Artículo publicado en Midstream

"UN MOMENTITO, SEÑOR": The 20 Seconds That Made History - May/June 2003

This article is based on my interview with Peter Z. Malkin on February 12, 2002 in Washington, D.C. and on Malkin's book (co-authored with Harry Stein), Eichmann In My Hands (New York: Warner Books, 1990)--JULIAN SCHVINDLERMAN.

JULIAN SCHVINDLERMAN is a political analyst currently based in Geneva and a regular contributor to The Miami Herald and Comunidades, a Jewish biweekly of Argentina. He was also Jerusalem and Washington correspondent of Comunidades. He is the author of Land for Peace, Land for War (in Spanish).

Zvi Milchman spent the first four years of his life in Zolkiewka, a small village in Poland. None of his neighbors, relatives, and friends could have imagined at the time that, decades later, this boy would become a daring Israeli secret agent whose path along the world of espionage would grant him an historic role and a legendary reputation as the man who physically caught Adolf Hitler's main executioner and one of the most wanted Nazi fugitives in the post-Holocaust era: Adolf Eichmann.

The Polish young man (who years later would adopt the name of Peter Malkin) emigrated to Palestine with his family in 1933. At the age of 12, he joined the Palestine Jewish underground as an expert in explosives. Once the State of Israel was established, Malkin was recruited by Mossad (Israel's intelligence service) where, using his skills as a master of martial arts and disguises, he rose through the ranks from field operative to chief of operations. In his 27-year-tenure in the secret service, Malkin participated in various anti-terror operations. Among his most outstanding feats, the capture of Israel Be'er -the Soviet spy who had penetrated the highest levels of the Israeli government -as well as his lead role in the operation against German Nazi rocket scientists assisting Egypt's weapons development program after World War II, deserve special mention.

But it was undoubtedly his deed on the evening of May 11, 1960, in a remote town in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, that placed Malkin in the pantheon of heroes of the Jewish people. That day, Israeli agents hunted down the German officer under whose directives six million Jews perished during the Holocaust -and Peter Malkin was there, capturing Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) with his own hands.

SS-Oberstumbannfuehrer Eichmann's record is notorious. He was head of the Department for Jewish Affairs in the Gestapo from 1941 to 1945 and was chief of operations in the deportation of three million Jews to extermination camps. He joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1932 and later became a member of the SS. In 1933 -the year Zvi arrived in Palestine -Eichmann, then an obscure 27-year-old SS sergeant, was about to begin his impressive career in the Nazi hierarchy. In 1934, he served as an SS corporal at the Dachau concentration camp. By 1935, Eichmann was already investigating possible "solutions to the Jewish question." Two years later, in 1937, he was sent to Palestine to establish contacts with the rabidly anti-Semitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the most prominent leader of Palestinian nationalism at the time; but British authorities forced him to leave. In 1938, Eichmann was sent to Vienna where he established a "Center for .Jewish Emigration" that was so successful that similar offices were soon established in Prague and Berlin. A year later, he returned to Berlin to become Director of Jewish Affairs and Evacuation in the Reich Security Main Office. In 1942, Eichmann organized the infamous Wansee Conference where the program of Jewish extermination was adopted. He subsequently supervised the deportation of European Jews to the death camps, as well as the plunder of the property they had left behind.

Eichmann was arrested at the war's end and confined to an American internment camp, but he managed to escape to Argentina. He lived there for ten years under the name of Ricardo Klement until Israeli secret agents abducted him in 1960 and spirited him out to Israel. On April 2, 1961, the trial of Eichmann opened in .Jerusalem. Eight months later, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity and the Jewish people and sentenced to death. Executed on May 31, 1962, his remains were cremated and the ashes scattered over the Mediterranean Sea, outside Israeli waters. That is the only time the death penalty has been carried out in the country's history.

Previous attempts to capture Eichmann can be traced back to 1946. That year, the Haganah (the pre-state Jewish army) dispatched a five-man team to Austria, where supposedly, according to reports filtering into the organization, the former Nazi officer was living. The team located his wife in the town of Bad Aussee and infiltrated the house by passing an Aryan-looking female agent as a maid. To their chagrin, Frau Eichmann revealed nothing of her husband's whereabouts. Two years later, starved of information and with the 1948 War of Independence looming on the horizon, the team was recalled to Palestine. The hunt for Eichmann continued now under the aegis of committed men -chief among these Nazi-hunters, Simon Wiesenthal- whose independent investigations in search of SS officials led sometimes to significant achievements. But Hitler's main executioner still remained at large.

