Adolf Eichmann, pt. 1: Crimes and Flight
by Joe Rubenstein
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today for episode 5 of this portal into the past, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our daily timeline of what happened exactly 60 years ago. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, so you can reach me directly with your feedback, which I strongly encourage you to do, all that can be found on our website, realtime1960s.com.
Last time, we talked about Kennedy versus Nixon, but today, a sharp turn into darker regions -- infernal regions, actually -- as we take a hard look at one of the primary organizers of the Nazi genocide, Adolf Eichmann, who, 60 years ago today, was sitting in a prison cell, preparing for his trial in Jerusalem.
Born in Germany in 1906 but raised in Austria -- actually, he attended the same high school that Hitler had 17 years earlier -- Eichmann became increasingly drawn to the Nazis, starting around 1927, when, despite increasing membership, the Nazis were still performing very poorly at the polls, getting just 2.6 percent of the vote in the national election of 1928, but those numbers would shift dramatically in their favor after the crash of 1929 and the total collapse of the German economy. Eichmann joined the Austrian branch of the party in 1932, and the following year, right after Hitler took power, joined the SS, the Nazis’ elite paramilitary organization.
In 1934, he was invited to join the Office of Jewish Affairs, which sounds innocent, but he was tasked with “encouraging” the Jews of Germany to leave Europe and resettle elsewhere. This “encouragement” took the form of alternating violence and economic pressure. And roughly a quarter-million Jews did leave Germany between 1933 and 1939, but once the war broke out, official policy changed to, first, forced deportation -- between 1939 and ’41, entire Jewish communities were transported to ghettoes throughout occupied Eastern Europe, and these ghettoes were sealed off with brick or barbed wire. The largest, in Warsaw, at its height, had half a million people living within 1.3 square miles, an average of 9 people per room. It would have been more crowded if not for the fact that roughly a third of the deportees died in transit, in crowded train cars with no food or water.
The death rate in those ghettoes, either from starvation or disease, usually typhus, was extremely high. And Eichmann, who engineered these deportations, later claimed at his trial to have been bothered by these conditions, but wartime documents and correspondence show that his only concern was to achieve the deportations as efficiently as possible with minimal disruption to the war effort, and that he did.
Now, there are two critical junctures I would point to that massively accelerated the Holocaust. The first was Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s ill-advised invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when the Einsatzgruppen -- meaning “deployment groups,” they were death squads -- would trail the Germany army, the Wehrmacht, into conquered areas, round up every Jew they could find and kill them, usually by shooting, sometimes over pits that the victims were forced to dig, sometimes over natural ravines, sometimes on mass gallows. And it was here that the Nazis started to experiment with gas. They would load their victims into vans and then pump in carbon monoxide -- so, early prototypes for the gas chambers.
But the numbers involved with these various massacres are truly mind-boggling. One of the worst was at a place called Babi Yar, a large ravine in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where the Einsatzgruppen killed almost 34,000 Jews in just a two-day period, the last two days of September 1941. And then, a month later in Odessa, the death toll was even higher. There, in order to speed up the process and save ammunition, many of the victims were forced into gasoline-covered barracks which were then set on fire. And Eichmann, by the way, received regular reports of these activities all the way through. So, Barbarossa was critical juncture number one.
Number 2 came just after the Battle of Moscow, which the Germans, after three long months, finally lost in January of 1942. The Soviets were finally able to defend that city while taking just staggering losses. But it was after this defeat that Hitler decided to kill all the Jews in occupied territories as quickly as possible. Any chance of a quick German victory was now gone. The Eastern front was a mess. The Americans had just come into the war. So, there would be no delaying Hitler’s other war, the war against the Jews. And this decision and all its ramifications were established at the Wannsee Conference on January 20th, 1942. Wannsee is a suburb of Berlin where senior Nazis, including Eichmann, hammered out the details of what they called “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
But as I said, this “question” was well on its way to being solved by the Nazis already, not just by the Einsatzgruppen, who killed 1.3 million Jews, but a number of death camps, including Auschwitz, were already doing steady business, and many others, thousands, in fact, were under construction. But the goal was clear: the extinction of the Jewish population of Europe and any other territory that Nazi Germany controlled. And Eichmann and company would prove diabolically effective in achieving that goal.
So, that's a kind of whirlwind tour of the early stages of this historical catastrophe and, also, an introduction to this two-part episode, which, rather than focusing on a single event of the ‘60s, will cover a longer stretch of time, today, from 1944 to about 1959, and next time, '59 to '62. My research was drawn from many sources, but a good deal of it from an excellent book I can highly recommend called Hunting Eichmann, by Neil Bascomb. So, Adolf Eichmann, top ten facts, right now. [Music]
Okay, we've got a lot to cover, so let’s dive right in. Fact number one. After the Wannsee Conference, Adolf Eichmann developed and refined a deliberate, four-stage process by which to annihilate the Jews of any given region or city, and he approached that task very much like a corporate executive: setting lofty goals, recruiting talent, delegating some tasks, traveling constantly to observe and tally his results, evaluating data and making adjustments, and reporting his progress to his immediate superior, the first of whom was Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler called “the man with the iron heart.” I guess from him, that was a compliment. Heydrich was truly one of the darkest figures in the Nazi regime, which is saying a mouthful. He was directly responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, and he also chaired the Wannsee Conference. But after Heydrich was assassinated by Czechoslovakian soldiers in the spring of 1942, Eichmann reported to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. And the only two men who ranked higher than Himmler were Göring and Hitler.
So I'm going to lay out the four stages of Eichmann’s process, using Hungary, which was kind of his last hurrah, as an example. And then I’m going to kind of zoom in and explore the impact of that process on a specific person because, when you’re dealing with the kind of numbers we’re dealing with, it’s easy to get lost in abstractions, and I don't want to do that.
So, once the Germans occupied Hungary in March of 1944 and the SS and the Gestapo were installed, it was time for stage one: isolation. Jews had to wear the yellow star at all times. They were prohibited from traveling, forbidden to own or use telephones or radios, they were banned from working in the civil service and, really, every other major profession. And that’s just a few of literally hundreds of restrictions that were enforced.
Then came stage two: appropriation. All Jewish bank accounts were frozen, any business or factory owned by a Jew or Jews was seized, all their assets were stolen. And by the way, that included ration cards, so Jews could only obtain food through the black market. So, stages one and two effectively rendered the Jewish population helpless, hungry, and appropriately terrified, setting them up for the kill.
Stage three was physical separation. Jewish families were forced out of their homes at gunpoint and herded into the ghettoes I’ve already described. And finally, stage four: deportation to death camps. The Jews of Hungary were sent to Auschwitz, where those who weren’t killed immediately were used for slave labor or as the subjects of gruesome medical experiments.
And one of many sad and, really, infuriating facts about all this is that the SS -- not just in Hungary, but every region of occupied Europe -- had help from local authorities. A lot of help. There was at least as much deep-rooted anti-Semitism in these places as there was in Germany, going back to the Middle Ages, when Jews were falsely blamed for the outbreak of the Black Death, the bubonic plague, and murdered by the thousands, many of them burned alive. So, it was an old business, it was a filthy business, and the Hungarian gendarmes, in 1944, were more than happy to work hand in glove with the SS.
Now, as for that personal experience I mentioned -- and this is nobody you’ve ever heard of, this is just an ordinary man who got caught up in the gears of this deadly machinery and somehow managed to survive as a living witness, one of just a handful of Jews who personally laid eyes on Eichmann during the war and lived to tell the tale. So, in April of 1944, Zeev Sapir, 20 years old, was living in the village of Dobradovo in northeastern Hungary with his parents and 5 younger siblings. On the 15th of that month, which happened to be the last day of Passover that year, the police knocked on his door, told his family to pack what they could carry, and exit the premises.
The entire Jewish population of this village, 103 people, were then marched 10 miles to Munkacs, the nearest city, where they were housed at a defunct brick factory with 14,000 other Jews. Most of them, of course, lived outside, there was no room, and there were only two functioning water faucets at the factory and nothing to eat but a few spoonfuls of potato soup every day. So, after a series of downpours, typhoid and pneumonia swept the prisoners, but somehow, Zeev’s family avoided getting sick. So, three weeks passed, during which the guards played various games to kill the boredom, for example, forcing the prisoners to transfer piles of bricks from one end of the ghetto to the other for no reason whatsoever.
