Tel Aviv, Israel 61321
Next to the Angel of Death: How I Hung and Cremated Eichmann
By Yitzhak Nachshoni and Asher Medina, 'Shofar News', 28 April 2004
translated from Hebrew with comments and minor editing by Historama.com
I originally read an interview similar to this one in one of the main papers here but couldn't locate it afterwards. This translation is taken from an internet edition and so to adhere to copyrights I haven't pulled in any photos (visit the site above to see them); also the source of this story is from a national-religious news outlet, and therefore some of the content and political tones (towards the end of the interview) go beyond the central point of this story, nevertheless I kept all the content here.
Adolf Eichmann listens to chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner
He climbed up the stairs to the second floor with a heart pounding from excitement. When he entered the room he saw him already standing on the shutters while a thick rope lay on his neck. This man he had accompanied for the last half year almost every hour, and he always had the same icy look. But now, when this terrible man stood before him, his glance betrayed his feelings. The end had come.
He didn't hesitate. He managed to overcome the trembles which attacked him, approached the metal rod and with one thrust pulled it back. The shutters opened and the large body descended inside with sound of a thud. Ten hours later it was broadcast on "The Voice of Israel" radio the announcement: "The Nazi enemy, Adolf Eichmann, was put to death by hanging".
Fourty years later, sits in the studios of "Shofar News" an elderly Yemenite Jew - a dwarf - and tells his story which was secret for tens of years. "I was the man who executed Adolf Eichmann and even burned his body", he says, "It was a secret operation and no one apart from the commanders knew where it would take place or who would carry out the actual assignment".
Shalom Nagar, 67 years old, was one of the guards closest to Eichmann - like to other famous criminals: Demjanjuk, Kozo Akamoto, Rantisi and also Mordechai Lock - the "man in the suitcase". However the hardest trauma burned into his mind is from the execution of Eichmann. For almost half a year he was next to him (from 15 December 1961 to 31 May 1962), while he accompanied his court hearings and was exposed to horrible films and testimonies which were shown there. In the end it was him who carried out the punishment which thousands of Jews would have wanted to carry out for revenge.
Fourty years after the hanging and burning of Eichmann. How do you see things today?
"Fourty years have passed since then and today I am more grown up and understand what was the importance of the deed I carried out. Also from the point of view of Israel, according to the commandments of the Torah "Obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the sky - do not forget". G-d warned us not to forget. And to me fell the privilige not to forget. I fulfilled this rule in its entirety. Here it fell to the nation of Israel obliterate it in that they burned the body of that bitter enemy. In Israel they were concerned that people would make an idol of him. That's why they burned him".
All this you know today, but what did you feel then when you carried out the sentence?
"Then I was a youth aged 23, and I didn't want to carry out the deed because I was afraid that they would tell me I was a murderer. I didn't have the awareness of the function like today. After I became religious and learned the issue, I understood that I fulfilled a 'Mitzvah' [good deed] from the Bible. Sometimes I go to hospitals, like for instance for someone I know who suffered from an "illness" and was in a coma nine days and they didn't manage to wake her. When I came, I put under her pillow a holy book and in a few hours she woke up. People tell me "you have a virtue. You fulfilled an important commandment of the Bible".
THE SPECIAL UNIT
Shalom Nagar elaborates on the beginning of the story. How he got into the situation in which specifically he would be the one to hang Adolf Eichmann. "In the beginning I worked in the police and in the border guard. Afterwards I moved over to the prisons service where I worked for 28 years. When the Eichmann affair began he was brought to the prison where I worked, and after the trial and the sentencing it was clear that someone would need to carry it out. We were 22 guards and we kept watch on him in different shift. This was a special unit in Ramle prison which guarded Eichmann. For the purpose of guarding him they took over a whole floor of five rooms in the prison and called it "Eichmann's apartment". In this "apartment" the commander would order me to taste the food. Only after two minutes when he saw that I was okay, would he deliver the food to Eichmann."
You're Yemenite; why would you want to poison him?
