June 6, 2007

Eichmann’s passport bearing alias discovered in Argentina

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The well-preserved document adds a key artifact to the historical record on the engineer of the Holocaust.

BUENOS AIRES — In the passport photo he is a balding figure with round spectacles, his bow tie slightly askew, his expression sober, tinged with a trace of irritation, as if this whole exercise was below one’s dignity.

He seems a man of some refinement, perhaps a professor or concert master. He lists his occupation as ”technician,” his nationality as stateless. He gives his name as Riccardo Klement, part of the human flotsam and jetsam displaced by the convulsions of World War II, now seeking a fresh start in the New World.

The Argentine diplomat in Italy evidently saw the matter as routine, despite noting ”deficient” documentation, and issued ”Klement” an entry visa in June 1950.

And so Adolf Eichmann, the notorious engineer of the Holocaust, the man who kept the trains running on time to the death camps, made his way to Argentina and the serene life of a laborer and family man.

The trajectory of Eichmann’s life — from faceless bureaucrat of genocide to wanted war criminal to prize prisoner of the state of Israel — has been so thoroughly explored that it would seem few surprises remain.

But last week, 45 years after he was hanged in Israel, a new Eichmann artifact came to light here. The original passport he used to gain entry to Argentina under the Klement alias had remained for decades in a musty court file until a resourceful academic unearthed it among millions of pieces of archived legal papers. A judge with a sense of history made sure it was turned over to the Holocaust Museum here, the city with the largest Jewish population in Latin America.

The well-preserved document, on a single page of cardboard folded into three parts, offers tangible testimony in a country that for years was in denial about its role in harboring Nazi fugitives.

”This provides new evidence of the web that functioned in the service of Nazis and war criminals escaping from Europe,” said Sergio Widder, Latin America representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. ”It contributes to the safeguarding of the historical memory of Argentina.”

The passport is eventually to be exhibited in a humidity-controlled museum display, one more relic of remembrance at a time when the ranks of camp survivors are dwindling.

The passport, issued June 1, 1950, by an Italian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, provides a few new tidbits about Eichmann’s entry.

Passport No. 100940 notes that ”Klement” has blue eyes, brown hair and a ”regular” nose, and that he was born May 23, 1913, in the northern Italian city of Bolzano, which still has a substantial German-speaking population. (Eichmann was actually born in 1906 in Germany.) His father is listed as unknown, his mother as Anna Klement. A red fingerprint flanks the professorial snapshot, embossed with a Red Cross seal, of ”Klement” in bow tie, white shirt and jacket.

The travel document contains a stamp from the Argentine vice consulate in Genoa, from where Eichmann and other war fugitives sailed to Buenos Aires.

Among the other notorious Nazis who settled in Argentina were Josef Mengele, the infamous ”Angel of Death,” known for his gruesome experiments at Auschwitz; and Erich Priebke, the former SS captain who participated in the 1944 slaughter of 335 civilians in the Ardeatine Caves reprisal killings near Rome. Priebke was eventually extradited to Italy to face trial and received a life sentence. Mengele, having eluded justice and the Nazi hunters, died a natural death in Brazil.

Like Eichmann, many escaped via well-greased ”rat lines” from Europe to Argentina under former President Juan Domingo Peron, who was sympathetic to the Axis powers. Historians say the ex-colonel and political strongman was perturbed by what he viewed as the inequity of the Nuremberg trials, the Allied war crimes tribunals where top Nazis faced justice.

The passport showed up in a decades-old court file from a case initiated by Eichmann’s wife, Veronika Catalina Liebel de Eichmann, who joined him here with the couple’s children in 1952, two years after the arrival of ”Klement.”

She filed the complaint after her husband’s sensational abduction by plainclothes Israeli commandos on May 11, 1960, near his home on Garibaldi Street in San Fernando, a Buenos Aires suburb.

After initially refusing to speak to his abductors, Eichmann is said to have finally muttered, in German: ”I am resigned to my destiny.”

The commandos eventually spirited the former SS Obersturmbannfuhrer back to Israel and trial on an El Al flight, dressed as a crewman and drugged to appear like a drunken reveler.

The Israeli government, worried about the diplomatic firestorm ignited in Argentina, initially distanced itself from the operation and said it had been carried out by ”volunteers.”

Photos of this gray, bespectacled bureaucrat sitting behind bulletproof glass as Holocaust survivors testified to his guilt soon became signature postwar images. His bland recital of how he was simply a career-minded civil servant following orders to carry out the Final Solution yielded Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase ”the banality of evil.”

In Argentina, Eichmann had held a number of blue-collar jobs, his last at a Mercedes-Benz plant.

By the time Frau Eichmann filed her complaint, her husband had already been whisked to Israel and his cover blown. She objected that his abduction amounted to ”an unmerited blow against national sovereignty.” Her plea gathered dust in the court files.

On May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann faced the hangman’s noose in Israel after being convicted of crimes against humanity and other offenses. His remains were cremated and spread in the Mediterranean from the deck of an Israeli naval ship, as Holocaust survivors watched.

His reported last words: ”Long live Germany! Long live Argentina! Long live Austria! These are the countries with which I was closest, and I shall not forget them. I had to obey the rules of war and my flag. I am ready.”