I was very young on that May day in 1960, helping my Auschwitz survivor mother in the kitchen when the radio announced:
“The Nazi war criminal the architect of the “Final Solution” is in Israel and will stand trial.”
As our once large family lost 98 percent of its members to Adolf Eichmann’s death trains to Auschwitz, my mom’s first tearful, then angry, reaction was simply indescribable.
That moment will never leave my soul.
In May 1960, Argentina was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its revolution against Spain, and many tourists were traveling to Argentina from abroad to attend the festivities. The Mossad used the opportunity to smuggle a team of experienced agents into the country as a Jewish-born German prosecutor, Fritz Bauer from the city of Hessen, passed information to Israel that Eichmann was hiding in Buenos Aires under the alias Ricardo Clement.
Knowing that Argentina might never extradite Eichmann for trial, Israel had decided to abduct him and take him to Israel illegally.
On May 11, a crack team of hand-picked Mossad operatives descended on Garibaldi Street in San Fernando and under the supervision of legendary operative Raffi Eitan Mossad legend Peter Zvi Malkin physically captured Eichmann as he was walking from the bus to his home. The operation was directed by then-head of the Mossad Isser Harel. (Years later, several members of the capture team-related details of the operation to me personally.)
Eichmann’s family called local hospitals but not the police, and Argentina knew nothing of the operation.
On May 20, a drugged Eichmann was flown out of Argentina disguised as an Israeli airline worker who had suffered head trauma in an accident.
On May 23, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced to the world that Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann has been captured and would stand trial in Israel.
Eichmann, the Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler’s “final solution of the Jewish question,” was by then in the hands of an Israel Police captain, the German-speaking Avner Less, and interrogators in Israel’s maximum-security Ramla prison.
For nine months, Less served as Eichmann’s interrogator, questioning him daily for a total of 275 hours. He was the only investigator allowed to speak to Eichmann. The transcripts of the interrogation were forwarded to prosecutors. In 1961, Less testified and was cross-examined at Eichmann’s trial. Extracts from the interrogation of Eichmann by Less have been published in the 1983 book “Eichmann Interrogated.”
Argentina demanded Eichmann’s return, but Israel argued that his status as an international war criminal gave them the right to proceed with a trial. On April 11, 1961, Eichmann’s trial began in Jerusalem.
It was the first televised trial in history.
In his opening speech at the trial Attorney General Gideon Hausner said: “When I stand before you here, Judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are 6 million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards him who sits in the dock and cry: “I accuse!” For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore, I will be their spokesman, and, in their name, I will unfold the terrible indictment.”
Eichmann faced 15 charges, including crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people and war crimes.
He claimed that he was just following orders, but the judges disagreed, finding him guilty on all counts on Dec. 15 and sentencing him to die.
On May 31, 1962, Eichmann was hanged at a prison in Ramla hours later.
The hanging, scheduled for midnight, was slightly delayed and thus took place a few minutes past midnight on 1 June 1962.
The execution was attended by a small group of officials; four journalists, including Holocaust survivor and Hungarian-Jewish “Uj Kelet” journalist Dr. Paul Benedek; as well as spymaster Raffi Eitan.
Eitan claimed in 2014 to have heard Eichmann later mumble, “I hope that all of you will follow me,” making those his final words.
‘I guarded him for six months in Ramla’
And this is where my story begins. As I was a close friend of the Mossad Operations Chief Peter Malkin and as the child of Holocaust survivors whose large family was sent to their deaths in Auschwitz by Eichmann, I tried to uncover as many small details as possible to the capture, trial and execution of that unrepentant Nazi.
Most of those involved in Israel’s first and only execution in 1962 are no longer living. But the guard who spent most of Eichmann’s incarceration guarding him closely in his cell around the clock—a soft-spoken, pious Yemen-born man named Shalom Nagar—was brought to the limelight some years ago when an Israeli radio station wanted to produce an anniversary program of Eichmann’s capture and hanging.
After sifting through prison records and following tips from former prison employees, Nagar, was located and asked to reveal the memories he had stored away for so many years.
At the time, having retired from the Prisons Services, he was living in Kiryat Arba and learning in Kollel from dawn to midnight.
Nagar spoke about his time guarding the Nazi war criminal, saying: “I guarded him for six months in Ramla.
