SS Lieutenant-Colonel who was Chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo during World War II and implemented the Adolf Eichmann was born in Solingen, Germany, on March 19, 1906.
The déclassé son of a solid middle-class Protestant family which had moved to Linz, Austria, where Eichmann spent his youth, he failed to complete his engineering studies. After working briefly as an ordinary laborer in his father’s small mining enterprise and then in the sales department of an Upper Austrian electrical construction company, Eichmann became a travelling salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company between 1927 and 1933.
On April 1, 1932, he joined the Austrian Nazi Party at the suggestion of his compatriot Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Having lost his job he sought employment across the border in Bavaria in July 1933, joining the exiled Austrian legion and undergoing fourteen months’ military training.
In September 1934, he found an opening in Heinrich Himmler’s Security Service (SD), which provided him with an outlet for his bureaucratic talents. By the beginning of 1935, he was the official responsible for
Jewish questions at the Berlin head office of the SD, specializing in the Zionist movement. He acquired a smattering of Hebrew and Yiddish, and briefly visited Palestine in 1937 to explore the possibilities of Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany to Palestine.
From August 1938, he was in charge of the “Office for Jewish Emigration” in Vienna set up by the SS as the sole Nazi agency authorized to issue exit permits for Jews from Austria, then Czechoslovakia and later the old German Reich. Eichmann’s acquired expertise in “forced emigration” – in less than eighteen months approximately 150,000 Jews left Austria – and extortion was to prove an ideal training-ground for his later efficiency in “forced evacuation,” i.e., the registering, assembly and deportation of Jews to extermination centers in the East. By March 1939 he was already handling forced deportations to Poland and, in October of the same year, he was appointed special adviser on the “evacuation” of Jews and Poles.
In December 1939 Eichmann was transferred to Amt IV (Gestapo) of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) where he took over Referat IV B4 dealing with Jewish affairs and evacuation. For the next six years Eichmann’s office was the headquarters for the implementation of the
Final Solution; though it was not until the summer of 1941 that his
resettlement department began the task of creating death camps, developing gassing techniques and organizing the system of convoys that were to take European Jewry to their deaths.
Eichmann first visited Auschwitz in 1941 and, in November of the same year, he was promoted to SS Lieutenant-Colonel. He had already begun to organize the mass deportation of Jews from Germany and Bohemia, in accordance with Hitler’s order to make the Reich free of Jews as rapidly as possible.
The Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, consolidated Eichmann’s position as the “Jewish specialist” of the RSHA and Reinhard Heydrich now formally entrusted him with implementing the “Final Solution.” In this task Eichmann proved to be a model of bureaucratic industriousness and icy determination even though he had never been a fanatical anti-Semite and always claimed that “personally” he had nothing against Jews. His zeal expressed itself in his constant complaints about obstacles in the fulfilment of death camp quotas, his impatience with the existence of loopholes such as the free zone in Vichy France or the uncooperativeness of the Italians and other German allies in expediting the deportation of their Jews.
When even Himmler became more “moderate” towards the end of the war, Eichmann ignored his
no gassing order, as long as he was covered by immediate superiors like Heinrich Muller and his old friend, Kaltenbrunner. Only in Budapest, after March 1944, did the desk-murderer become a public personality, working in the open and playing a leading role in the massacre of Hungarian Jewry.
In August 1944, the
Grand Inquisitor of European Jewry could report to Himmler that approximately four million Jews had died in the death camps and that another two million had been killed by mobile extermination units. Though arrested at the end of the war, Eichmann’s name was not yet widely known and he managed to escape from an American internment camp in 1946 and flee to Argentina.
He was eventually captured by Israeli intelligence agents on May 11, 1960, living under an assumed name in a suburb of Buenos Aires. Nine days later he was secretly abducted to Israel, to be publicly tried in Jerusalem. The trial, which aroused enormous international interest and some controversy, began on April 11, 1961. On December 11, 1961, Eichmann was indicted on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people and membership in an outlawed organization. On December 15, he was sentenced to death.
About two months before his death, Eichmann’s wife Vera asked to visit her husband. “I discussed it with the prime minister, and he thinks we’ll have trouble withstanding the international criticism if we don’t permit her to do this,” Justice Minister Dov Yosef told the cabinet. “I have no feelings for his wife, but there’s no reason for us to make things difficult for ourselves over something that causes us no harm,” Foreign Minister Golda Meir told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Although the JTA reported her arrival in Israel, using her maiden name, Prof. Hanna Yablonka said Eichmann’s defense attorney Robert Servatius wrote in his diary that Vera Eichmann wasn’t allowed to visit.
On May 29, 1962, the same day the Supreme Court rejected his appeal of the conviction, Eichmann asked Israeli President, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi for a pardon. Two days later, Ben-Zvi rejected Eichmann’s plea in a letter to Justice Minister Dov Yosef.
Eichmann was visited by a Lutheran minister before he was taken from his cell. Rafi Eitan, one of the men who captured Eichmann walked behind him along with Tuvia Dori, the deputy prison commissioner. Eichmann’s last words were believed to be “I hope that all of you will follow me,” according to Eitan. A few minutes before midnight on May 31, 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging in Ramleh, Israel. His body was cremated and the ashes were spread at sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters so that he would not have a grave to attract neo-Nazis and other Nazi sympathizers.
The execution of Adolf Eichmann remains the only time that Israel has enacted a death sentence.
Sources: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum;
Robert S. Wistrich, Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, Routledge, 1997;
Noa Shpigel, “State Archive Releases Record of Vera Eichmann’s Visit With Her Husband,” Haaretz, (June 1, 2015);
Jerusalem Report, (October 5, 2015);
Isabel Kershner, “Pardon Plea by Adolf Eichmann, Nazi War Criminal, Is Made Public,” New York Times, (January 27, 2016).
Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.