Adolf Eichmann, pt. 2: Capture and Judgment
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 6 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, all that can be found on our website, realtime1960s.com.
Our topic remains Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann; so, just a quick review. Last time, I covered the four-stage process by which he destroyed the Jewish communities of occupied Europe one by one. I looked at the impact of that process on a specific person, Zeev Sapir, a 20-year-old Hungarian Jew who, in the spring of 1944, was sent to Auschwitz. We'll cover the rest of his story today. I discussed Eichmann's postwar period in Germany and his escape to Argentina in the summer of 1950, where he ultimately became foreman at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Buenos Aires. We talked about a couple of unforced errors that he made there, recording some incriminating memoirs on tape in interviews with former SS officer Willem Sassen and, also, allowing his sons to use the true family name, initiating a chain of events that ultimately revealed his location to the Israelis, who promptly formed a team of elite operatives. And those 8 men started filtering into Buenos Aires in late April, early May of 1960.
So, that's a lightning review of Episode 1, called “Crimes and Flight,” where I presented 1 thru 5 of my top 10 facts about Eichmann. Today's episode is called “Capture and Judgment,” and begins in Buenos Aires, as the walls are closing in on this diligent practitioner of genocide. Adolf Eichmann, facts 6 thru 10, right now. [Music]
Let’s dive right in, fact number six. This mission, assigned to our Israeli team of eight, contained within it three separate operations: number one, capture Eichmann alive; number two, hold him in a secure location; and number three, transport the prisoner back to Israel; and do all of this in total secrecy.
The point man or lead player for part one, the snatch, was Peter Malkin of the Mossad. Malkin was the most powerful of the eight men physically and had, perhaps, the broadest skill set. So, just some background. His original nuclear family had moved from Poland to British-controlled Palestine in 1933, when he was 5 years old, but his older sister had remained behind. And she, her husband and three children, and over a hundred extended family members of Malkin's had been murdered by the Nazis. So for him, this was no ordinary mission.
In 1940, at the ripe old age of 12, he had joined the Haganah, the Jewish defense organization, first, as a courier, then a safecracker -- he would steal weapons from British police stations -- and finally, a rigorous course in explosives, where he learned to clear mines, set booby traps, make homemade bombs, and blow up bridges, skills he employed during Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and ’49. And then later, Malkin added to his resumé proficiency in the martial arts and an expertise in disguises. So, there's our lead player, Peter Malkin.
Three locations for the Eichmann snatch were considered. The first would be to get him near the Mercedes-Benz factory, which was located about 20 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. The second would be a nighttime commando raid on his house on Garibaldi Street, snatching him out of bed. And the third, which is what they settled on, was to grab him on the street near his house. This was the best option because, first of all, he lived in a quiet, almost desolate neighborhood, where the odds against interference were slim to none. The factory neighborhood was much busier. And the commando raid would have added the variable of the wife and sons, which they didn’t want to deal with. So, on the street near his house it would be. And as they refined their tactical approach, the one thing Malkin insisted on was that he wear gloves. The idea of physically touching Eichmann he found viscerally repulsive.
Now, skipping ahead to part three, transporting him out of the country, there were only two options, by air or by sea, and the idea of stowing him on a ship was quickly rejected. That would’ve been a 60-day, round-trip journey requiring multiple stops at foreign ports, and they would be sitting ducks if Argentina was alerted to Eichmann's capture and tried to get him back. So, they decided to use El Al, which was and is a civilian airline; actually, in 1960, the only Israeli civilian airline. But it had been used for covert missions before. El Al planes with special crews had airlifted Jewish refugees out of trouble spots like Iraq, Iran, and Yemen. El Al did not fly direct to South America in 1960, but here’s where lady luck smiled on the Israelis. In 1960, Argentina was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its independence from Spain, and official delegations from pretty much every major country, including Israel, had been invited to attend festivities that May, so perfect, legitimate cover for a plane.
As for stage two, holding Eichmann in a secure location until the scheduled return flight, the team rented a large villa where they could hold him prisoner. They rented it from a Jewish family who had no idea what their property was about to be used for and, probably, still don't to this day. But it was a large residence, several wings, many rooms, surrounded by a high stone wall to keep nosy neighbors at bay. So, once they had the keys and the owners were out, they immediately changed all the locks, which of course, they would change back before they left. They stocked the place with enough beds and plenty of food. They reinforced the security bars on the windows. They also created a false wall that opened on a hinge and led into a kind of makeshift hiding hole where, in the event of a police search or some kind of rescue attempt by local Nazis or neo-Nazis, one of the operatives could hold Eichmann. And it was decided in Israel that, if they found themselves in real danger of being overpowered and forced to surrender their prisoner, then whoever was with Eichmann in that hiding hole would strangle him.
