Was SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Adolf Eichmann, who played a central role in the deportation and annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust just a cog in the Nazi killing machine?
Last Wednesday, on the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, a day designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin made public Eichmann's 1962 handwritten letter asking then-Israeli president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi for a pardon.
"I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty," he wrote. He argued, he was a low-level functionary following orders and should not be held responsible for the crimes of his superiors.
After World War II, Eichmann escaped from Germany and settled in Argentina where he lived under false identity. In 1960 he was captured by members of the Israeli secret service, the Mosad, and brought to Israel. The following year, during a four-month trial that focused the world's attention on the Nazi crimes committed during the Holocaust, Eichmann repeatedly asserted his innocence.
The role Eichmann played in the Nazi killing machine is still under dispute. Some historians cast him as a committed Nazi who was bent on making Europe "Juden-free," by sending all of them to the gas chambers. Hannah Ardent, the pre-eminent historian of the Holocaust, who coined the famous phrase "the banality of evil," saw Eichmann as a banal bureaucrat who simply followed orders.
Because of some unusual circumstances, I find myself in the position to shed some light on the role Eichmann played during the Holocaust.
Following my escape from a Nazi slave labor camp, and after spending a few days sheltered in a "Swedish House," set up by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, I joined an Anti-Nazi, Zionist group operating under the aegis of the Switzerland-based International Committee of the Red Cross. It was led by Dr. Rezso Kasztner, a former Hungarian journalist and a longtime Zionist activist.
Dr. Kaszther's main effort focused on buying time and slowing down the transportation of the remaining Jews in Hungary to the Nazi extermination camps. The Russian Army was already approaching Budapest. But Eichmann was determined to transport the remaining 200,000 Jews to Auschwitz. It was obvious that delaying the dispatch of transports could save the lives of thousands of people.
As I have described in my book, "Reports from a Distant Place," in connection with that effort, a bizarre episode took place involving Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS.
Himmler was interested in making a peculiar deal with the Western powers. In exchange for 3,000 heavy trucks destined for the German Army to be used on the Eastern Front against the Soviets, he was willing to order a halt to deportation of the Jews from Budapest.
It was a hair-brained scheme with obvious political motives: It was an effort to sow discord among the allies. Himmler's henchman in Budapest, Eichmann, pursued it with vigor.
Dr. Kasztner, to whom I was assigned as an aide, eagerly acquiesced to the proposal because he considered it as leverage to wring some concessions out of Eichmann. During the negotiation, to show good faith, Dr. Kasztner delivered $2 million worth of gold in a suitcase to Eichmann at his luxurious villa on Schwabhegy, ostensibly to finance the truck deal. In return, about 3,000 Hungarian Jews were permitted to depart to Switzerland.
As a result of the negotiations, there may have been some temporary easing in the intensity of deportation of the remaining Jews. But Eichmann soon reneged on his promises and pursued his vision to make Europe "Juden-free," with vigor.
Eichmann may have been an obedient bureaucrat but he was also a faithful devotee of Nazi ideology. I followed his actions in Budapest from close range. They confirm that he was a war criminal.
According to historical records, at midnight on June 1, 1962, a few days after he wrote his letter begging for mercy, Eichmann was executed by hanging. He was the only civilian who has been sentenced to death and executed in Israel.
Frank Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Pace." The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop, and on Amazon.com