I admit that I was very nervous, expecting him to be intimidating, as I walked to his home in the Zahala suburb of Tel Aviv, which was also where Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and others prominent in the defense and security of Israel had resided.
I was surprised when this courteous, friendly family man opened his own front door to me and – with a smile – ushered me into his comfortable, but modest, front room. I had done extensive research before I came, so that I wouldn’t ask any idiotic questions, and had read his book The House on Garibaldi Street – one of 10 of his books, and the one that described his capture of Eichmann.
He was born in Vitebsk, Russia in 1912, son of a prosperous businessman who was ruined when it was nationalized after the 1917 revolution, and the family was repatriated to Latvia in 1923. At age 17, he followed his older sister to Palestine. Two things that surprised me were that he told me as a child, he was school champion in Greco-Roman wrestling. Another surprise he told me was that he had been ordained as a rabbi in the Volozhin Yeshiva, although I noticed he was now bare-headed and clean-shaven. Always an idealist, he worked on arrival at the kibbutz, later to become known as Shefayim. After five years, now married, he and his young wife left to make enough money needed to bring their families out of Hitler-threatened Europe.
HIS INTELLIGENCE work came about by chance. “At the outbreak of World War II, when our enemies were on the border of Egypt and the Russians suffered heavy losses to Germany, I decided to volunteer to help my people. I wanted to fight with the British, but as a member of Hagana was not allowed to leave Israel. Hagana members were asked to assist the British in the war effort. I was posted as a coastguard at Herzliya – ostensibly working for the British, but my first allegiance was to Hagana.”
With a grin, he recounted one incident: “The commander of the coastal unit was a high-ranking British officer who was corrupt and very antisemitic. At Passover, he made a remark about ‘matzot’ being a plot to make the rabbis rich. I beat him up, even though he was twice my size and by then I was not religious. He wanted me court-martialed, but I threatened to expose his corruption. He settled for handing me over to the Hagana. They promised to discipline me, but secretly praised my action.”
In 1948, the Hagana became the IDF. Harel eventually headed the Israel Security Agency (the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service). He worked closely with Ben Gurion, and they were firm friends until 1963 when Harel resigned, because of the issue of German scientists working in Egypt and helping Nasser build weapons for rumored use against Israel. He considered Nasser an “Arab Hitler” who pledged to destroy Israel with help from the Soviet bloc.
Though the split was bitter at the time, they resumed their friendship after both men resigned. Harel admired Ben Gurion as a great leader and was convinced that without him, there would have been no State of Israel.
HAREL’S MOST famous mission was the tracking down and capture of Adolf Eichmann. In 1945, Eichmann had boasted: “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” Then 15 years later, he was brought to trial as a direct result of Harel’s ceaseless work to locate and capture the former SS chief to face what was left of his victims. His capture in Buenos Aires was a historic mission and his execution in Israel was very rewarding.
I asked him if he had any regrets. “Yes, one big one – that I failed to capture Yosef Mengele. It was more difficult because he had great financial means at his disposal. His wealthy German family supported him, and he was always on the alert. He escaped just two weeks before we reached him because a reporter in Europe published that his whereabouts were known. Too much publicity!
“He was in Paraguay and to get him would have involved a violent attack. Because of the proximity of the Eichmann trial, we couldn’t afford another international scandal. He was always protected by the German colony and high officials in South America. I was never convinced that he was later dead – the American and German scientists were much too eager to close the file on him quickly.”
I had been hoping to meet Harel’s wife, but she didn’t make an appearance. Between the Hagana, the Resistance, the Shin Bet and the Mossad, much of his life was spent in secrecy. I asked him what effect this had placed on his family life. He smiled. “My wife got used to it very quickly. She didn’t ask questions when I went away or even when I returned. She knew my work was sensitive and I couldn’t talk about it. At times, it was hard on my daughter when her friends and teacher asked about my work, but she got used to it too.”
My final question was to ask him how he would like to be remembered. He answered quietly: “As a servant of my country. This is also what I want to pass on to my grandchildren – to serve the Jewish people, Israel and society.”
I will remember him as the bravest man I have ever met.
The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]