The Israeli Police Unit That Built the Case Against Adolf Eichmann, and Was Forgotten

The senior interrogator moved to Germany, the deputy commander was murdered by terrorists. The story of Bureau 06 of the Israel Police, which undertook the monumental task of interrogating Adolf Eichmann and collecting evidence against him

Sharon Geva
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Standing, from left, Eichmann and his Israeli interrogator Avner Less, and, far right, investigator Ephraim Hofstetter. From the book “Bureau 06: The Investigation of Eichmann by the Israel Police.”
Standing, from left, Eichmann and his Israeli interrogator Avner Less, and, far right, investigator Ephraim Hofstetter. From the book “Bureau 06: The Investigation of Eichmann by the Israel Police.”Credit: Courtesy The Israel Police Heritage Center & Museum

On Monday, May 23, 1960, Sgt. Hannah Yacobsohn concluded her workday in the forensic services department at National Police Headquarters, located in Tel Aviv at the time. On the way to the bus that would take her home to Holon she noticed a special edition of a newspaper on sale: Adolf Eichmann was in Israel.

The next day she was summoned to the office of Commander Ephraim Hofstetter, who informed her that the two of them were to go immediately to Haifa, to meet with the head of the Israel Police’s northern district, Maj. Gen. Avraham Selinger. Arriving at his office, they saw Selinger’s desk piled high with books. We need to learn these books by heart, he told the two officers. Yakobson was stunned.

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Ultimately, the books were but a small part of the masses of information the staff of Bureau 06 – the special police unit established for the investigation and interrogation of Adolf Eichmann – would collect and verify, translate and catalog in the following nine months. As such, they constituted the foundation for the conviction of a Nazi criminal in a trial that would become a formative event in Israel’s history.

The role of the Israel Police in this event began shortly after Eichmann’s capture in Argentina by members of Israel’s security services, and the trial itself, which opened in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961. In contrast to the dramatic kidnapping and the riveting public hearings, led by the prosecution under Attorney General Gideon Hausner, the police operated far from the public eye, its protagonists operating behind the scenes of the tumultuous episode.

Until May 23, there had been nothing exceptional in police activity in 1960. Indeed, according to the annual report of the Israel Police, it had been “a routine working year in terms of implementation of [our] principal missions: safeguarding life and property, and public and personal security; uncovering criminals and bringing them to justice.”

It was two years into the tenure of the country’s second police commissioner, Yosef Nahmias, and the force sought to reduce its rapid personnel turnover and cultivate an image as a reliable organization.

At the time the Israel Police had five departments, but the daunting scale of the Eichmann investigation necessitated the creation of a separate unit. It was dubbed “Bureau 06 of NPH” (National Police Headquarters).

In addition to conducting the investigation, the new unit also operated the detention facility where Eichmann was held – the Jalami (Kishon) Prison in northern of Israel, which was temporarily renamed “Iyar Base” (for the Hebrew month) – and was afterward responsible for securing the building where the trial was held in Jerusalem.

Specifically, Bureau 06’s mission was “to investigate the crimes of Adolf Eichmann in the period of Nazi rule; to collect evidence and to prepare it in a file for the general prosecution for the purpose of trying Eichmann.” The task focused on perusal of documents.

“In this trial, as in the Nuremberg trial, documentation is of supreme importance,” Justice Minister Pinchas Rosen stated, when informing Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that the preparation of the case had been entrusted to Selinger and Hofstetter, “two experienced and excellent people.”

The German-born Avraham Selinger had served in the Israel Police since its founding in 1948 and knew the Jalami facility from his service in the British Mandate police force. In 1939, he had lost a leg when he stepped on a land mine. Ephraim Hofstetter (later Elrom), born in Poland, had also been a member of the Mandatory police and joined the Israel Police upon its establishment; he was now head of the investigations division of the Tel Aviv district.

The two veteran officers, who were dubbed “Rami” and “Hof,” respectively, complemented each other: The commander was a tough solo act, his deputy a sociable fellow who liked to share his experiences with his colleagues.