One afternoon in early May, the prisoners were ordered into an open area, to listen to a speech by none other than Adolf Eichmann, who had arrived at the factory with an entourage of 30 or so SS officers. And this is what he said: “Jews, you have nothing to fear. You have no cause to worry. We want only what is best for you. You will leave here very shortly and be sent to very fine places indeed. You will work there, your wives will stay at home, your children will go to school. You will have wonderful lives.”
About two weeks later, a detachment of SS guards arrived and, using whips, forced the prisoners onto train tracks that ran adjacent to the factory. They were then told to strip. Anyone who protested or even hesitated was beaten badly. Their clothing was searched for valuables, and any personal documentation that was found was shredded. After putting their clothes back on, Zeev and the others from his village were crammed into a single cattle car, and the door was locked behind them. They had no idea where they were going. There was no food or water, just a single bucket in which to relieve themselves.
After two days, the train stopped. The door crashed open, and a guard asked if they wanted water. Zeev scrambled out of the car to fill a bucket at the station where they’d stopped. When he returned, the guard knocked the bucket out of his hands onto the ground and ordered him back into the car. When they reached their destination in southern Poland two days later, the door once again crashed open, searchlights burning their eyes, dogs barking and snapping as the prisoners poured from the train and got their first look at what Adolf Eichmann had described as “a very fine place indeed.”
Even before he stepped off the train, Zeev smelled the burning flesh and knew exactly what this was and where it was going. The guards made them form a line. When the Sapirs reached the officer in front, Zeev was directed to the left, while his parents, his 4 brothers -- ages 15, 11, 6, and 3 -- and his 8-year-old sister were directed to the right. He tried to join them, but he was beaten back. The two lines were then marched off in separate directions, and Zeev never saw his family again. So, there's the receiving end of Eichmann’s meticulous, four-stage process, up close and personal. And we’ll come back to Zeev on our next episode because his trip to hell was only just getting started.
Okay, fact number two. After the European war finally ended in May of 1945, Eichmann remained in Germany for 5 years, undetected by war crimes investigators. Now, there are several factors that made this possible. First, he was a man who had generally worked in the shadows, at least until Hungary, where, for whatever reason, he dropped his guard a bit and was more out and about. He also had a lifelong aversion to being photographed So, his pursuers had a physical description but no picture until 1947, when an Israeli investigator finally tracked down a photograph taken by one of Eichmann's mistresses during the war. And it really wasn’t known what a critical role he'd played until the Nuremberg trials, where his name started coming up over and over again during testimony. But the Nuremberg trials didn’t get underway until the end of 1945. So, he had a good, six-month grace period there where he really wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
After the German surrender, he immediately adopted an alias, Otto Eckmann. He later explained that he chose that name because Eckmann was close enough to Eichmann that he would respond even if distracted. Now, every member of the Waffen-SS -- the military branch, which Eichmann belonged to -- had a small black tattoo on the underside of the left arm near the armpit to indicate blood type. And these tattoos were used by investigators after the war to identify these people. So, even though Eichmann burned his tattoo off with a cigarette, the scar would have aroused suspicion but, for whatever reason, no one ever looked. During the five years he remained in Europe, the only people who recognized him were former SS men in the various detention camps that he shuttled around in 1945 as Otto Eckmann, and they didn’t say anything.
But as I said, once the Nuremberg trials got rolling, he was very much wanted by the Counterintelligence Corps, the CIC. These were American investigators tasked with tracking down war criminals. So, in early '46, well aware that he now had a target on his back, Eichmann escaped his detention camp, made his way north to the British-controlled part of Germany, adopted a new alias, Otto Heninger, and presented forged documents to British officials, telling them that he was a discharged, regular army officer. No one bothered to look into it. So, here’s Eichmann, at this point, the most wanted Nazi war criminal still at large, living in this forested area in northern Germany, working as a lumberjack, while his pursuers at the CIC and at various Jewish organizations still didn’t really know what he looked like.
So, after the lumber company went under, he leased some land and started a chicken farm, selling eggs on the black market. There were strict price controls in postwar Europe that basically made it impossible to make money doing legitimate business. But by the time 1950 rolled around, he was sick of it; he was sick of his life there. Chicken farming was a far cry from genocide, his natural calling, and also, his fake documents were due to expire. So, he took off. He tapped into an underground network for fleeing war criminals, made his way south to Austria, then Italy, living in various safehouses -- including a monastery, at one point -- before shipping off to Argentina in July of 1950.
