Fifty years ago today, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Israel had captured Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann who had been hiding in Argentina.
Eichmann, often referred to as “the architect of the Holocaust”, facilitated and managed the logistics of the deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
Following the military defeat of Nazi Germany and end of World War II, Eichmann disappeared. Taking on a false identity, he claimed to be a refugee and fled Germany to Argentina using fraudulent travel documents issued by the International Red Cross.
In 1959, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad received information that Eichmann was living in Buenos Aires under the name Ricardo Klement. At that time, the fledgling state had few resources and many dangers to its very survival. Despite this, bringing the Nazis to justice was not brushed aside as of lesser importance. Soon after receiving the information, Mossad agents were sent to Argentina and confirmed Eichmann was there.
A bigger problem now presented itself, in that the Argentine government had very close ties with the ex-Nazis sheltering in its country. It was clear that any formal arrest request made to the government would almost certainly tip off Eichmann and allow him to disappear. The Israeli government subsequently approved an operation to capture Eichmann and bring him to Jerusalem by any means necessary, in order to put him on trial as a war criminal.
On May 11, 1960, Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet agents captured Eichmann in a suburb of Buenos Aires. After observing Eichmann’s activities, a team of Mossad agents waited for Eichmann as he headed home from work at a Mercedes-Benz factory. One agent looked out as his bus arrived, while two other agents pretended to fix a broken car. A fourth agent was on Eichmann’s bus to ensure his presence.
Once Eichmann left the bus and began walking toward his home, one of the agents working on the car asked him for a cigarette. When he reached in his pocket, one agent struck him on the back of the neck as two others pushed him into a car and drove him to a safe house.
Eichmann quickly confirmed his identity to the agents. After being held in a safe house for a few days, he was smuggled out of the country on a flight from Argentina to Senegal and then on to Israel on May 21. Sedated and disguised in an aircrew uniform, he had been slipped through airport security as a drunken foreigner among a crew of pilots and stewardesses. Argentinean authorities were unaware of the Israeli plan.
Two days later, on May 23, 1960, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion announced the capture to the Israeli Knesset. His announcement was met by a standing ovation.
On April 11, 1961, an Israeli court in Jerusalem began Eichmann's trial. He was indicted on fifteen criminal charges that included crimes against humanity, membership in an illegal organization and crimes against the Jewish people.
Following fourteen weeks of testimony that included over 1,500 documents, 100 prosecution witnesses and dozens of defense depositions given by persons from sixteen different countries, Eichmann’s trial came to an end. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to death.
On May 31, 1962, Eichmann was hanged at an Israeli prison in Ramla. To this day, his execution remains the only civil execution ever carried out in Israel.
For Israelis, the Eichmann trial was a watershed moment. The daily broadcasts of eyewitness testimony by Holocaust survivors of the horrors they had seen forced the country to acknowledge the traumatic event that they had tried to forget and ignore in the 15 years that had passed since the end of World War II. Israelis had a self-image built around self sufficiency, toughness and a history of fighting for their survival against overwhelming odds. The victims of the Holocaust did not fit in with this image, having been seemingly slaughtered like sheep in their millions.
The Eichmann trial brought home to Israelis the insurmountable reality in which their European Jewish brethren had found themselves. The many holocaust survivors in the country, who had been wracked by survivor's guilt and by terrible memories which they repressed in the face of a public that wanted nothing to do with their sufferings, could at last come to terms more openly with their ordeal. For Israel, the trial provoked understanding for the holocaust survivors, a sense of communion with the Jews living outside Israel, and renewed dedication to ensuring the survival of the Jewish State and the Jewish People.
To this day, the readiness of Israeli leaders to take threats made against their country at face value has been hard for many Western leaders and citizens to understand. When a tin-pot Arab or Iranian dictator claims he will destroy Israel, it is obvious in their minds that he is just posturing and making empty threats, as no sane person would actually try to annihilate an entire country. For Israelis, however, the Eichmann trial teaches otherwise. Eichmann was not a deranged lunatic; he was a rational, efficient and hard working bureaucrat. His government job simply entailed engineering the mass murder of millions of harmless babies and children, mothers and fathers, and grandparents. Hard as it is to accept, rational minds can engage in genocide and barbarity, and Israel feels that death threats are not a matter which can be ignored.