Before he wrote a single word of “Hunting Eichmann,” Neal Bascomb knew he had a thunderball of a story on his hands: justice-seeking Jews tracking, capturing and trying Hitler’s chief exterminator, Adolf Eichmann.
“I knew going in that it had all the hallmarks of a very fast-paced story,” said Bascomb from his Philadelphia home. “It’s like a James Bond thriller in a way, one that’s very serious.”
The thrills come from Bascomb’s cast of characters. A Nazi mass murderer who eludes capture in the chaotic days after the war, then escapes to Argentina; a Mata Hari–like Jewish woman who dated Eichmann’s son just to unmask the father; heroic Mossad agents stalking their prey and ultimately snatching him off the streets.
But Bascomb is spot-on when it comes to the serious nature of the story. Eichmann masterminded the Final Solution, carrying out Germany’s liquidation of European Jewry. Bringing him to justice mattered not only to victims’ families; it mattered to humanity, and unleashed a re-examination of the Holocaust after years of avoidance.
Bascomb will be in Berkeley to talk about his book on Monday, April 26 at Congregation Netivot Shalom, and the next day at Books Inc.
The author, born in Denver in 1971, credits a Holocaust survivor he met in Luxembourg with sparking his interest in Eichmann. “She said it was only after the trial that she ever opened up about the Holocaust,” Bascomb remembered. “That stuck with me for a very long time.”
Though the Eichmann story is well known –– especially his 1961 trial in Israel, which exposed Nazi atrocities as never before –– Bascomb’s research uncovered new information.
“I love the detective work,” Bascomb said. “There have been two or three memoirs by Mossad agents. The only other books were written a few years after [Eichmann] was caught. You have roughly 50 years where no one examined what happened. I went back and interviewed everyone involved, searched the archives.”
Not only did he pore over Eichmann’s memoirs (he wrote several, spilling even more secrets to his Israeli interrogators), Bascomb also spoke with the El Al crew members who flew Eichmann back to Israel after a daring kidnapping.
Those crewmen had never spoken to a journalist before.
He also interviewed the Mossad agents who tracked Eichmann for 15 years, all the way to his nondescript Buenos Aires home in 1960. “This operation really put [the Mossad] on the map,” Bascomb said. “I remember reading in CIA documents the stunned surprise” that Mossad pulled it off.
Spy thriller it may be, but the man named Adolf Eichmann weighed heavily on Bascomb while he wrote the book. As he learned more about his subject’s role in the mass murder of Jews, Bascomb had trouble sleeping.
Eichmann’s story is the stuff of nightmares.
A married father of three, Eichmann impressed his superiors in the SS with his ruthless efficiency. He carried out mass deportations and liquidation campaigns in places such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Most of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were victims of Eichmann’s planning.
After the war, he stayed a step ahead of U.S. and British intelligence, as well as vengeance-seeking Jews. He was even held prisoner in U.S. POW camps, but pulled off a false identity before escaping.
That didn’t stop persistent Israeli agents from finally nabbing him almost 15 years later. Fortunately, Eichmann’s daily routine grew predictable, allowing the Mossad to spirit him –– sedated and dressed as an El Al employee –– out of Argentina and to the Jewish state.
At the time, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said the Eichmann trial would remind the world what happened to the Jews and, according to Bascomb, “remind Jewish youth why the state of Israel needs to exist.”
Yet for all of Eichmann’s crimes, Bascomb found it necessary to keep his subject “flesh and blood.”
“I’ve taken some flack for this, but I just don’t label him as a bloodthirsty monster,” Bascomb said. “I still don’t understand him, and I’ve read as much about Eichmann as anyone in the world. At some level he felt guilty, but he totally pushed that guilt down someplace. He would not be able to survive if he admitted what he had done.”
Understandably, Bascomb has turned to much lighter subject matter for his next book –– the popularity of robot technology among high-schoolers. The process of delving so deeply into evil apparently took its toll.
But Bascomb, who is not Jewish, gained valuable lessons from his exploration of the Holocaust.
“If there’s one thing I learned, it’s the steady, scary progression,” he said, referring to Germany’s descent into homicidal madness. “From ‘Let’s find a way to get Jews to emigrate’ to putting them in camps and ultimately extermination. Eichmann went along. I don’t think he went into it to be part of killing 6 million Jews, but this constant justification ultimately got him to that point.”
Neal Bascomb will talk at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 26, at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley. Information: (510) 549-9447.
Also 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, at Books Inc., 1760 4th St., Berkeley. Information: (510) 525-7777.
“Hunting Eichmann” by Neal Bascomb (388 pages, Mariner Books, $15.95)