by Rachel Ginsberg
For years, the details of arch-Nazi Eichmann’s hanging by the State of Israel was shrouded in secrecy — from his being given his last glass of wine, to the noose being placed around his neck, to his lifeless body being incinerated in a specially-designed oven and his ashes spread over the sea outside Israel’s territorial waters.
Most of those involved in Israel ‘s first and only execution in 1962 are no longer living. But Nagar was “discovered” 12 years ago, when an Israeli radio station wanted to produce a 30th anniversary program of Eichmann’s capture and hanging. After sifting through prison records and following tips from former prison employees, Nagar, “the short Yemenite guard” as he was remembered, was located and asked to reveal the memories he had stored away for so many years. At the time, Shalom Nagar, having retired from the Prisons Services, was living in Kiryat Arba and learning in kollel from dawn to midnight.
“For years, I was sworn to secrecy. My commanders feared reprisals from neo-Nazis and others who thought Eichmann was a hero. But Isser Harel, the Mossad chief in charge of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina , had already written a book about it, so what did I have to fear? Besides, I was involved in the great mitzvah of wiping out Amalek.” (Amalek is the implacable enemy of the Jews: the one who tried to kill our forefather Jacob, the nation that attacked the Israelites on their departure from Egypt , the nation from which Haman descended, and according to various sources, the spiritual ancestor of the German Nazi machine.)
Eichmann, the engineer and supervisor of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” shared the primary responsibility for the systematic murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. After the war he went into hiding to avoid the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, and then made his way to Argentina , where he lived in relative security with his wife and four children, as an anonymous manager of a Laundromat. For years the Mossad was on his tail, and in 1961 he was captured and hauled off to Israel to stand trial for genocide.
The trial, which publicly rehashed the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews, elicited a torrential emotional response in Israel and around the world. Repressed memories burst forth into the standing-room-only courtroom. People screamed, cried, and tried to attack and kill Eichmann, who was ensconced during the proceedings in a bulletproof glass box.
On December 13, 1961, he was sentenced to death by hanging. Following the rejection of an appeal to the Supreme Court for clemency, he was executed close to midnight on May 31, 1962. The following morning, a one-line announcement of his hanging was broadcast on Kol Yisrael. Although the trial was in the spotlight for nearly a year, the details of his incarceration and of the execution itself would only be revealed decades later by his executioner, Shalom Nagar.
Shalom Nagar recalls the events that led up to that fateful night. “I was working as a guard for the Prisons Services then, after finishing the army and working for the Border Police. At first, Eichmann was brought to a prison in Yagur outside of Haifa . He was transferred to Ramle Prison, where I worked, for the last six months of his life.
“We were a unit of 22 guards, known as the ‘Eichmann guards,’ carefully selected to make sure that we had no revenge motives. After all, it was only 16 years after the Holocaust, and many prison employees had either gone through the camps or had lost family. They were disqualified. Eichmann’s ‘apartment,’ as we called it, was in a special wing on the second floor, but no Ashkenazi guards were allowed up. There were five rooms, one overlooking the other.
“For six months I guarded him, facing his cell in the innermost room, standing in close proximity where he rested, wrote his memoirs, ate, and used the facilities. He was extremely clean, and washed his hands compulsively. One reason for our careful supervision was that he might have wanted to take his own life, and we were to prevent that at all costs. Outside of my room was another room overlooking it, with a guard who watched over both me and Eichmann. In the next room was the duty officer, who guarded all of us. And the last room is where we rested during shift changes.
“Food was brought in, in locked containers to prevent any attempt at poisoning. Still, before I gave him his meal, I had to taste it myself. If I didn’t drop dead after two minutes, the duty officer allowed the plate into his cell.
