The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb – Review by Beth Shaum

I remember reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil when I was a freshman in college. Well, let me rephrase that: I remember that I was supposed to read Eichmann in Jerusalem. I was still trying to get by on my “I don’t understand the text so I’m just going to listen really well in class so I can write an essay about this later” M.O. (and I was in the Honors Program people! There has to be more to literature class or any class that reads a work of literature than just assigning reading). Anyway, I remember nothing of the book, but I do remember a great deal about the discussions we had about the book, which were essentially what the subtitle describes: the banality of evil. I also remember our professors (the class was co-taught) brought in a Holocaust survivor one day to add to the discussion and the survivor was extremely agitated at the professors and the class for even thinking that Eichmann was anything other than a monster.

That exchange occurred back in 1998 and I still recall sitting in that small classroom in a circle of uncomfortable university-issue chairs with those ridiculous half-desks that can barely fit a notebook on top of it, listening to really smart students bring up points that I didn’t understand, while this man who had seen atrocities I couldn’t even fathom, told us that Hannah Arendt was wrong and we were all wrong in thinking that there is a banality to evil. I, however, just sat there and tried to soak it all in and felt slightly ashamed that our class, with our professors leading the charge, had the gall to argue with a holocaust survivor about World War II, however academic and well-intentioned it was.

Reading The Nazi Hunters took me back to that classroom. This time however, I was rapt with my reading rather than frustrated and intimidated by it. But instead of this book being primarily about what happens AFTER Eichmann is captured as in Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Nazi Hunters is about the mission to track Eichmann down and bring him to justice.

If the name Adolf Eichmann doesn’t ring a bell, he was one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals to come out of World War II. He was responsible for organizing the transport of Jews to their final destination: death camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, and the like. He also went to ghettos, ensuring  the Jews inside that the Nazis were keeping them there for their own safety and that if they cooperated, no harm would come to them. As far as Eichmann was concerned, his responsibility was to get them on the train. What happened after that wasn’t his problem.

As soon as the war ended, Eichmann went into hiding and eventually escaped to Argentina where the government looked the other way if you were a former Nazi, even going so far as to welcome war criminals in the hopes that they could help build up their infrastructure as they attempted to climb their way into the first world.

Eichmann managed to remain undetected for fifteen years, but eventually his past caught up to him and the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, was able to capture him and take him to Israel in a nail-biting spy mission of epic proportions.

The entire time I was reading The Nazi Hunters I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a spy movie instead of reading a book. Why this story hasn’t been made into a movie (or has it?) is beyond me. Someone needs to get on that.

What I love about this book is how accessible it is to middle grade and young adult audiences, while also managing to challenge and interest adult readers as well. There is no dumbing down or sugar coating the material here. And since most history textbooks on World War II don’t go much into the war crimes trials, this book would be good to give to students to supplement and pique their interest further.

This would also be a fantastic book if you read and enjoyed Bomb: The Race to Build – And Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. In fact, the structure and writing style is so similar that, had I not noted the author on the cover, I would have guessed it was Sheinkin.

Since reading The Nazi Hunters resurrected some memories for me of my first few months of college and the wish I now have that I could have been a stronger reader to better participate in class discussions, I think I need to go back and reread Eichmann in Jerusalem since I can actually say that I would understand it now. There’s an essay in here somewhere about reading the books we’re ready for but I’ll save that for another day.

In the meantime, those of you who are scared to pick up nonfiction for fear it will bore you to tears need not worry with The Nazi Hunters. I nearly bit off all my fingernails reading this book — it was that suspenseful.
The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb 

Published: August 27, 2013

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books

Pages: 256

Genre: Nonfiction

Audience: Middle Grade/Young Adult
While not currently teaching, Beth Shaum will always be a middle school teacher at heart. She spent seven wonderful years teaching 6th graders in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan and is currently the social media coordinator for NCTE. Follow her on Twitter: @BethShaum