September 4, 2018
This past weekend the movie Operation Finale opened. It is the story of the historic identification, abduction and trial of the architect of Nazi Germany's Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, by the Israeli government. He was arrested in Argentina in 1960, the trial took place in Israel in December 1961 and Eichmann was hanged in June 1962.
What is of some interest to me are the several commentators and critics of the movie who raise the question as to why Eichmann wasn't nabbed sooner---after all, they write, there were reports Eichmann sightings in Argentina well prior to his abduction in 1960.
As one who monitored extremists and received reports of Nazi sightings over my 27years with the Anti- Defamation League ("ADL"), I can vouch for the fact that it is far easier to connect the dots after the fact than when they are being observed-----it is rarely clear at a given time that what a "witness" sees is, in fact, true, accurate or worthy of follow up. People often see what they want to see and recollect with a greater certainty than is warranted.
A brilliant analysis of "post hoc dot connecting" was offered by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker and later in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point. It's never as obvious in the moment whether "evidence" confirms a "fact."
In 1980, I was the counsel and director of "fact-finding" for the ADL for the western United States. Among other activities, my job entailed monitoring extremist groups. We would read publications, "cover" meetings, and otherwise monitor the workings and leaders of far right and far left extremist groups---from neo-Nazis to the Posse Comitatus, and the Klan, to PLO front groups to pro-Soviet activists. We were magnets for folks providing "tips" and tidbits of information about what they thought were relevant goings on.
One day I received a call from Sig Halbreich, an elderly Holocaust survivor and a leader in the survivor community. Sig, as the Los Angeles Times' obit in 2008 noted,
became one of the Holocaust's most vocal witnesses, giving talks in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, churches and synagogues. By the time he stopped, about three years ago , he had given 2,500 free lectures around the world on the abominations he lived through during Hitler's reign.
Sig had spent over five years in concentration camps, including more than twoyears in Auschwitz, where, because of his pharmacy training, he worked in the camp hospital. Sig had lectured to school children about his experiences for the ADL and numerous other groups. He was indefatigable.
One day in Spring, 1980 Sig called me to arrange a meeting to tell me some "very important news." He came to my office at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard and, in hushed tones, revealed that he had found where Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" of Auschwitz, was hiding. I was, naturally, intrigued by the notion that an 80+ year old survivor in LA had discovered where the most notorious of all living Nazis was hiding. I held my breath.
Sig proceeded to tell me that Mengele was playing piano in a restaurant bar on Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, at a place called Luigi's.
Being a lifelong resident of Los Feliz I knew exactly where Luigi's was. At first blush (and second and third as well) it seemed odd to me that of all the places on the planet, Mengele would have chosen to "hide out" in a city with over half a million Jews and thousands of Holocaust survivors. There were clearly alternative locales----even in the US, let alone around the world--where the likelihood of meeting someone who might recognize him would be considerably less than LA.
Additionally, there were top notch law enforcement agencies which were actively pursuing Nazis. Not only were the Israelis looking for him, but the United States government had a then brand-new Office of Special Investigations ("OSI") in the US Department of Justice that was specifically created to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals.
Halbreich explained that he had visited Luigi's twice and was "certain" that the pianist was the missing Mengele. He told me that given his experiences in Auschwitz and the numerous times during his time there that he had seen evildoer, there was no doubt in his mind that the pianist was who he said it was.
Despite my skepticism, I promised Sig that I would follow up. I happened to know an investigator in Washington, DC who worked for the Office of Special Investigations ("OSI") --the perfect person to ask to investigate the allegation.
My contact promised to "check it out," and he did.
He got both the OSI team and the FBI to investigate and they determined that the pianist at Luigi's was NOT Mengele, he wasn't even German---rather a South American immigrant with some musical talent.
Sig never believed what the government concluded, or I reported to him--he was convinced that he had found Mengele. He described the Mengele sighting in his autobiography, Before-During-After, published in 1991 (over a decade after the Luigi investigation) that "I saw him at Luigi's in Los Angeles."
The writers of Operation Finale can be forgiven if they have a few facts wrong intheir version of events six decades ago, hardly a major issue. It is also mistaken to assert, as some have, that the Israelis weren't committed to finding Nazi war criminals even if they didn't manage to pursue every "hot" lead---some of them weren't so "hot."