Okay, fact number seven. Part three of the mission, sneaking Eichmann through airport security and onto the plane, which you’d think would be the trickiest, actually went the smoothest. Part two, which would seem fairly simple, just holding him in that safehouse, was the most challenging -- not logistically, but psychologically.
But first, part 1, the snatch, set for 7:40 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11th, 1960. Three of the operatives awaited their target in the capture car, a black Buick limo, and another three waited in the backup car, a black Chevy sedan. The vehicles were positioned along the short route that Eichmann took every workday evening as he walked home from the bus stop on Route 202 to his house on Garibaldi Street. The backup car was parked facing the bus stop, and the limo, driven by Zvi Aharoni -- who had been the first operative to arrive in Buenos Aires and now wore a chauffeur’s uniform -- was parked around the corner on Garibaldi Street. A few minutes before Eichmann’s bus was due to arrive at 7:40, Aharoni popped the hood to give the impression that the limo had broken down, while Malkin and Moshe Tabor got out and pretended to fiddle with the engine.
So the snatch, which they’d rehearsed endlessly, had two minor glitches, the second more significant than the first. The first was that Eichmann was not on the 7:40 bus, so, immediate concern that he’d been tipped off somehow. As it turned out, there had been a compulsory union meeting after work at the Mercedes plant that day, but they didn't know that at the time. So, that's a long 25 minutes waiting and praying that Eichmann would be on the next bus, at 8:05, which, indeed, he was.
Now, the second difficulty presented itself as Eichmann walked steadily toward the limo, the capture car. He was wearing a trench coat -- it was unseasonably cold -- and about 20 feet from the limo, he suddenly placed his right hand inside the coat and started feeling for something. So Malkin, seeing this out of the corner of his eye as he leaned over the engine, immediately thought gun. The plan was, once Eichmann reached the limo, for Malkin to step directly in his path and say three words: “Un momentito, señor” -- “One moment, sir." And then, before he even had a chance to respond, strike, spin him around, and get him in an unbreakable hold while cutting off his ability to scream. But the prospect of a gun necessitated a change in that choreography.
So, when Eichmann, hand still inside the coat, reached the limo, Malkin stepped in his path, said the magic words, at which point Eichmann's eyes immediately widened in panic. He obviously knew what this was. So, he quickly stepped back and tried to run, at which point Malkin brought him down with a leaping tackle, immobilized the right arm that had been reaching for what turned out to be a flashlight, not a gun -- the road was poorly lit -- but Malkin's initial focus on the arm left Eichmann free to scream for help, which he proceeded to do, while kicking and struggling furiously to free himself. And this is only about 30 yards from his house, so well within screaming distance.
Aharoni had the sense to start the limo's engine and rev it repeatedly to drown out the screams, as Tabor rushed over to assist Malkin, grabbing hold of the Nazi's legs. And that one, simple action was like flicking a switch; the second his legs were immobilized, he submitted. His body went completely limp, and he stopped screaming even before they covered his mouth. They actually thought that maybe he'd fainted, which was just as well. So, they hustled him into the back seat of the limo, placed motorcycle goggles on his head, the lenses of which were covered with black tape, put him on the floor of the vehicle, telling him that if he moved, they would shoot him -- which they had no intention of doing, but he didn't know that -- and then they covered him with a heavy blanket. So, a little hairy, but still, mission accomplished, at least part 1, and the entire snatch from “Un momentito” to goggles took 30 seconds, tops.
So, as they drove toward the safehouse, slowly -- you know, if this was a movie, they would speed off with their prisoner as the heart-pounding percussion music kicked in, right? But this being reality, Aharoni took extraordinary care not to speed or break any traffic laws. One little mistake like that, getting pulled over, could blow the entire mission. But as Malkin and Tabor were binding Eichmann’s hands and feet, still thinking he'd passed out, he suddenly spoke up in flawless German, saying, “I am already resigned to my fate.” So, not exactly an admission of his identity but pretty close, and they assumed that by his “fate” he meant that he expected to be killed.
At the safehouse, the team doctor, Yonah Elian, gave Eichmann a thorough examination, noting the scar tissue where he had burned off his SS tattoo with a cigarette back in 1945. Then came Eichmann's second utterance, after silently submitting to the examination, which was, “No man can be vigilant for 15 years,” so, even more of an admission. And then, when they asked him, first, for his Nazi Party and SS membership numbers, he gave the correct answers, and then the clincher: he gave his true birthdate, March 19th, 1906, and his true name, and that was it. Adolf Eichmann was a prisoner of the Jewish people.
