Eichmann in Argentina: An Enduring Curiosity

Eichmann

A few days ago I watched Eichmann, apparently based on the interrogation transcripts of Adolf Eichmann prior to his Jerusalem trial in 1961. It was a regrettable affair, scarcely believable in the English and illuminating me no further as to the motives of the man himself, preferring instead to highlight a string of trivial encounters with beautiful women, their lustful exchanges littered with boasts of numbers of Jews killed. Stephen Fry’s appearance as whom I assumed could only be the Mossad boss Isser Harel, albeit listed as the obscure Minister Tormer, is best not seen twice. Regardless of its merits, the film did though revive memories of a long-time fascination of mine with Eichmann himself; and a rather more intense and poignant one than I could ever have previously imagined.

In 2008 I read the Real Odessa by Uki Goñi, perhaps one of the finest works of original historical research I have ever come across. His unmasking of the post-war ratline, facilitated by the likes of the Vatican, Peron’s Argentina and recluse sympathisers,  providing a gateway for hundreds of war criminals to a haven in South America, and in particular Argentina, shook me. At the time I was residing in Argentina, and in fact disturbingly close to many of their hideouts listed in the book. My school was a matter of blocks away from there where Josef Mengele had once lived. Meandering through the streets of the leafy Olivos neighbourhood to my Russian classes stood the house on Chacabuco 4261 where Eichmann’s family had briefly resided in the mid-50s. Garibaldi Street, the site of his kidnapping by Mossad agents, lay in the neighbourhood where my dad worked. And regardless of how long it had been since, how irrelevant it would appear to be now, it all continued to be relevant. Erich Priebke, extradited a decade later to Italy, was still pictured in the national newspapers riding his lawyer’s scooter to a short-lived stint at a magistrate’s office in Rome. Eichmann’s landing documents were chanced upon by a researcher in the dusted national archives. Richard Williamson’s outburst, followed by his departure from the country, provided an unwelcome reminder of a shameful chapter in the country’s recent history.

It is an open secret that Bariloche, in the Patagonian south, provided refuge for many a Nazi criminal. A frequent visitor there, the town’s strong German flavour inevitably attracted a suspicion or two on my part. After all Priebke had been the director of the German School for a number of years. My mother recently told me of a Hungarian Jew she sat next to on a flight, living in Bariloche, who confirmed to her that Nazis still walked the streets, sighing “you just live with it.” But even if it seems absurd to contemplate the notion of a doddering Fuhrer and his Nazi colony somewhere in the surroundings of the town, or elsewhere in Patagonia, cashed in by many a quack historian, so many questions remained unanswered.  My grandfather, some of whose family perished in the Shoah, arrived once in Argentina recounting tabloid stories back in Russia of remaining Nazis in Patagonia. But it was difficult to be entirely dismissive of them, in spite of the elapsed time. Just how could we be sure? Who could have once lived around the corner? It was hard reconciling that these men had once freely and openly gone about their lives in the country, and broadly speaking, the areas I had grown to know and cherish, regardless of the time since.

I left Argentina in 2009 but was to revisit Eichmann and that phase in my life not long after.  I came to Berlin in the summer of 2011, my first proper visit to Germany. It was of little surprise that I would strive to see as much of the capital’s recent past as I could in the three months I was there.  Within weeks I visited Wannsee with a few Jewish friends, the site of the infamous conclave Eichmann had hosted. That summer at the Topography of Terror an exhibition was running to mark the half-century since the trial of Eichmann in Israel, enabling me for the first time to fully realise the implications of his extradition from Argentina. Days later I visited Budapest, perhaps the scene of Eichmann’s most egregious machinations, from where he coordinated the deportation of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in a matter of weeks.

The figure of Eichmann will continue to be a perplexing and intriguing one on many levels, at least in my eyes. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem encapsulated for me the utter mediocrity and banality of the man, an embodiment of the ordinary functionary so central to the twinned association of modernity and genocide espoused by Zygmunt Bauman. His capture reads like an inexhaustible script, bearing all the hallmarks of an espionage classic. It is genuinely the only known Mossad operation, notwithstanding all the genuine legal reservations it could induce, which I feel was truly vindicated, and for which I am truly grateful. The extent to which his trial can be argued as shaping the early identity of the nascent Israeli state, and the place it occupies in the annals of international justice, likewise makes riveting reading.

But it is the Argentine connection which above all others cements my interest in Eichmann, and perhaps explains the very poignancy of it. It shattered for me many of the premises of Peronism around which the nation’s political culture invariably continues to revolve. A reminder that in a country boasting one of the world’s most significant Jewish communities, until recently a darker reality prevailed. And a small insight into the life of a fugitive from international crimes of the highest order, quietly going about his own life far from the tribunals of justice. A realisation much closer in space, and even time, than I could have ever guessed.

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