In my youth, it was a stereotype that South America—especially Argentina—was crawling with Nazis in the aftermath of World War II. That wasn’t entirely false, given the presence of monsters like Josef Mengele in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil—but it was also self-serving when the United States itself allowed many Nazis and their collaborators into North America after the war.
For South America, the best account of this history may be Uki Goñi’s The Real Odessa, which details the manner in which the government of Juan Domingo Perón—colluding with the Vatican in so-called “ratlines”—admitted escapees from European justice immediately after the war. If many such stories are prone to exaggeration and even fabrication—a cottage industry of “Hitler in Argentina” publishing still exists—there’s concrete truth in the tales of individuals such as Mengele, Erich Priebke, and especially Adolf Eichmann.
|This selection of titles at the 2016 Buenos Aires book fair suggests the worst of "Nazis in Argentina" publishing.|
Eichmann, of course, made international headlines when Israel tried, convicted and executed him for crimes against humanity in the early 1960s. His story has recently reached the big screen in director Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale, about the Nazi functionary’s capture and abduction by Israeli agents in the “Zona Norte” sector of Buenos Aires suburbs. It’s also available for streaming, for a charge (below is a trailer; I watched on iTunes).
As an Obersturmbahnführer (Lieutenant colonel) during the war, Eichmann organized Jewish deportations to various death camps but, after the war, he evaded capture and eventually reached Argentina with false documents. There, living under the pseudonym “Ricardo Klement” in the northwestern suburb of San Fernando, he kept a low profile.
Played by Ben Kingsley, Eichmann is a creature of habit and, after the Israelis stake out his home and observe his commuting routine—taking the same bus at the same time every day—they manage to spirit him away to an apparently nearby safe house (Weitz filmed in the western suburb of Hurlingham, but I’ve no idea where the actual house was).
First denying his identity, Eichmann presents himself as a simple bookkeeper and family man before eventually, under interrogation, admitting who he is. Even then, he refuses to sign an Israeli-drafted agreement to stand trial in Israel, spurring arguments among his captors about forcing him to do so. Eventually, though, Israeli agent Peter Malkin (portrayed by the Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac) persuades Eichmann to sign, with a promise that he will again be able to see his wife and family.
It’s worth stressing here that, for all the espionage and skullduggery, this is not an action thriller, but rather a psychological drama. After signing, Eichmann delivers a snarling justification of his role in the Holocaust, but there remains the task of spiriting him aboard an El Al jet to return to Israel—a task which, despite some apparent over-dramatization here, goes off without a hitch.
The following year Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem and, after he exhausted his appeals, the Israelis executed him by hanging in mid-1962. Before his execution, though, the Israelis honored Eichmann’s request to see his wife.