Two words guaranteed to grab an audience’s attention at the start of a video – Nazi Hunters. It’s difficult to find a more universally approved mandate than bringing some of the most hated figures of the Nazi regime to justice even decades after the end of World War II.
Nowadays this usually ends with geriatric men sitting in courtrooms after their identity has been painstakingly revealed and political negotiations have taken place. But our story today is very different. This is the tale of perhaps the most audacious Nazi hunt in history that eventually saw one of the logistical masterminds of the Holocaust stand trial on Israeli soil.
One week before the end of May in 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made an announcement that shook the world. The news that a man captured by Israeli agents in Argentina was none other than Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann reopened wounds that had barely begun to heal.
Just 15 years after the end of World War II, when the true horrors of the holocaust were fully revealed, Israel’s relentless pursuit of those it held accountable had finally paid off. The slight, balding middle-aged man in custody looked a far cry from the man who twenty years before had played a fundamental role in the largest case of genocide we’ve ever known.
The story of how Mossad agents successfully tracked down then kidnapped Eichmann before bundling him back to Israel to stand trial was gloriously daring. It infuriated Argentina – I wonder why – but led to the first direct prosecution of a Nazi criminal within Israel. With the entire trial televised and the horrific details of Eichmann’s involvement in the Final Solution for all to see, this was a hugely important moment for the young nation of Israel.
Let’s begin with the man himself. Otto Adolf Eichmann was born in 1906 in the small German town of Solingen. His formative years were at best unremarkable but things forever changed in 1932 when he joined both the Nazi Party and the SS. Let’s be clear, many Germans joined the Nazi Party around this time as it was often seen as a necessity to progress, but if you were joining the SS as well – that was a special breed of indoctrinated uber-Nazis.
In 1933 he joined the Sicherheitsdienst – Security Service – and after the outbreak of war in 1939 was appointed head of the department responsible for Jewish affairs. That title manages to almost sound normal but it was of course anything but. The persecution of Jews in German-held territory had begun years before, but with foreign land now falling under their control, along with millions of people, the ‘Jewish Question’ was magnified.
Walled off Jewish ghettos began appearing in cities after they fell to the Nazis, with Warsaw the largest. An estimated 400,000 Jews were crammed into a ghetto, measuring just 3.4 square kilometres (1.3 sq miles), in the Polish capital. Conditions were bleak, to begin with, and only got worse as time progressed.
But as we all know, the story gets considerably worse from here. Eventually, the Nazis began constructing large-scale concentration camps along with gas chambers capable of killing 700 to 800 people at a time. The most notorious of these was Auschwitz, where roughly 1.1 million were killed between 1941 and 1945 – and the man responsible for the logistics of this horror show was none other than Adolf Eichmann.
With the Third Reich collapsing, Eichmann backtracked out of Eastern Europe and returned to Germany where he oversaw the destruction of large quantities of paperwork before heading to Austria where he remained until the end of the war.
Details are a little sketchy as to what happened next but he was first captured by the Americans, however, because he was using a forged identification card under the name Otto Eckmann, his true identity remained hidden. After escaping U.S custody he moved frequently around Germany to evade detection.
No doubt he must have been fully aware of the Nuremberg Trials, where captured high-ranking Nazi officials were being tried. With lawyers and academics struggling to place Nazi crimes in their context, a Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, whose family had been all but wiped out during the Holocaust, coined a word that would define the previous decade. A new word that combined the ancient Greek word genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin cide, meaning killing. Genocide, along with the term, crimes against humanity, would form the bedrock of the legal argument against the 24 men standing trial.
Even though Eichmann wasn’t present at the trial, his role in the holocaust was laid out for all to see and he was pushed further up the most wanted list. Perhaps knowing this, Eichmann obtained a landing permit for Argentina under the name Ricardo Klement, which also led to the Red Cross providing him with a humanitarian passport – oh the irony! After travelling across Europe with the help of Nazi sympathizers, he departed from Genoa on 17th June 1950 and arrived in Buenas Aires nearly a month later on 14th July.