“I was one of the 22 guards. We were called ‘Eichmann’s guards.’ They put him in a special wing on the second floor. We called it Eichmann’s ‘apartment.’ There were actually five rooms. We worked in 24-hour shifts and then went home for 48 hours. While guarding him, we’d switch off: We’d sit with him for three hours, then rest; then three more hours sitting with him and three more hours’ rest. And so on. There was one guard always in Eichmann’s room, which was always me. In addition, there was another guard in the next room to guard me and Eichmann.
“And there was another guard in a third room to guard the two of us! See how well-guarded it was! And this was already the most secure prison in Israel. He was protected by so many guards because there was reason to believe that he might want to take his own life, and we were to prevent that at all costs.
“They didn’t trust anyone. Whenever his attorney came, I’d lead Eichmann in from one side while the lawyer would come from the other side. They sat across from each other with a bullet-proof glass between them and used a microphone to communicate. They could speak, but not actually touch or pass anything because the lawyer might pass him poison or something.
“During the entire Eichmann trial, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion personally made sure that any prison guards in the vicinity of Eichmann on the sealed-off second floor of the prison were Sephardic, as he was certain that Ashkenazi Jews whose families were among the millions sent to their deaths by Eichmann would harm him.
“For years, I was sworn to secrecy. My commanders feared reprisals from neo-Nazis and others who thought Eichmann was a hero. But Isser Harel, the Mossad chief in charge of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina, had already written a book about it, so what did I have to fear? Besides, I was involved in the great mitzvah of wiping out Amalek.”
‘We were a unit of 22 guards’
Shalom Nagar recalls the events that led up to that fateful night. “I was working as a guard for the Prisons Services then, after finishing the army and working for the Border Police. At first, Eichmann was brought to a prison in Yagur outside of Haifa. He was transferred to Ramle Prison, where I worked, for the last six months of his life.
“We were a unit of 22 guards, known as the ‘Eichmann guards,’ carefully selected to make sure that we had no revenge motives. After all, it was only 16 years after the Holocaust, and many prison employees had either gone through the camps or had lost family. They were disqualified. Eichmann’s ‘apartment,’ as we called it, was in a special wing on the second floor, but no Ashkenazi guards were allowed up. There were five rooms, one overlooking the other.
“For six months, I guarded him, facing his cell in the innermost room, standing in close proximity where he rested, wrote his memoirs, ate and used the facilities. He was extremely clean and washed his hands compulsively. One reason for our careful supervision was that he might have wanted to take his own life, and we were to prevent that at all costs. Outside of my room was another room overlooking it, with a guard who watched over both me and Eichmann. In the next room was the duty officer, who guarded all of us. And the last room is where we rested during shift changes.
“Food was brought in locked containers to prevent any attempt at poisoning. Still, before I gave him his meal, I had to taste it myself. If I didn’t drop dead after two minutes, the duty officer allowed the plate into his cell.
“There were guards who had numbers on their arms, but they weren’t allowed onto the second floor. However, before we were clear about this rule, one guard from downstairs, Blumenfeld, who had survived the camps, asked if he could switch with me one night. I assumed he just wanted to get a look at the man who destroyed his family. Anyway, we were all in the same unit, so I figured, why not?
“Blumenfeld approached the door of the cell and rolled up his sleeve. ‘Once I was in your hands, and now the tables have turned. Look who has the last laugh.’ It was the middle of the night, and Eichmann jumped up from his bed and started ranting in German. I, of course, couldn’t follow the conversation, but from then on we had clear instructions: No switching or we’d get court-martialed.”
Nagar, a former paratrooper and decorated soldier who was an orphan in Yemen during World War II, was approached by Avraham Merchavi, the head warden.
“I said maybe he should find someone else to do the job. Then Merchavi took me and several other guards and showed us the footage of how the Nazis took innocent children and tore them to pieces. I was so shaken that I agreed to whatever had to be done.”
At the same time, a man named Pinchas Zeklikovsky was summoned by the police for a special mission. Zeklikovsky, whose family was wiped out by the Nazis, worked for an oven factory in Petach Tikvah.
He was asked to build an oven the size of a man’s body, which would reach 1,800°C. He worked on the oven in the factory, telling inquirers that it was a special order for a factory in Eilat that burned fish bones.
On the afternoon of May 31, 1962, after the other workers left, an army truck rolled into the oven factory and loaded on the oven. Under heavy guard, the oven made its way to Ramla prison.
The world knew that Eichmann’s days were limited, but his hanging was made public only after the fact.
All the preparations were done secretly, for fear of sabotage by Eichmann supporters. Streets around the prison were cordoned off for several blocks that afternoon.