Now, there’s one other factor that aided Eichmann in Europe. I mentioned Jewish organizations. Foremost among them was the Haganah -- Hebrew for “The Defense” -- which formed in the early twenties in then British-controlled Palestine after two brutal Arab riots had left over fifty Jews dead. But after the war, the Haganah made it their business to hunt Nazi war criminals, which they did with a fair amount of success. But in November of 1947, after the U.N. passed the resolution establishing a Jewish state but before that state formally existed, they abruptly abandoned Nazi-hunting and hurried back to Israel, fully expecting that it would be attacked by the Arab states, which indeed it was. So, that particular bloodhound was off Eichmann’s trail.
And the CIC had its own problems. They were understaffed, underfunded, and faced an enormous, really, an impossible task, entire rooms full of captured Nazi records and personnel files. The Nazis were very big on documentation. They had an extensive list of suspects which, when it was later merged with a separate list compiled by the U.N. War Crimes Commission, had over 70,000 names. And with the Cold War heating up, the pursuit of war criminals kind of lost its head of steam once the Nuremberg trials ended in October of 1946. The general feeling among the Allies was, you know, they’d fried the big fish, the ones that hadn't killed themselves, and now, it wasn’t the Germans but the Russians they needed to worry about in Europe.
So, these were some of the factors that helped Eichmann and many other war criminals kind of slither through the net during that chaotic period of martial law in postwar Europe. So, Eichmann, using yet another alias, Ricardo Klement, slipped off to Argentina, which, at that time, was led by General Juan Perón, who was a longtime fan of both Mussolini and Hitler. He called the Nuremberg trials “a disgrace and an unfortunate lesson for the future of humanity.” So, Perón was a fascist sympathizer, basically a fascist himself, and eager to import as many Nazis as he possibly could to put their scientific and industrial knowledge to use and advance his national interests. So, Argentina, especially Buenos Aires, was loaded with former Nazis when Eichmann showed up in the summer of 1950.
Okay, fact number three. In Argentina, where he lived in a variety of places, ultimately ending up in a neighborhood in northern Buenos Aires called San Fernando, Eichmann made two big mistakes that helped seal his eventual doom. In 1952, he got word to his wife, Vera, in Germany that he was alive and then sent money and instructions on how to join him in Argentina, which she did with their three sons. And then, Eichmann made his first big mistake. He allowed his sons to use their true last name. He tried to explain this later by saying that he didn’t want his family to have to lie for him, which is absurd. He had them lie for him, repeatedly, in Argentina.
But this really came back to bite him in 1956, when his oldest son, Klaus, who went by Nick Eichmann, started casually dating a young woman named Sylvia Hermann, who had him over for dinner one night at the house where she lived with her 55-year-old father, who, unbeknownst to Nick, was not only Jewish but had been a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp in 1935 on suspicion of espionage. And one of many vicious beatings there had cost him the sight in one eye. He was eventually released and got out of Europe in 1938 and ended up in Buenos Aires. So, during dinner, Nick made a series of anti-Semitic remarks, among them, “It would have been better if the Germans had finished their job of extermination.” So, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Now, Mr. Hermann later said that he actually barely noticed these remarks since they were so common in Buenos Aires. So, he just steered the conversation elsewhere, and the evening ran its course.
But in April of 1957, Sylvia, no longer seeing Nick, was reading an article to her father about a war crimes trial in Frankfurt. And the article mentioned this SS big shot still at large, Adolf Eichmann, whose family had vanished from Germany just five years earlier. So, this was a lightbulb moment. They both immediately thought of Nick Eichmann. Nick had told her that he lived with his uncle, that his father had been an army officer, whereabouts unknown, presumed dead. But it occurred to her that she'd never been invited to his home. So, she got the address through a mutual friend, showed up one day, and knocked on the door. A woman with a toddler in her arms answered the door. This was Vera with their youngest son, Ricardo Francisco, the only one born in Argentina. He was named after an Italian priest who had helped Eichmann escape Europe. So, Sylvia’s making small talk, when a man walks in from another room who looked, to her, to be in his late fifties, and introduced himself as Nick’s uncle.
