Sins of the Father

updated 07/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/1995 01:00AM

THEY BLENDED SEAMLESSLY INTO THE HECTIC lobby of the Heathrow Hilton Hotel, engulfed by the chattering clientele—business travelers, for the most part, here for the proximity to London's main airport. Surely none of the ambient dealmakers could have imagined that these two men, huddled in a corner, were enacting a drama of deep personal meaning and some historical weight. Perhaps the scene was all the more powerful because it appeared so mundane, as Zvi Aharoni, a white-haired, German-born Israeli, talked with a dark-haired, slender, Argentinian-born archaeology professor from Germany named Ricardo Eichmann.

Eichmann. Few surnames have ever evoked such horror. The 39-year-old scholar had borne it stoically for decades, long after the death of a father he scarcely knew and whose legacy he loathes: Adolf Eichmann, the chillingly efficient Nazi bureaucrat who came to embody the "banality of evil"—architect of Hitler's Final Solution, who supervised the deportation and systematic murder of 6 million Jews and others during World War II.

Ricardo, the youngest of Eichmann's four sons, had always sought to keep the past buried. But as he neared midlife, the archaeologist—whose career is devoted to unearthing the truth—seemed determined to exhume and examine his own legacy and not on some analyst's couch but, remarkably, in full public view. On his appointment as professor at Tubingen University in Germany, Eichmann granted his first ever interview, to a local newspaper. "If you want to participate in this life, you can't run away," says Eichmann, who was born in the country where his father had fled to escape the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal. "I am glad to stop running."

Now in the Hilton lobby last month—in a meeting arranged by the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv—he was facing the man who had brought his father to justice. Zvi Aharoni was the leader of a daring band of Israeli intelligence agents who in 1960 kidnapped Adolf Eichmann from near his house on Garibaldi Street in Buenos Aires and spirited him to Jerusalem, where he was tried, convicted and hanged for genocide two years later.

"I want you to know this is very difficult for me," said Aharoni, now 74, "since I am the one chiefly responsible for the kidnapping of your father." But Eichmann, though edgy, was eager to meet him. "I have a feeling it will complete some sort of circle concerning my father," he said before the encounter.

Married and the father of two young sons, Ricardo is repulsed by everything his father stood for. "I can't find words to describe the horrible things he did," he says. "I don't agree with capital punishment, but given the nature of his crimes I have no problem with his execution." His memories of his father are dim at best. "I have only two: that he took me one time by bus to the city, and that he bought me chocolate one time."

Ricardo was only 5 years old, playing inside the house on Garibaldi Street, when Aharoni and other Israeli agents snatched his father and shoved him into the back of a car as he returned home from his postwar job as a technical adviser for Mercedes-Benz. After the abduction, Aharoni and others suggested that the Israelis offer financial assistance to the Eichmann family: "We said, 'We left behind a woman with four kids—there is a moral problem here.' " But their superior was unmoved. "Zum toyfel," he muttered—Yiddish for "let them go to hell."

Ricardo's older brothers—Horst (who remains a committed Nazi), Dieter and Nicholas—were aware of their father's fate. But the youngest Eichmann was sheltered from the grim details. "All I knew was that he went away," he recalls. "I think my mother told me he'd gone away to work. And as the family moved briefly back to Germany, then returned to Argentina, his mother, Veronika—an obsessive Bible reader who died two years ago at 84—discouraged nostalgia. "We never spoke about the past," Ricardo remembers. "I often asked, but it was like a black hole. My mother's silence only strengthened my belief that we had something to hide."

At the age of 8, Ricardo and his family returned permanently to Germany. It was there, as a teenager, that he first read articles referring to his father as a convicted war criminal. "But I did not allow myself to imagine the full extent of what he did," he says. Nevertheless he was acutely conscious that his family name had dark significance. "Whenever someone was nice to me, I couldn't help thinking, 'He must be a Nazi,' " Eichmann recalls. "If someone was hostile, I thought, 'Could his family have suffered in the war?' "

In his late teens, Ricardo did a brief stint in the German army. "One day we had a chemical-warfare drill, they put us into a gas chamber," he recalls. "Have you any idea what German soldiers call the gas chamber? The Eichmann Hobby Shop." The shame was enough to make him request a discharge.

In 1976, Ricardo enrolled at the University of Heidelberg, where he studied archaeology—and met his wife, Ilka, whom he married 10 years ago. After more than a decade at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, he joined the University of Tubingen this year. Eichmann, who never changed his surname, made no secret of his family ties. "I told my students, 'If you think I am a Nazi, please go and never come back,' " he says. " 'If I suspected my teacher was a Nazi, that's what I would do.' "

At the end of 1995 he will move to a more visible post at the University of Berlin, where he will live with Ilka and their sons Gaspar, 8, and Sergej, 6. To unwind from his 12-hour workdays, Eichmann noodles on his violin—and Wagner is not in his repertoire. "I especially like Cajun music," he says. Eichmann says his children will not, as he did, "live in darkness" ignorant of their heritage. "I bought them a picture book about the friendship of a Jewish girl and a German girl who were separated by the Nazis," he explains. "On every page they can see pictures of men in brown shirts and swastikas." Eichmann told his sons that their grandfather Adolf wore a brown shirt and was punished for what he did in the war." 'How?' Gaspar asked. "I said it was just like in his Lucky Luke western comic. 'Oh, you mean they hanged him,' he said in a matter-of-fact way. And then he ran off to play."

During the meeting at the Heathrow Hilton, Ricardo Eichmann and Zvi Aharoni talked for 3 hours over sandwiches, beer and whiskey. Aharoni, who grew up in Nazi Germany—where many of his aunts and uncles died in the Holocaust—and emigrated to Israel in 1938, recounted the story of the abduction, trial and death of Adolf Eichmann. "I don't think he hated Jews," Aharoni says, before summarizing the tragedy of the Holocaust in a single phrase: "He was a devoted civil servant who performed his duties to a tee."

Finally they parted with a warm handshake. And Ricardo Eichmann drew a little closer to purging his past. "In a way, my father has come back to me," he says. "Now I have to push him away. Time passes," he adds, "and a new life should begin. For me, the story is over."

RICHARD JEROME
TERRY SMITH and DIETLIND LERNER in Tubingen and ABE RABINOVICH in Jerusalem

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