"Wise men said, 'bribery will blind the eyes of the wise'. If they would have given me a million dollars, who knows? In spite of the fact that I'm not a man who gets enticed and money doesn't play a role with me."
In this unit weren't there people of Ashkenazi origins who endured the Holocaust?
Nagar: "Actually there were. There were those who had numbers on their arms from the concentration camps, but they didn't let them get close to him, rather just guarded him from outside. Every person whom they knew was in the camps or who had a connection to the Holocaust, they didn't let guard close to his [Eichmann's] room. In his small room there was a bed and a corner where he would write his memoirs. In the prisons service they hoped that by his own memoirs it would be possible to implicate a few more of his friends, but he was a very cunning and didn't give up anyone. The notebooks he wrote they kept secret until just a few years ago.
There was a guard from our brothers the Ashkenazis who would guard from outside, and between myself and himself there was a door with bars which he could not get passed. On one of the evenings he asked to switch with me, so that I would guard from outside and he would guard from within. I wasn't worried because I thought he was interested only in looking at him, and also there wasn't then an explicit directive to not allow anyone to be there. That guard entered and I went out. It turned out that his purpose was to show Eichmann just how the ball is round.
It was a late night hour and Eichmann was already drowsy. The guard called to Eichmann, rolled up his sleeve and showed him the number on his arm. He spoke in German and according to what I understood he told him: 'You see, I was with you in the Holocaust but now you're with me. The ball is round and he who laughs last laughs loudest.' When Eichmann heard the things he began to go wild and answered him in German, but I didn't understand what he said. As a result of the event the commander of the team arrived and wanted to throw me off it, but I explained that it was just a member of the group and that I had no other order. From then on there was a directive which forbade giving entry there to anyone."
Half a year to be attached to Eichmann, you get attached to him, no?
"Correct, and because of that I went through a trauma in the end from the execution".
How did the two of you communicate?
"Mostly with the hands. When he would ask to go to the restroom, he would signal with his hand I would take him out. Afterwards he told me "thank you" in Spanish. He knew I was Sephardic and wanted to thank me. We didn't have much dialogue amongst ourselves. Whatever he would need, he would signal to me. If I saw something suspicious in his room, I would enter, but in general I didn't disturb him."
What there anything suspicious in all this time?
"To me there was nothing. But, one of the guards told me that they found a razor blade with him. He probably wanted to cut himself or something similar.
How did something so dangerous enter a place so closed?
"I have no idea how it wasn't spotted".
Would someone meet with him or come to see him?
"Yes, there was an additional room and there he would meet with his lawyer. In the room there was a reinforced glass divider. On the table there was a speaker through which he could speak and also listed, and that's how they spoke between themselves."
Did he have a German pride also within the walls of the prison?
"Yes, he was a 'yekke'. He didn't capitulate himself. He continued the course of his life as if he wasn't in prison.
Did he know what awaits him?
"I sure that he did. In the beginning, during his trial perhaps he had all kinds of thoughts, perhaps his lawyer comforted him by saying he would get out with life imprisonment, but in the end, he received his sentence and we carried it out".
And from the time that they sentence him, did they sense a change in his behavior?
"Certainly. He was a little agitated. We saw it on his face. It's natural with everyone. Even an animal senses when they're about to slaughter it".
But in any case he remained conceited until his last day?
"Yes. Even the black blindfold that they put on the faces of those sentenced to death he refused to wear".
I FELT A SENSE OF MISSION
The truth was that Shalom Nagar didn't know until the hours just before the execution that of all the prisons service guards he would be the one who would carry out this special responsibility. Although the commander spoke to him a few days before then, he also spoke with several others so that Nagar didn't raise the possibility in his mind that in the end it would actually be him who would be chosen for the task. "They looked for a suitable person and apparently saw in me the right one", recalls Nagar, "When they told me that I'm the one, I refused. But they convinced me and showed me a horrible film from the Holocaust and of Eichmann's misdeeds, so I agreed. I said: if the commander wants, I'm ready. When I saw the atrocities he committed, I said that there aren't mercies for such a person. Six million Jews, children, women in pregnancy - everyone he sent to the crematoriums, and because of what? What did they do? Innocent people. A person like that, willing to put people into gas chambers, he's worse than an animal. A lion preys in order to eat and survive, but when he's satiated he doesn't prey. But this man killed even when he was satiated. He's the scum of the human race. In Germany they made a movie about him and they also interviewed me, and I told them: how can a cultured nation, educated, be willing to do what an animal isn't willing to do? They were silent, they didn't know what to answer".
