With the execution of Otto Adolf Eichmann, Israel, a country without a death penalty, made a profound statement. They took the idea of an eye for an eye literally. But was the death of one man, however evil his actions might have been, a mere token? Did his death give anyone relief? Or did it just show that seventeen years after World War II had ended, the criminals could not escape? Was the trial an act of retribution? Even today, more than 60 years after the fact, Nazis are still a hot topic, punctuating news and entertainment.
Surely the capture of Eichmann was a great relief, and his conviction was certain, as the conviction of Saddam Hussein was certain. His fate, however, was uncertain. The public was split. Some wanted his death. Others did not. Ultimately, his fate was decided, and he was executed. Many of his fellow Nazis escaped justice, and lived their lives as free men. Josef Mengele, just one such person, lived out his life in Argentina, where his son regularly visited him.
The strangest aspect of the Eichmann case, however, is that Eichmann claimed to not have hatred against the Jews. Perhaps this is true. While in custody, he held regular conversations with Peter Malkin, one of the men sent to capture him. His claims of having had Jewish friends as a child make it all that much harder to fathom the man he became. Even stranger is that it is not so hard to believe. There are often times that there is one thing that will turn a person against another, or even a group of people. Worse yet, it is sometimes for a political reason. That seems to be the reasoning here.
The fact that Eichmann chose the SS and the SD, two organizations with deep histories of anti-Semitism does nothing to curry favor. However, one must only look a little further beyond the veil. Both he and Hitler attended the same grade school, though several decades apart. Both he and Hitler received the same kind of education, except that Eichmann did not blame anyone, certainly not the Jews, for the loss the Great War. Eichmann’s indoctrination into the belief system of the National Socialist Party was gradual. Possibly, he never truly believed it. Whereas Hitler had an external source, someone whom he truly wanted to hate, Eichmann is more complex. Did he really hate the Jews? Of the eleven million people he sent to their death, was there a single person whose name he could put a face to? Did it matter that some were Catholic, Communist, Gypsy, Homosexual, Children? Probably not. They were just names. In many cases, not even that.
So close to the events of the past, when the words of the perpetrators reverberate so clearly, and they leave no doubt in that they were guilty, there are people who claim the atrocities did not occur. Even documents like The Wannsee Protocol, of which Eichmann took the minutes, are denied and disputed by those who wish that they were not so. The fact remains the Shoah happened, hard as it is to fathom, and Adolf Eichmann had a large part in it.
In 1945, when the carnage of the Reich was just unfolding, Eichmann’s name was unknown. Simon Wiesenthal, the infamous Nazi-Hunter, failed to recognize his importance when showed documents by an OSS Agent. Even Israel, the country that eventually tried him, did not initially search for him. He was a non-entity to them. When his name was mentioned at Nuremberg, the Judges were confused, unsure as to who he was, or to his significance.
After he became known to Israel, Mossad began to search for Eichmann in earnest. They lost interest in him within a few years, though it seems hard for us to imagine now. During this time, Israel had gone through two wars, and numerous smaller engagements before he was eventually captured. The threat of annihilation was an every day possibility. The Nazis that were most important to Israel were Mengele and Hitler, of whom rumors persisted that he had escaped in a submarine. Why should they worry about a Lieutenant Colonel in the SS who did nothing but shuffle papers at a desk?
It was sheer coincidence that brought Eichmann to Israel’s attention again. He never quite left their radar entirely, but it was truly a chance encounter that put him into the sights of the Mossad again. They had a small window to act. If they delayed, they could miss their chance forever.
The question of Eichmann’s execution, however, is murky. In the Mishnah, it states that cases involving the death penalty are judged before twenty-three. Eichmann had three. Biblically, and certainly, in the Talmud, Israel was not justified in the execution. One opinion in the Talmud states that a court of law that sentences a criminal to death once every seventy years is bloody. Israel was not yet 15 old when Adolf Eichmann was captured and executed. According to Israeli, law, however, the death penalty could be imposed only for matters of Genocide, of which he was clearly guilty, and crimes against the State, of which the State had not yet been founded when the crimes had been committed, yet he was charged. The Mishnah, however, states that a person may be put to death, through decapitation, if he was responsible for death by fire or drowning. With his direct responsibility in the deportation of nearly eleven million people, six million of which were Jewish, Israel seems justified in its judgment.
Born in 1906 to humble beginnings, no one could foresee that his actions would shape the small Middle Eastern country, and then reshape it. His trial did not bring Israel to the brink of Civil War, not like the Altaleana Incident in 1948, just weeks after its foundation, but there was a moral divide. Should the country sink to the level of those who had persecuted them? Or should they take the high road? History gives us the answer. Eichmann was executed on 31 May 1962. He was 56. His last words were not anti-Semitic, or any other such nonsense. Instead, they were words of a man resigned to his fate: “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria. These are the three countries with which I have been the most connected, and which I will not forget. I greet my wife, my family, and my friends. I am ready. We’ll meet again soon, so is the fate of all men. I die believing in God.”
Eichmann’s body was cremated, and his ashes were spread over the Mediterranean so no country could claim to be his final resting place.
 In her book, The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann, Hanna Yablonka deals with this briefly, but effectively. She makes it clear that it was mostly the Diaspora Jews, those who lived outside of Israel, that opposed the death penalty of Eichmann, while those who had made the Aaliyah or Sabra, the native born, seemed in favor of his execution.
 Mishnah, Fourth Division, Sanhedrin, 9:1D-I. This is my own interpretation of the reading, and not one given to me by a Rabbinical Authority, so any error is my own.