It was an unusual coincidence, one that presented a difficult choice. Mossad agent Rafi Eitan described the missed opportunity to an interviewer from Der Spiegel almost fifty years later:
In the spring of 1960, as we were planning the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, we learned that [Josef] Mengele was also in Buenos Aires. Our people checked out the address and it proved to be correct. … There were just 11 of us and we had our hands full dealing with Eichmann. After we had brought Eichmann to the house where we kept him until we flew him out, my boss at the Mossad, Isser Harel, called. He wanted us to arrest Mengele as well, but Mengele had left his home in the meantime. Harel said we should wait until he returned and then bring both him and Eichmann to Israel in the same plane. I refused because I didn’t want to endanger the success of the Eichmann operation. … When our agents returned to Argentina, Mengele had moved out of his apartment and gone underground.1
So Eichmann went to Jerusalem, and Mengele remained in South America. The first was executed after facing survivors, witnesses, and judges in an Israeli court in 1961 and the second, who died in hiding in Brazil, ended up as a skeleton on the examination table for forensic experts in 1985. Each of these forums exemplifies, and perhaps even inaugurated, different forms and sensibilities within the ethics and epistemology of war crime investigations and human rights.
The “era of testimony” began, by most accounts, with the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, the first major war crimes trial since Nuremberg and Tokyo and the crucible of all the great debates about international criminal justice and accounting for atrocities since.2 In the two chapters of The Juridical Unconscious devoted to Eichmann, Shoshana Felman argues that the new political agency of survivors as witnesses established at the trial was acquired not in spite of the fact that the stories they told were hard to tell, hear, or sometimes even to believe, not in spite of the fact that they were unreliable, but, paradoxically, precisely because of these flaws. Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson had himself contrasted the bias and faulty memories of witnesses with the solidity of documentary evidence: “The documents could not be accused of partiality, forgetfulness, or invention, and would make the sounder foundation.”3