February 17, 2011

Humans have an innate desire to see justice done. We see this desire playing out every day in our own lives. When a child runs to a parent to complain about being wronged by a brother or sister, or an employee approaches his supervisor to air a grievance about a co-worker, they are all seeking justice.

On the global scale, after the fall of Iraq in 2003, a thirst for justice led U.S. forces to search for fugitive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, determined to bring him to justice. For the same reason, we still search for Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The disappearance of many Nazi war criminals after World War II was seen as a grave affront to justice. To those who had lived through the horrors of the Holocaust or who lost loved ones in it — or to anyone who knew the scope of Nazi atrocities — it was unthinkable that the people who had implemented Hitler's plan to exterminate European Jewry and eliminate other "undesirable" elements of European society would escape punishment.

A Nazi leader who eluded justice after the war was Adolph Eichmann, one of the engineers of Hitler's "final solution" who had organized the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. The book Hunting Eichmann tells the harrowing story of the long search and eventual capture of this notorious war criminal. Author Neal Bascomb's account alternates from the perspective of a criminal on the run, to that of his pursuers, hunting Eichmann as he escaped two American POW camps, slipped secretly out of Europe, and assumed a false identity in South America.

The book is a story about the elusive Eichmann, as well as Israel's then-budding Mossad intelligence agency. But it is also a cautionary tale about the unsettling nature of evil. When his pursuers finally caught Eichmann, they expected to meet a cold, calculating "devil incarnate." Instead, they found a "pathetic creature" who was obedient and deferential. "Was this the personification of evil?" the head of the Mossad, Isser Harel, wondered. "Was this the messenger of death for six million Jews?" Evil, we learn from Eichmann's story, can take root and flourish anywhere — and in any type of person.

This well-researched book is a gripping page-turner and a fascinating documentation of a case that changed the collective thinking about the Holocaust and war criminals in general. "Only after the capture was there an extensive reexamination of the genocide," Bascomb writes on his website. "Beyond the Nazis, sadly, there are recent war criminals from conflicts in Darfur, the Balkans, and elsewhere. I believe that the drive to bring these individuals to account is, at least in part, a legacy of Eichmann, whose trial showed that perpetrators of genocide must pay for their crimes, and their acts must be made known to the world so they can be prevented in the future."

Hunting Eichmann will help you better understand a horrific chapter in Jewish and world history, and give you new perspective on the tenuous years after the Holocaust, when the world struggled to figure out how to respond to such evil. Sadly, with rising anti-Semitism and increasing unrest in the Middle East, this is a perspective we still need today. Let us pray that we will have the courage to confront evil wherever it occurs — to work toward the day when justice will "roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:24).

With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein