Sarit Shavit and Dan Michman

Hannah Arendt and Leni Yahil — a Friendship that Failed the Test


In 1963 the “Arendt Controversy” erupted in the wake of the publication of the articles and book (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil)on the Eichmann trial and its implications by the American-Jewish German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt. The repercussions are still felt today, and Arendt’s polemic has undoubtedly served as a catalyst for discussions on both historical and basic philosophical problems of the Holocaust. The controversy has also been researched from different angles.

The present article uncovers and analyzes a hitherto unknown correspondence between the Israeli German-born historian Leni Yahil and Arendt, following the friendship that developed between the two while Arendt was in Israel covering the trial in April 1961. Subsequently, their correspondence stretched from May 1961 till shortly after Yahil read Arendt’s articles in the spring of 1963. The correspondence alternates constantly between personal affairs and philosophical and political issues, and moves from a close relationship to a total crisis after the publication of Arendt’s articles. Yahil also sent a last (unanswered) letter to Arendt in 1971, in a vain attempt to reestablish contact. The fascinating correspondence, translated from the German and published in full with this article, adds a previously unknown facet to the controversy, a facet which turned out to be highly important because it impacted on the way Yahil composed her monumental, comprehensive study of the Holocaust — The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945.