Neal Bascomb

Author Q&A on Hunting Eichmann

What brought you to write Hunting Eichmann?

During my research, people asked me this countless times,
and usually with the preface question of whether or not I
was Jewish. When I responded in the negative to the first
part, the overwhelming response was “Good”…then you’ll
be seen as objective. The second part of my answer weaves
with the first. You do not have to be Jewish to understand
the incredible significance of the operation to catch Eichmann.
Without it, our knowledge and perception of the Holocaust
would be much more limited. Prior to the Eichmann trial,
the Nazi atrocities were largely being swept under the rug,
not spoken about. Only after the capture was there an
expansive reexamination of the genocide and did it become
rooted in our collective consciousness. In this respect, the
operation is one of the most important, influential spy
missions in history. Period. Beyond a documentary over
a decade ago, it has been almost fifty years since a journalist
has taken a thorough look at what unfolded.

How was chasing this story in Buenos Aires?

Lots or resistance from all fronts. The Argentine government
is very sensitive over this period of their history. They have
released dribs and drabs over time, but have never come completely
clean. Some secret files were offered but they had the scent of
selective disclosure, and the government is also adept at burying
information in a sea of unindexed piles. At the Immigration
department, there are literally cavernous rooms filled with nothing
but rotting towers of cardboard boxes filled with paper. It would
take a lifetime to go through them, even if they were not restricted.

The German community is reluctant to discuss, minimizing any
connection to their support of the Third Reich, though at the
German Club I was given a bland tour of their history only to
pass a room with three members who were, jokingly perhaps,
doing the Nazi goosestep and giving a Heil Hitler salute. When
I met with one old Wehrmacht soldier who used to drink with
Eichmann, it was mentioned that he had heard prior to my call
that some American journalist was “asking a lot of questions”.
He had heard this from someone in a town hundred of miles
outside of Buenos Aires that I had not visited, and I had only
been in the country for less than a week. Obviously, the old
grapevine was intact. Still, there was plenty to discover.

Tell about your find of the Eichmann passport

Definitely one of the highlights of the research because the document is tangible proof of how Eichmann escaped Europe. In late 2006, I was looking through old Buenos Aires newspapers when I came across a story about a lawsuit filed by Vera Eichmann against the Israelis. Court records are always one of my favorite places to research because they’re often overlooked, but always keep meticulous records. Through one of my researchers, I petitioned the courts to see the lawsuit files. No response. Then again. Come back in six weeks, they said, fill out this paperwork and that. Then again. You need a lawyer, they said. Then again. Finally, we were given the record, which had never been accessed before. In the file was a long report about the Argentinean investigation into the capture, which was fascinating. But no passport! A few weeks later, we hear that the judge who approved our seeing the file had gone through the file before agreeing to its release and given the passport to the Holocaust Museum in Buenos Aires. Fortunately, the judge credited my researcher for the discovery, and we’ve been given full access to passport. This is the first time my role has been released.

What was the great challenge in writing the book?

No debate. It was writing the narrative sections on Eichmann in the war, how he escaped, and how he lived while on the run. When I set out to write this history, I thought I would focus almost exclusively on the hunters, not the hunted. But after discovering a memoir by Eichmann on his post-war years, not to mention accessing two more well-known autobiographies, I really felt like I could accurately portray his actions and mindset. This got me into his head…so to speak…and this was an extremely uncomfortable place to be. For a while, I had a bad case of insomnia, and when sleep did come, I had nightmares about his actions against the Jews. Although I knew I’d be affected by the subject matter, its level of intensity was surprising.

How was tracking down the Mossad agents?

Well, you can’t exactly look them up in the phonebook. It was a lot about employing the theory of six degrees of separation…though I think with former spies, seven degrees is more the average. They were initially reluctant to speak, and on my arrival into Tel Aviv, I was told they had all canceled their interviews. Fortunately, I was able to turn that around, though the security services blocked me from speaking to a few individuals.

Most of the agents involved were in their early thirties at the time and they were the top level guys in the Mossad. Literally, numbers one, two, three, four. If the operation went south, Israel would have been left a gutted spy agency. Of the three top agents I met with, it was extraordinary how average of appearance and temperament they were. As one told me, the key is to look like everybody else, to walk into a room and leave it without anyone ever remembering your face. What also struck me was the casualness with which they talked of the danger involved, as if it was nothing. Incredible.

What surprised you most in the course of the book?

That so much of the capture and securing the Nazi war criminal came down to ordinary people with no ties to any security agencies. They include the blind German and his daughter who lived in Buenos Aires and first identified Eichmann, to Simon Wiesenthal and Tuviah Friedman who were essentially amateur detectives, to Argentinean Jews in Buenos Aires who helped the Mossad agents, to the “monkey business” crews of El Al—pilots, navigators, stewards, mechanics, station chief—who brought Eichmann back to Israel. The Mossad was, of course, essential, but without these other folks, the capture would never have come off. Many of these individuals were also concentration camp survivors, which makes their contribution all that much more powerful.

Today, how intensive is the search for surviving Nazis?

A significant effect of the Eichmann case was the drive to bring the killers to justice, not only in the early 60s, but now half a century later. Prior to Eichmann, governments, including the US, Germany, and even Israel, were doing very little. That is also the case with Simon Wiesenthal, who by 1960, had also largely given up his efforts. Today the Wiesenthal Center, led by its intrepid Nazi hunter Ephraim Zuroff, has initiated a campaign to catch the last surviving Nazi war criminals. Leading his list is “Dr. Death” Aribert Heim, who like Mengele conducted experiments on Jews in the camps. Zuroff is on Heim’s tail in South America and hopefully he will soon be captured. Beyond the Nazis, sadly, there are ever new war criminals from conflicts in Darfur, the Balkans, and elsewhere. I believe that the drive to bring these individuals to account is—at least in part—a legacy of Eichmann, whose trial showed that perpetrators of genocide must pay for their crimes, and their acts must be made known to the world so that they can be prevented in the future.