermore, the poet wants her audience to juxtapose Eichmann's decadent dessert with the starving boy's desire to eat in order to survive. Yellow represents the peach as well as the boy, who wears a yellow star, and both are destroyed by Eichmann.

As it turns out, Levertov had the details wrong. The boy did not actually scale the wall into Eichmann's garden but was working there, and he stole cherries, not a peach. Even though Levertov later realized that she had made these mistakes, she kept them in the poem. She was writing the poem during the trial and did not want to change the details later, when she might not have been feeling the same intensity. In addition, by changing the object of theft from peaches to cherries, she would have lost the yellow imagery that pervades "The Peachtree."

The last section, entitled "Crystal Night," refers to Kristallnacht, the terror that ensued on 9-10 November 1938. Synagogues were destroyed, and businesses owned by Jews were ruined, littering the streets of Germany with broken glass. The black-and-white imagery of this section contrasts with the color imagery of the preceding segment and provides the poem with a documentary, newsreel impression. One tie with the rest of the poem is that the father of Herschel Grynszpan, the man who incited Kristallnacht by killing a Nazi functionary, testi-fied at the trial of Eichmann. Levertov uses words such as "brick," "stone," "glass," "ice," and "knives" to convey the cold and heartless horror that prevailed during the wave of terror. The broken glass suggests the dangerous situation that the Jews remaining in Germany—and the countries that Germany would occupy—faced and is also juxtaposed with the strong glass that protected Eichmann during his trial.

—Eric Sterling