Monday, April 7, 2014

"The Nazi Hunters"

            For years, I have read book after book about the Holocaust.  I remember reading The Upstairs Room and The Diary of Anne Frank as a child.  As I got older, I turned to books like Night and Survival in Auschwitz.  Still later, when I became a religious studies major, I took classes about the Holocaust and started reading more and more Holocaust literature.  I had two entire bookshelves filled with books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.  I fashioned myself as something of an expert in Holocaust history.  In my Holocaust class, we had a visitor come and talk to our class.  She said that all these Holocaust stories, like the ones I had grown up reading, tended to stop at the end of the war.  People either survived the Holocaust or they did not.  We either rejoiced in their survival, or we wept for the loss of life.  I don’t remember ever reading a story as a child about what happened to people after the Holocaust.  The aftermath was always one or two sentences about where they moved to and how many children they ended up having.  I had never realized that there was so much story still left to know.

            What happened after the Holocaust is sometimes just as much of a tragedy as what happened during it.  Many people returned home to find that they were the only Jews left in their entire town, or that people had been living in their homes for years.  In Czechoslovakia, many Jews went there and the country eventually turned to Communism.  Heda Kovaly’s Under a Cruel Star talks about how after surviving the Holocaust, she and her husband turned to communism, only to have it turn on them and her husband was executed in the 1952 Slansky Trial.  Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who wrote Survival in Auschwitz, survived the Holocaust only to kill himself more than 40 years later.  Anti-Semitism did not disappear with the fall of the Third Reich, and the effects of this atrocity have reached across the decades.

In Neal Bascomb’s The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi (Published 2013), we are given another post-Holocaust story.  This story, however, is a much different one from that of Heda Kovaly’s or Primo Levi’s.  This is not a story about humanity continuing to fall short for those who survived the Holocaust.  Instead, this is a story about survivors and enacting justice.  By 1960, the Nuremberg Trials are over, most of the top Nazi officials are dead or in jail, and Palestine had been created as a home for Europe’s surviving Jewish population.  The Holocaust is fading away in people’s memory.  Neal Bascomb notes the lack of interest in pursuing Nazi war criminals when he says, “The Mossad’s (the Israel FBI) lack of activity in pursuing war criminals reflected a lack of interest within Israeli society in general.  Holocaust survivors, roughly a quarter of the population, rarely spoke of their experiences, both because it was too painful and because they did not want to focus on the past.  They had a country to build”(p.39).  The prevailing idea around the country during that time is that the past is the past, and it is time to rebuild.

            This changes with the help of Sylvia and Lothar Hermann, a father and daughter living in Argentina.  Sylvia brings home her new boyfriend, a boy named Nick Eichmann, to meet her father.  During the dinner, “Nick boasted how his father had been a high-ranking officer in the Wehrmact, the German armed forces.  The talked turned to the fate of the Jews. ‘It would have been better if the Germans had finished the job’ Nick declared”(p.29-39).  Nick does not know that Lothar is half-Jewish.  A few months later, after Sylvia and Nick have broken up, Sylvia reads a newspaper that has a list of Nazi war criminals that are still at large, and she sees “One of the individuals list as still being at large was the SS officer responsible for overseeing the mass murder of the Jews, Adolf Eichmann”(p.30).  Sylvia and her father realize that this must be the father of her new boyfriend, and they write a letter to the man who wrote the article.

            The letter that Sylvia and her father send to the German prosecutor Fritz Bauer would set in motion the hunt for finding Adolf Eichmann.  During the war, Eichmann “had been in charge of Jewish affairs for the Nazis for eight years and was… chief of Department IVB4, responsible for executing Hitler’s policy to wipe out the Jews.  He ran his office like it was a business, setting clear, ambitious targets, recruiting efficient staff members and delegating to them, and traveling frequently to monitor their progress”(p.3).  Neal Bascomb even show the reader a photograph of a letter signed by Eichmann that authorized the deportation of 6,000 Jews to Auschwitz.  This is definitely a man that needed to be brought to justice.  For the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, capturing Adolf Eichmann is not just about bringing the man to justice, but about bringing to the forefront once more the horrors of the Holocaust, which many people already put in the distant past.

Adolf Eichmann during the war.
            Isser Harel, the Chief of the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (the Mossad), assembles a team to go to Argentina, stake out where Eichmann is living, and bring him back to Israel to stand trial.  He does not want Eichmann dead, but healthy and living, so that the world can watch as he tries to explain the horrors of what he did.  Using spying, disguises, covert meetings and code words, the seven men charged with handling this operation were able to capture one of the world’s most notorious Nazi war criminals.  His trial was actually video-taped, and you can watch a clip of Eichmann’s sentencing here.

My favorite part of this story was the people involved with the operation.  I can’t place my finger where I heard it, but I remember hearing/reading several times in my religious studies classes that during the Holocaust, the Jews were led away like lambs to slaughter.  It presents a helpless version of the Jewish people during the war, and in many ways there was not much that they could do during that time, if anything at all.  What makes this book so fascinating is that it is a story all about how survivors brought justice to the man who committed such atrocities.  It shows us that the Jewish people were not lambs going to slaughter, but were fighters before, during, and after the war.

