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The Capture of Eichmann

2005 September 21
by Paul Vallely

It was a postcard that started it all. It was 1954 and it had come from a friend who had moved after the war to Argentina. It read: “I saw that dirty pig Eichmann… He lives near Buenos Aires and works for a water company.” Simon Wiesenthal turned it in his hand and stared in disbelief. He had been waiting nine years for this.

Simon Wiesenthal died this week, peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 96. It was not a privilege accorded to many of his contemporaries.

Wiesenthal was one of that generation of European Jewry decimated by the “final solution” of Adolf Hitler in which 11 million people were exterminated, six million of them Jews. And if the horror of such genocide is blunted rather than sharpened by such huge numbers, consider this: Simon Wiesenthal lost 89 members of his family in the Holocaust. Among them were his mother, whom the young architect had watched being transported away for execution.

But he had survived. And after the death camp in which he was incarcerated was liberated, Wiesenthal – like so many victims of Nazism – dedicated himself to tracking down those responsible. Top of his list was Adolf Eichmann.

The experiences of Simon Wiesenthal and Adolf Eichmann are like mirror images of that terrible time. Eichmann was the “Transportation Administrator” responsible for the logistics of the extermination of millions of people. He had been at the notorious Wannsee Conference in 1942 when the cream of Germany’s planners, administrators and logisticians sat around and calmly set up the mechanics of the mass murder of “undesirables” – Jews, gypsies, blacks, homosexuals, communists and the mentally and physically handicapped. Eichmann was the man in charge of the trains to the death camps in Poland.

For the next two years, Eichmann performed his duties with considerable zeal. He is known to have often bragged that he had personally sent more than five million Jews to their deaths on his trains. When in 1945, fearing the war was lost, his bosses ordered Jewish extermination be halted – and all the evidence destroyed – Eichmann blithely ignored his instructions from the SS chief Heinrich Himmler and proudly continued his work in Hungary against official orders.

Simon Wiesenthal was the object of the process of which Eichmann was author. He was first sent to a concentration camp in 1941, outside Lvov, Ukraine. It was the first of a dozen Nazi camps in which he was imprisoned, five of them being death camps, his website claims. In October 1943, he escaped from the Ostbahn camp just before the Germans began killing all the inmates. He was recaptured in June 1944 and sent back to Janwska, but escaped death as his SS guards retreated westward with their prisoners from the Soviet Red Army.

In May 1945 he was in Mauthausen death camp in Austria when US forces arrived. Wiesenthal weighed just seven stone when he was freed. He cried from loneliness in front of his liberators – and then dictated to them a list of 91 names of camp officials, more than 70 of whom he subsequently tracked down.

As the war ended Eichmann went into hiding, spending a year inside a Catholic monastery in Italy. Wiesenthal meanwhile decided to dedicate “a few years” to seeking justice and signed up to work with the Allies gathering war crime evidence.

Then in 1947, when Eichmann fled to South America using a false name, Wiesenthal set up an independent Jewish Documentation Centre in Lidz to assemble evidence for future trials. He had bridled at obeying American orders. “I considered that my self-appointed task was holy,” he later wrote, “and my determination became the more pronounced, the more I learned how Jews had been abused.”

That year Eichmann’s wife sought to have her husband declared dead. Wiesenthal was suspicious. He knew many SS men who had been pronounced dead had re-emerged under different names and remarried their own “widows”. He discovered the alleged witness to the death was Eichmann’s brother-in-law, and stopped the death certificate from being approved.

But in the year that followed, the Cold War intensified. Both the United States and the Soviet Union lost interest in prosecuting former Nazis. Wiesenthal’s volunteers drifted away. In 1954 his money ran out. His chief benefactor, a Swiss Jew, had died. He was forced to take a job working for a Jewish vocational training organisation and close his office in Linz. All the files were sent to the Yad Vashem archives in Israel.

But Simon Wiesenthal kept one back – the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, the inconspicuous technocrat who had become the chief executioner of the Third Reich. Wiesenthal never gave up on the pursuit of the elusive Eichmann. In 1953, he had heard that Eichmann was in Argentina from people who thought they had spoken to him there. He passed this information on to the Israeli secret service, Mossad, through the Israeli embassy in Vienna. But the trail had gone cold. Then came the postcard.

Yet though Wiesenthal excitedly contacted Mossad again, and also got in touch with Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress, nothing happened. The FBI had received information that Eichmann was in Damascus. It was not until 1959 that Israel was informed by Germany that Eichmann was in Buenos Aires living under the alias of Ricardo Klement.

A covert operation was organised. A team of undercover Mossad agents kidnapped the former Nazi and flew him aboard an El Al jet from Argentina to Israel. When the Israeli prime minister, David Ben Gurion, announced Eichmann’s capture to the Knesset on 25 May, 1960 he received a standing ovation.

Before an Israeli court Eichmann was indicted on 15 criminal charges, including charges of crimes against humanity. The trial became an international cause célèbre with news channels across the globe allowed to broadcast the full proceedings live. Viewers saw a nondescript man, sitting in a bulletproof glass booth, who kept insisting he was only “following orders”. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who was covering the trial, coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to make the point that the chief architect of the Holocaust was not a monster but an ordinary little man doing his job like the rest of us. Eichmann was convicted on all counts, sentenced to death and hanged just after midnight on 1 June 1962.

