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American Experience | America and the Holocaust | Article

Adolf Eichmann (1906 -1962)

Courtesy: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Perhaps no one besides Adolf Hitler was as obsessed with killing Europe's Jews as SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann. Years after the war, while in hiding in Argentina, Eichmann told a former Dutch Nazi: "To be frank with you, had we killed all of them, the ten point three million [European Jews], I would be happy and say, 'All right, we managed to destroy an enemy.' " In trying to accomplish this goal he had never shown any sign of remorse. When asked to describe his boss, one of Eichmann's aides said: "He gave no indication of any human feeling toward these people. He was not immoral: he was amoral and completely ice-cold in his attitude. " 

Eichmann was born on March 19, 1906, in the Rhineland, the son of an accountant. After dropping out of a mechanical engineering program, he took a series of odd jobs as a traveling salesman and a laborer. In April 1932 he joined the Austrian Nazi party. His advance within the SS was fairly rapid and in 1934 he was hiredas an expert on "Zionism" by the department in Berlin responsible for "Jewish Affairs." By 1937 Eichmann became convinced that the Jewish "problem" could be solved by expelling Jews from German territory. With the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria in 1938, Eichmann got the opportunity to put his theory into practice. 

Sent to Vienna, Eichmann established an extremely successful forced emigration program. At that time, the campaign of terror against the Jews in Vienna was reaching fever pitch. The Nazis were rounding up thousands of Jews and incarcerating them in concentration camps. Eichmann offered an alternative: "emigration." He set up the Central Office of Jewish Emigration and devised an assembly-line process lasting less than an hour, during which Jews were rapidly granted all the documentation they needed to emigrate; stripped of all their belongings and their citizenship; and then assigned exit visas that expired 24 hours later. Within six months of the annexation, 45,000 Jews had left the country; another 100,000 emigrated before the outbreak of World War II. 

After the Nazis approved the "Final Solution," Eichmann was put in charge of organizing and scheduling the deportation of Jews to the death camps in Poland. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, claimed that Eichmann prepared for his new task by visiting the death camp to discuss killing techniques. Hoess said he got the impression that Eichmann believed he was in charge of an idealistic mission, one that would "save the German people." 

Eichmann became renowned for his ruthless dedication to the systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews and his extreme efficiency in carrying out his mission. He took this same single-minded hatred with him when he was sent to mastermind the murder of Hungary's Jews. According to one account, Hitler's second in command, Heinrich Himmler, ordered him to, "Send all the Jews to Auschwitz as quickly as possible. Begin with the eastern provinces...." Himmler reportedly commanded. "See to it that nothing like the Warsaw ghetto revolt is repeated in any way." 

Eichmann allegedly described the assignment as "a fantastic opportunity," one in which he could set new records for the speed of the annihilation process. On May 15th, 1944, he began the deportations. A new rail spur at the death camp had just been completed which saved time on the Auschwitz end of the line: the trains from Hungary could now stop within a couple of hundred yards of the gas chambers. Between May and June as many as 20,000 Jews a day arrived at the death camp. Overwhelmed by the numbers, Hoess was forced to run his crematoria 24 hours a day. By the beginning of July, Eichmann had sent more than 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of them to a quick death. The operation he reportedly told an aide, "went like a dream." 

The Americans captured Eichmann after the war, but he escaped to Argentina. Living with his wife under a series of aliases, Eichmann was able to elude capture for more than a decade, in part because he had destroyed all photographs of himself. But on May 11, 1960, Israeli agents tracked him down. After a lengthy trial in Israel, Eichmann was found guilty of his crimes and hanged. 

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