But as it turned out, that was the high point of the trip, because stage two, sharing a roof with this individual for nine long days as they waited for the return flight, became increasingly oppressive. Remember, each of them had been directly impacted by the Holocaust that Eichmann had organized. So, many of them struggled at times with the urge to attack the prisoner, who, under interrogation -- during which no physical force was used -- denied any and all crimes, claiming he'd been “a small cog” in the Nazi machine. But imagine if someone had murdered not just your family but millions of other families, and for nine days, you had to dress that murderer, shave him, take him to the bathroom, attend to his every discomfort, all while listening to him lie and deny. Maddening.
And there’s a fascinating encounter described in the book I mentioned last time, Hunting Eichmann, by Neil Bascomb. On the final night in the safehouse before taking Eichmann to the airport, Malkin couldn’t sleep. So, he got up, and glancing into Eichmann’s room and seeing that he was awake, went in and sat down. He took a breath, and he said, “Let me ask you something. When it was determined that the official policy was not resettlement but death, how did you feel about that?”
Eichmann responded, “There was nothing to be done. The order came down from the Führer himself.”
So, he said, “Yeah, I know about that, but how did you, personally, feel?”
Same non-answer: "There was nothing to be done."
So, he said, “Okay, there was nothing to be done, so you turned into a killer,” which Eichmann, for perhaps the hundredth time, vehemently denied, using the ludicrous fig leaf that he’d never personally killed anyone, and adding that he'd avoided visiting the death camps. Also ridiculous. First of all, it wasn't even true; he’d visited many of them, including two of the largest, Auschwitz and Treblinka, more than once. He'd also personally witnessed a mass shooting in Minsk without batting an eye. But even if it had been true, so what? That’s no exoneration. Hitler never visited any of the death camps, either.
But here with Malkin, and then later, at his trial, Eichmann kept robotically returning to this phrase “collection and transport.” You know, that was his job between 1941 and 1945, that's what he did, “collection and transport,” as if he was talking about collecting and transporting lumber or cases of whiskey or something, instead of human beings.
So Malkin, struggling now to control his temper, finally said, “You do realize we’re talking about innocent people here, right? Small children? Old men and women?” Eichmann was completely unfazed; it meant nothing to him. And for Malkin, even after all the things he’d seen and experienced in his 32 years, it was a stunning realization, that somebody could be that emotionally crippled and impervious to any kind of human feeling or empathy. And he later said that, by the end of that conversation, he alternated between wanting to strike the man and actually feeling sorry for him.
As for getting him on the plane, again, three approaches were considered. All three had the common thread that Eichmann would be sedated, not into oblivion, but to the point where he wouldn’t really know what was going on and, most importantly, wouldn’t scream for help. The drugs had been sent ahead of time, and Dr. Elian was an experienced anesthesiologist, so that was well-covered.
Now, option one would be to secure Eichmann in a crate with airholes, mark it diplomatic cargo, and forklift him on board. Option two would be to place him inside a large caterer’s cart; that would require him to be a little more tightly bound. And option three -- which sounds the riskiest because it was the only one where he'd be exposed -- but this is what they chose; so, first of all, they changed his appearance. They dyed his hair gray, glued on a fake mustache, and Malkin applied some makeup to make him appear older. Then came the sedation, which Eichmann insisted was unnecessary. He promised he wouldn't scream. They did it anyway, of course. And finally, they dressed the now groggy Nazi in an El Al uniform and passed him off as a crewmember. They had manufactured this whole fake identity for him, complete with papers. Herr Eichmann was now a Mr. Zichroni. How they came up with that name, I have no idea.
But a little after 11 p.m. on May 20th, a phalanx of actual crewmembers surrounded and kind of half-carried their new, apparently drunk colleague, Mr. Zichroni, through airport inspection in Buenos Aires, and it went like a dream. No one said a word. So, that is how Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, wearing an El Al uniform complete with a spiffy white cap with a blue Star of David on the front, boarded a plane to the promised land. Well done.
They took off just after midnight, and after crossing the ocean, made a quick stop in Dakar, on the west coast of Africa, to refuel. Here, Dr. Elian again sedated Eichmann just in case any local authorities came onboard; none did. So, on they went, and the plane finally touched down on Israeli soil just after dawn on May 22nd, at which point a trembling, blindfolded Eichmann was escorted out of the aircraft into a black windowless van, which sped off to a fortified police station about five miles southeast of Haifa.
