50 Years After Eichmann Capture, Much Information Still Withheld

Among other revelations, new documents confirm that Israel lied when it claimed that Eichmann was kidnapped by "Jewish volunteers" rather than state agents.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

On 29 May, 1960, several days after Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made the dramatic announcement to the Knesset that Adolf Eichmann had been captured, he met with the cabinet to discuss preparations for the trial. The head of security services, Isser Harel, revealed at the meeting a few details of how Eichmann had been identified and captured. He did not tell them, at this stage, that Eichmann was abducted in Argentina, but he did reveal that a back-up plan had been made in case local police apprehended Eichmann and his abductors before they made it across the border.

"The commander in charged received an order from me that in this case, he should tie himself physically to him . . . bind his arm to Eichmann's arm and destroy the key," Harel said. Then, the commander was to identify himself as an Israeli and to give to the police Harel's name, but not his position. "There was this great distress," Harel said. "Taking care of a Nazi knowing full well what he did to us, the Jewish people, but treating him as a nurse would, feeding him, taking care of his health, shaving him and cutting his hair, all this was the hardest part of the operation."

Adolf Eichmann in a police mug shot. Credit: Israel Police

Harel's report is part of more than 100 documents uploaded by the State Archive on its website yesterday, marking 50 years since the beginning of the Eichmann trial. Among other revelations, the documents confirm that Israel lied when it claimed that Eichmann was kidnapped by "Jewish volunteers" rather than state agents.

Eichmann himself praised the agents that abducted him. Speaking to his lawyer, Robert Servatius, in a conversation apparently recorded despite explicit promises to the lawyer not that these conversations would not be recorded, Eichmann said that the operation was carried out "in a sports-like manner, was planned and organized to an exemplary degree" and that special care was taken not to harm him. He said that he allowed himself to voice his opinion on these matters since he had "some experience in police and intelligence affairs."

Nevertheless, Eichmann noted that "this was not an extraordinary operation and any intelligence service could have carried it out with the same success."

What emerges from statements made by cabinet ministers is that they saw the trial as a great opportunity to use the Holocaust for Israel's public diplomacy. Ben-Gurion and several others spoke about the need to bring the younger generation closer to the Holocaust. "There is a new generation that heard something but did not live it," Ben-Gurion said.

Most members of the cabinet, however, focused on the trial's political and informational value. "Great journalists from the world over will come to Israel," as Ben-Gurion put it. The ministers debated whether to hold the trial in the great hall of the Jerusalem Congress Center, with its 3,000 seats (Ben Gurion was in favor, Moshe Dayan was against ). Ben-Gurion wanted to highlight relations between the Nazis and the Palestinian mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini (Moshe Dayan suggested separating the Holocaust from the Israeli-Arab conflict ).

The documents released yesterday show that considerable effort was made, some under direct pressure from Golda Meir, to link the Mufti to the annihilation of the Jews. Ben-Gurion suggested inviting the British philosopher Bertrand Russell to testify but did not explain why.

The collection of documents, edited by Michal Zaft and Hagai Tzoref, is interesting and user-friendly. Not all are important and not all reveal new information. We find out that Ben-Gurion was involved in the minutest of details, including editing the opening address of prosecutor Gideon Hausner: Do not say Germany, Ben Gurion warned, say only Nazi German, fearing damage to Israel's developing relations with West Germany.

The documents also reveal Germany's own great sensitivity about the trial, including its fears that the connection would be made between Eichmann and Hans Globka, a former senior jurist in the Nazi state, and at the time, one of the closest advisers of Chancellor Conrad Adenauer.

A member of the Israeli reparations negotiations delegation in Germany wrote that Globka had heard that Eichmann said he only met him after the war. He asked Servatius to confirm this in writing, but Servatius would not do so until his financial demands were met. Another Israeli document notes that "the Germans prefer that the Israeli government would pay Servatius his fees and spare Germany the political embarrassment."

Israel agreed to pay Servatius $20,000 after protracted negotiations.

The documents indicate the huge role internal Israeli politics played in the trial. They also reveal the heavy shadow cast on it by the Kastner trial, including fears that deals made between the Yishuv leadership and the Nazis before the war would be exposed. Minister Yitzhak Ben-Aharon feared Eichmann would use this information to defend himself. "If Eichmann tries defending himself he has some sort of line of defense up to 1939, even during the war," he said. He was the address for many of the deals, including those who were saved."

Eichmann was the most senior Nazi official to negotiate with Jewish communities and the Jewish Agency, and was therefore the person most identified with the Holocaust after Hitler, although he did not hold the most senior position in the extermination machine. The first information on his post-war whereabouts reached Israel in 1954, so when Isser Harel told the cabinet ministers that the first bit of information were obtained a year and a half before his capture, that was incorrect.

Harel admitted that the first attempt to find Eichmann was not thorough enough. It is still unclear what took Israel so long to make serious efforts to capture Eichmann and other Nazi criminals like Dr. Josef Mengele. One of the document released yesterday asserted that Mengele, too, lived in Argentina. Years later, Mossad heads would clash over why Dr. Death was never captured.

The reason this and other questions remain unanswered is that the archives of the Shin Bet and the Mossad are still closed for research. What is it that Israel is hiding about its operations and failures regarding Nazi war criminals? Germany, too, is hiding thousands of documents that may show what it knew about Nazi war criminals and maybe how it gave them cover. This information is now being released in drops. There is something tremendously embarrassing about Israel also hiding information about the Holocaust.

When he served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Benjamin Netanyahu waged a mighty and successful battle to open up the UN's archive on war criminals. He takes much pride in this success, and rightly so: It is intolerable to have even one document related to the Holocaust barred from research. As the prime minister in charge of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, Netanyahu can instruct the two organizations to open up their archives on war criminals, both during the Holocaust and in its aftermath.



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