Nine years later, in a remote town several hundred miles to the southwest of Buenos Aires, an interesting development began to evolve. There, in early 1957, a blind man of German Jewish extraction, a survivor whose parents had been killed in the death camps, became suspicious of a friend of his young daughter's. She told him she had met a young man in Buenos Aires called Nicolas Eichmann. The youngster, she added, had adamantly defended Germany's conduct during the war and expressed sorrow for the fact that the Nazis had been prevented from solving the "Jewish problem" in Europe. At her parents' behest, she encouraged a friendship with young Eichmann. In successive encounters, the original suspicions became more solid. The blind man wrote a letter to Dr. Fritz Bauer, the public prosecutor in Essen, himself a Jew and a survivor, and a vocal anti-Nazi activist. Although Bauer replied to the blind man urging him to continue his inquiry, the latter -not fully enlisting the German government's resolve -informed the Israeli mission in Cologne.

The Israelis dispatched an investigator to Argentina. After meeting the informant and seeing the house where Eichmann was apparently living, he ruled out the idea on the grounds that a man of Eichmann's stature could not possibly be living in such a modest place and that the informant was unreliable. It took another three years for the blind man and Dr. Bauer, the German-Jewish prosecutor, to persuade the head of Mossad to send a second investigator. This time, the investigator was convinced. Although by now Eichmann had moved to another town, he was located, and pictures were taken of him secretly. The resemblance was indisputable.

In early 1960, Israeli secret agent Peter Malkin was monitoring Arab terrorist activity in the Israeli town of Nazareth when he was summoned to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv.

"Have you ever been to South America?" his superior asked him, as soon as Malkin entered his office. "You are going to Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann."

Malkin was hesitant at first. He was of the view that the Arabs, more than former SS men, were threatening Israel's existence now. Putting an arm around Malkin's shoulder, his boss ("Uzi" as Malkin calls him), steered him onto the balcony outside his office. In the distance, the old city of Jaffa was already illuminated, and waves of the Mediterranean Sea were stroking the old harbor.

"We are going to bring Adolf Eichmann to trial in Jerusalem," Uzi said, "and you are going to capture him, Peter."

The operation was code-named "Attila." For all of Mossad's legendary reputation, the early planning of this operation seemed to belong in a Maxwell Smart television installment more than in the formidable Israeli secret service operations portfolio. Malkin recalls that the previous agents dispatched to identify Eichmann had made so many procedural errors -from excessive surveillance of the Klement house, to asking questions where they were bound to arouse suspicion, to posing as Americans but speaking broken English -that he thought it was a miracle that they had not been discovered thus far. In addition, one night these agents had actually had a car accident on a quiet street only blocks away from the target house. After they got pictures of Ricardo Klement, not so discreetly according to Malkin, they sent the important film to be developed to a local camera store downtown --this, in a neighborhood full of Nazi sympathizers.

The new team was quickly assembled. It included seven agents plus the head of Mossad himself, Isser Harel, with a prospective female agent to join eventually. Most of them had lost relatives in the Holocaust. On April 27, the team assembled in Harel's office for their last meeting on Israeli soil. The "Old Man," as Harel was known in Mossad, addressed the agents: "We are about to set out on a historic journey. I do not have to tell you that this is no ordinary mission. We are going to capture the man who has the blood of our people on his hands. But we are not moved to this by the spirit of vengeance. We are animated by our deep-seated sense of justice."

Shortly afterwards, Malkin flew to Paris carrying a German passport under the name of Maxim Nolte. Other members of the team joined him, and then all of them flew to Buenos Aires via Switzerland and Brazil. Arriving in Argentina on May 4, a week before Eichmann would be abducted, they drove toward the address they had been given --their base. "On the way," Malkin recalls, "we almost freeze." In the southern hemisphere it was winter and they had arrived sporting summer clothes.