And even though he'd confirmed his identity, the Israelis took one extra step before he was formally charged: a definitive ID by someone who’d actually laid eyes on him. So, a man called Moshe Agami, who had personally met Eichmann in 1938 as a Jewish representative in Austria, was brought down to the station and made the ID, at which point Eichmann was formally charged with crimes of genocide, officially arrested, and placed in a 10-by-13-foot cell in that same fortified police station, where he would be the only prisoner for the next two years. The lights were kept on at all times, and there was a guard in the cell with him at all times, while a second guard kept steady watch through an opening in the reinforced door. The only personnel assigned to this guard duty were those who had not lost family in the Holocaust; there were a few. Israel wanted no part of any individual vendetta.
Okay, fact number eight. Despite the fact that Eichmann’s highly competent German defense attorney, Robert Servatius, performed well for his client, the evidence against Eichmann was overwhelming. And by the way, a law had to be changed to enable the hiring of Servatius. Normally, foreign lawyers have no right of audience in Israeli courts, but the fact is no Israeli lawyer had any wish to defend Eichmann. And Servatius had no troubling history, he had not been a Nazi, and he was actually compensated, not by Eichmann, but by the Israeli government. That was a precedent set at Nuremberg, where the defendants had not paid for their counsel either.
The trial opened in Jerusalem District Court on April 11th, 1961. And Servatius did score some minor victories in limiting the scope of the presentation by prosecutor Gideon Hausner, who was also Israel's Attorney General at that time. Material not directly related to Eichmann was inadmissible. In other words, he would not be held liable for every Nazi crime.
Even so, his fingerprints were all over the genocide. The evidence included hundreds of documents from the war -- Hausner would later write that just those documents alone would have been enough for a guilty verdict 10 times over -- but testimony from the Nuremberg trials was also admitted. There was a really damaging quote from an SS officer named Dieter Wisliceny. Wisliceny was tried at Nuremberg and executed in 1948 for his role in wiping out the Jews of Greece and Slovakia. At Nuremberg, he quoted Eichmann as saying, "I will leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that I have five million people on my conscience will be, for me, a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” Confronted with that remark in Jerusalem, Eichmann didn’t deny having said it. But initially, he claimed that by the “five million” he had meant enemies of the Reich, like the Soviets. But Hausner cornered him during cross-examination and finally got him to admit that he had meant the Jews and that that remark was an accurate reflection of his opinion at the time. So, Eichmann’s own words hurt him.
But most damaging -- certainly, most riveting to the spectators in that courtroom and around the world -- were the 112 living witnesses, among them, our old friend Zeev Sapir who, when we last left him in part 1, was helplessly watching his family being marched off to the gas chambers at Auschwitz as he marched in a different direction. Zeev was called to the stand in Jerusalem on May 28th, 1961, and he would later say that the sight of Eichmann seated between two Israeli guards, in that courtroom, gave him an overwhelming feeling of pride and elation.
So Zeev, now 37 years of age, recounted under oath, first, Eichmann’s personal visit to the ghetto in Munkacs, Hungary, assuring the prisoners that they would be sent to very fine places indeed. He described the four-day trip to Auschwitz in a crowded cattle car with no food or water. He described, haltingly, the moment when his family was separated from him forever. And as for what came next, here's how 20-year-old Zeev Sapir spent the remainder of 1944 as a prisoner of the Nazis.
At Auschwitz, he was forced to work in the very chambers where his family had been gassed. His task was to drag the murdered victims from the chambers, place their bodies face up in the yard, wait while a barber cut off the victims' hair and a dental mechanic ripped out any gold teeth he could find, and then Zeev would carry the corpses to a large pit, where they were stacked and burned.
See, the capacity of the four crematoria at that camp was insufficient for the numbers of dead they were dealing with. In these large pits, it was possible to dispose of 1,000 bodies per hour versus, roughly, 1,000 per day in a crematorium. A channel that was cut ran through the center of the pit, and this channel drained away the fat which exuded from the burning bodies, and this fat was used to stoke the crematorium fires. Very efficient.
Later that summer, Zeev, who was severely malnourished at this point, was transferred to a satellite camp called Jaworzno, where he was used for slave labor, working 12-hour days in a coal mine. If he failed to fill 45 wagons of coal per shift, he got 25 lashes of the whip. Finally, in December of ’44, with the Red Army rapidly marching west through Poland, the guards gathered up the surviving prisoners and said, “Start walking.”
For two days, they marched west through deep snow. Anyone who couldn’t keep the pace was shot. They finally ended up in a small town in Upper Silesia, where they were herded into a clearing, given shovels and pickaxes, and ordered to dig their own graves. Achieving minimal success, since not only was the earth was frozen but they could barely stand, the prisoners were taken into a dining hall at a nearby coal mine.
