Hunting Eichmann

Eichmann pictured at a rabbit farm in Argentina in 1954.

Hunting Eichmann

This is not a book review, despite the book title above.  I haven’t read the book, only watched a talk before a packed hall by Neal Bascomb, the author of Hunting Eichmann, on a C-Span history program last Saturday night.   The talk was given in 2019, so before the storms of pandemic and the election campaign.  Presented in a peaceful interlude.

Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi official in charge of the extermination of the Jewish people wherever they could be found.  Before the defeat of the Hitler regime cut short his career, Eichmann had been quite effective in his niche.  You couldn’t ask for a more competent mass murderer.

He made his escape at War’s end along what’s been designated the rat line of sympathetic churchmen, which took him to the edge of Iberia, where he caught a ship for Argentina under his new name of Ricardo Klement.  There he remained, along with other escaped Nazis, under the sheltering dictatorship of Juan Peron.

When Israeli agents kidnapped Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people, there was a great brouhaha on behalf of Argentine sovereignty and international law as it was then construed. 

The government of Israel sent Josef Avidar, a retired general who had been ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Argentina, to Buenos Aires to smooth matters there.  He was my mother’s cousin, so he stopped for lunch at 1245 Madison Avenue on his way back to Israel.   As the conversation wended along, my parents gave voice to all the reservations of the time.  I remember the tone of his voice as he responded, unruffled,

Don’t worry about Argentina.

We have settled with Argentina.”

The Jerusalem trial gave rise to a different controversy.  It was ginned up by the political theorist Hannah Arendt and concerned the character and motives of the defendant.  Arendt deemed Eichmann a petty bureaucrat who couldn’t think for himself and maybe couldn’t think at all. 

Two chapters of my Good Look at Evil delve into Arendt’s claims, which I think mistaken.  Here I’ll only observe that most time-serving organization men will not be heard to sum up their achievements in these words:

I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of of five [of the six] million Jews…on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.

The story told by Neal Bascomb includes details only recently released by Israeli intelligence.  Since I was hearing it for the first time, rather than reading it, I didn’t get all the details lined up nor the names spelled correctly.  But I’ll give you a bit of the gist, as I heard it.

Ricardo Klement [aka Eichmann] had been working in obscure and humble circumstances (raising rabbits, I think the author said) in a suburb of Buenos Aires, when his son Klaus Eichmann began dating a local girl.  Their relationship had gone far enough to rate a dinner invitation extended to the young suitor.  By way of table talk, Klaus remarked that it was too bad Hitler hadn’t finished the job with the Jews.  The girl and her Jewish father exchanged glances.  There were no more dates.

Not long after that dinner, the girl who had dated Eichmann’s son happened to read in the newspaper a list issued by a Prosecutor-General of West Germany, of war criminals still at large.  Adolf Eichmann’s name was on that list.  She decided to write the German prosecutor, who wrote back advising her to gather more information.

Now watch what she does.  She goes to the home of young Klaus Eichmann and knocks on the door.  Señor Klement answers and invites her to step in.  As they chat briefly, he refers to Klaus as his nephew.  Shortly thereafter, Klaus returns home, not at all pleased to see her there.  He hurries her out the door, meanwhile saying over his shoulder,

I‘ll be back in a moment, father.

That shows you.  Even world-class monsters can’t think of everything.  If multi-tasking is hard, multi-identity-holding is harder.

The nabbing of Eichmann by Mossad and Shin Bet has been generally viewed as a smooth operation.  In fact, it hung by a thread.  Those who took part were at the highest risk.  Once Israel had him, he was offered to the West German government and other tribunals.  The global murderer, who had acted with such impunity, became an orphan that nobody wanted.  Finally he stood trial in Jerusalem where his victims shared their clear and vivid memories. 

Hannah Arendt claimed they couldn’t have remembered such mind-numbing experiences.   She was wrong.  They did.  I’ve read the trial transcript.

I listened to Neal Bascomb’s story, riveted by its many hair-pin turns and its far-from-foregone conclusion.   Aside from the surprising reversals in the plot, another factor held my fascinated gaze: Bascomb himself. 

The author is a rather nice-looking, blond young man who told his tale humorously, soberly, with good timing, in utter freedom from today’s toxicities.  Where did he come from?  Who contrived his upbringing?  I have in mind the way he pronounced the word “Jewish.”  It was innocent and straightforward.  He wasn’t fighting against the muscles of his mouth.  He seemed like a time-traveler projected from the decades just after the War ended — that beautiful interlude when the Holocaust had made people tired of hunting down Jews.  The longest hunt season hadn’t yet revived under new auspices.

This author seemed to me entirely normal.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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