You know that there are thousands of Jews who would be happy to carry out the task that you did. Did you ask yourself why specifically you were chosen?
"In the army they say that one doesn't ask questions. At the same time I didn't ask questions. What they told me I did. But today I understand what I did".
The progression of events, from the moment the task was assigned to when it was carried out, Nagar remembers as if it happened just yesterday. All the smallest details are burned into his mind. Similar to one who has been through a significant trauma, and because he's reliving it now anew, recalls Nagar: "We worked in shifts of 24 and 48 hours, and on that same day I was at home. No one knew that this is the day of the hanging except the commander and a few senior people. I lived then in Holon, and I went out to walk with my wife in the street. Suddenly a car stopped next to me with a screeching of the breaks, from within my commander came out and pulled me in, and drove away from the place. I had a problem from the point of view that my wife didn't understand what had happened, and thought that I'd been kidnapped. I told the commander that at the moment he has problem because he wants everything to be secret but my wife will run now to the police and tell them that they kidnapped me and will start a search, and his big secret will be revealed. He said 'you're right, we're turning back'. We returned to my wife and I told her not to worry, that this is my commander and that I need to do additional work. She of course didn't know what kind of work I stood now to do. I reached the prison and there the commander gave me a stretcher, sheets, and bandages, and told me to remain in the room down below".
How did this room look?
"It was the room underneath, in whose ceiling they had opened a hole, and there there were shutters that opened, which essentially effected Eichmann's hanging. In the upstairs room there was a rope which hung from the ceiling, and underneath it the shutters".
Eichmann spoke at that time?
"The truth is I don't remember, but through what he had done to me I felt as if he spoke".
What did you feel at those same moments?
"I was scared. I'm today a [Kosher] slaughterer, and I know of many slaughterers who get scared before a slaughter. All the more so here, when talking about a human being. Although he was not a "human being", in any case he's still an image".
Did he have a last request?
"He was in the second room with his priest, who spoke with him, and I didn't hear what they said there. I know that they gave him a cup of wine, and it's possible that they also asked him for his final request. At 21:00 in the evning, I climbed to the upper floor, where the rope for hanging was, and I saw him already standing with the rope around his neck. Without much hesitation, I pulled the handle backwards, and the shutters opened, and he fell down".
Did you hear something?
"The noise from the shutters opening and some twitchings from the choking".
How did you feel at that moment?
"It's not a pleasant feeling. I would forfeit all this if the six million were alive. But we are commanded by G-d, who obliterated any memory of Amalek [in Jewish tradition the Amalekites of the Bible represent the archtypal enemy of the Jewish people; Kings David and Saul waged war against them]. The Germans were Amalek. For example, the [ancient] Egyptians did against us everything: they threw our children into the sea and enslaved us into oppressive work. But even so the Lord did not command us to destroy the memory of Egypt - the opposite: we're forebidden from torturing them because the Torah says "because you lived in their land". But Amalek, we were commanded to obliterate them".
"Just after the hanging I went downstairs and when I entered the room I saw a sight not from this world, which caused me nightmares. First of all his face was white like quicklime. His tounge was completely hanging out of his mouth, and in the rope which was wrapped around his neck there were swatches of skin torn from his throat, and blood streamed down all over his chest. To see this sight was terrible. For me this was the angel of death in his incarnation. But, the commander ordered me to climb onto the scaffold and remove his body from it".
