October 25, 2000
hunter remembers -- The man who arrested
Adolf Eichmann learned much about human
nature in long talks with his
ON a frigid winter
evening in 1960, Israeli secret agent
Peter Z. Malkin tackled Adolf
Eichmann outside the Nazi war
criminal's home in Buenos Aires,
Argentina, then helped colleagues hustle
Eichmann into a waiting car. Two weeks
later, Eichmann, Adolf Hitler's chief
architect of the Holocaust, sat in an
Israeli prison cell, awaiting his trial
for war crimes and his eventual hanging in
For most of the next three decades,
Malkin, a high-ranking operative in
Israel's famed intelligence service, the
was forced to hold his tongue about his
role in Eichmann's capture. Such broad
public acclaim would jeopardize his
intelligence work, so not even relatives
knew. Then, when Malkin retired and
finally broke his silence in the 1990
memoir 'Eichmann in My Hands,' he was
adamant with his editor on this point: He
would not use the word "monster" to
describe the man he captured. For this,
Malkin's reasoning was simple.
"The problem here is with human beings,
not with monsters, not with animals,"
Malkin, who had long, private
conversations with Eichmann in an
Argentina safe house after his capture,
said in a recent telephone interview. "The
human being does things that even the
monster does not do, because the human
being is more sophisticated. The problem
is not how the monster did it, but how a
human being did it."
Such is the grim reality that makes
Eichmann and the Holocaust stories
eternally relevant, says Malkin, who will
describe his experiences in a
Sunday-evening lecture for the Dallas
Holocaust Center. The event, at
Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas,
will also feature an exhibit of Malkin's
paintings. (An acclaimed artist, Malkin
sketched Eichmann on a South American
tourist guidebook while the two were alone
"You close the circle when you define
someone as a monster," Malkin continued.
"The important thing is not that you leave
with an answer, but with the questions.
How could this happen? What is he? I don't
give you the answer. I leave you with the
One reason for that, Malkin says, is
that after a half-century, the answers
still elude him, too.
When Malkin was a boy in Poland, his
town's Jewish cemetery was among his
favorite playgrounds. Two years ago, when
Malkin returned to his boyhood home, he
found that the cemetery, like so much of
the Jewish existence there before World
War II, had been obliterated.
"I found only
one half of a stone with two small
letters in Hebrew," Malkin said. "Can
you believe it? They took away all the
stones. I was crazy. I stood there next
to this tree with a small candle and a
stone from Jerusalem. I said to this
tree, 'You have to know what happened
here. They didn't give a chance -- not
to the living and not to the dead.' Oh,
my God, it was terrible."
That emotional visit was part of a long
odyssey of healing that began for Malkin
only after his confrontation with Eichmann
in 1960. Before that, he left the room
whenever the word "Holocaust" was
mentioned. Although Malkin escaped to the
Middle East with most of his family just
before the war, his beloved older sister,
Fruma, was unable to obtain visas
for herself, her husband and small
children. They perished at Auschwitz.
"When you go to Auschwitz, Eichmann, Adolf Eichmann, Amt IV, Wisliceny, banality, evil, it is like
you are not touching the ground," he says
of Eichmann's most famous death camp,
which Malkin has visited four times over
the years. "You feel like you are
floating. You don't know who you are. Many
times, I've told myself, 'To hell with
you, childhood.' I didn't enjoy one piece
of time from my childhood because I've
been so preoccupied with memories about my
sister, about my other relatives who died.
It was a lost time. A terrible time."
So for Malkin, the pursuit of Eichmann
was deeply personal. In the late 1950s,
Israeli intelligence officers received a
tip that the most notorious surviving Nazi
had resettled in an Argentine slum, where
he was living under an assumed name. By
then, Malkin had become one of his
nation's most accomplished agents. He and
a crew of Israeli operatives were
dispatched to South America in May
Among his memoir's most poignant
passages is one that describes Malkin,
during surveillance of Eichmann, observing
his quarry returning home each evening and
getting down on the floor to play with his
young son. Eichmann obviously adored the
boy, who was about the same age as
Malkin's nephew who died at Auschwitz. As
he watched, it was hard for Malkin to
believe this was the same man who pursued
ever more economical methods of human
extermination -- pursued those means with
methodical relish. That contradiction was
disorienting, Malkin says, even for a
person hardened by years of espionage.
"I really don't know how to explain how
I felt when I saw him playing with his
boy," Malkin said. "First I said, 'Maybe
I'm mistaken. It's impossible that this
man who sent 8 million to their deaths, a
million children, is now playing with his
But there was no mistake. Malkin was
the first to lay hands on Eichmann that
winter night as the fugitive stepped from
a bus near his home. The German expatriate
soon admitted his identity to his Israeli
captors, and even spoke of his Nazi past
with pride. Ten days later, it was Malkin
who applied Eichmann's disguise, part of
an Israeli ruse to secret him away from
Argentine authorities and back to
It was in the days between Eichmann's
capture and departure from Argentina that
Malkin defied orders and engaged the
prisoner in long, late-night
conversations. At one point, Malkin
brought the prisoner cigarettes, glasses
of wine and a phonograph to play music. He
repeatedly assured Eichmann that the
Israelis would not harm his family.
"I didn't want to strangle him, no,"
said Malkin, who retired from the Mossad
in 1976, and is now 70 years old. "I was
not a man who sought vengeance. No way.
What I sought is understanding. What
brought him to this?"
But the hours of discussion only added
to the mystery of evil, Malkin says.
Eichmann repeatedly denied he had been
involved in the Holocaust deaths, arguing
that he had been only responsible for
transporting the victims to the camps. He
argued he was just a good soldier
"It was like he lived under a wall of
glass," Malkin remembered. "I would talk,
and he would cover himself under that. He
had to do his duty. He was a soldier just
as I was a soldier. I said, 'But Mr.
Eichmann, I came to capture you and bring
you to trial. I didn't come to kill you.
You didn't give a chance to any child.' He
said, 'I never killed anybody. I was just
responsible for transportation.' "
In the most bewildering and infuriating
exchange, Malkin told Eichmann of Fruma's
son, the Auschwitz victim who much
resembled Eichmann's own boy.
"I thought the best way to express the
Holocaust was not by talking about 6
million Jews, but by comparing the love of
his son to another small boy."
Malkin's memoir described the exchange
"'Aba. Ima' Do those [words]
ring a bell?" Malkin asked Eichmann.
"I don't really remember," Eichmann
replied. "What do they mean?"
"'Daddy. Mommy,"' Malkin answered.
"It's what Jewish children scream when
they're torn from their parents' arms. My
sister's boy, my favorite playmate, he was
just your son's age. Also blond and
blue-eyed, just like your son. And you
"Yes," Eichmann replied finally. "But
he was Jewish, wasn't he?"
In the end, Malkin wrote, "it was not
Eichmann who was changed by those
conversations, but me. Afterward, I would
never again be so unshakeable an optimist
about humankind. I would face the fact
that perfectly normal-seeming individuals,
products of conventional homes, can be so
emotionally dead as to find themselves
beyond the reach of human feeling. It was
a powerful revelation, and a desperately
- Tim Madigan, (817) 390-7544