The composition of the bureau reflected the personnel of the police force at the time: Its senior figures were of European origin and were longtime residents of the country. The most senior woman on the team was the German-born Yacobsohn, who translated documents. Given the policy of the Israel Police in its early years regarding the service of women, the possibility of having a female serving as an investigator in Bureau 06 was not even considered.

Bureau 06 staff perusing testimony from Eichmann. His questioning took 275 hours, which yielded 3,564 pages of documents, arranged in six volumes.
Bureau 06 staff perusing testimony from Eichmann. His questioning took 275 hours, which yielded 3,564 pages of documents, arranged in six volumes. Credit: From the book “Bureau 06: The Investigation of Eichmann by the Israel Police,” courtesy The Israel Police Heritage Center & Museum

Two investigators were Holocaust survivors: Superintendent Menachem Zafir and Chief Inspector Michael Goldman-Gilad, who also served as the assistant to Hausner. Goldman-Gilad’s personal story and his presence in the courtroom inspired the 1974 Holocaust documentary film “The 81st Blow,” by Haim Gouri, Jacques Ehrlich and David Bergman.

Bureau 06 had three sections and an administrative division. Section 1, under Superintendent Naftali Bar-Shalom, was in charge of collecting documents and evidence. Its staff amassed the materials, compiled summations and described the accused and the crimes attributed to Eichmann, the role of the Jewish Affairs department of the Gestapo that he headed, deportations, the murder of children, extermination by gas, etc.

Section 2, which was responsible for interrogating Eichmann, was headed by German-born Chief Superintendent Avner Less, who came from the police’s economic crimes division. Eichmann was questioned for a total of 275 hours, all of which was recorded and transcribed by Sonya Auster, a civilian who was recruited to Bureau 06. The transcripts were given to Eichmann, who made corrections by listening to the tape recordings and comparing them to the typed version. He signed every copy, thereby rendering it a formal statement. There were 3,564 pages, arranged in six volumes.

Section 3, under Zafir, was the bureau’s archive.

Although Bureau 06 personnel were experienced officers, this was far from being a typical criminal investigation.

“The crime arena was not under our control and we did not have access to all its areas,” Selinger explained, in a summary of the investigation he would later write up. “The evidence was blurred not only because of the time that had passed – 15 years and more – but because the Nazis, and in particular the ‘annihilation machine,’ deliberately blurred everything before their final defeat.” The summations of the interrogations and the statements “were a sort of combination of historical research and an investigation of criminal actions, in a file submitted to the prosecution.”

“We deliberated over giving a clear answer – to ourselves – to the question: What is a ‘historical trial’?” Selinger wrote. “However, it was clear that, whatever the answer, the trial and of course the investigation preceding it, must be conducted solely within the framework of the law.”

‘Burning cities’

The first task was to study the relevant period: the Nazis’ ideology, their rise to power, the persecution of the Jews, Germany’s military conquests, the history of the Holocaust, the methods of mass murder. Although the police had been dealing with complaints since the enactment in Israel of the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law in 1950, they did not possess a significant body of knowledge on those subjects, and only a small team handled such matters. The body of sources that was eventually compiled by Bureau 06, which encompasses research, books, testimonies and memoirs, shows that the 1950s had been an extremely fruitful period in terms of documenting and researching the Holocaust in Israel. In addition, the work entailed locating and authenticating documents, translating them into Hebrew, establishing an archive and producing copies for use by various individuals involved in the trial.

In the absence of electronic or digital means, and in view of the need for secrecy, it was crucial to maintain good order and organization. Each document came with a classification of its relevance for the accused’s conviction and recommendation for its disposition. Even years later, Corp. Ruth Shai, who was in charge of filing the documents in the archive, remembered the intense concern – indeed, the anxiety she and her colleagues felt regarding the safety of each document each time it was out of their hands and until it was returned to its place. They were the most important items in the facility housed in the Iyar Base, and on no account were they to be left unattended.

Smoking was prohibited in the rooms where the documents were stored, and in the event of fire the instruction was to save the archival material before all else. Half an hour before the end of the workday, the maintenance people removed the papers that had been thrown into the garbage during the day and burned them in the presence of a sergeant.