At the front of the hall, a group of SS officers -- one of whom Zeev recalled as an Officer Lausmann -- stood around a large iron pot. Some of the prisoners began desperately pushing forward, hoping for food. These were the first to die. Officer Lausmann grabbed the first prisoner, leaned his head over the pot, and shot him in the neck. Then the next prisoner and the next and the next, until there were just 11 left, standing there waiting to die.
Suddenly, an officer called Lausmann out of the hall and, a few minutes later, Zeev and the other 10 survivors were loaded onto a train to yet another concentration camp called Gleiwitz, where they were locked in a cellar filled with potatoes, which they fell upon. In the morning, they were taken out of the cellar and merged with over 1,000 other prisoners and marched into the forest. Then, the machine guns opened up, mowing them down. Somehow, Zeev summoned the strength to run until his legs finally gave out, and he collapsed unconscious against a tree.
Now, you’ve all seen the films and pictures of the survivors of those death camps right after they were liberated, right? Just living skeletons. That was Zeev Sapir when the Red Army stumbled upon him lying next to that tree. This formerly healthy 20-year-old man now weighed 64 pounds, his skin yellow and dry, and it would take many, many months before he was able to achieve anything approaching physical health.
At the conclusion of this testimony by Zeev Sapir in Jerusalem, he was asked by the court to stand and display for the assembled spectators his Auschwitz tattoo, which he did. And with that, he exited the pages of history. I could find nothing on his life after that day in May of 1961. There’s a picture in Bascomb's book that was taken during his testimony. A very handsome young man, and I certainly hope he was able to find some peace and fulfillment in his life. I can't, offhand, think of anyone more deserving.
Closing statements were delivered on August 14th. The trial was adjourned for four months. And then, on December 12th, Eichmann was found guilty on all 15 counts of the indictment. The first seven were for crimes against the Jewish people. The most glaring, of course, was the deportation of millions to extermination camps starting in 1941. The eighth count was for other, miscellaneous war crimes. Counts 9 thru 12 were for crimes against humanity perpetrated against non-Jews, including mass deportations of Polish citizens, of Slovenian citizens, participation in the Romani genocide. The Romani are sometimes referred to as “Gypsies,” which some consider pejorative. But like the Jews, they were classified by the Nazis, in a supplementary decree to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, as “enemies of the race-based state” and murdered in the hundreds of thousands.
Eichmann was also cited for his role in the notorious Lidice massacre, which was the total destruction -- and I do mean total, I'll explain -- of the village of Lidice in then-Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. This was a reprisal for the assassination by Czechoslovakian soldiers of Eichmann's immediate superior, Reinhard Heydrich, in the spring of 1942. The Nazis chose this village because its residents were suspected of harboring local resistance partisans associated with aiding Heydrich's assassins. This was false; the assassins were not aided by that village. They were part of a team of Czech and Slovak soldiers, trained in Great Britain, who had parachuted into Bohemia to do the deed. Of course, I don’t think the Nazis would have cared one way or the other. They were out to set an example, any example, and set an example they did.
All 173 completely innocent men of Lidice over the age of 15 were rounded up on June 10th, 1942, taken to a farm on the outskirts of that village, stood up against the wall of a barn, and shot. The 184 women and 88 children of that community were initially placed in a detention camp. A handful of the children who were considered sufficiently Aryan by the Nazis were separated from their mothers and given to SS families. The rest of the women and children, on orders from Adolf Eichmann, were deported to extermination camps, where they were given death by gas.
The village of Lidice was set on fire. The remains of buildings were destroyed with explosives. All the animals of the village were shot. The town cemetery was excavated. They dug up the bodies, looted them for gold fillings and jewelry, burned the remains. Then a hundred-man work force was sent in to remove all visible remains of that village, rerouting the stream running through it as well as the roads in and out, and finally, covering the entire area with topsoil and planting crops. So, not only did the village of Lidice no longer exist, the Nazis left no visible trace of its former existence. Demonic. And unlike other massacres in occupied Europe, this one was openly and proudly trumpeted by the Nazis as an object lesson for potential future assassins.
As for the final three counts against Eichmann, he was found guilty of membership in what the Israelis called “enemy organizations”: the SS, the SD, which was the intelligence agency of the Nazi party, and the Gestapo, Hitler's secret police.
