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The Amazing Search for a Nazi War Criminal

Updated on April 14, 2013

How do you find someone who killed almost everyone who ever met him?

I would like you to picture something. Your entire family and many of your friends have been killed in one of the worst genocides in history. You barely escaped death while living in a concentration camp. The war is now over and you are asked to help hunt down the man most responsible for all the deaths, the torture and the suffering. Is there anything you would not do or anyplace you would not go to find this individual?

This is the story of a few individuals who were asked by a brand new country, at great risk to themselves to do just that. Their task was to find somewhere in the world Adolf Eichmann, a top Nazi official who was in charge of the concentration camp system as well as the death camps and second only to Hitler as being held responsible for the genocide of WWII. It is a remarkable story that has been secret for almost half a century.

Quick note: This article will give a brief synopsis of the entire story. If you plan on reading this book and do not wish to know the ending you can skip to just the review and what we can take away from this book.

Image Credit Fanpop.com

Brief remembrance of the scope of the Nazi Holocaust

While there are few people today who do not know of the Holocaust, it is hard for those of us who were not alive to fully grasp its full scope of horrors.

* 2 out of every 3 jews living in all of Europe were killed (~6 million men, women and child)

* 1 million Jewish children were killed

* ~11 million Polish, Soviet Civilians, Homosexuals, Gays, Blacks and POWs were also killed by the Nazis

* Incredibly gruesome medical experiments, many with questionable scientific value, were performed on prisoners. Most died during the experiments

* Many private industries throughout Germany aided the government in their work in the genocide

Who was Adolf Eichmann

Like many ruthless zealots or bullies, Eichmann was actually a failure in almost everything he did prior to his life as a Nazi. He dropped out of high school and tried to work as a mechanic for a year before he left to work at his father's mining company. He left that job after only 2 years, to try to be a sales clerk for a short time only to then be a district agent for an oil company. Failing from one job to another he finally found his place in Jungfrontkampfernereinigung, the youth section of Hermann Hiltl's right wing movement. Finding a place where he could express extremely strong feelings and bully others, he soon joined the SS and was assigned to a group that was in charge of finding ritual objects from museums and stealing them.

After only 6 months, Eichman was invited to join the Jewish Department and saw this as his "big break". He was quickly promoted to form the Central Office of Jewish Emigration and became the "expert on all Jewish matters" which included overseeing concentration camps, the expropriation of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews to death camps; in other words implementing the Final Solution.

So passionate was he around the final solution that even in 1944 when Heinrich Himmler ordered the final solution to be halted and all evidence to be destroyed, Eichmann wanted to finish what he started and against orders continued to exterminate Jews in record numbers.

As the war ended, he was captured by the US Army but slipped through their fingers by using a fake name and then escaping from a minimum security POW camp. He then dropped out of sight.

The Search for Eichmann

Following the atrocities of WWII there was significant pressure by the countries of the world to create a safe place for Jews to call home. After considerable wrangling with the British who owned Palestine, through a UN charter, the state of Israel was born in May of 1948. This tiny fledgling state was, even before its conception, fighting a war of independence from its Arab neighbors who instead wanted to see the new country destroyed and the land integrated into its Arab neighbors. The entire country was now in a war of its survival. It was in this environment that Mossad was created, the equivalent of the US CIA or British MI6. The first charter of Mossad was not in participating in the current war , but rather to turn back to the last war to find and capture Nazi War Criminals.

So here is a secret agency, a generous term for a couple of individuals working out of an old house, who with virtually no resources set about to find the worst mass murders in history. Think of the pressure they must have been under when an entire population was trying to build a new country, here was a group trying to keep the past alive. Thankfully there were a number of dedicated individuals who took it upon themselves right after WWII to interview survivors and try to record the names and actions of those who were the worst offenders. Individuals like Simon Wiesenthal who saw themselves as Nazi hunters took on these herculean efforts. This provided the basis for where Mossad could begin. This information was sent to Isser Harel the head of Mossad who had a team sorting through hundreds of leads that were coming in from sources all over the world.

The true break in the case came from the loose lips of Eichmann’s son Klaus Eichmann who did not change his name after the war. Lothar Hermann, a German half-Jew had spent time in a concentration camp and after the war moved to Argentina to start a new life. His daughter Sylvia started to date a boy named Klaus Eichmann who boasted that his father was a big time Nazi leader. Sylivia’s father passed this information through the Argentinean district attorney to Mossad who asked Sylvia to do some more investigation. She went to her boyfriend’s house where she met Adolf Eichman, living under an assumed name, who introduced himself as Klaus’ uncle. She stayed in the house waiting for Klaus talking to his ‘uncle’ trying to gather more clues into his true identity. Only when Klaus came home and addressed Adolf as father were their suspicions confirmed. There was a strong likelihood that this individual was the war criminal Eichman.

Now the operation became more serious. Mossad recruited several volunteers to become agents to investigate and if confirmed kidnap Eichmann and bring him to justice. Just confirming that this individual was Eichmann was incredibly difficult and considering most of the team were brand new agents made even more difficult. But after observing Eichmann for many weeks they had a strong conviction that this was their man.

The Precarious Mission to Kidnap/Arrest Eichmann

Back in Israel the head of Mossad started to recruit volunteers to go on an extremely dangerous mission to arrest or as some would say kidnap Eichmann and bring him back to Israel for trial. If caught they could be convicted of being spies and potentially executed. Yet when told their mission none hesitated. There was virtually no one in Israel who had not had a friend or family member killed by Eichmann or more likely having gone through a concentration camp personally. There was no lack in emotion in finding this war criminal. It had been almost a year since Sylvia had confirmed the identity of Eichmann before all the pieces were in-place. Finally the 5-man team had observed Eichmann’s routine long enough to develop a plan of action. Each evening Eichmann came home on a bus from the Mercedes Benz plant where he worked and walked the final few blocks to his home. The plan was to simply snatch him off the street and throw him in a car on that walk home. Not knowing if he would be armed or how much he would fight back, they had to prepare for every possible eventuality.

