BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //
Mention the Holocaust and several names come quickly to mind. Adolf Hitler was at the top of the Nazi killing machine, opening the door on pure evil and madness that led to the mass murder of six million Jews.
Right on his heels and at his beck and call was a bunch of infamous thugs, including Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor, commander of the Luftwaffe and one of the early architects of the Holocaust; Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (the Reich Main Security Office that included the Gestapo) and another early architect of the Holocaust; Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and chief of the German Police; and Josef Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death, a bully and sadist who often was the final arbiter on who would live and who would die at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps.
And then there was Adolf Eichmann, a very small fish in a very large and fetid pond. The SS-Obersturmbannführer was head of the Department for Jewish Affairs in the Gestapo, charged with the creation and implementation of the “Final Solution”.
While most of his bosses, all virulent anti-Semites, set the stage for the extermination of millions of Jews, it was Eichmann and his team of bureaucrats who figured out the logistics – rounding up of entire communities, creation of ghettos and camps, scheduling of transports and collection of contraband. Despite his claims that he was simply following orders, Eichmann was a mass murderer who lacked any sort of moral compass. It’s quite possible, mesmerized and nurtured by the power and decadence of Nazi Germany, that by war’s end he was a full-blown psychopath.
Eichmann relished his work and took delight as his intricate plans played out across Eastern Europe. Millions of Jews were ripped from their homes and villages, tossed into crowded ghettos and camps, the vast majority ultimately murdered and buried in mass graves or cremated and turned to ash.
Most of us, even those with only a casual knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust, know that Eichmann managed to escape from Europe after allied forces defeated Hitler and his Nazi war machine. He made his way to South America and managed to hide away for 15 years before Israeli agents kidnapped him near his home outside of Buenos Aires.
In a daring, some might argue heroic, operation Eichmann was then flown halfway around the world to Israel where he was held as a war criminal and tried for crimes against the Jewish people and humanity. He was found guilty and hanged.
Novels and biographies, documentaries, TV specials and dramas have been written and aired about Eichmann, his loathsome life and work, capture, trial and execution. I mention all this, a bit of windy preamble, to suggest it worth your time to check out “Hunting Eichmann” by Neal Bascomb (Mariner Books, 388 pages). The book was published a few years ago and a feature film is in the works.
Bascomb’s good work often reads like an intricate spy novel, filled with twists and turns that he managed to uncover after the release of groundbreaking new information. This lucky break – for Bascomb and his readers – is supported and fleshed out by hundreds of interviews and recently declassified documents.
The basic story hasn’t changed, but now readers have the opportunity to take a peek behind the facts. What we find offers up a troubling look into the crazed mind of Eichmann and, just as interesting, into the planning and execution of his capture by a feisty, still maturing intelligence agency – the Mossad.
The team of spies and their helpers were an eclectic blend of experienced agents and naïve, anxious volunteers. Bascomb reports it would take equal measures of chutzpah, steely resolve and expertise to accomplish their mission. They were also very lucky.
One agent, on his way to South America through Europe, forgot his alias when retrieving his passport from custom officials. Fortunately, he spotted the proper passport – he recognized its unique color – and simply pointed at it. Another agent, checking out Eichmann’s neighborhood, became distracted and drove his car into a ditch. Yet another group of agents were stopped by police as they drove near Eichmann’s home, but were not detained after telling the cops they were lost and looking for their hotel.
To their credit, however, the team managed to pay close attention to all the important details of the mission. Team members arranged and coordinated dozens of secret meetings, rented cars and safe houses, and successfully counterfeited passports, visas, identity cards and driver licenses. Their work was cosmically bland, painfully intense and emotionally draining.
For most of the Israelis, capturing Eichmann was not just another job. Their lives and that of their families were inextricably linked to the Holocaust. Tracking down one of the world’s most notorious Nazis was of profound significance to each of them personally and, as it would turn out, to the future of Israel.
Eichmann, meanwhile, comes across in Bascomb’s book as a failed megalomaniac, a toady bureaucrat who once held the power of life and death in his blood-soaked hands. During the war he lived in villas and mansions, had at least two mistresses and spent his evenings enjoying the spoils of victory.
Fifteen years after the Reich was nothing more than a fading memory, Eichmann and his family were living in a wretched concrete shack in the middle of a desolate neighborhood with few amenities and no public utilities. If not completely shunned by the German expatriate community in Argentina, he was certainly ignored, perhaps pitied.
After years of looking over his shoulders and hiding from shadows, Eichmann was balding, bent and nearly broken. In a sense, Eichmann wasn’t so much executed by Israeli authorities as simply put out of his misery.
A footnote: After his execution on May 31, 1962 at a prison in Ramla, Israel, Eichmann was cremated in a specially designed furnace. His ashes were scattered at sea, beyond the territorial waters of Israel by an Israeli Navy Patrol boat, ensuring that no country would serve as his final resting place.