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Dallas Star Telegram

October 25, 2000


A Nazi hunter remembers -- The man who arrested Adolf Eichmann learned much about human nature in long talks with his captive

By Tim Madigan
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

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 1962.

For most of the next three decades, Malkin, a high-ranking operative in Israel's famed intelligence service, the Mossad, 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 in Argentina.)

"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 questions."

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 1960.

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 son.' "

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 Israel.

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 following orders.

"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 this way:

"'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 killed him."

"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 sad one."square

Tim Madigan, (817) 390-7544
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