On the morning of December 15th, 1961, Judge Moshe Landau entered the courtroom, ordered Eichmann to rise, and said a good many things, but this quote, I think, captures the spirit of Landau's remarks: “Even if we had found that the accused acted out of blind obedience, as he argued, we would still have said that a man who took part in crimes of this magnitude over years must pay the maximum penalty known to the law. However, we have found that the accused acted not simply out of blind obedience, but out of an inner identification with the orders he was given and a fierce will to achieve the criminal objective. This Court sentences Adolf Eichmann to death.” And that was the first and, to this day, the last death sentence ever handed down by an Israeli court.
Okay, fact number nine. Eichmann, for the entire duration of his postwar life, expressed no remorse for his many crimes. Quite the contrary -- the Sassen interviews clearly indicate that he was proud of them. His approach to his interrogators, first, the capture team, and then Avner Less, the head of Bureau 6 -- that was the Israeli police unit that collected evidence, interviewed witnesses, and interrogated Eichmann prior to the trial -- was to appear open and cooperative; he was never at a loss for words. He loved to talk, chain-smoking and talking wonderfully about the intricacies and rituals of the SS, about the command structure of the Nazi hierarchy. He loved to play the expert. But when confronted with his own personal involvement in the atrocities, he would, first, deny. Then, when presented with evidence that showed he was lying, he'd say that he’d merely followed orders. And this was the pattern from which he never deviated to the day he died.
After the death sentence was handed down, there was an appeal; those hearings were held in March of 1962. During that lull, Eichmann worked on his memoirs. He also had a series of meetings with Reverend William Hull, a 65-year-old Canadian Protestant missionary who had, on his own initiative, petitioned Israel to allow him the role of Eichmann’s spiritual counselor, and he would later write a book about that experience called The Struggle for a Soul. At first, Eichmann wanted no part of him. But he ultimately relented, and they did meet 13 times.
Hull’s purpose was threefold: to have Eichmann confess his past crimes, to repent his sins, and confirm that Jesus Christ was his savior, none of which he succeeded in doing. Eichmann said that while he did believe in God, he rejected the Bible, calling the Old Testament “Jewish fables.” He told Hull that he did not fear Hell because “I have not sinned. I am clear with God. I did nothing wrong. I have no regrets.” So, clearly, the reverend was barking up the wrong tree. But the meetings were cordial enough that Eichmann extended an invitation to Hull to accompany him to his execution, which, after the appeal and a final plea for clemency were denied, was scheduled for Thursday, May 31st, 1962, at a prison in Ramla. That’s a small city located roughly at the midpoint between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
At 10:30 that evening, Eichmann requested a bottle of white wine, a pack of cigarettes, some paper, and a pen. After writing a last letter to his family, he shaved, brushed his teeth, and got dressed in reddish-brown trousers, a white shirt, open at the collar, sandals, and heavy wool socks. When Reverend Hull arrived at his cell at 11:30, Eichmann seemed, to him, unnervingly calm, although Hull did observe that the bottle was half empty, so that may have helped. Two guards followed Hull into the cell and tied Eichmann’s hands behind his back.
Then, the four men walked about fifty yards to a makeshift execution chamber, which was an unused room on the third floor of the prison that had previously served as a guards’ quarters. A hole had been cut in the floor, a wooden platform placed over the hole, and a rope, lined with leather to prevent abrasions, hung from an iron frame over the platform.
The witnesses, other than Reverend Hull and the two guards, were Prison Commissioner Ari Nir, Bureau 6 Chief Inspector Michael Goldmann, a government physician, a district administrator, two police officers, four journalists -- two local and two of the international press -- and two members of the team that had captured Eichmann in Argentina, one of whom the prisoner eyeballed as he entered the execution chamber, muttering, “I very much hope that you will follow me.” A black hood was offered to Eichmann and refused, and then the loop at the end of the rope was placed around his neck.
His last words were delivered in two segments. First, he said, “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the countries with which I have been most closely associated, and I shall not forget them. I had to obey the laws of war and my flag. I am ready.”
The two guards then walked behind a curtain of blankets that shielded the trapdoor’s release mechanism from the prisoner, whose face, the witnesses now noticed, had gone shockingly pale. And then, his final words: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. So is the fate of all men. I have lived believing in God, and I die believing in God.”
These remarks concluded, Eichmann narrowed his eyes almost completely shut and angled his head downward, toward the black trapdoor beneath his feet. A few seconds later, just as the clock struck midnight, the superintendent called out “action," a guard behind the blankets pressed a button, and the platform beneath Eichmann opened. He dropped 10 feet without a sound. The rope snapped straight and then swung slowly from side to side.
