In May 1962, twenty-two men gathered in Jerusalem to decide by lot who would be Adolf Eichmann’s executioner. These men had guarded the former Nazi SS lieutenant colonel during his imprisonment and trial, and with no trained executioners in Israel, it would fall to one of them to end Eichmann’s life. Shalom Nagar, the only one among them who had asked not to participate, drew the short straw.
Decades later, Nagar is living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, haunted by his memory of Eichmann. He remembers watching him day and night, the way he ate, the way he sleptand the sound of the cord tensing around his neck. But as he tells and re-tells his story to anyone who will listen, he begins to doubt himself. When one of his friends, Moshe, reveals his link to Eichmann, Nagar is forced to reconsider everything he has ever believed about his past.
In the tradition of postwar trauma literature that includes Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Eichmann’s Executioner raises provocative questions about how we represent the past, and how those representations impinge upon the present.
“Both curiously transparent and full of secrets, a simultaneously dense yet airy fabric of cryptic threads and references. . . . Nothing is gratuitous in this book, nothing coincidental; all is intricately interlaced.” Frankfurter Rundschau, Germany
|Publisher:||New Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Astrid Dehe is a journalist, translator, and teacher. Achim Engstler is a university and adult education lecturer and writer. Dehe and Engstler have worked as a writing duo since 2008 and are the authors of two books in German. They live in Varel, Germany. This is their first book to be translated into English. Helen MacCormac has been a freelance translator since 1998 and lives in Kassel, Germany. Alyson Coombes translates contemporary German fiction and she lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
A narrow street in Holon in the industrial suburbs of Tel Aviv. A short, stout man, in his early seventies or maybe older, steps out from one of the small houses huddled beneath blocks of high-rise buildings. He is wearing a black coat, white shirt, and black trousers. A carefully trimmed white beard frames his weathered face, there's a black cap perched on the back of his head, and white curls hang down from his temples. He is holding a small suitcase in his right hand.
His dark eyes are alert; the old man looks around cautiously before he closes the door, he walks down the path cautiously, and cautiously opens the gate. Once he's on the pavement, he is filled with unease. He scurries down the street with hurried steps, looking over his shoulder all the time, stepping into the road, then back onto the pavement. In the end, he starts running sideways like a crab trying to keep an eye on what is ahead and behind at the same time, as if he dare not turn his back on anyone or anything.
He is on his way to the outskirts of the neighborhood. When he gets there, he is distressed and exhausted and doesn't calm down until he sees the sheep pen in front of him. He sets down the suitcase and wipes the sweat from his brow. As he turns around one more time, his eyes scour the cypresses and palm trees, the rundown huts at the foot of the hill, the fences made of corrugated iron.
Everything is as it should be. The old man goes to a shed beside the pen, made from rough planks of wood. He swaps his black coat for a blue smock hanging on a nail. Then he puts on a blue apron, opens the suitcase, and takes out a pair of thick rubber soles, a towel, and a wooden box. He ties the soles to the bottom of his shoes.
He opens the latch on the gate. The animals know his voice and he talks to them while he holds one back and pushes the others away. He forces the chosen sheep to the ground, binds its legs together with two ties. Then he heaves it into the wheelbarrow. Its body hangs over the side, the bound legs stick out. The animal is calm. It stares at the old man, as if it has been stunned. He opens his wooden box, takes out a knife and a whetstone, slides his thumb along the blade, holds it up to the light, and then starts sharpening it with rhythmic movements. The sheep watches. His skilled hand makes the steel ring; again and again the old man tests the blade, there's not a single nick left to be felt or seen, but he carries on sharpening the knife. There are nicks a human eye can't see, a human thumb can't feel. Nicks from tongues of flame and dark wings. Away with them! The law insists on purity — of spirit, not steel, sharpened beyond the blade.
The old man takes hold of the sheep's head, gently lays its ears across its eyes.
He says a prayer.
He cuts the animal's throat; separates arteries, veins, windpipe, and gullet in a single stroke.
On the other side of the compound, a man is pushing someone in a wheelchair. They are on their way to the meeting place, an improvised space in between the chicken coops and backyards with a fire for cooking meat and making tea, a wooden counter, a plain wooden table, folding chairs. It has a makeshift roof, planks supported by seven poles, which would hardly withstand a heavy shower.
The man in the wheelchair is pushed to the table. He doesn't move his head and his pinched features stand out. He is clean-shaven, his gray hair is cut short, and he's wearing a checked scarf around his neck to keep him warm. The other man, sturdy, with a beard, puts a hand on his shoulder, then goes to the fire, where he sets a saucepan of water to boil.
When he returns, he is carrying three mugs of steaming-hot tea. He pulls three pears and a knife out of his coat pocket, slices the fruit, and sets the pear halves beside each mug before he slips the knife back in his pocket. Then he sits down on one of the folding chairs. The sounds of the chickens, ducks, and geese surround them — a rising and falling antiphony to confirm the birds are there.
The sturdy man's chair is too small; he keeps changing his position, as if he would rather be standing. The man in the wheelchair hardly moves at all. His legs are paralyzed and his other movements are restricted. He can't lift his hands up high or turn his head very far.