One example of this strength to survive and willingness to fight back comes in the form of Shalom Dani, the man chosen to forge passports and other documents for the mission.  Shalom Dani “had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp by making a pass out of toilet paper”(p.82).  Seriously, toilet paper?!?!  Another man within the operation, Peter Malkin, immigrated to Palestine from Poland in 1933 with his family.  His sister Fruma, stayed behind with her husband and three children.  All of them died.  Malkin was the one to physically take down Eichmann when the time came.  Another person in the operation escaped from being shot and shoved in a ditch by simply running as far and as fast as he could.  Each person in the operation is either a survivor or had lost people that they loved in the Holocaust.  This is their chance to find justice for themselves and those people that they loved.

            This book reminds me of Steve Sheinkin’s work in that it is fast-paced, easy to read, and sometimes it seems just too good of a story to all be true.  I appreciate all the pictures of Eichmann, the operatives, and things like the letter that Eichmann signed.  All of these help create a better picture in my mind.  Most of the scenes had me reading ahead in anticipation.  The scene of the capture of Eichmann is told in such fascinating detail, saying, “Malkin burst forward, one hand reaching out to keep Eichmann’s right arm down in case he had a gun.  His momentum, mixed with his target’s retreat, sent them both pitching to the ground.  The agent seized Eichmann as they rolled into the shallow, muddy ditch that ran alongside the road”(p.130).  This kind of precise detail about the capture of Eichmann goes on for another page, until Eichmann is in the waiting car and we find out that “Only twenty-five seconds had passed since Malkin first reached for Eichmann”(p.131).  Bascomb gives us two pages of text for twenty-five seconds of detail.  This story is like this throughout the book.  My first thought was, “Boys will love this kind of action.”  My next thought was, “What a minute, everyone will love this action.”  The nature of the operation combined with the way that Bascomb delivers it comes together to make this story irresistible.

            Because it is so fascinating, and like I said, almost too good to be true, a reader, like always, needs to make sure that the author has done his research.  Not only does Bascomb give us a list of archives and libraries he visited, documentary interviews and materials he used, and 23 interviews that he conducted, he also lists almost 100 books and articles that he consulted.  Many of the books he used were written by people involved with the capture of Eichmann, including Zvi Aharoni and Peter Malkin.  He also interviewed many of the people involved with the capture.  Knowing that this is a Young Adult book, Bascomb places an asterick next to the books he feels are most appropriate for younger readers.  In addition to all of the resources that were consulted, Neal Bascomb has notes for every chapter. 

            The notes section is interesting because it tells you where he got the information for things that some people might question.  For example, in the quote above where I spoke about the way that Adolf Eichmann ran his office, he lists that he go the quote from Cesarani, pp.117-58.  The notes page continues like this, chapter after chapter, dispelling doubts we might have about the authenticity of the story.  Even Bascomb admits that, “my reconstruction of these events is no doubt imperfect.  First of all, this is a spy story, and some elements of what exactly happened remain secret—and/or clouded in half-truths.  Second, my interview subjects often contradicted one another on specific versions of events.  I’ve tried my best to reconcile conflicting accounts”(p.219).  I think his admittance that this work is undoubtedly flawed, but that he will let us know when there is doubt, adds to the credibility of his work.  One of the examples of conflicting accounts is whether or not the man named Malkin, one of the men who captured Eichmann, had the long conversation with Eichmann that Bascomb recounts in the book.  In the notes section, Bascomb tells us that there “have been some arguments about whether it was possible for Malkin to carry on these conversations”(p.234).  Bascomb lays out what he has, saying that some say it was impossible, but that Malkin’s own interview and several other sources say that it actually happened.  All of the back matter of this book leaves me convinced that this too-good-to-be-true story is very, very true and that this is the best comprehensive account we will ever have on the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann.

            After searching on the internet for more information, I found a very interesting interview conducted in 2010 that interviewed three of the people that were involved in the operation.  These men, now in their 80s, gave their account of what happened that night.  They actually mention Bascomb’s book, several times.  The issue of Malkin is brought up, and all three of them agreed that Malkin did not talk to him.  Interestingly, though, is that the men talk of Isser Harrel’s book.  Isser Harrel was the head of the Mossad at the time, and wrote an account of what happened.  Aharoni says that “’As a historical document… Neal Bascomb’s book seems to me a lot better and more accurate than Isser’s book. I have not yet read it completely, but what I have looked at seems not bad at all.’”  Of course, all of this refers to Bascomb’s earlier book, Hunting Eichmann.  I cannot tell for certain, but from what I’ve seen, The Nazi Hunters is the same story, but with a different title and possibly some minor changes.  I have not been able to find much more information.

            Overall, The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi is a fantastic read for high-school students.  A book like this helps to show the continuity of history, meaning how just because a war is over it doesn’t mean the effects aren’t lingering.  A book like this can help students ask those questions that I never asked as a child about what happened after the Holocaust.  Having high-interest non-fiction for our students is great, but I think that adult readers will love this just as much as high-school readers.
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