Inspector Michael Goldmann -- who, like Zeev Sapir, had watched his family marched off to the gas chambers at Auschwitz -- knelt down, peered through the hole, and announced that Eichmann was not moving. The physician then went downstairs, entered the chamber below, examined the body, and formally declared that Adolf Eichmann was dead. Then they all went down, and the guards were ordered to cut the body loose. As they lifted Eichmann’s body, some air that had apparently been caught in the dead man’s lungs was expelled, producing a sound that one of the guards would hear in nightmares for years to come. The guards then placed the body on a stretcher, covered it with a blanket, and carried it out of the building, just beyond the gates of the prison, to a clearing in an orange grove.
In the clearing, an attendant who had once been forced by the Nazis to work in a death camp crematorium, stood next to a large furnace. The two guards lifted Eichmann's body off the stretcher, but as they were placing it on the long, two-pronged iron fork next to the furnace, one of them lost his balance, and the corpse tumbled to the ground. Inspector Goldmann and Reverend Hull went over to help them lift the body. At some point, Goldmann had rolled up his sleeves, and as they placed Eichmann’s body on the iron fork, Reverend Hull would later write that he could see the Auschwitz tattoo on Goldmann’s forearm by the glow of the fire.
About two hours later, the ashes were retrieved and placed in a nickel canister, filling it about halfway. As Goldmann observed this part of the process, he recalled how the guards at Auschwitz would force him to spread similar ashes on the pathways of the camp to prevent the Nazis from slipping on the ice. There really is no limit -- no limit to the capacity for human evil, is there? A few of them drove the ashes to the ancient port city of Jaffa, where a police patrol boat was waiting for them, and they motored out to sea. About six miles offshore, just beyond Israeli territorial waters, Prison Commissioner Nir carried the nickel canister to the back of the boat and emptied it into the sea.
International reaction to the execution was fairly muted but mostly approving. West Germany made no official comment, but government sources were quoted, off the record, as saying that they were satisfied that Eichmann had received a fair trial and that his sentence was just. As for Israel, there was no dancing in the streets. Lawrence Fellows, a New York Times special correspondent stationed in Jerusalem, described the reaction of the Israeli public as one of “cold silence.”
Two nations disapproved. Argentina complained yet again about her sovereign rights having been violated and deplored the death sentence. And the other dissenting voice, interestingly enough, was Japan. Asahi, one of the largest national newspapers, said, “This sort of eye-for-an-eye revenge will cause a vicious cycle in history,” and they went on to claim that the presence of witnesses at the execution had made it seem like an open lynching, which, first of all, this was not an eye for an eye. This was an eye for millions of eyes, the one guilty, the millions innocent. Nor was it a lynching. Eichmann did get a fair trial. And to have witnesses at an execution, especially one with this kind of historical significance, is standard operating procedure.
But no reflecting in that article or elsewhere on Imperial Japan’s own wartime atrocities which, for sheer unbridled sadism, gave even the Nazis a run for their money: civilian massacres, mass beheadings, 20,000 women raped in Nanking over a 6-week period in 1937, Korean sex slaves who they called “comfort women,” torture of POWs, and then, hideous medical experiments on prisoners, mostly Chinese, which -- I'll spare you the details. But if you have the stomach for it, check out the Wikipedia entry for Unit 731, Imperial Japan’s “biological and chemical research unit.” Read up on Unit 731, if you dare.
Okay, our tenth and final fact -- more of an opinion, actually -- which is that the Eichmann trial did, I believe, achieve one of its primary objectives: to clearly define and root the Holocaust in the international consciousness. Elie Wiesel -- who published a really good book the year that Eichmann was captured about his own concentration camp experience called Night -- Wiesel covered the Eichmann trial as a reporter. Here’s what he said afterward: “The trial was almost more important in the field of education than in the field of justice. It was important for the Israeli youth to know what had happened and where we came from. And that’s what the Eichmann trial really did. But not only in Israel. The real turning point was the awareness of the world towards the tragedy of the Jewish people.
And as the ‘60s progressed, there was a renewed interest in not just the Holocaust but World War II in general. I guess enough time had passed where some perspective was possible. And I also think there was an unusual degree of moral clarity in that particular war, the kind of clarity conspicuously lacking in the developing war in Vietnam. But there was a kind of reckoning in the ‘60s, or in some cases, a re-imagining of World War II which took many forms -- nonfiction accounts, like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, which became a national bestseller in 1960. Shirer had personally covered Nazi Germany as a reporter in the ‘30s.
Also, novels -- foremost among them, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller; The Thin Red Line, by James Jones; and Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. All three of those guys saw action in World War II, Heller and Vonnegut in Europe, Jones in the Pacific.