The old man arrives still wearing his smock and the blue apron, which is now stained with blood. He sings as he walks and then starts to hum when he reaches the meeting place; he hums when he touches the sturdy man's shoulder and the shoulder of the man in the wheelchair. Then he sits down between the two of them and starts drinking his tea.
All three men are wearing the kippah, the flat cap that covers the back of the head and signifies fear of God. The old man is the only one with forelocks. He takes another sip of tea, leans back, folds his hands on his chest, and starts to tell his story: How was I supposed to know who Eichmann was? Adolf Eichmann. I'd never heard that name before.
The old man is Shalom Nagar. The sturdy one is my friend Ben. The man in the wheelchair is me, Moshe.
Nagar brought Eichmann back. I had nearly forgotten about him. The folders where I kept the newspaper clippings about him and the trial lay in a corner of my shelves, buried beneath my music scores. Books about his crimes are sealed with cobwebs, books that I used to keep at my fingertips and studied for such a long time. At some stage I just left them lying there. Why? I don't know the answer. Maybe because I didn't understand; maybe because I'd lost sight of what I was trying to understand. Eichmann went away.
He returned when Ben took me to see a film, a documentary called The Hangman. It was about Shalom Nagar — prison guard, kosher butcher, healer — Eichmann's executioner. Later we heard that Nagar had been invited to attend the film, but he hadn't shown up.
I know him, Ben said. He lives here in Holon, not far from you. We can visit him, if you like.
I didn't know if I wanted to. Eichmann, I thought, if he were Eichmann, I would want to meet him. Alone. But did I want to meet Eichmann's executioner?
Ben picked me up the next day. He pushed me past Nagar's little house, pushed me to the outskirts of our neighborhood, he pushed me past the sheep pen and over to the meeting place.
There was the old man, looking just like he did in the film, sitting there as he'd done in the film.
Shalom, this is Moshe, Ben said. An old friend of mine. He would like to meet you.
Nagar looked at me with dark restless eyes, nodded, and started to speak, said what he'd said in the film, introduced himself with his story, the text that has become a part of him: How was I supposed to know who Eichmann was? Adolf Eichmann, I'd never heard that name before. I came from Yemen when I was just a boy, you see, thirteen maybe fourteen years old. They'd told us about the war, not about all those other things. Eichmann? Who was he? I didn't find out about him until I had to guard him.
Eichmann's executioner? There are doubts. Was it really Shalom Nagar who pressed the button on May 31, 1962, opening the trap door through which Adolf Eichmann fell with a rope around his neck? And during that night, was it Nagar's hands that pushed Eichmann's body into the oven, to burn him to ashes?
Nagar insists this is the case; he is possessed by this person. Eichmann is still there, he believes. Eichmann is out to get him. He, Shalom Nagar, Eichmann's executioner, will be the final victim. Because there is one missing. Nagar believes Eichmann wasn't done. There is still one Jew left on his list.
How was I supposed to know who Eichmann was? Adolf Eichmann, I'd never heard that name before. I came from Yemen when I was just a boy, you see, thirteen maybe fourteen years old. They'd told us about the war, not about all those other things. Eichmann? Who was he? I didn't find out about him until I had to guard him. Now I know him, he is here every day, I know everything —
Who is here every day?
Eichmann is dead, Shalom.
I was his bodyguard, Ben. I was with him in his cell. There were three guards, one in the cell, one in the hall, one in the next room. I was with him in his cell. I went with him everywhere, even to the toilet. I had to.
You had to smell his stench?
No, no. The Germans are clean, Ben. So clean! They are evil. Eichmann was evil, too. When he went to the toilet the first thing he did was pull the chain. There was water running the whole time while he did his business. He didn't want me to smell anything. Then he stood up and closed the lid and washed his hands, twice, three times. If I hadn't known who he was, I'd have thought: What a saint. They've caught a saint. He never did anything wrong. He thanked me for everything, gracias, gracias, he said. That's Spanish for thank you.
Do you speak Spanish?
No. How could I? We communicated with our hands. It was the only way — he couldn't speak Hebrew, I couldn't speak German. But we understood each other. I had to fetch Eichmann's food. I always put it on a special tray with a lid that had a lock. I had to make sure that it stayed closed all the way from the kitchen to his cell. So that no one could put anything in it. They could have paid someone to put poison in his food.
People who wanted revenge. And the ones who didn't want him to talk. Everything had to be secure. Eichmann poisoned in prison! Imagine the scandal. It was an international trial after all, the whole world was watching. I went into his cell with the tray. But before I was allowed to give him the food, I had to test it first. He said: You must test it first, Shalom!
Merhavi, my commander. Once I asked him: Why do I have to test his food? Why can't someone else do it? He said: Listen, Shalom, if we lose a Yemenite, that's not a problem. Many Yemenites have died. But Eichmann mustn't die. It's an international trial.
If you spend a long time looking out for someone, you get close, familiar. You start to feel sorry for him. I could never have hit him. I never struck a prisoner, ever. Merhavi came to me after the sentence was announced, Eichmann was supposed to be hanged, but he had done something — he didn't want to accept the judgment.