Shalom Nagar describes this most horrible event he experienced, which caused him nightmares and illnesses for a full year:
"When I came to remove him, I got caught in a difficult problem. I didn't know that he had air in his stomach. I was young and didn't know about the processes that occur to the bodies of hung men, in which all the air that was inside them in the stomach remains there from the moment that they suffocate. In addition it's possible that they also mumble a few words a moment before death and that air is also trapped inside. When I climbed up I saw his head leaning on its side and his eyes open and staring at me. When I came to pull him up from his waist, the air went up and suddenly came out of his mouth a dreadful sound of "baaa..." and I thought that he'd come to swallow me... All the blood that was on him squirted onto my face, and I started to shake from fright.
The commander called for a few more people and they lowered him down, and undressed him from his prisoner's clothes. We wrapped him in sheets that they'd given me and we put him on the stretcher. From there we took him to the place, where is located today Neve Tirtza, where there was an empty warehouse and to where they had brought a large oven, which I heard they had built specially for him. One of the people who warmed up the oven, and was called Kols (blessed be his memory [rest in peace]), was in the concentration camps. He received the task of heating up the oven, and was happy about it. He heated it up like he had to. The oven was hot and burning such that no one could approach it. What did they do? They built a sort of train track to the oven with a stretcher that was on wheels. We lowered him on this stretcher, and I was supposed to push it into the oven, but because my hands were shaking so, he fell from the stretcher, once to the right and once to the left. In the end I got him into the oven and closed the doors.
The commander already saw that I'm not in a good state, and he said to me: 'come, go home and rest'. He took me to the car. When I got out of it I felt a great fear. I told him, come accompany me to the house. From the same moment that his speech breathed on me there began with me a full year of nightmares and fears. I got home with blood on the clothes and my wife, who opened the door for me at 5 in the morning, was shocked and asked 'what happened'? I told her that I'd hung Eichmann. She didn't believe me. I told her, 'turn on the radio, in a little while they will announce it in the news'. And indeed she turned on the radio and heard the announcement and calmed down. Since then I lived in a great fear. I'm not a man who gets scared. From a childhood age I lived alone without parents and without help. Also when I served in the border guard and would go out at nights. I was in the combat engineers and dismantled landmines. I was not a man who got scared. But from him, I was scared".
How do you explain that?
"I'll tell you. In the beginning I was aggrieved about those millions who went to the crematoriums like lambs to the slaughter and didn't do anything. Today I understand the meaning of the Sages (blessed be their memories) who said 'Don't judge your friends until you stand in their places'. But back then I had a question: a thousand men go to a crematorium and barely two or three men stand guard around them. You know you're going to die, jump the guards; they will kill a few of you but you will kill them all. What cowards you are. But here, I see myself, I was scared from a man who was dead, who was with me with no weapons... I came to accuse them and I myself am scared. They had a reason to be scared. They tortured and degraded them for several years, so that there wasn't even a show of humanity left in them. They themselves wanted to go to the ovens from all the debasement and torture".
THE SHADOW THAT CHASES AFTER HIM
The fears chased Nagar also when he returned to work in the prison. "At that same period", he recalls, "I was a central person in the prison, and the commander worried about losing me. Therefore, when I used to go by the stairs next to the 'apartment' that Eichmann lived in, I was always accompanied by two guards in order to not stand at the stairs. The problem was, my shift colleagues used to poke fun at me and say: 'what you afraid of, it's a dead man, you yourself cremated him - what can he do to you?" It insulted me, but the fear didn't leave me.
On one of the days I decided to overcome the fear. I went to the shift commander and told him: 'today I'm going without an escort'. He told me: 'Shalom, leave your sillinesses. Until you don't feel sure, go with guards'. I insisted and he agreed. He felt that something with me wasn't in order and waited for me by the stairs. I started to walk alone and sang to myself in order to expel the fear and forget it. But what happened? When I passed by his door (it was a glass door), I saw my shadow reflect off the door and I told myself in dread: it's Eichmann. It's him!! From the great panic I ran quickly on the steps and rolled off them down to the bottom. My legs were hurt, and the commander ran to me and said: 'you see? Now I don't have a key staffer and I don't have anything, and all because you think you're brave. These fears have no connection to heroism. It's something psychological that is difficult to get rid of'. And that's how they continued to escort me for a year. And amazingly, a year had gone by and the fear went away as if it had not been. This is something I have no way of explaining".
