The Eichmann Show: The story behind the trial of the century

Groundbreaking TV producer Milton Fruchtman and actor Martin Freeman confront the horrors of the Holocaust in a BBC2 docudrama

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Every morning for 14 weeks Milton Fruchtman threw open the windows of his Jerusalem apartment, gazed out over the Valley of the Cross and sucked in the beauty of the spring-saturated meadows. Then he went to work and inhaled the stench of human depravity. Hour after crushing hour he heard witnesses to the Holocaust unburden themselves of the horror they had observed in the Nazi death camps. More than 100 of them – many reliving their experiences for the first time – their collective finger pointed towards the man in the dock, one of the architects of the mass slaughter, Adolf Eichmann.

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Today, television and newspapers are frequently damned by accusations of intrusion. In April 1961 it was American film producer Fruchtman’s determination that his cameras be allowed into Eichmann’s trial that permitted a wider world to hear accounts of the genocide. Not, as with the earlier Nuremberg trials, from men in suits and uniforms, but from those who had worn the rags of the condemned; those who had cheated the gas chambers. But most significantly of all, and for the first time ever, on television.

Thanks to Fruchtman’s persistence the trial scenes were beamed nightly into homes in 56 countries, including the UK, often in early- evening TV slots after shows like I Love Lucy. It was ground-breaking and opinion-shifting.

“It was difficult for the television networks to realise how important it was for their audiences to have an opportunity to view the trial,” says Fruchtman, now 88 and in failing health. “The recordings have brought aspects of the Holocaust alive for millions of people who would otherwise not have been aware of the extent of the historical tragedy. Of course I’m proud.” 

Filmed extracts from the trial are featured in a new fact-based drama, in which Fruchtman is played by Martin Freeman. The Eichmann Show (above) makes clear that virtually nobody thought the proposition to televise it was a good idea. The Holocaust was a chapter of human misery that should remain closed.

Fruchtman disagreed. He had observed, and was concerned by, the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe during the postwar 50s and when Eichmann was captured in Argentina in May 1960 by the Israeli secret service Mossad, drugged and smuggled into Jerusalem, he pressed to be given access to the trial.

He recalls now: “At the time Israel was being brought up on charges in the UN by Argentina that they had violated Argentinian sovereignty by kidnapping Eichmann. So David Ben-Gurion [the then Israeli prime minister] said there will not be any cameras in the courtroom because it couldn’t look as if it was show trial.” 

Despite indifference from TV companies in America and Europe, Fruchtman persisted. One by one the obstacles fell – he even overcame the judges’ 11th-hour objections to cameras in court by concealing them behind wooden partitions.

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Even then, Eichmann’s defence team objected but their appeal was overruled with the help of the words of 18th-century British legal and social reformer Jeremy Bentham: “Where there is no publicity there is no justice. Publicity is the very soul of justice.”