In practice, the archive was not just indexed in a card catalog but, as Selinger noted, in “the accumulated knowledge in the brains of the classifiers.” Each staffer in Section 1 examined more than 30,000 pages in preliminary classification, and all told some 400,000 documents were perused. About 40,000 pages were examined in depth, and approximately 1,200 documents, each five pages long on average, were analyzed and submitted to the deputy commander of Bureau 06.

Besides this, materials had to be prepared for Avner Less, who interrogated Eichmann, information had to be retrieved from outside institutions, ongoing work was done in the archives and testimony had to be taken from survivors. “It appears that the effort the bureau’s personnel carried out was perhaps ‘superhuman,’” Bar-Shalom wrote.

 The 1961 file photo shows Adolf Eichmann standing in his glass cage, flanked by guards, in the Jerusalem courtroom during his trial in 1961 for war crimes committed during World War II.
This 1961 file photo shows Adolf Eichmann standing in his glass cage, flanked by guards, in the Jerusalem courtroom during his trial in 1961 for war crimes committed during World War II.Credit: AP Photo/File

The mountains of documents did not escape the notice of the poet and intellectual Haim Gouri, who covered the trial for the daily newspaper Lamerhav. “The documents continued to pile up. There are nearly 600 so far.... The documents do not remain silent. If you listen, you can hear them shouting hoarsely,” wrote Gouri, who later published the reportage in a book, “Facing the Glass Booth: The Jerusalem Trial of Adolf Eichmann.” “This is a trial of documents. The documents have a strange, incomprehensible power. Every one of them speaks with 10,000 voices. Who can keep track of all these documents?”

Unlike the victims of the Holocaust, whom Hausner in his opening speech said were unable “to stand and point their finger of accusation,” the documents seemed to rise up: “Before your eyes, the papers became burning cities, people cast on heaps with limbs dangling, trains rushing eastward, children ascending to heaven,” Gouri wrote. 

In May 1961, about a month after the start of the trial, he predicted that about 3,000 documents would eventually pile up on the prosecution’s table. In practice, there were many more.

What about the ‘client’?

The headquarters of Bureau 06 itself resembled a prison. Iyar Base was encircled by a barbed-wire fence and illuminated by searchlights at night. The rooms were small, cramped and dingy. Initially, two investigators had to share a table. There were few phone extensions and it was difficult to get a line out; there was no place to take a break. Equipment, including microfiche machines, was routinely lacking. The isolation allowed the team to concentrate on their jobs, and the fact that Eichmann was being interrogated nearby facilitated the work – but the price was severance from home: Most of the staff lived in the country’s center but spent the work week in apartments or rented rooms in Haifa.

In August 1960, Attorney General Hausner urged that Bureau 06 be relocated to Jerusalem, but the police objected. “I don’t see how we can move to Jerusalem without our ‘client’” – as Eichmann’s guards called him – “as this would greatly hamper the investigation,” Hofstetter explained.

One problem that arose because of the distance was to find a judge who would go to the facility in the north in order to extend Eichmann’s remand in person. Someone suggested asking Judge Miriam Verlinsky, from Haifa Magistrate’s Court, to carry out the task, but this was vetoed out of a concern of offending Eichmann’s sensibilities, no less. “Bringing a ‘military man’ before a woman is liable to be taken as a deliberate humiliation,” the unit’s deputy commander noted.

Throughout, Bureau 06 suffered from understaffing. From time to time, suitable candidates for additional positions were found, but there was no one to replace them in their units in the police. A few of those who were coopted did not last. As the trial drew nearer, no new personnel were taken on, as there was no time to train them. At its peak, Bureau 06 had a staff of 56: officers, inspectors, sergeants and also a few civilians, who were hired mainly for translation work. The workday began at 7:30 A.M. and ended officially at 6 P.M., but in practice went on into the night. The staff would then meet to read the accused’s statement from that day – an activity which they dubbed, undoubtedly with a smile, “reading chapters from Psalms.”

Severe stress and tension were the lot of everyone on the team. Selinger once shrugged off a journalist’s question about whether he suffered from nightmares, but in internal police publications he mentioned that there was intense mental pressure throughout the bureau. For her part, Ruth Shai stated, “When I read the documents, the numbers in bold stood out, and I felt, gradually, that I was being drawn in more and more and I felt drained.”

