Half a century ago in May, Israel hanged Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann for overseeing Germany’s extermination of six million European Jews, fully one-third of the world’s prewar Jewish population. The murder of the six million staggers the mind. Such a vast breadth of our people, each of them with his own individual dreams, loves and aspirations, exterminated.
The Nazi genocide was undertaken through a rail-linked infrastructure of concentration camps, ghettos and “liquidation sites” meticulously administered by SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo. At war’s end Eichmann was captured by U.S. soldiers but managed to hide his true identity and high-ranking role before escaping into the chaos of postwar Europe. He was mentioned during the 1946 Nuremburg trials but by then his trail had gone cold and the world at large seemingly forgot about him. Not, however, Israel and Holocaust survivors seeking justice.
In 1960 Mossad/Shin Bet chief Isser Harel investigated a series of tips on Eichmann’s possible whereabouts, including one from a blind man in Argentina who suspected his daughter was dating one of Eichmann’s sons unknowingly. The Mossad investigation found Eichmann was living under the name “Ricardo Klement” with his wife and four sons in Buenos Aires. Round-the-clock surveillance of the target was established and by April several agents, most of whom had lost family to the Nazis, sprang into action.
On May 11, 1960 as the man believed to be Eichmann got off a bus, the agents snatched him, forced him into a waiting car and sped off to a pre-arranged rented “safe house.” Under interrogation, he immediately admitted he was Adolph Eichmann. The agents kept him at the safe house for some nine days, chained to a bed.
The Mossad knew Argentina would never extradite Eichmann because it had received millions in Nazi bribe money and gold and was sympathetic to pro-Nazi German expatriates who had flocked there after the war. Because of this, the operation had been timed to coincide with Argentina’s 150th anniversary celebration attended by dignitaries from around the world – including an Israeli delegation who flew to South America on a chartered El Al flight. The plane provided an ideal way to smuggle Eichmann out of the country.
On the night of May 20, the empty El Al jetliner was parked on an airport tarmac when a limousine pulled up to the plane and a group in airline uniforms crowded up its steps. Eichmann, who had been sedated, was half-carried to a window seat. Soon the drugged Eichmann, watched over by his Mossad guards, was flying to a Jewish state on a Jewish airline, flown by a Jewish pilot. Quite a turn of events for the monster who during the war had worked so diligently to make the Jews into “an extinct people.”
The next day, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion tersely told the Knesset that the “Israeli secret service had located Eichmann” and he would be tried shortly. The announcement stunned the world and Jews everywhere celebrated. But many world leaders, accustomed to Jews being defenseless victims, were outraged by Israel’s bold action. Argentina immediately called for Eichmann’s return and the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned Israel.
Israel, believing only it could dispense justice to Eichmann proceeded to put him on trial and assembled the prosecution’s case. For nine months the world was riveted as 112 survivors gave heartrending testimony in a Jerusalem courtroom on the suffering that Eichmann had unleashed on the Jewish people.
Sitting behind bulletproof Plexiglas, Eichmann remained impassive throughout the trial, claiming he had no personal hatred of Jews and had “only followed orders.”
In mid-December 1961 Eichmann was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death – the first and so far only time Israel dispensed capital punishment. Five months later, on May 31, 1962, he was marched from his prison cell to a specially constructed hanging platform, where a guard pulled a lever. Eichmann’s body was cremated and the ashes were scattered in the dark waters just beyond Israel’s national boundaries.
The man who had been chosen to act as executioner, a Yemeni Jew, was interviewed many years later on Israel Radio. “It was the greatest of mitzvahs,” he declared, “wiping out Amelek.”