“Eichmann’s Executioner: A Novel” by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler— History, Memory and Legacy

Dehe, Astrid and Achim Engstler. “Eichmann’s Executioner: A Novel”, translated by Helen MacCormac and Alysoon Coombes, The New Press, 2017.

History, Memory and Legacy

 Amos Lassen

The writing team Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler raise provocative and universal questions of “how we represent the past, whether we should, and how these representations impinge upon the present.” They use fiction to explore history, memory, and the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust.

In May 1962, twenty-two men came together in Jerusalem to decide by lot who would be Eichmann’s executioner. These same men had guarded the former Nazi SS lieutenant colonel during his imprisonment and trial, and in the absence of trained executioners in Israel it would fall to one of them to execute Eichmann’. Shalom Nagar, the only one among them who had asked not to participate drew the short straw. We then move forward some ten years and Nagar is living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. He is haunted by his memory of Eichmann and remembers watching him day and night, observing the way he eats, the way he lies in bed, the sound of the cord tensing around Eichmann’s neck. But as he tells and re-tells his story to anyone who will listen, he starts to doubt himself, and when one of his friends, Moshe, reveals his own link to Eichmann, Nagar is forced to rethink and reconsider everything he has ever believed about his past.

This is what we might call “trauma literature” and it is an amazing read. Over the last few years I have read anything About Eichmann that I could get my hands on because of a course I was preparing on Hannah Arendt and her theory of the banality of evil”. While this is a fictional account of what happened after he was captured, it also gives us a quite different look at the man and his influence during the last days of his life (as seen by his executioner).

The translation is gorgeous as is the prose but it is an unsettling read as it deals with “important questions about humanity and consciousness, about what you are capable of doing.” I do mean this in a negative way; quote the opposite in fact. Sometimes we need to be unsettled so that we are aware of the world around us. When something is unsettling and/or disturbing, we think about it more and it allows us to look at the past in ways we usually do not.

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