Encounter with Eichmann

A frequent visitor to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, Arieh Handler knew by sight the thin-lipped official in charge of Jewish affairs who supervised the officers with whom he met. Adolf Eichmann also clearly knew him by sight but the two never exchanged words. Once, however, their paths crossed in other circumstances. After the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, the Nazis forbade German Jews from setting foot in that country. The ban extended also to aliya personnel like Handler who were permitted travel to foreign countries. He and his colleague, Josef Burg, were placed in a quandary when leaders of Austrian Jewry, awakening belatedly to their situation, telephoned them and to ask their assistance in organizing an aliya program that would enable Austrian Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Circumventing the German order, the two flew to Vienna, using their student cards from the University of Berlin instead of their passports which clearly marked them as Jews. To their chagrin, they found the plane full of German officers flying to the newly annexed territory, but no one identified them. After a few days in Vienna, Burg returned to Berlin, this time by train. He traveled by sleeper to reduce exposure to Germans on the trip and he made it safely back. Handler left Vienna 10 days later, likewise by sleeper. Close to midnight, he emerged from his cabin to go to the toilet. "When I stepped into the corridor, I saw a familiar figure a few meters away. It was Eichmann. I believe he saw me." Handler returned hastily to his cabin and awaited with dread the knock on the door. It did not come and he reached Berlin unmolested. If Eichmann had indeed recognized him, something Handler regards as likely, why did he not act? Handler was in clear defiance of the government ban on Jewish travel to Austria. Was it because Eichmann did not want to be bothered? Laziness would not seem to characterize a pedantic bureaucrat like him. Or might his mind have somehow made a distinction between his self-perceived role as a cog in a killing machine which swept up millions and a personal confrontation "outside the office" in which he, and he alone, held responsibility? We do not know, but infinite are the permutations of the human psyche.