A few minutes later, Nick comes home and gets visibly flustered, saying to Sylvia, “Who gave you my address? Who invited you to visit me?”
But this supposed uncle cut him off, saying, “Everything’s fine; you're more than welcome.”
But as they were leaving, Nick, not the sharpest tool in the shed, said, “All right, father, I’ll see Sylvia off to the bus,” contradicting Adolf's story. So Mr. Hermann, after hearing all this, sat down and wrote a letter to the Frankfurt prosecutor mentioned in that article, relaying his suspicions and providing Eichmann's current address.
Now, the prosecutor, Fritz Bauer -- who was also Jewish and had also been a prisoner in a concentration camp in the ‘30s -- had the wisdom not to reveal the contents of that letter to the West German authorities. In the next section, I'll explain why that was wise. He instead reached out to Felix Shinar, Israel’s quasi-ambassador to West Germany -- I say “quasi” because Israel and West Germany did not formalize diplomatic relations until 1965. But this letter, a direct byproduct of Eichmann’s idiotic decision to let his sons use the family name, sparked the fire that eventually burned him to the ground.
Now, his second mistake, which didn’t really aid his pursuers but did provide a treasure trove of self-incriminating evidence, was the decision to record his memoirs on tape in a series of interviews with Willem Sassen, a Dutch-born, former SS officer who had escaped military prison after the war and ended up in Buenos Aires. So, in the spring of '57, right around the time of that surprise visit by Sylvia Hermann, Eichmann would visit Sassen every Sunday. Sassen would place a tape recorder on the desk, and Eichmann would recount pretty much everything he'd done, saying at one point, “The only good enemy of the Reich is a dead one, and I must say, I carried out my orders with pride, and I am proud of that to this day. It was my job to catch our Jewish enemies like fish in a net and transport them to their final destination.” And then, about his actions in Holland: “I sent my boxcars to Amsterdam, and most of the 140,000 Dutch Jews were directed to the gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. It went beautifully. Even so, there are a lot of Jews enjoying life today who ought to have been gassed.” So, you can’t say he was inconsistent. I mean, give the devil his due; he earned that pitchfork.
But why do this? Why did Eichmann record such incriminating remarks on tape? I think several reasons. First of all, he probably got complacent, which, after 12 years of outfoxing the hounds, is natural. And Sassen was his closest friend there, they liked to drink wine and talk, so it kind of developed out of that. And he also had almost a compulsion to rehash the war. You know, a lot of former Nazis there had sort of moved on. But Eichmann was constantly railing, to Sassen and others, about all the people who had supposedly betrayed the Third Reich, how things would have gone differently if not for this or that. So he was a man who was trapped in his past, not because of any guilt feelings, quite the opposite, actually. His past, the war, had been the high point of his life, while his present was fairly depressing.
He was kind of a failure in Argentina. He had no head for business, other than the business of killing Jews. He had a series of menial jobs before finally getting a job at a Mercedes-Benz plant, where he eventually rose to foreman. But his job there was arranged for him by fellow Nazis who had been his underlings during the war. And at the time of these interviews with Sassen, he was renting a pretty crappy house that was too small for his family. And to add insult to injury, from his perspective, his landlord was Jewish. So, he kind of gravitated toward this retrospective fantasy world. He would buy and devour every book he could find about the war, scribbling his thoughts in the margins. So, these interviews probably served to resurrect his self-esteem, as twisted as that sounds. But Sassen would later sell these interviews to Life magazine and a German magazine called Der Stern. So, these damning remarks by Eichmann were widely disseminated and certainly made his eventual prosecutor, Gideon Hausner’s job a lot easier.
Okay, fact number four. Fritz Bauer, the West German prosecutor, relayed the information he had received about Eichmann to Israel and not West Germany for political reasons. The chancellor at that time, the first West German chancellor, was Konrad Adenauer, and he was okay, actually, more than okay. He’d been courageous as the Mayor of Köln -- or Cologne, as we call it -- in opposing the Nazis and was quickly forced out of office once Hitler took power. He had his bank accounts frozen and was arrested and jailed more than once by the Nazis -- not in a concentration camp, but a regular jail. Then, after the war, he fully acknowledged the atrocities and would later forge a reparations agreement with Israel.