“There were guards who had numbers on their arms, but they weren’t allowed onto the second floor. However, before we were clear about this rule, one guard from downstairs, Blumenfeld, who had survived the camps, asked if he could switch with me one night. I assumed he just wanted to get a look at the man who destroyed his family. Anyway, we were all in the same unit, so I figured — why not? Blumenfeld approached the door of the cell and rolled up his sleeve. ‘Once I was in your hands, and now the tables have turned. Look who has the last laugh.’ It was the middle of the night, and Eichmann jumped up from his bed and started ranting in German. I, of course, couldn’t follow the conversation, but from then on we had clear instructions: No switching or we’d get court-martialed.”
THE HUNT AND THE CAPTURE
Adolph Eichmann was born in 1906 in Solingen , Germany . His family moved to Austria and he joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1932. In 1939 he headed the “Jewish desk” of the Gestapo and spent the next six years implementing Hitler’s “Final Solution,” perfecting the murderous efficiency of the death camps and gas chambers. After the war, he managed to hide out in Europe until 1950, when he escaped to Argentina . He sent for his wife and children two years later.
His whereabouts were hidden for years. But in 1957, the Mossad got a tip that Eichmann was alive and living in Buenos Aires under an alias. The hunt was on; it lasted four years. Mossad leader Isser Harel was determined to capture him, but not kill him. He wanted him brought to justice in front of the Jewish people. The investigation moved slowly and carefully.
“The investigators couldn’t risk the danger that their prey would learn he was being followed. Even more difficult was the necessity of identifying their man beyond the shadow of a doubt. The only thing worse than losing the real Eichmann would be capturing the wrong one,” wrote Harel in his book, The House on Garibaldi Street .
But Eichmann had destroyed all evidence of his former identity. He’d even cut away the tattoo that all SS men had under their left armpit. There were no fingerprints, just some blurry photos from before the war. In 1959, the Israelis discovered that Eichmann had changed his name to Ricardo Klement. But one son still used the original family name, and his trail led the agents to Garibaldi Street in Buenos Aires . For weeks, they surveyed the house and the bespectacled man who lived there. They felt certain it was Eichmann, but they needed proof. The proof came on March 21,1960, as Ricardo Klement walked toward his home with a bouquet, giving it to a woman at the door. The children were dressed festively. March 21 was Eichmann’s silver wedding anniversary.
The Mossad flew into action. The kidnapping had to be perfectly planned; there must be not hint that over 30 Mossad operatives were flying into Argentina . As Harel well knew, Israel would be violating Argentina ‘s sovereignty by kidnapping Eichmann and taking him out of the country. The night of the kidnapping, two Mossad operatives parked on Eichmann’s street and began tinkering with their car. Another car, with other agents, was parked behind them. As Eichmann approached them coming off the bus from work, the agents pounced on him, gagged him, and bundled him off in one of the cars. Harel guessed that his family would not report him missing, since this might reveal something about his previous Nazi past. His family did call hospitals, but avoided the police. They did call their Nazi friends — dozens had taken refuge in Argentina — but no one helped. Instead, they scattered, fearing that Israel ‘s far-flung net would catch them too.
The Mossad had him, but now they had to get him out of the country without arousing suspicion. They dressed him in an El Al uniform, and in a drugged stupor, led him onto the plane. His identity was supposedly that of an El Al employee who had suffered a head injury and was now sufficiently recuperated to be able to fly back home. One of their own agents was hospitalized in order to procure the proper forms. True to his compulsively efficient, detail-oriented nature, Eichmann cooperated fully with his captors, even reminding them that they had forgotten to put on his airline jacket. “That will arouse suspicion,” Eichmann lectured them, “for I will be conspicuously different from the other crew members who are fully dressed.”
Eichmann’s appeal to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that he was merely carrying out orders of the Reich and had no personal interest in killing Jews, was rejected, as was his appeal for clemency. As the execution day drew near, the Prisons Service approached several employees who had no personal account with the Nazi. Someone had to carry out the sentence. Nagar, a former paratrooper and decorated soldier who was an orphan in Yemen during World War II, was approached by Avraham Merchavi, the Head Warden.