Don’t get me wrong, the Nuremberg Trials were a hugely important event, but they were just a drop in the ocean. There were an estimated 200,000 perpetrators of Nazi-era crimes by the end of the war and only a fraction of those ever faced justice. Thousands of the most despicable people you can imagine successfully evaded detection thanks to a variety of sympathizers along what came to be known as ratlines, escape routes that more often than not ended in the relative sanctity of South America.
Now, let me just say that this period was an absolute mess. To our modern minds, it may seem that the rounding up of Nazi war criminals would be somewhat of a pressing matter, but that wasn’t always the case. And if we’re very honest here, things are a little murky. Many of the ratlines involved priests and high ranking cardinals and there were even allegations that the Vatican was somehow involved, though this was always strenuously denied of course. The allies were also carefully picking which Nazis they could use for scientific or military purposes, and on several occasions, these underground escape routes were even used by allied intelligence services.
Between 1946 and 1950 Argentinian President – and Nazi fanboy – Juan Perón ordered ratlines to be created that could bring members of the Nazi party across the Atlantic and into Argentina where they were quietly assimilated into the local population.
Before we move on there is one final point to address. Often described as a wild conspiracy theory – which it may well be – it concerns the possibility that Adolf Hitler did not, in fact, die in his bunker beneath Berlin, but managed to escape to South America. There is next to no evidence to support this theory, but the failure to find his body always left the door slightly ajar. Skull fragments retrieved by the Soviets in 1945, which had long been believed to be Hitler’s, were tested in 2009 and found to be that of a woman aged under 40.
The Soviet story that they had burnt his body then threw the remains into the river sounds perfectly plausible, but if left the mystery open-ended. A declassified CIA document dated 3rd October 1955, described the claims by an ex SS officer Phillip Citroen that Hitler was alive and well and living in Argentina at the time. Accompanying the document was a photo of Citroen with the man he claimed to be Adolf Hitler. I can see the resemblance, but it’s impossible to base the whole theory on just this. It’s extremely difficult to believe that the most wanted man on the planet would be able to sneak away from the carnage of World War II relatively undetected – but one man who certainly managed it was Adolf Eichmann.
The fact that thousands of Nazis had escaped Germany after the war was somewhat of an open secret. Both the American and West German authorities received tip-offs that Adolf Eichmann was in Argentina, but with the U.S now focused on the Soviet Union, there was little to no political motivation to reopen these cases that were now gathering dust.
But while most nations were more than happy to turn a blind eye to rumours of Nazis scurrying along their ratlines, for Israel it ran a whole lot deeper. With the Jews accounting for 5 to 6 million of the deaths during the Holocaust, this was a painful issue that still hung over the young nation, which had only formed as a modern independent nation in 1948.
When a tip-off found its way to Mossad, Israel’s secret service, they paid it much closer attention than the Americans had. The information had come from Lothar Hermann, a blind Jewish refugee who had been imprisoned in Dachau before fleeing to Argentina. Now I know what you’re thinking, a tip-off coming from a blind man would probably struggle in court, but the story is more complex than that. Hermann’s daughter was in the early stages of a relationship with a man who it turned out was Eichmann’s son and after piecing the shared information together, Hermann felt sure it was him.
Mossad was understandably wary, but after Hermann’s daughter was able to supply an address, agents were dispatched to keep tabs on the man known locally as Ricardo Klement. Now, to give you an idea of just how much of an open secret this was at the time, the man called Ricardo Klement had even given an interview to a far-right journalist as early as 1952 in which he talked openly about his involvement in the holocaust and his lack of any sort of remorse. Make no mistake about it, these Nazis didn’t exactly walk around in their old SS uniforms, but plenty of people knew exactly who they were.
With Mossad agents carefully tailing Ricardo Klement, there was a growing sense that they had indeed found their man.