For Hannah Yacobsohn, the translation work brought to mind her grandmother, Susette Heymann, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. As with other members of the bureau, German was Yacobsohn’s mother tongue – she had moved to Palestine from Berlin with her family as a child. However, she found no actual mention of her grandmother in the many documents she perused, some of them from the death camp itself.

In the absence of psychological support from the police, Bureau 06 personnel tried to cope with the stress on their own. On trips to Tel Aviv and back on Tuesdays – for a brief break at home – and at midday Fridays, on the way home for the weekend, they laughed and joked. Sometimes they stopped in a field along the way to pick flowers and breathe fresh air.

“In the evenings it was natural for us to strive to change the atmosphere of Nazis and Holocaust that we absorbed during the whole day,” Menachem Zafir wrote. “The only opportunity, then, was to visit a restaurant, have a hot meal or indulge in a sociable conversation over a cup of coffee. Of course, this involved expenses, but although a large budget had been allocated for this project, a small budget could not be found for our outlays.”

Bureau 06 was disbanded about three weeks before the start of the trial. In practice, some of the staff were then assigned to additional tasks on behalf of the prosecution, headquartered in Beit Ha’am, the Jerusalem auditorium that was converted into a courtroom for the Eichmann trial. 

Police Commissioner Yosef Nahmias bids farewell to Bureau 06, on the day of its disbandment.
Police Commissioner Yosef Nahmias bids farewell to Bureau 06, on the day of its disbandment.Credit: From the book “Bureau 06: The Investigation of Eichmann by the Israel Police,” courtesy The Israel Police Heritage Center & Museum

On Sunday, March 19, 1961, 63 boxes containing the results of the efforts of Bureau 06 were loaded onto three trucks, bound for Jerusalem. When Zafir, who was responsible for the archive, arrived at Beit Ha’am, he discovered that only half the space he had been allotted was available. The documents were left outside, though it was raining. Inside, shelves collapsed under the weight of the files. Workers were everywhere, erecting platforms for television cameras and crews, and installing air conditioning. Zafir asked the workers to leave, and his people shored up the shelves by themselves. But work did not proceed as planned: There were not enough people, there was no mimeograph machine. “I don’t have a translator, I don’t have a stenographer, and worst of all, I have no one to talk to. I’m like a stepson here,” the superintendent wrote. Despite all that, he carried out his mission.

Remembering and forgetting

Selinger retired in 1963, after serving for two more years as commander of the police’s northern district; he died in 1972. Hofstetter became commander of the force’s senior officers school and then head of economic investigations, before being loaned to the Foreign Ministry and serving as consul general in Turkey. On May 17, 1971, in Istanbul, he was abducted by Turkish terrorists, who murdered him five days later. Zafir served as head of the registration and automation unit of the police, which later became the computer unit. Goldman-Gilad served in the criminal section of the Police Investigations Department and went on to hold various positions at the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. Yakobson returned to national headquarters as assistant to the Interpol liaison officer and afterward served as the liaison officer. She retired in 1973.

Avner Less left the police force in 1968 – and also left Israel. He became a German citizen in 1983. That year he wrote an introduction to a book of transcripts from Eichmann’s interrogation, originally published in Germany (English version: “Eichmann Interrogated”), in which he provided an unusually candid account of his relations with the accused. “I forgive, I do not forget,” he said. Less died in 1987.

After the death of the former chief superintendent, writer Yoram Kaniuk noted in an article in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, “What happened to Less in the nine months he spent with Eichmann was that he himself turned into a bureaucrat.” Kaniuk assailed Less for having become “the ‘great forgiver’ who had met the demon and annihilated him – in order to give German’s dark conscience a seal of legitimacy [kashrut].”

Other harsh words were written by Yosef Ben-Porat – the then-assistant to the police commissioner who later became director general of the Police Ministry – in his book on the force, where he described Less as a mirror image of Selinger and Hofstetter, who had been forgotten. “There is someone who made a good living and found popularity from his role in Bureau 06 – in the cities of Germany,” he wrote, adding that Less “left Israel and in his ‘homeland’ gained fame from his books about his part in bringing to justice the ‘human monster’ Adolf Eichmann.”