Malkin spent a few nights eavesdropping on the humble house on Garibaldi Street, where Eichmann lived with his wife and son. The Nazi's rigid habits facilitated the work of the Israeli spies: he would arrive home every day walking the same path at the same time. Malkin will never forget the moment of the capture: "Eichmann was coming from Route 202 toward Garibaldi Street. I chose to face him unarmed. I didn't want to harm anyone." And he points out ironically, "Obviously, we couldn't tell people 'we are going to capture Eichmann, so please stay away." As Eichmann approached, Malkin said to him, "un momentito señor," the only words he knew in Spanish. Eichmann stopped and took a step backward. Malkin immediately leaped at him and grabbed his right hand. Both fell to the ground. Another agent lifted Eichmann's feet and then stuffed him in the car. "Ein Laut und du bist tot!" (One sound and you are dead), ordered Hans, one of the Israeli agents, to the prisoner as they drove to their refuge.

Thus Eichmann lost his freedom in 20 seconds --and a year later, his life.

Had Malkin been afraid? "No. It was a matter of responsibility," he says, adding, "it required a lot of concentration. Many thoughts crossed my mind: of my mother; the beaches of Tel Aviv. I told myself 'this is it,' and caught him. It all lasted a few seconds."

At the Safe House (as Malkin notes their refuge was called), they laid Eichmann down on a bed. Hans, a German Jew, was in charge of interrogating the prisoner. The interrogation began. "Was ist dein Name?" (What is your name?) This question had to be asked four times until Eichmann admitted he was Eichmann. He was queried about other high-ranking Nazi fugitives and his connections with right-wing parties in Argentina -to no avail. And then: "Do you know who we are?" Hans asked. After a long silence, the interrogator asked again: "Do you know who we are?" This time, Eichmann replied: "You are Israelis. I knew immediately."

Eichmann was kept in captivity for ten long days. During those days, Malkin spent a great deal of time with the prisoner. It was an awkward, strange, unprecedented situation: Nazi and Jew, face to face. Only this time, the prisoner was the Nazi. How did Malkin -who lost relatives in World War II -relate to the monster he had in front of him during so many endless hours of vigil? At first, Malkin remained silent. Then he began to draw portraits of Eichmann with some sketch pencils he had. Eventually, Malkin would ignore the strict prohibition to talk to the prisoner. "Eichmann asked me if we were going to kill him. 'No, we will take you to Jerusalem,' I told him. 'We want to understand what you have done. You will be prosecuted there; you will tell your story, because we need to understand why you did it.'" Malkin was surprised by the extent to which Eichmann would go to present himself as a mere bureaucrat obeying orders. "It was a job," "I was a soldier," "I was only a functionary," "You must believe me, I had nothing against the Jews" were some of the excuses the former Gestapo officer would utter.

What shocked Malkin the most, though, was Eichmann's surreal philo-Jewish statements: "I was never an anti-Semite. I was repulsed by Streicher and Der Sturmer." And: "I always liked the Jews better than the Arabs." He even claimed to have read Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat. "I fully understand the aspirations of the Jews," Eichmann told Malkin at some point. "I can't tell you how much I loved studying Zionism." And also: "Had I been born Jewish, I'd have been the most fervent Zionist!" Eichmann told Malkin that he had studied Hebrew, too, with a rabbi in Berlin, and soon afterwards, he began to intone the "Shma Yisra'el," the most sacred prayer of the Jewish people. Malkin was appalled. And angry. Given that Eichmann loved to talk about his children, Malkin asked him a simple yet profound question: "My sister had a boy, blond and cheerful as your son, whom I have seen many times during the last days. Why is it that your son walks freely, while my sister's son can't?" Taken by surprise, Eichmann answered a few seconds later: "Yes, but he was Jewish, wasn't he?"

Malkin explained to me that he dialogued with Eichmann because he wanted to understand. Understand what? The bureaucrat's indifference? The soldier's coldness? The executioner's inhumanity? The former Israeli spy elaborates: "I told myself: here I am, with this man. I have to ask him questions, because I lost many relatives. I had to understand. He looked so normal. I wondered if this was the real man. Perhaps we had made a mistake and had caught the wrong man. How could this person, who lives such a normal life, have sent six million people, one and-a-half million children among them, to their deaths?" Malkin's words echo those of philosopher Hannah Arendt, who during the trial captured this feeling in the subtitle of her seminal book, The Banality of Evil. Elie Wiesel comments in his memoirs how he couldn't fathom Eichmann as a normal human being, and how he would have expected, even preferred, to see the SS officer as a Picasso portrait -with four ears, two mouths, and three eyes.