DEMJANJUK WAS IN LINE
Further in his life, after 30 years, he almost did similar work on John Ivan Demjanjuk, who was called "Ivan the Terrible" from Treblinka death camp. "I studied during those years at the Jewish studies program for married men in Hebron and received a phone call at 23:30 at night. They tell me that there was a death sentence passed on Demjanjuk and asked that I come to take care of it. I told the caller: 'look, today I'm a religious man, I'm different. I cannot do this, and I still have nightmares from the first one'. He replied to me: 'it's a high sanctification and a great good deed ('mitzvah'). In any case, let's not talk about this. I just want to ask you where the oven is in which we cremated Eichmann. Where did we put it?' I replied to him 'How would I know? It's already been 30 years, how can I remember?' He said: 'In any case, try to remember where they put it the last time'. I replied to him that from what I recall they put it under the stairs of the Ramle prison. The following day, we went there and I showed him the place, and there indeed was the oven. Exactly in the same place they laid it 30 years before. But in the meantime, they had cleared Demjanjuk of the sentence and I got rid of that unjust request. Indeed it's a good deed ('mitzvah') to obliterate the memory of Amalek, but there are other Jews who could do this since all Jews are commanded so".
From what you observed, was that really Demjanjuk [i.e. "Ivan the Terrible"] or a person similar to him?
"'Not a double and not anything!' It was him. People testified and collapsed when they saw him. When they returned him afterwards to America, the Americans themselves said that it's him and that Israel erred".
So how do you explain that they released him?
"I have an explanation of my own inspite of the fact that I have no proof for it. The explanation is that during the appeal for pardon, arrived here the president of Ukraine for a visit in the country, and at that time Yitzhak Rabin was the Prime Minister. In those days Israel didn't have diplomatic relations with Ukraine because the Ukranians were no less terrible than the Nazis during the Holocaust. Apparently the president of Ukraine arrived in the country in order to improve the relations. And therefore it's possible that Rabin preferred to release Demjanjuk the Ukranian as a sign of peace rather than kill him. Because there was nothing to be gained from killing him. But relations between countries are more important. We were searching for relations with the world".
[John Demjanjuk was tried in Israel on the suspicion of having been "Ivan the Terrible", a notorious SS guard at the Treblinka death camp, between 1942-43, who allegedly committed extraordinary acts of violence and murder against camp prisoners. Although convicted by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1988, on appeal in 1993 the Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Demjanjuk was "Ivan the Terrible"; indeed it was claimed that some of the prosecution's evidence was forged by the Soviets. Under the circumstances, just from a legal-political standpoint, Nagar's theory here seems implausible.]
You who came to know bitter enemies from close up, when you hear about the targeted assasinations that Israel carries out, how do you relate to that?
Nagar: "Look, this is different. The Arabs indeed also murder us and do terrible things but they have the claim that we took away their land and we also kill them. Not that I'm justifying them G-d forbid, but they have - in their way - a sort of justification to do it, but the Nazis - may their name be obliterated - did it without any reason clear to the eye. Just burning hate for the Jews".
As a person who was so many years in the prisons service, what do you think about Mordechai Va'anunu, the most well known prisoner this week?
[Va'anunu was released from prison after 18 years a week before this interview, on the 21st. He was charged with passing on classified information on the Israeli nuclear weapons program.]
"He's a psychopath. I saw him in prison. And I tell you that he's not normal. No matter that his whole family is religious and keepers of 'mitzvot'. And if a man like this goes against his whole family, against his own country, and against his own religion - what for? It's a person who is not normal. In spite of the fact that he has supporters and they make of him some kind of second Jesus, it's not serious".
Would you be willing to guard him in prison...?
"I would throw him into solitary confinement so that he rots there all his life".
* For a story with an ironic connection to this specific event, please see the Safebreaker of the Mossad on this site.