Simon Wiesenthal, meanwhile, wrote a book entitled I Hunted Eichmann. It came out even before the Nazi was executed. Its boastful title – which the contents did little to substantiate – made its author, after years of obscure detective work, an overnight celebrity. Because of the cloak of secrecy which Mossad had cast over its kidnapping operation there was no-one to offer an alternative view.

Wiesenthal took full advantage of the publicity to press his cause and was able to return to full-time Nazi-hunting on the back of the Eichmann case. He reopened the Jewish Documentation Centre, this time in Vienna, and established a web of informants, including veterans of various intelligence services. They found not only the war criminals but also the witnesses whose testimony, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Vienna now says, has helped bring 1,100 former Nazis to trial over the past 50 years.

Wiesenthal’s career has not been without controversy. He was accused of egocentricity by those who claimed he took more than his fair share of credit for the arrest of Eichmann.

In 1991 the Jerusalem Post disclosed that the former Mossad chief Isser Harel had written an unpublished manuscript which claimed that Wiesenthal not only “had no role whatsoever” in Eichmann’s apprehension, but in fact “had endangered the entire Eichmann operation and aborted the planned capture of the evil Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele”. Harel claimed that he wrote the manuscript out of frustration at the amount of credit Wiesenthal was claiming for the capture of Eichmann and declined to publish it only because that might give succour to anti-semites.

That was not all. Neal Sher, head of the US government’s Office of Special Investigations which investigates war crimes, received a demand from Wiesenthal that the OSI investigate suspected war criminals living in the United States.

Sher replied: “Few of your allegations have resulted in active ongoing investigations … the bottom line is that … no allegation which originated from your office has resulted in a court filing by the OSI.” And Sher’s successor Eli Rosenbaum, wrote: “In sum, Wiesenthal’s roles in the biggest Nazi cases of all – Mengele, Bormann, and in all likelihood, Eichmann as well – were studies in ineptitude, exaggeration, and self-glorification.”

A fellow Nazi-hunter, Tuviah Friedman, accused Wiesenthal of numerous self-aggrandizing lies and of making himself rich from the Eichmann affair. “Simon Wiesenthal wrote in his books that he had been instrumental in the arrest of 1,100 Nazi murderers,” wrote Friedman. “I would honour him if he could prove but 100.”

To his credit, Simon Wiesenthal posts the accusation on his centre’s website for all to see. Eichmann’s capture, he once admitted “was a teamwork of many who did not know each other”. And he added: “I do not know if and to what extent reports I sent to Israel were used.”

But in one sense all that is irrelevant. Many of the Nazis he brought to trial were beyond dispute, such as Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps in Poland, who liked to dress in white riding clothes, and was responsible for the extermination of nearly one million people.

Then there was Hermine Ryan who supervised the killings of hundreds of children at Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin in Poland. The doggedness with which Simon Wiesenthal hunted down such individuals has assumed a legendary status.

“When the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, his successor at the centre, said yesterday. “He did not forget. He became the permanent representative of the victims, determined to bring the perpetrators of history’s greatest crime to justice.”

Simon Wiesenthal spent the past 50 years not just hunting war criminals. He spoke out against racism everywhere, and held out the Jewish experience as a lesson for humanity. To many his name has become a symbol of human conscience. Whatever the facts, in the end it is for this that he will be remembered.

Four more Nazis caught by Wiesenthal

The Gestapo sergeant-major who arrested teenage diarist Anne Frank and her family. Born in Vienna, he served in the Austrian Army before joining the Gestapo. After the war, he rejoined the Viennese police force. In 1958, Simon Wiesenthal was challenged by a group of protesters at a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank to prove her existence by finding the man who had arrested her. Silberbauer was arrested in 1963.

Hermine Ryan was a housewife living in Queens, New York, until Wiesenthal accused her of being Hermine Braunsteiner – “The Stamping Mare” – a supervisor at Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin in Poland. Her sadism took many forms, including killing women by stamping on them with steel-studded jackboots and beating others to death with her whip. She was given a life sentence in 1980.

Commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps in Poland and responsible for the extermination of around 900,000 men, women and children. At the end of the war he escaped to Italy where he was helped by some Vatican officials to reach Syria on a Red Cross passport. Three years later he fled to Brazil where he was tracked down by Wiesenthal. Found guilty in 1970 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Commander of the Croatian concentration camp Jasenovac, known as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans”, where up to 85,000 people died. The Wiesenthal Center compiled a dossier on Sakic, accusing him of taking part personally in gruesome killings. He was extradited to Croatia from Argentina, where he had lived for 50 years, after admitting on television he was a Nazi. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1999.

… and two that got away

Chief of the Gestapo from 1939 until the end of the war. All traces of Muller disappeared on 29 April 1945. It was rumoured he had defected to the Soviet secret service, escaped to the Middle East or Latin America, or that he was given a new identity by the US intelligence service, and relocated to America.

An SS officer and doctor at Auschwitz, where from 1943 he carried out “medical experiments” that used human beings – many of them twins – as guinea pigs. After the war he escaped to South America. Some reports claim he drowned in Paraguay in 1978, others that he died in Brazil in 1979.

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