In his book, Eichmann in My Hands, published in 1990, Malkin states he needed to understand how supposedly civilized people could descend to such depths of barbarism. "What was I hoping to hear? Even I didn't know. Maybe a trace of real sorrow? Still I refused to accept it. There is a human being here, I would tell myself; he can be reached. I can make him see." In the end, Malkin gave up. "I would never again be so unshakable 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."

Isser Harel would later protest Malkin's decision to engage in dialogue with Eichmann. Malkin says that, besides his urge for understanding, he wanted to get information about the whereabouts of other SS men and that he always had a bigger purpose such as having Eichmann sign a statement in which he declared that he was willing to go to Jerusalem to stand trial. To get this statement, Malkin had served Eichmann red wine (bought by an agent for the Sabbath) and played him music. He even removed the blindfold from Eichmann's face. The discovery of this scene caused a stir among Malkin's peers. ("You amuse this butcher of my family with my music!?" one of Malkin's colleagues shouted at him at the time.) In his book, Malkin lets the reader see how close, in a sense, he became to Eichmann. "We conversed with surprising ease. If we had met, say, as seatmates on a long plane ride, we'd certainly have found enough in common -a shared love of nature and the wild, a common appreciation of certain kinds of music, a similar interest in world events -to make the trip pass more quickly. Both of us were social by nature and gave every appearance of accessibility." After attending one of the sessions of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, as he had promised Eichmann he would do, Malkin wrote: "I listened a moment longer, then rose and headed for the exit. I had seen who I came to see, the only soul in that vast, historic assemblage who had the slightest idea of who I was."

But Malkin also writes that, after his talks with Eichmann, "I was unable to sleep, my stomach in knots, my head about to explode." He admits that at some point he wanted to kill that Nazi. And he refers to Eichmann as a man with "an utter lack of humor and, even more striking, inflexibility of mind." Friends they were not. It just seems that Malkin's desperate search for meaning brought him emotionally too perilously close to the mass murderer.

Meanwhile, the escape plan had been concocted. In a few days, Argentina was going to celebrate its 150th anniversary, and an Israeli delegation for the first time was going to pay an official visit to the country. Isser Harel had arranged with top EL AL managers to sneak Eichmann out of the country in that flight. In the midst of so much tension, the Israeli visit itself heightened the morale of the team. As Malkin observed, it was seen as evidence "that our young country was assuming its full place among the nations of the world." Yet, Malkin hastens to add that, thanks to them, it might as well have been the last time an Israeli plane would be welcome in Argentina. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, Israel's Foreign Minister Abba Eban gave a heartfelt speech about the beginning of a bright new era in bilateral relations. Obviously, and to his future diplomatic embarrassment, Eban had no idea that Eichmann was going to be spirited out of the country in that plane. "For a while, Eban did not speak to Harel," recalls Malkin.

Malkin was in charge of putting Eichmann in disguise. He put some make-up on his face, making him look older, dressed him in an EL AL uniform (with a Star of David on it, symbolically enough), and showed him to a mirror. Malkin points out that Eichmann expressed the rather startling conviction that the disguise would work well. When the time came, they drove a sedated Eichmann to Argentina's international airport. Since their arrival in Buenos Aires, some members of the EL AL crew (in fact, Israeli agents in disguise) had gone to the city only to return, pretending they were drunk. So when the soldiers guarding the control point saw a car carrying three sleeping EL AL crew members in the back seat, they laughingly waved the car through without checking anyone's papers, thinking they were witnessing yet more drunken Israelis. The plane departed safely to Tel Aviv via Senegal. Once the airplane crossed Argentine airspace, the rest of the crew was informed who the extra passenger really was.