Mossad was now fairly sure that Ricardo Klement was Adolf Eichmann but none of the potential paths ahead was straightforward. Israel could attempt to persuade Argentina to hand him over, but considering Buenas Aires was rife with Nazi supporters, that would be impossible.
They could kill him, which no doubt could have been done relatively easily by trained professionals, but that would have left a nagging sense that Eichmann had escaped justice. Israel was struggling with its own young identity at this point, with hostile nations surrounding it and a weighty sense of tragedy still lingering in the shadows, Israel needed a very public success. But even more than that, they needed to show the world that these Nazi criminals could still be brought to justice and that there was nowhere to hide. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was informed of the situation and gave his blessing to launch Operation Finale.
The plan was beautiful in its simplicity – establish Eichmann’s routine, kidnap him and fly him out of the country and on to Israel where he would stand trial. But the complexities around this plan were outrageous. Where and how would they kidnap him? How would they manage to get him past the authorities at the airports?
As the eleven-man Mossad team landed in Argentina, these questions were still far from answered. The first step was simple enough – follow Eichmann and establish where and when would be the optimal place to kidnap him. Luckily for them, Eichmann followed a regular pattern. On workdays, he would leave his house and travel to the Mercedes Benz plant where he worked by bus and almost always came home immediately after work at the same time. Eichmann’s house was located on Garibaldi Street in the industrial community of San Fernando in Buenos Aires, a quiet, dusty street with next to no street lights and it was decided that he would be snatched there after getting off the bus and beginning to walk home.
From there he would be transported back to a safe house where the team would make the final identification. But there was another sizable problem. Keenly aware that what they were about to do broke numerous international laws and treaties, the Mossad agents in Argentina needed to get Eichmann to sign a document stating who he really was and that he was willing to travel to Israel to stand trial. Fat chance I hear you say, well, let’s see.
A Rainy Night in Buenos Aires
On the night of 11th May 1960, with a slow steady rain falling, three of the Mossad agents waited on Garriboli Street. One of these, Peter Malkin, had been tasked with approaching Eichmann in the street.
The bus on which they had been expecting Eichmann came – and went – without any sign of the man. Even before it had begun the mission was already in peril. The decision was made to standby and as the next bus departed, the slight figure of Eichmann could be soon walking slowly towards his house.
“Momentito, señor” Malkin said to Eichmann as the two men passed. The German looked up and in an instant Malkin pounced, placing Eichmann in a neck lock. The two other agents appeared and together they bundled the man into a waiting car before speeding away.
Back at the safe house, the agents came face to face with Eichmann for the first time – or Ricardo Klement as he first claimed. It’s important to remember that every single Mossad agent present at that time had lost family members during the Holocaust. Malkin’s sister and her children had died in Auschwitz and to be in the presence of such evil must have been quite something. In the coming days, several agents and in particular Malkin spoke with Eichmann about the written document but he remained steadfast.
It’s not entirely clear how it happened, but something changed. Suddenly Ricardo Klement was Adolf Eichmann and what’s more, he even signed a document stating his identity and his acceptance to be tried in Israel. It began with the words,
“I, the undersigned, Adolf Eichmann, hereby declare of my own free will that, since my true identity has become known, I realize the futility of trying to continue to flee justice. I declare myself ready to travel to Israel and to stand trial before a competent court”
With the document signed, the last hurdle was getting Eichmann out of the country. Again, the plan was simple but layered with plenty of danger and potential mishaps. An Israeli plane was waiting in Buenos Aires under the guise of a diplomatic mission. All the Mossad agents needed to do was to dress him in an airline uniform and supply Eichmann with enough of a sedative to make him appear drunk, so could pass him off as an airline pilot who had enjoyed a little too much of the local Malbec.
But this was delicate, to say the least. Too much sedative would kill Eichmann, or arouse the suspicion of the airport guards. Too little and he could wake up in the airport and arouse the suspicion of the airport guards. This unenviable task fell to Dr Yonah Elian and a man who had certainly been in this situation before.