Yes, and no one knew how long it was going to take. Merhavi came to me and asked: Shalom, when it is time, would you be prepared to press the button? I told him that I didn't want to. Everyone else wanted to, I was the only one who didn't. In the end we drew lots. And Merhavi said: This is an order, Shalom. You won, you have to do it.
When the day came — I had the day off that day — they came to fetch me. I was out for a walk with Ora and our little boy, and then a car stopped next to us; the door was opened, the commander pulled me inside, and we drove off to the prison. Eichmann was going to be hanged that evening.
Everything went very quickly. We lowered the rope, put the noose over his head, and I — I went over to the table. I pressed the button. And the trapdoor opened and he dropped.
I was twenty-six years old at the time, not really an adult yet. What did I know? I had never seen a man hang before. I saw his face as soon as I entered the chamber, white as a sheet. If you are strangled, the blood stops flowing to your head. And the eyes get forced out of their sockets. They came out.
His eyes had fallen out?
Bulged out. As if they were trying to touch you. And his tongue hung out of his mouth down to here.
To his chest? His tongue?
To his chin. His tongue hung down past his chin, I don't know why. It was all bloody. That was from the pressure of the noose on his throat. The mere sight of it made me ill. I hid behind my colleagues, so the commander wouldn't call me. But then Merhavi shouted: Nagar, come here! I said: Leave me alone, Chief, I can't bear it, I can't look at him. He said: Get over here now, Shalom, no discussion. This isn't a game.
So I climbed onto the gallows to pull Eichmann up so that Merhavi could remove the rope. Eichmann hung there with his head to one side, watching, he almost touched me with his eyes. I started to shake. And then he said something.
How could he? He was already dead.
He had said something before he died. It's like the radio. When you pull out the plug, it carries on playing for a moment before it stops. When people die talking, the same thing happens. Their last words stay with them when they die, and if they can, if there is any air left, they still have their say.
That's what happened with Eichmann. I didn't know his stomach was full of air, so I grabbed him round his belly and out it all came. I couldn't understand the actual words, but it was a curse. He cursed me. And all the blood shot out of his mouth with the words. He spat in my face. The commander was safe behind me. All the blood hit me. The little Yemenite.
And then —
That's enough for today, Shalom. Moshe needs to get home.
No. Wait, Ben, I want to finish the story. You know I tell true stories, not nonsense. One guard on either side and Eichmann in the middle. That was the order. When his lawyer came, when he was allowed onto the roof, whenever he went to the toilet: I tied him up —
His arms or his legs?
Arms and legs.
How on earth could he go to the toilet then?
When we got there, I removed the ties. That's how it was, one guard on either side, and Eichmann in the middle. And then when I went back to work, it was me who had to be guarded!
What do you mean, Shalom? Why were they guarding you?
They protected me! After — after that night I was given three days off — to recover — and then I was supposed to go back to my duties. But I couldn't. I could hardly manage to climb the stairs. I didn't dare go up to the second floor where his cell was, Eichmann's apartment we called that wing. I was sure he was waiting for me there. That's why they gave me the guards: two colleagues who walked on either side of me when I did my rounds. The commander didn't like it, of course. My colleagues were needed elsewhere. It was very embarrassing. But what could I do? I couldn't get Eichmann out of my head.
Week after week, month after month, I still needed the guards. A year went by. A whole year of fear and nightmares every day. Because of Eichmann, because he spat that blood all over me. When I was awake, I was afraid he might appear; when I was asleep, he haunted my dreams.
When the year was over, I went to Merhavi and said: This has got to stop, Chief, let me do my rounds on my own again. I want to get over this. He agreed.
It seemed all right at first. No problems on the ground floor, or on the first floor. I felt fine. But then, when I was on my way up to Eichmann's apartment — I was nearly at the top of the stairs — I heard his voice.
Yes! Quite clearly.
I don't know how — it was just there, Ben. I was on the stairs when I heard him. I walked on, slowly because my knees had turned to jelly. I'm walking along the corridor and can't hear anything. I reach the first door and take the keys out of my pocket. My hands were shaking. I could hardly fit the key into the lock. I unlock the door. Everything is quiet. I unlock the second door and walk into the hall. Just a couple more steps to his cell door. The hatch is open. One step. My legs don't want to move. Another step. I can't go any further. I stand on tiptoe. The light from the hallway shone into the cell through the hole in the door — a bright square at an angle to his bed.
And there he stood, staring at me, like this, with his head on one side.
I felt giddy, couldn't find my keys, managed to get out of there somehow, ran through the corridor. When I reached the stairs, I heard him shouting, gracias, gracias, and then — I woke up in hospital. I had fallen down the stairs, broken my leg and cut my head. Merhavi wanted to know what had happened. I told him everything. You saw your shadow, Shalom, he said.
He only feels safe when he's at the shed beside his sheep, his hens and geese, the animals he takes care of, feeds, and kills. Eichmann doesn't come here, he says.
Why not? Ben asks. He's happy to give Nagar the prompts he needs to weave his story. Why not?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eichmann's Executioner"
Copyright © 2014 Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.