How we captured Adolf Eichmann

50 years after the Nazi was hanged, Beit Hatfutsot is offering an insider’s look at how the operation was planned and conducted.

By
February 23, 2012 13:55
A forged Israeli passport used in Eichmann op

A forged Israeli passport 521. (photo credit: Courtesy Beit Hatfutsot)

In its broad outlines, the story of Adolf Eichmann, his capture in Argentina by Israeli secret agents, and his trial in Jerusalem are well known.

Eichmann was appointed head of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs division at the start of World War II and was later placed in charge of organizing the “final solution” throughout Europe.

At the end of the war – and at the conclusion of the Holocaust – Eichmann was arrested by the US Army. He soon escaped his captors, however, and eventually made his way to Argentina, where he lived under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement.

Information regarding his whereabouts began to reach Israel in the late 1950s, spurring both the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to track Eichmann down. On May 11, 1960, Eichmann was abducted near his home in Buenos Aires by a team of Israeli agents, smuggled out of Argentina and flown to Israel.

Eichmann was placed on trial in Jerusalem in April 1961, convicted in December 1961, and hanged on May 31, 1962. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters.

Now, 50 years later, a multimedia exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot-Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv is providing visitors with many of the exact details of how the operation to capture Eichmann was carried out, and by whom. The exhibition, called “Operation Finale: The Story of the Capture of Eichmann” is a joint effort of Beit Hatfutsot and the Mossad.

Offering an insider’s look at how the operation was planned and conducted, “Operation Finale” presents more than 100 documents, records, photographs and videos, as well as pieces of equipment used during the laborious process of Eichmann’s identification, capture and abduction to Israel.

At the entrance to the exhibition stands a wall of honor, listing the names of 67 people who participated in the operation. While some of the names – like those of Isser Harel and Rafi Eitan – are familiar, most are not. Perhaps not surprisingly, the words “Mossad” and “Shabak” (Shin Bet) appear under many of the names, while “El Al,” surprisingly enough, appears under several others.

Above the list of names is an inscription that states, “The State of Israel and the Jewish people say thanks to the secret agents and all of those who participated in the operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, enemy of the Jews, each using his unique skills to ensure the operation’s success thousands of miles from home. We offer our praise and a place of honor.”

It is at this wall that we meet the exhibition curator on the show’s opening night, a Mossad employee who introduces himself simply as “Avner A.” Asked what this exhibition teaches us about Eichmann’s capture that we do not already know, Avner replies, “This is the first official story, the real one, with many small details.”

A bit more expansively, exhibition historian Neomi Izhar says later, “This exhibition is unique, because it is the first time that the Mossad has unveiled, or partially unveiled, any of its documents or tools connected with any of the operations of the Mossad. The media have unveiled and exposed things, but this is the first time that the Mossad has done so. Like any intelligence service, they’re not always willing to open their archives. And in this case it’s quite unique and maybe a good thing for the future that we know a bit more about our history.

“What we have here for the first time are first of all documents that have never been exposed. And we have the original documents. Aside from copies of two documents found with Eichmann on the night he was captured – a replica of Eichmann’s Argentinean identity card under the name of Ricardo Klement, and a replica of the timetable of Jaffa Port on the night that Eichmann’s cremated ashes were taken out and thrown into the Mediterranean outside of Israel’s territorial waters – all of the others are the original documents. The documents, the files, the maps – everything there is original. So from this point of view, everything is new.”

ONE ITEM in particular that Izhar cites is what she refers to as Eichmann’s “ear file.” She explains, “These are the photos by which Eichmann was positively identified before the operation, photos of his ear.

Like fingerprints, the configuration of the outer ear is unique to each person.

Photos taken of the man suspected to be Eichmann in Argentina were compared with photos from Eichmann’s SS file and from those supplied by one of his former mistresses. Careful comparison revealed 10 points of similarity, and no points of difference.”

Among other items on display are memos passed between the Shin Bet and Mossad regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts; the Leica camera used by the abduction team to take surveillance photographs; photographs of the house on Garibaldi Street; the abduction team’s forged car licenses; the lathe they used to duplicate keys; the document Eichmann signed stating that he was willing to stand trial in Israel; a model of the airplane used to abduct Eichmann to Israel and the identification card of an El Al flight crew member used by team leader Isser Harel; a forged Israeli passport and El Al flight crew identity card prepared for Eichmann in the name of “Zeev Zichroni”; and even the needle used by Dr. Yonah Elian to sedate Eichmann on the way from the safe house to the airport in Buenos Aires.

There are other materials on display as well, but perhaps the most famous is the now iconic glass booth in which Eichmann sat during his trial in Jerusalem. This, along with an original entrance permit to the trial and several paintings by team member Zvi Malkin – the man who actually ambushed Eichmann, grabbing him with his own hands – round out the exhibition.

As inclusive and comprehensive as “Operation Finale” attempts to be in its presentation of artifacts, curator Avner A. readily admits that the full story of Eichmann’s capture still remains to be told. “Every day we find out new details about the operation,” he says. “There are still things that we will learn as time goes by. Even with this wall with 67 names, we have found new names that we are going to add.”

So who is the audience for “Operation Finale,” this exhibition consisting largely of what its curator characterizes as “small details”? Says historian Izhar, “Eichmann’s trial was a major event in Israeli society. We have not been the same ever since.

The Eichmann trial revealed the Holocaust as it had not been revealed before. In the Nuremburg Trials the Nazi criminals were judged for war crimes, not for the Holocaust. It was the Eichmann trial that exposed all of the horrors. Were it not for the Eichmann trial, these would not have been exposed to the Israelis, to the Jewish people, and to the whole world. With this I answer your question.

Since the trial, the Holocaust – and the many issues relating to the Holocaust – have been something deep within Israeli society and also abroad. Who is the audience? Everyone is the audience.

“Here in Israel, almost everyone has a link to the Holocaust, even if not directly. The Holocaust has already become part of the Israeli DNA, for better and for worse. In all aspects of our culture and society, everywhere you look here in Israel, you will find something connected to the Holocaust. So this exhibition is for everyone.”

Also on hand for the opening of the show is abduction team member Rafi Eitan, now 85. He says that the exhibition is not only about Eichmann’s capture, but more broadly about how the Jewish people rose from the ashes of the Holocaust and created a strong new country, capable of protecting its citizens. We ask him whether he thinks there might be new Eichmanns in the world today.

“You mean [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” he says, more a statement than a question.

“Well, maybe,” he answers. Asked if he thinks we have the strength and resourcefulness to deal with new Eichmanns, Eitan responds, “Well, we are very strong today, and I feel that if the State of Israel had existed before the Second World War, there would have been no Holocaust. That is my reply.”

“Operation Finale: The Story of the Capture of Eichmann” is on display until April 20 at Beit Hatfutsot-The Museum of the Jewish People; Tel Aviv University campus, Klausner Street, Ramat Aviv. For further information call (03) 745-7808 or visit http://www.bh.org.il.


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