“I said maybe he should find someone else to do the job. Then Merchavi took me and several other guards and showed us the footage of how the Nazis took innocent children and tore them to pieces. I was so shaken that I agreed to whatever had to be done.”
At the same time, a man named Pinchas Zeklikovsky was summoned by the police for a special mission. Zeklikovsky, whose family was wiped out by the Nazis, worked for an oven factory in Petach Tikvah and was an expert oven builder. He was asked to build an oven the size of a man’s body, which would reach 1,800°C. He worked on the oven in the factory, telling inquirers that it was a special order for a factory in Eilat that burned fish bones. On the afternoon of May 31, 1962, after the other workers left, an army truck rolled into the oven factory and loaded on the oven. Under heavy guard, the oven made its way to Ramle Prison.
The world knew that Eichmann’s days were limited, but his hanging was made public only after the fact. All the preparations were done secretly, for fear of sabotage by Eichmann supporters. Streets around the prison were cordoned off for several blocks that afternoon.
Meanwhile, that same day, Shalom Nagar was on a 48-hour furlough. He was walking with his wife, Orah, and infant son in his Holon neighborhood when a police van screeched to a halt in front of him and pulled him inside. It was Merchavi. Nagar knew immediately what this special invitation was about.
“I realized I had won the ‘lottery.’ But I told him, ‘You now have a problem, because although you want the hanging kept top secret, my wife thinks I’ve been kidnapped. She’ll call the police.’ He agreed, and the car made a quick reverse, so I could explain to my wife that this was my commanding officer and that I’d be working late. We arrived at Ramle Prison, and I was given a stretcher, some sheets and bandages, and was told to go and wait downstairs. Meanwhile upstairs, Eichmann was with the priest, and was given a glass of wine. By the time I was summoned, the noose was already around his neck and he was standing on a specially-made trapdoor which would open under him when I would pull the lever.”
According to an official account, there were supposedly two people who would pull the lever simultaneously, so neither would know for sure by whose hand Eichmann died. But Nagar says he knows nothing about that. “I didn’t see anyone else there. It was just me and Eichmann. I was standing a few feet from him, and looked him straight in the eye. He refused to have his face covered, and he was still wearing those trademark checkered slippers. Then I pulled the lever and he fell, dangling by the rope.”
After an hour, Nagar and Merchavi went downstairs to release the body. A scaffold had been built in order to reach him — to take him off the gallows.
“Merchavi told me to climb the scaffold and lift him, and then he would loosen the rope. For years I had nightmares of those moments. His face was white as chalk, his eyes were bulging and his tongue was dangling out. The rope rubbed the skin off his neck, and his tongue and chest were covered with blood. I didn’t know that when a person is strangled all the air remains in his stomach. So when I lifted him, all the air that was inside came out and the most horrifying sound was released from his mouth — ‘baaaaa’ — I felt the Angel of Death had come to take me too. Finally a few other guards arrived and we managed to get him onto the stretcher we had prepared earlier.
“We took him to the other side of the courtyard, where the oven was waiting. One of the guards, his name was Luchs and he had been in Auschwitz , was given the job of heating the oven. The oven was so hot it was impossible to get too close. So they’d built tracks so that the stretcher could slide into it. It was my job to push the stretcher into the oven, but I was shaking so hard that the body kept rolling from side to side. Finally, I was able to push him in and we closed the doors.”
Nagar was slated to escort the ashes to the port, but he was in such a state of trauma that Merchavi had him sent home with an escort. In the very early hours of the morning, the ashes were removed from the oven and transported by police van to Jaffa Port , where a Coast Guard boat carried them beyond Israel ‘s territorial waters, so that they would not defile the Holy Land .
“Over four decades have now passed since the Eichmann execution,” Nagar says, “and in spite of all the trauma, today I understand the great merit I was given. God commands us to wipe out Amalek, and ‘not to forget.’ I have fulfilled both.”
Rachel Ginsberg writes for Jewish publications in Israel and the United States