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Buenos Aires, Argentina


Jun 11 2016 at 12:15 AM 

He was the most wanted Nazi who had evaded capture. Here's how a tiny band of Israelis went into another country and brought him to justice.

Adolf Eichmann, in a bullet-proof dock, stands to hear the judgment of his appeal in the Beit Ha'am in Jerusalem in 1962. It was rejected.

by Andrew Nagorski

One of the great myths of the postwar era was that Israeli agents were constantly scouring hideouts all over the world, relentlessly tracking down Nazi war criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth says Rafi Eitan, the man who led the Mossad commando unit that seized Adolf Eichmann, one of the great monsters of the Nazi period, responsible for exterminating millions of people.

The new state desperately needed more settlers (Israel's population was about 1.6 million in 1953), but it also needed to identify those among the immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union who were serving different masters. "We had to check everyone to understand if he was a spy or not," Eitan pointed out. "This was the first priority – not capturing Nazis."

In 1953, independent Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal had received a tip that Eichmann had been sighted in Argentina but, Eitan asserted, Israel was in no position to dedicate the necessary manpower and resources to track him down that early. By the late 1950s, however, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and other top Israeli leaders were feeling more confident about their fledgling country's prospects.

The notion that they might authorise a major operation to seize a notorious Nazi war criminal no longer seemed far-fetched. That is, if such an opportunity presented itself – if, in effect, the opportunity fell into the lap of the Mossad.

A secret shared

On September 19, 1957, Fritz Bauer, attorney-general of the West German state of Hesse, arranged a hush-hush meeting at a country inn with Felix Shinar, the head of Israel's reparations mission in West Germany. According to Isser Harel, the Mossad director who would later issue the orders that sent Eitan and other operatives to Argentina to kidnap Eichmann, Bauer came straight to the point. "Eichmann has been traced," he told Shinar.

When the Israeli queried whether he really meant Adolf Eichmann, Bauer responded: "Yes, Adolf Eichmann. He is in Argentina."

"I'll be perfectly frank with you, I don't know if we can altogether rely on the German judiciary here, let alone on the German embassy staff in Buenos Aires," Bauer responded, leaving no doubt that he distrusted many of his country's public servants and was worried that someone would tip off Eichmann. Many former Nazis were being returned to public positions.

"I see no other way but to talk to you," Bauer continued. "You are known to be efficient people, and nobody could be more interested than you in the capture of Eichmann."

When the news reached Harel, he read the Eichmann file that he had instructed the agency's archivist to pull for him that same evening and well into the night. "I didn't know then what sort of man Eichmann was," he wrote later, or "with what morbid zeal he pursued his murderous work". But when Harel got up from his desk at dawn, he knew "that in everything pertaining to the Jews [Eichmann] was the paramount authority and his were the hands that pulled the strings controlling manhunt and massacre".

"That night I resolved that if Eichmann were alive, come hell or high water he'd be caught."

But more than two years would elapse until the serious preparation for Operation Eichmann, the kidnapping of the famous fugitive, began. Bauer's source was a half-Jewish German in Argentina who had written to the German authorities after he had read in the newspapers that Eichmann had disappeared. The details the source provided corresponded to what Bauer already knew about Eichmann and his family, including the ages of the sons who were born before his wife, Vera, and those boys had also left Germany, supposedly to live with a second husband.

The informant provided an address for the man he presumed to be Eichmann: 4261 Chacabuco Street in Olivos, a suburb of Buenos Aires.

Yet Harel's initial attempts to check out Bauer's leads resulted in apparent failure. When, in January, 1958, he sent an agent and a researcher to check out the address, they immediately concluded that something was off. It was an impoverished area, the street was unpaved, and, as Harel put it, "the wretched little house could in no way be reconciled with our picture of the life of an SS officer of Eichmann's rank".

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