And then, TV shows as well -- some comic, like Hogan’s Heroes; some dramatic, like Combat, which ran from 1962 to ’67 on ABC and followed a group of American soldiers in France after D-Day.
And then, hundreds of World War II movies released in the 1960s, some of which focused on the Holocaust. Certainly, Judgment at Nuremberg, released in 1961 -- that holds up really well. Actual footage shot at liberated camps in 1945 was used in that film, huge piles of naked corpses laid out in rows and bulldozed into large pits. That was considered exceptionally graphic for a mainstream film of that time.
And then, in 1964, a flawed but still absorbing film called The Pawnbroker, directed by Sidney Lumet -- really, the first American film to deal with the Holocaust from the vantage point of a survivor, played by Rod Steiger, whose wife and children were killed at Auschwitz, and now, in present-day 1964, is living in this kind of dreary housing development on Long Island, from which he commutes to a pawnshop that he operates in East Harlem, just kind of sleepwalking through life, bitter and numbed out. And when a kindly social worker, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, finally gets him to open up a little, there’s no healing catharsis, as there would be in a lesser film, just layer after layer of pain and rage. There’s actually a memorable piece of editing in that film; it’s a scene where Steiger is riding a crowded subway train to his pawnshop. There are these quick, almost subliminal flashbacks to him riding the train to Auschwitz, and then back to the subway. It's brilliantly horrifying.
And then, in 1969, an excellent documentary called The Sorrow and the Pity, which deals with the collaboration between the Vichy government in France and Nazi Germany and has tons of revealing interviews with people on all sides of that equation: former Nazis, resistance fighters, collaborators, French women who had formed relationships with Nazis during the occupation and then later paid the price. That's a film that poked some serious holes in what had been -- to that point, at least -- a pretty idealized collective memory, in France, of what really went on there during the war. They were not all in the resistance. There was plenty of complicity, and not just in Vichy France, either. It was actually banned, that film, in France until 1981, when it was finally shown on T.V.
And then, finally, a landmark British documentary called The World at War, 26 episodes narrated beautifully by Laurence Olivier -- what a voice. But tons of remarkable footage of both the European and Pacific theaters -- you see occupied Europe, you see film of the Warsaw Ghetto. And loads of amazing interviews conducted between 1969 and '72, with not only major members of the Allied and Axis campaigns, including four-star generals, but eyewitness accounts from civilians, enlisted men, officers, politicians. And the events were recent enough then that the memories are still fresh and, in many cases, quite raw. Actually, if you only had time for one of these films that I’ve just mentioned, check out The World at War. It’s not available for streaming for some reason, but you can get the digitally restored version on Blu-ray.
Now, just one final note. I understand that some people -- probably not listeners to this podcast, but some people -- may wonder whether all this talk about the war and the genocide and people like Adolf Eichmann, whether revisiting arguably the most disturbing, really, sickening episode in human history continues to be necessary.
In response, I would point to a 50-state survey that was released just this September called the “U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey.” Now, any poll or survey is only as good as its methodology. But I read the fine print on this one, and the methodology was sound, the coverage thorough. They interviewed over 10,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 through landline, cell phone, and online interviews. And the results are unsettling.
Sixty-three percent, nationally, in that age group, did not know that six million Jews were killed during World II. Half the respondents had never heard of Auschwitz and couldn’t name a single Nazi concentration camp. And most disturbing, 10 percent nationally, but 20 percent here in New York -- largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel -- 1 out of 5 New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 39 said the Jews themselves were to blame for the Holocaust, and again, 1 out of 10 nationally. So, that goes well beyond ignorance. Let’s call that what it is. It’s hateful.
So, yes, apparently, this conversation does continue to be necessary, perhaps now more than ever. And with this two-part episode, which is a little more involved than my usual, but it was important to me to do the subject matter justice. And it is personal to me, as a Hanukkah person. But hopefully, I’ve told this story in a way that's held your attention and maybe even sparked the desire to learn more. You know, I was just telling someone, the greatest novelist in the world could never in a million years come up with a story as spellbinding, and as horrifying, in many respects, as the history of the 20th century. Back in a moment. [Music]
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Coming up on Episode 7 of Real Time 1960s, we turn our gaze from Jerusalem to Hollywood, as I kick off another 2-part episode, an in-depth look at the life and early films of actor Steve McQueen -- and that life was every bit as dramatic as any of his movies. So next time, we’ll cover his early years as well as 3 of his best films from the early 1960s: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and The Cincinnati Kid, with tons of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, trivia, and analysis. So, that’s going to be a lot of fun.
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.