But as chancellor, he basically ignored the wartime backgrounds of people in his government if he felt that they were competent and useful. And it turned out that there were a great many competent and useful former Nazis that held critical posts in West Germany in the 1950s, to the tune of about a third of Adenauer’s cabinet, a quarter of the Bundestag -- that’s the German federal parliament -- and a big chunk of the civil service, judiciary, and foreign ministry.
Now, the most powerful of all these former Nazis and the one who gave Fritz Bauer the greatest pause was Hans Globke, Adenauer’s chief of staff. He had been a lawyer, then a powerful judge under Hitler. He actually helped write the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935 and then later served as chief legal adviser to the Office of Jewish Affairs, working under Adolf Eichmann. So, Bauer felt that since an Eichmann trial in West Germany would necessarily shine a harsh new light on Globke’s past, that the West German authorities, if approached, would find a reason not to extradite Eichmann or, even worse, bungle it somehow or tip him off so they could keep Globke, who was useful not just to Adenauer, but to the United States as well. Among Globke’s many responsibilities was the oversight of the West German intelligence service, called the BND. So, Globke was the primary contact for the CIA in West Germany. Of course, Berlin was a major Cold War hotspot, so Globke had powerful friends in both Adenauer and Allen Dulles, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at that time. So, this is why Bauer took a hard pass on his own government and went to the Israelis instead.
One more point about West Germany in the 1950s: there were troubling signs, especially later in the decade, that despite Germany’s best efforts to shut the door on their recent past, that past was not entirely behind them. On the one hand, there was a lot of whitewashing of the war. West German schoolchildren in the 1950s got a heavily redacted, sanitized version of the Hitler regime that focused mostly on economic issues and battles and so forth, and the death camps were disposed of, usually, in a couple of vague sentences or just went unmentioned.
At the same time, you had the rise of the ultra-right-wing German Reich Party, which made significant gains in the regional elections of 1959. Then during Christmas that year, there was a week-long outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks across West Germany that made international headlines -- not attacks on people; there weren't that many Jews left in Germany. In 1933, there had been over half a million; in the ‘50s, there were fewer than 40,000. But swastikas painted on synagogues, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, obviously, a coordinated thing.
Adenauer did deliver a national radio address denouncing this, but membership in these militant nationalist organizations was on the rise. So, this is one of several reasons why Israel felt that a public trial of Eichmann, shown all over the world and recorded for posterity, was so important, that it could serve as a kind of countermeasure against not just the whitewashing of the war, in Germany and elsewhere, but against the possible reemergence of the Nazi phenomenon.
Okay fact number five, our final fact for today. The Israeli team of operatives assigned to snatch Eichmann in Argentina and get him back to Israel for a trial was drawn from two intelligence agencies, both formed in 1949, and both still in existence. The first is Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, directed at that time by a guy named Isser Harel, who would personally travel to Buenos Aires to oversee this operation. The other agency was Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, roughly comparable to our FBI.
Each member of this team, there were eight, had extensive experience in covert operations, and they had also each lost family in the Holocaust. Actually, one of them, Moshe Tabor, his entire family had been wiped out in Lithuania, and after the war, he had joined various avenger groups. There was a kind of Wild-West period in Europe just after the war, and there were these Jewish avenger groups that captured and killed a number of SS men. So, Tabor’s first response, when chosen for this Eichmann mission, he said, "Why go to all this trouble of transporting him back to Israel? Why not just kill him?” He said, “I saw the survivors of those death camps in 1945. What chance did he ever give them to defend themselves?”
And actually, the idea of assassinating Eichmann was briefly considered; just break his neck and fabricate a car crash or something, and the world would never know who had killed him or even if it was Eichmann that had been killed. Israel had done targeted assassinations before this point, they’ve done a number of them since. Actually, they just did one in Iran a few months ago; they’re very good at it. But in this case, the idea was rejected by both Harel and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who very much wanted not just a trial but a referendum on the Holocaust. He thought it was really important that, even if just this once, the Jews themselves and not some international military tribunal with one eye on justice and the other on the Cold War would prosecute and judge their murderer in their own country and not just bump him off in some alley in Buenos Aires.
