On 26th January, 1945, the Nazis did their utmost to hide from the world the atrocities they had been committing for the previous five years.
They blew up Crematorium V, the last of the five joint furnace/gas chamber complexes they had used to indiscriminately murder Jewish people at Auschwitz.
Why? The Russian Army was quickly moving in from the East. It was only a matter of hours before they would reach the camp in what is now South
Poland. They were a matter of a few miles away from stumbling into the beating heart of the Holocaust. One of the infamous murder camps.
During the course of the war, 1.1 million people – more than 90% of them Jews – were murdered at Auschwitz.
To put that into perspective: at only one of their extermination camps, they killed more people than the total number of Britain’s and America’s war dead.
At its peak, the Auschwitz complex housed 100,000 people. Its poison-gas chambers could accommodate 2,000 at one time, and 12,000 could be gassed and incinerated each day.
In anticipation of the arrival of the Russians, and as a demonstration of their barbarity, the Germans had moved 60,000 prisoners westwards towards other camps. Many of them would die on the ‘death marches’. The day after the attempt to hide these crimes, on 27th January, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated. A total of 7,000 prisoners were liberated. However, almost half of the 7,000 people set free would also die. They were too ill, starving or
exhausted to survive.
Every year we commemorate the day of liberation as Holocaust Memorial Day. 75 years on, we continue to look back on what true evil looked like and vow to learn our lessons that this will never happen again.
Few people will realise though, that what went on in Eastern Europe 75+ years ago ended up quite close to home. In a sleepy, quaint Devon village lived a man who kept chickens, helped look after the village playground and organised barbecues at the village tennis club.
Not unusual, I feel you say. Well, the man in question was Hermann Arndt and he was once responsible for the daring capture of the ‘world’s most wanted Nazi’.
Mr Arndt was a Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) agent who led the daring operation to capture Adolph Eichmann in 1960. After arriving in Israel he assumed the name, Zvi Aharoni. Eichmann was one of the most pivotal actors in the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’. Charged with managing and facilitating the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and killing centres in the German-occupied East, he was among the major organisers of the Holocaust. Mossad set out to capture him from where he was held-up in South America after escaping Germany at the end of the war.
Armed with an old SS photograph of Eichmann, Aharoni travelled to Buenos Aires in March 1960 and discovered that Eichmann was living in
Hidden under a tarpaulin in a truck outside the house, Aharoni first spotted Eichmann collecting the washing. He would spend the next few weeks shadowing the whole family’s movements. He said he had to resist the temptation to take personal revenge there and then on the man involved in the murder of so many of his fellow Jews, as he wanted Eichmann to have ‘a free and fair trial’.
“When I looked into his eyes,” Aharoni reflected later, “I am sure I should have felt revulsion, or anger, or even wonder at what he had done, but I have interrogated so many monsters that it had no effect on me.”
On 20th May, 1960, national intelligence (Mossad) agents seized Eichmann outside his residence at 14 Garibaldi Street and spirited him out of the country to Israel.
On 12th December, 1961, he was found guilty of several of the charges asserted in the original indictment, and on 15th December sentenced to death.
On 1st June, 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging. Aharoni kept his part in this a secret from all of his fellow residents of the Devon village, before eventually writing a tell-all book about the events, entitled Operation Eichmann.
He wrote it at the age of 76, detailing his exploits, and spoke for the first time about his amazing past. He said: “It was my duty to tell the truth. So many books were rubbish – total rubbish. It made me furious, so why not tell the truth?
‘My biggest fear was that he would be able to deny who he was and we would be unable to prove it. In fact in a way I respected him. He was very proud, he never begged for mercy and he never broke down. And he respected us as professionals too.”
Mr Aharoni said at the time, that despite his cover being blown, he would not leave Woodbury, which was now his home: “I spent 10 years nurturing my garden here, I like it and I will not be moving. It’s a shame people know who I am, but I believe it is all in the past.” He died in 2012.
Neighbours in Woodbury said they had no idea that the gentleman with a German accent was really a heroic Nazi hunter. It just goes to show that events that occurred a long time ago, far-removed from the hills and fields of Devon, can sometimes be much closer to home than we think.
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