Finally the night had arrived. Two teams waited on the dark road waiting for Eichmann to come by. As happens all too often, no plan is perfect. On this particular day Eichmann spent longer at work and thus took a later bus causing the agents to spend more time on the side of the road then they had originally planned. This of course looked suspicious and caused one local to offer to help them fix their car (their cover story was their car was having mechanical difficulties). Finally he showed up and they were able to quickly subdue him and throw him in the car after a bit of a struggle. Driving quickly away they were actually stopped by local police who were doing a license checks of all vehicles. Thankfully their paperwork was in order and they were able to bluff their way through to make it to a safe house. It was only now when he was kept in the safe house for 9 days, that Mossad was able to conclusively identify him as Eichmann. Now the question was how to get him out of the sovereign nation of Argentina.

Initially, Mossad asked the head of El Al, Israel’s national airline, to help smuggle him out. This could open this civilian airline to all sorts of extremely serious charges and potential consequences. They could lose their landing rights in countries around the world. They pushed back. When told of the mission and the individual in question, they quickly withdrew any protest. The pilot was then recruited and having lost family members, quickly agreed to take on any of the risks. Again there was no lack of volunteers to help bring this war criminal to justice and make him answer for his crimes.

Eichmann was smuggled onto a special El Al plane that had been flown in to help Argentina celebrate its 150th anniversary. He had been drugged to appear to be drunk and dressed in an El Al flight attendant uniform. With the exception of some tense moments trying to get clearance to take off, the flight left Argentinean airspace on its way to Senegal and then to Israel without incident.

Do you feel Israel had the right to arrest Eichmann and try him?

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The Trial of a War Criminal

On April 11, 1961 Israel began the trial of Adolf Eichmann on 15 criminal charges including crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against Jewish people and membership in an outlawed organization. This was a civilian trial and was transmitted in its entirety around the world. Israel's goal was to increase awareness of what horrible atrocities took place to a world that was trying to forget WWII. Eichmann's entire defense was that he was simply a "transmitter" of orders from Hitler and had very little power. In essence, he was just following orders. When asked the question if he considered himself guilty of the murder of millions of Jews he said, "Legally not, but in the human sense...yes, for I am guilty of having deported them."

More than 1,500 documents were brought into evidence and over 100 prosecution witnesses were called (including 90 concentration camp survivors) before the trial was completed on August 14th. One of the most powerful witnesses was an American Judge who had been a US Naval Officer during the war. He testified that Hermann Goring, during interrogation, "made it clear that Eichmann was the man to determine, in what order, in what countries, the Jews were to die." Several high ranking SS officers that were called by the defense actually backfired and testified that Eichmann not only was in charge but was extremely passionate about his work in the final solution and was without moral restraints.

On December 15th the verdict came back as guilty and he was sentenced to death. After appeals failed and the Israeli president turned down a request for a pardon he was finally executed on May 31, 1962.

Overview of this book

This is one of a growing number of non-fiction books that reads more like a fictional spy thriller than a dry college textbook commonly associated with non-fiction stories. Hunting Eichman has been written in an incredibly compelling manner with first person narratives and tremendous attention to detail that helps transport the reader through the horrors of the holocaust and into the thrilling adventure of the search, arrest and trial of Eichmann.

Be aware that there are certain stories that highlight the atrocities experienced by individuals in the story during the holocaust. Many are graphic in nature and can be difficult for some readers, especially younger readers. However, this is where the reader will build a stronger emotional connection with the story and its characters and makes what makes this story so compelling.

I would strongly recommend this for all readers. Not only is it a fascinating story, but it highlights a history that was almost lost at the price of millions of lives.

Read for yourself this amazing story

Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi
Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi

This was a tremendous fast pace emotional and exciting story that is almost too unbelievable to be true.

 

What we can learn from this story

It has been seen over and over that humans have a remarkable ability to heal from even the most traumatic of events. Unfortunately by that same token, it has been proven that we also have a remarkable ability to forget about those same events and thus increase our chances of repeating past mistakes. One popular quote that I would recommend we focus on is to "learn to forgive, but never forget".

As people we should always strive to forgive others. No one can live a truly happy life with anger and bitterness deep inside. One needs to sometimes forgive to enable them to move on. However, by that same token we should never forget the past or risk the possibility that we will let others face the same pain and suffering we have previously felt. The modern world was in dangerous risk after WWII of forgetting the Holocaust as they quickly sought to heal wounds and move on from this terrible war to end all wars. Yet by healing too quickly we stood the risk of letting other atrocities take place without international intervention. Sadly we have seen similar things in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. We must take stories like this to heart and ensure that we never forget and constantly stay vigilant to ensure vicious dictators do not get away with future genocides.

An intro to the PBS special on the Eichmann Trial

More on Eichmann's history and capture

What do you think about this story? Do you think it was right for Israel to execute him?

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    • Paladins profile image

      Paladins 4 years ago

      Yes, I think Israel had every right to execute the man. It probably at least gave a small measure of closure for some of the families of the people he murdered.

      Great lens.

    • maryseena profile image

      maryseena 4 years ago

      On a personal level, forgiveness has great meaning; but in the political scene crime needs to be followed by punishment whenever possible, otherwise the result will be anarchy and chaos. Jewish genocide stories have never failed to move me and I'm very proud to be belonging to one of the few countries in the world that refused to give up its Jewish population even when the Nazis were almost knocking at the door!