Selinger made an effort to document the work of Bureau 06 in real time. Along with a summation for an internal police bulletin and an annual report, a souvenir album was produced by the police. On the morning of June 1, 1962, the day on which the sentence in the trial – execution by hanging – was carried out, Inspector Yehuda Reshef, head of a branch in Section 1 of the bureau, asked his colleagues to write accounts of their experiences in the bureau. Their submissions trickled in. One writer apologized for his late response, explaining, “I tried to forget as much as possible what was involved in the Holocaust.” Reshef empathized, but asked him to add more – for example, regarding the arguments among the investigators concerning Hungary, and the Rudolf Kasztner episode. “Arguments are important in order to understand the frames of mind and the outlooks of the investigators,” he noted, and concluded, “Sorry for continuing to pester you, but you will certainly understand.”

Another investigator rejected the idea of the documentation initiative, commenting in a letter to Selinger that the whole endeavor wasn’t appropriate for the police. “Are we, too, getting caught up in publicity?” he asked, urging him to abandon the project. “Please, drop it. It is of no value, neither historical nor practical.”

From the perspective of time, there is no doubt concerning the historical value of the personal accounts, though they were never published – and certainly the value of all the documents accumulated by Bureau 06, in the Israel Police archives. But during the Eichmann trial and in the years that followed, the police rarely played up its role in its books about the force’s heritage and history. The unit’s commanders died, and unlike in the security services and the prosecution, there was no one to write a book along the lines of “The House on Garibaldi Street,” by Isser Harel, who headed both the Shin Bet and the Mossad and was the architect of Eichmann’s abduction – or “Justice in Jerusalem,” by prosecutor Hausner.

Indeed, some historical Israel Police books omitted the Eichmann trial altogether. The absence of documentation was grating. Yosef Ben-Porat devoted a chapter in his book “A Barrier to Chaos: Decisive Years in the History of the Israel Police” (Hebrew), to the investigation of the infamous Nazi war criminal, although he himself had not been involved in it.

“I’d had no intention at all of writing about the Eichmann investigation,” he wrote in the book. “I maintained that the subject had already been written about and rehashed in Israel and elsewhere, and there was nothing to add. I yielded only when I was told: Two friends and police officers, Rami Selinger and Ephraim Hofstetter, who headed the great investigative effort and the preparation of material for the prosecution, are no longer among the living. Don’t they deserve to have their work written about?”

Ben-Porat mentioned that Bureau 06 had been ignored in various published materials relating to Israel’s security, in which “you will find nothing about the tremendous operation of the Israel Police in preparing the trial – one of the best known ever in the world. Not one word about the Bureau 06 investigators. I was flooded by feelings of humiliation and fury.”

The work of the bureau laid the legal foundation for Eichmann’s conviction, but it was the live testimonies in the courtroom that constituted the most powerful aspect of the trial, and were seared into the public’s consciousness. In order to shock people, it seemed, documents were not enough; flesh and blood were needed.

In an article published at the conclusion of the trial, Haim Gouri wrote, “But we knew all this, didn’t we? Yes, we did. We knew it before the Eichmann trial. Scholars and historians and archivists had labored endlessly, in Israel and elsewhere, to provide us with the documentation, which many shied away from reading… But when this material reached the prosecution and was entered into the indictment, when these documents broke the silence of the archives, they seemed to be speaking for the first time, and the knowledge they imparted was a different knowledge.”

It was Bureau 06, of course, that provided the documents cited in the courtroom. Its investigators carried them, literally, to the prosecution table. But they were like silent partners whose essential work was nondescript and dry. In contrast to the prosecutors, the police did not aspire to jolt the public – their aim was to prove the accused’s guilt in a court of law; that was the essence of their professional work. And in contrast to the prosecution, the police did not blaze a trail of glory and did not take an active part in the production of the trial as an event with theatrical potential, as Hannah Arendt discerned. That was yet one more reason that the police remained in the shadows during this formative historical event.

Dr. Sharon Geva’s study of Bureau 06 is to be published in Law, Society & Culture, the journal of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. Her book “Women in the State of Israel: The Early Years” (Hebrew), was published by the Magnes Press.

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