In 1954 he was part of the team that captured Alexander Israel, an army officer accused of trying to sell Israeli military secrets to the Egyptian Embassy in Rome. On a plane back to Israel Eilan administered a sedative that killed the detainee. The decision was made to bundle the body out of the plane door and cover the whole thing up, but six years later, Eilan was once again called upon.
An Israeli passport with Eichmann’s picture in it stating he was an airline pilot was shown to the guards outside the airport, who must have chuckled at the sight of the highly intoxicated man sitting slouched in the middle seat of the car. They were waved through before boarding their plane and departing soon after. As far as white-knuckle, covert operations go, it had all gone incredibly smoothly.
On 23rd May 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that not only had Israel captured Adolf Eichmann but that he was in the country and would soon stand trial. Questions over the legality of what had happened were raised immediately. Could a nation kidnap a person from another country and try them on charges committed in a third country? There was next to no precedence for something like this but once Israel had their man they were never going to let go.
Argentina screamed blue murder over the violation of their sovereignty but harbouring known Nazi criminals tends to put you at a disadvantage and considering there were still plenty of hugely questionable men alive and well in Argentina, they eventually backed off.
The biggest argument was how fair a trial in Israel would really be. Or whether it should be held in Israel at all. But the country was determined to not only place Eichmann on trial but to televise it and show the world what had really happened.
Eichmann’s trial began at the Jerusalem District Court on 11th April 1961. His defence followed a similar pattern to other Nazis that had stood trial. Yes, he had been involved but was simply following orders. It’s worth noting that this was no kangaroo trial. While there may have been questions on the nature of his kidnapping, the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann carefully followed the law.
The evidence and relentless amount of harrowing information, not only heavily implicated Eichmann in the Final Solution but painted a grim portrait of the Holocaust that many had either chosen to forget or had never been taught. It’s understandable that out of the ashes of war people might be forgiven for trying to move on, but it became clear that the Holocaust had been an event that had never truly been addressed in the first place.
The trial was adjourned on 14th August and on the 12th December Eichmann was found guilty of 15 counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in a criminal organisation. Three days later, he was sentenced to death by hanging. While there was an appeal to the Supreme Court, this was ultimately rejected and just past midnight on 1st June 1962, Israel’s long pursuit of this Nazi criminal finally came to an end.
The trial of Adolf Eichmann was hugely important for Israel. They had shown the world that they were willing and able to track down war criminals even as nations around the world turned a blind eye, but that they would also prosecute them to the full extent of the law. Instead of rabid revenge that many had assumed, Israel instead acted with restraint and a degree of decency that must have been beyond difficult for many.
It also started a much more concerted effort to track down the Nazis still on the loose. A group, often referred to as the Nazi Hunters, began carefully tracking suspected Nazi criminals and over the decades they secured numerous notable convictions, including Klaus Barbie, the so-called Butch of Lyon. This group was led by Simon Wiesenthal, a man who survived, not one, not two, but four separate concentration camps between 1941 and 1945, and who died an old man in 2005. Wiesenthal’s work was absolutely relentless and his position as the preeminent Nazi Hunter has long been cemented.
But to bring this story around to a hopefully satisfactory conclusion, we’ll end close to where we started. After the end of World War II, a young Simon Wiesenthal remained in the Austrian city of Linz, even after most remaining Jews had left. The reason for this? One family he was keen to keep an eye on had also remained in the city – and hopefully, you can guess where this is going – it was of course the family of Adolf Eichmann.
After the immediate family mysteriously disappeared in 1952, Wiesenthal received a tip-off that they had travelled to Buenos Aires to be with their father. This information was passed to Mossad and Wiesenthal even took it upon himself to arrange for photographs of the remaining Eichmann family to be covertly taken – including images of his brother who was said to share a striking resemblance to his fugitive sibling
And as you would have it, it was these very pictures that helped confirm the identity of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, which set the ball rolling on one of the most daring Nazi-hunting escapades you are ever likely to hear.