It was also felt that testimony by living witnesses could be useful, not just in the service of justice but as a kind of public ventilation. You know, a lot of survivors, in Israel and elsewhere, didn’t really talk about it, what they’d been through. And sadly, a significant number, especially in the period right after the war, were unable to live with those losses and memories and committed suicide. So, it was felt that the trial could kind of place the Holocaust in the light for all to see and that this could, potentially, be useful to the survivors as well.
But first, for any of that to even be possible, they had to get this guy. So, the first step was in March of 1960. A team member named Zvi Aharoni traveled alone to Buenos Aires, and his goal was simple: verification. Just make sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this "Ricardo Klement" was Adolf Eichmann. Now, Eichmann had moved since Fritz Bauer had gotten that letter with his address back in 1957. But Aharoni was able to locate his current residence, rented a truck, and drove by a number of times. At first, he had his doubts. To him, it looked more like a rundown jail than a house; chicken wire fencing around the property, barred windows. It was hard to accept that such a big shot -- or former big shot -- would live in such a dump, which of course, may have been the point.
But eventually, Aharoni saw a man in the yard taking down wash from a clothesline, and this man clearly matched the description he’d been given: correct height, high sloped forehead, the right age. So, Aharoni had a local contact approach Eichmann, ostensibly to ask for directions somewhere, and covertly take some photos of Eichmann with a hidden camera, which turned out remarkably well. You can see two of them in Bascomb’s book. So, after studying these photos, Aharoni sent a coded message from the Israeli embassy back to Mossad headquarters, saying, “The driver is black,” meaning that Eichmann had been IDed, and they were good to go.
Now, this mission presented a number of major challenges. First of all, they would be 9,000 miles from home in a country where they didn't really know the terrain or the language, beyond a few phrases. It was also a country, as I said, with a substantial Nazi and neo-Nazi presence and a general climate of anti-Semitism. Actually, earlier that year, there had been a series of attacks on synagogues and Jewish homes in Buenos Aires, possibly a copycat of what had happened in Germany over Christmas.
Also, while the mission was certainly justified on a moral level, it was, in fact, illegal. It was not exactly a pro forma extradition by any stretch of the imagination. So, if caught, the operatives could wind up in prison, which could have political ramifications as well. And finally, don't forget, Adolf Eichmann had been a highly ranked officer in one of the deadliest security forces in the history of the planet. He was an expert in surveillance and operational tactics. So, even at age 54, it wasn't guaranteed that he would be some pushover. He was smart, he was cunning, and had proven himself both vigilant and resourceful for 15 years.
Now, to soften up some of that vigilance, the Israelis threw a kind of head fake by planting a false story through Fritz Bauer. Just before the team started to filter into Buenos Aires in late April, early May of 1960, Bauer held a press conference in Frankfurt, announcing a major investigation into Eichmann’s possible presence in Kuwait, of all places. This was a complete fiction, but the Israelis thought this might bring Eichmann’s guard down a little.
So, as they arrived in Buenos Aires, each member of this team was met by a local operative and given a different fake identity from the one that they’d traveled under, with new papers as well. Later on, they would be given a third fake identity before leaving the country. Once this was done, they obtained, first of all, money that had been sent in advance to cover various costs: car rentals, rental of a safehouse where they could stash Eichmann after the snatch, food, hotels, et cetera. So, they got the money and then some critical items that had also been sent in advance, including handcuffs, forgery kits, sedation drugs, lock picks, miniature drills and other woodworking tools, and finally, makeup kits with false teeth and wigs.
A quick look at our next episode, right after this. [Music]
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Coming up on Episode 6 of Real Time 1960s, Adolf Eichmann, part 2, where I’ll give you a detailed account of the former Nazi’s capture in Buenos Aires by an elite team of Israeli operatives. I’ll tell you how they sneaked Eichmann onto a jet and out of Argentina. I’ll also discuss key moments from his 1961 trial, including testimony by one Zeev Sapir. I’ll cover the international reaction to that trial as well as his sentencing and execution. And then, finally, the larger significance of the reckoning that took place in Jerusalem in 1961.
Don’t forget to visit us at realtime1960s.com for our timeline, each and every podcast, links to social media, how to reach us directly, everything you need to know about this portal into the past that we are creating. Thanks so much for joining us. Take care, and I'll see you soon.