For Peter Malkin, however, that wasn't the end of the story. Together with four other agents, he remained in Argentina to clear things up. Two of the agents left that same evening aboard a flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. Unable to book any flight out because of the anniversary celebrations, Malkin and his other two peers had to stay longer. They journeyed to Santiago, Chile, aboard a train that took them across the Andes for about 30 hours, only to find out that, for the following week, there were no flights out of Santiago, either. They contacted an Israeli living in Santiago, a friend of one of the secret agents, and traveled around the city posing as tourists. The following day, a newspaper headline caught their attention: Israeli agents had captured Eichmann and had taken him to Israel. "Does it say where they got him?" Malkin asked their Spanish-speaking guide. "No, there's speculation about Kuwait. Also Argentina." Finally they were able to get three airline tickets, two to Montevideo, one to Rio. Malkin and Aharon (one of the other agents) flew to Montevideo. To their shock, they learned in mid-flight that the plane was scheduled to make a brief stop in Buenos Aires. The trip went well. Once in Montevideo, they took a flight to Rio, where they obtained a flight ticket to Paris and finally an Air France flight home. By the time they arrived in Israel, almost three weeks had gone by.

Israel's initial silence on the details of the operation prompted quite a flurry of international speculation. A Viennese newspaper reported that Eichmann had been brought to Israel in a submarine. A Cairo daily reported Eichmann had been located by communists in Iraq. In the Arab world, the capture was universally condemned as the Nazi official was called a "martyr." The Jordanian daily A-R'ai complimented him for exterminating "members of the race of dogs and monkeys." The Saudi periodical Al-Bilar praised the SS-Oberstumbannfuehrer for his courage. The Lebanon newspaper Al-Anwar published a cartoon lamenting Eichmann had not killed more Jews. For its part, Argentina´s government was furious. It submitted formal diplomatic complaints and threatened sanctions. It expelled Israel's ambassador and lodged a resolution before the Unit Nations Security Council condemning Israel. (The resolution passed 8-0 with the United States voting in favor.) Eventually, the two countries made peace. Argentina's national pride had been hurt, but its leaders understood all too well that the event had exposed the country as a haven for War World II criminals. The sooner the scandal subsided the better.

The capture of Adolf Eichmann profoundly affected Israeli society. David Ben-Gurion's sudden announcemet in the Israeli Parliament that Eichmann was in the country electrified the nation. It was during the trial that Israeli society -back then, as now, preoccupied with its very survival- began to deal with the Holocaust publicly, intensely, and painfully. How did all this affect Malkin? "I am happy to have captured Eichmann. Not because people might see me as a hero; anyone in my shoes would ha done the same thing. I am happy because this exposed the subject and allowed the Israeli public to express itself. It let the survivors talk about their pain. This was the first time in which survivors could tell their stories."

With vintage humor, Malkin then adds: “To participate in the operation was a risk. Had I not captured him, people in Israel would even today point at me in the street and say, 'Hey look, that's the guy who almost captured Eichmann.' It would have been a personal disaster, you can imagine," he confesses. Secrecy forced him not to say a word about the whole epic adventure for many years. The first time Malkin spoke about it was at his dying mother's hospital bed. He was in Athens when informed of his mother's deteriorating health and rushed back home "Mama, I captured Eichmann. Fruma [his sister lost in the Nazi inferno] is avenged. It was her brother who captured Adolf Eichmann," he told her. In his book, Malkin says that in his field, only the failures become known. He refers to secret agents as "stars in a hidden firmament."

Towards the end of the interview, Malkin surprised me with an unorthodox reflection: "I don't like the word 'Holocaust,'" he says, and connects this with September 11: "On September 11, 2001, the terrorists took four airplanes full of people and guided them toward buildings with more people in them. What Eichmann did was similar. He put people on trains and led them to their deaths. It is the same, the means of transportation is the only difference. Do not call it 'Holocaust'; call it 'terror.' Eichmann was the biggest terrorist on earth."

Twice awarded the Prime Minister's Medal of Honor, Malkin left the Mossad in 1976. Currently he is an anti-terror consultant and devotes his time to writing and painting. But in spite of having been decorated for his service in the intelligence community, Malkin never received a specific award for the capture of the most sought-out Nazi fugitive. Does he care? "I didn't want a prize of gold," he says dismissing the idea with a wave of his hand, "but a thank-you note would have been nice."