‘I didn’t see anyone else there’
Meanwhile, that same day, Shalom Nagar was on a 48-hour furlough.
He was walking with his wife, Orah, and infant son in his Holon neighborhood when a police van screeched to a halt in front of him and pulled him inside. It was his colleague, Merchavi. Nagar knew immediately what this special invitation was about.
“I realized I had won the ‘lottery,’ ” he said.
“But I told him, ‘You now have a problem, because although you want the hanging kept top secret, my wife thinks I’ve been kidnapped. She’ll call the police.’ He agreed, and the car made a quick reverse, so I could explain to my wife that this was my commanding officer and that I’d be working late.
“We arrived at Ramla Prison, and I was given a stretcher, some sheets and bandages, and was told to go and wait downstairs.
“Upstairs, Eichmann was with the priest, and according to his last wish, was given a glass of wine.
“By the time I was summoned, the noose was already around his neck, and he was standing on a specially-made trapdoor which would open under him when I would pull the lever.”
According to an official account, there were supposedly two people who would pull the lever simultaneously, so neither would know for sure by whose hand Eichmann died.
But Nagar says he knows nothing about that. “I didn’t see anyone else there. It was just me and Eichmann. I was standing a few feet from him and looked him straight in the eye. He refused to have his face covered, and he was still wearing those trademark checkered slippers. Then I pulled the lever and he fell, dangling by the rope.”
For years, I had nightmares of those moments. His face was white as chalk, his eyes were bulging, and his tongue was dangling out.
After an hour, Nagar and Merchavi went downstairs to release the body. A scaffold had been built in order to reach him to take him off the gallows.
“Merchavi told me to climb the scaffold and lift him, and then he would loosen the rope. For years I had nightmares of those moments. His face was white as chalk, his eyes were bulging, and his tongue was dangling out. The rope rubbed the skin off his neck, and his tongue and chest were covered with blood. I didn’t know that when a person is strangled all the air remains in his stomach. So when I lifted him, all the air that was inside came out and the most horrifying sound was released from his mouth—‘baaaahhhh’—I felt the Angel of Death had come to take me, too.
“Finally, a few other guards arrived, and we managed to get him onto the stretcher we had prepared earlier.
“We took him to the other side of the courtyard, where the oven was waiting. One of the guards, his name was Luchs and he had been in Auschwitz, was given the job of heating the oven. The oven was so hot it was impossible to get too close. So, they’d built tracks so that the stretcher could slide into it. It was my job to push the stretcher into the oven, but I was shaking so hard that the body kept rolling from side to side. Finally, I was able to push him in, and we closed the doors.”
Nagar was slated to escort the ashes to the port, but he was in such a state of trauma that Merchavi had him sent home with an escort. In the very early hours of the morning, the ashes were removed from the oven and transported by police van to Jaffa Port, where a Coast Guard boat carried them beyond Israel’s territorial waters so that they would not defile the Holy Land.
‘The last living hero of the era’
Shalom Nagar had a hard life, but he always remained optimistic. He faced the most difficult time when his beloved son Noam succumbed to cancer. He went on to become one of the first to live in Kiryat Arba, “Town of the Four,” an urban Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Hebron in the Judean Mountains region of the West Bank. His deep faith never left him.
I decided to tell this story now in all of its details because my mom, who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, never got to hear it.
A couple of weeks ago, an early-morning phone call woke me.
The call came from a former Israeli Intelligence operative Avner Avraham, the founder of Spylegends.com, who reached out to me to let me know that the last survivor of the era—Nagar, who dispatched Eichmann to his well-deserved hell—is now living at his modest home in poor medical condition during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown cared for by a son.
Within minutes after receiving a WhatsApp photo of the ailing man, I was on the phone reaching out to my best connections in Israel to immediately find a suitable, medically supervised, first-rate senior home for the last living hero of an era.
Everyone acted immediately.
Within an hour, I spoke with a number of descendants of Holocaust families in North America, and they all offered to help finance the proper care for Shalom Nagar.
I am happy in the knowledge that at the time of this writing, he is enjoying the care of top doctors and nurses. He participates in the daily prayer services and is very happy.
Having been able to help him find a comfortable, safe and well-staffed retirement home in Jerusalem will always be something that I feel good about. I did this in the name of the millions of martyrs, my many family members among them.
Gabriel Erem is the founder of “Lifestyles Magazine/Meaningful Influence.”