Arts, Culture & Media

New Play Dramatizes Eichmann Capture

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Eichmann Trial (Photo: US National Archives)

Marco Werman: Fifty years ago today a different sort of court in Israel sentenced Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to death. He'd been convicted days earlier of helping to orchestrate the extermination of millions of Jews in the holocaust.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Israeli Judge: [speaking Hebrew]

Werman: The Israeli judge presiding over Eichmann's trial said even if the defendant did act out of blind obedience, a man who took part in crimes of such magnitude for so many years should endure the greatest punishment known to law. Eichmann was hanged the following May, the only civil execution in Israel's history. Eichmann had fled Germany after the war and taken refuge in Buenos Aires under an assumed name, but Israeli Mossad agents caught up with him in 1960. They captured Eichmann and hid with him at a safe house for 10 days until Eichmann could quietly be snuck onto a plane to Israel. That story is told in the 1990 book, Eichmann in My Hands. It was written by Peter Malkin, one of the Mossad agents; and the book is the basis of a new play, Captors, by Evan M. Wiener. The play just ended a one month run at a Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Wiener says he was intrigued by those tense days at the safe house.

Evan M. Wiener: There were so many details in the story that I first of all found that I didn't know, period. And the idea of having a person, a notorious mythic almost, a murderer fugitive in your hands, literally, literally in front of you as close as you and I are now, even closer, I thought what would that experience be like on a personal level to be dealing with someone like that and having to take care of his every need. And to be in a situation where you're not allowed to speak to him, but your curiosity will get the better of you. And so there's so many issues involved in a grand sense in terms of the holocaust and the war, but then there's the personal story of just two men in a room for 10 days. They're hiding, they have this man. They not only cannot hurt him, they have to care for him. They shaved him. They took him to the bathroom. He was stripped and then redressed. He had to be fed. There was the worry that he might kill himself, that was on the table for a while. This stuff all really happened. It was an emotionally traumatic experience for every single person in there and yes, they had to deal with him in this way. And again, it wasn't simply taking care of him, it was making sure he was in perfect shape to stand trial because they knew that the rest of the world was gonna have a standard that they had to meet. So there is all this dramatic tension involved than how they would survive these 10 days, and how they would get to this point where they make it to the glass booth, the famous glass booth.

Werman: And the glass booth is where Eichmann stood during trial in Isreal.

Wiener: Exactly, he was in a glass booth in his witness box because they didn't want anyone to take justice into their own hands.

Werman: A lot of the details in the play come from a book called Eichmann in My Hands, by Peter Malkin, who's the hero of your story. I mean just who was Malkin. What do you know about him?

Wiener: He was a kid who fled the Nazis at four. And he went to Palestine before Israel was a country. Some of his family didn't get out. He lost a lot of family there. And I think he kinda grew up in the streets, and so he was always a capable and courageous person, but he also had I think this artistic streak in him. He was a person who was a strongman. That means he literally grabbed Eichmann off the road. He was the guy who had to tackle him on the road. He also was a master of disguise, which is a strange specialty that he has. And he was also an expert in explosives, which is a sideline. He was kind of a wild card within the Mossad. He was the youngest man on the team, he was the newest guy on the team, but having grown up on the streets he was not a guy who was doctrinaire about his beliefs. He was questioning orders constantly. And that's a fascinating sort of dialogue in and of itself, conflict between him and Eichmann.

Werman: Eichmann was convicted and executed 50 years ago. The trial lasted from April '61 through December '61, and then he was executed in May of '62. Remind us of the almost unanimous global criticism of Israel once these agents spirited him out of Argentina.

Wiener: Yeah, that's interesting because you would think after the fact that at this point, we just assume that it was an absolute good, I always did – that this trial was supported, that this trial was an incredibly important event, and that obviously Argentina, if a Nazi had been found, would be very cooperative. But none of these things were true and this is one of these things that should be known. Argentina was outraged. They thought that this group of men had come into their country, taken their citizen and the rest of the world followed suit. And there's a line in the play that talks about that. The United Nations condemned Israel, it was a unanimous vote. And The New York Times condemned Israel. And the world just felt that Israel had no right or foundation to be prosecuting someone. And remember, Israel did not exist at the time of these crimes, and also did Israel have the infrastructure judicial infrastructure to really put a proper trial together. And so some people said bring him back to Germany. And the Israelis knew if he went to Germany that they didn't see justice being done. So yes, the world was really very angry at Israel. Essentially they had gone rogue almost.

Werman: I mean the details are extraordinary, things I didn't know like he was dressed by Malkin in a El AL uniform, doped up and gotten through the traffic in Buenos Aires, and had him walk on a plane.

Wiener: Yeah, exactly, walked on a plane…

Werman: With no handcuffs.

Wiener: Exactly, of his own freewill, but yeah, even getting him to the plane, they brought him out into the middle of Buenos Aires. They took him into an airport. They told them he was drunk because he had been sedated and he couldn't speak, but he was awake. They passed him through. You know, so…

Werman: Extraordinary.

Wiener: It's kind of amazing to think that they did not put him in a box. You know, they weren't able to do that. They had to get him on his own two feet and they had to make him look like an airline pilot.

Werman: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the trial and the sentencing of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Does the anniversary spotlight this play in any way or do you think for maybe the first time in your life, wow, this is something to think about.

Wiener: It is and I think the world did. I could be wrong, you know, because I wrote the play I get a lot of things from people, or they'll send me emails and they'll point it out to me. And I think people should think more about it. I mean if the anniversary alerts people to get past the catchphrases and the simple you know, sound byte history to look deeper into what exactly happened and how that trial took place, and what they were really discussing, then I think that's very important and I think that's worthwhile. If it takes the anniversary to do that or the play or whatever it might be then that's great.

Werman: Playwright Evan Wiener is the author of Captors. Very good to speak with you, thanks a lot.

Wiener: Thank you very much, Marco.

Werman: We have some video clips from the play Captors and from the Eichmann trial itself, they're at theworld.org.

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