Operation Finale: The Story of the Capture of Eichman

February 16, 2012

How Israeli Spies Pulled It Off

By Amotz Asa-El.  Mr. Asa-El, the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, is a staff columnist for Marketwatch.com and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv

Famous for deceiving, concealing and thriving in the dark, spies are the perfect opposites of museums, which by definition crave audiences, truth and light. This alone is reason to visit the Mossad-sponsored “Operation Finale,” an exhibition that lists for its curator a presumably active spy cryptically presented as Avner A., surely a first in cloak-and-dagger annals.

From the Mossad Archive, courtesy of the Museum of the Jewish People. From the forensic files comparing photographs of Ricardo Klement of Buenos Aires with those of Adolf Eichmann during World War II. Photo: The Wall Street Journal.

Fortunately, there are even better reasons to visit this compact but sharp exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Jewish People, which tells the story of Israel’s kidnapping, transfer and trial of senior Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann. Rich with newly declassified documents, photos and artifacts—from the identification, knife and comb Eichmann carried while kidnapped in 1960, to the bulletproof glass booth in which he was tried in 1961 and sentenced to death—the exhibition quickly orients even the uninformed, leading rhythmically along a path of several 90-degree turns that take visitors from stage to stage along this tale’s 14-year evolution. While learning what lengths Israel went through to bring to justice the man who oversaw European Jewry’s transport to the extermination camps, visitors also get a rare glimpse at secret agents and their work, and a surprising salute from the Mossad to world Jewry.

Spy-drama buffs will note this operation was much more George Smiley than James Bond. Eichmann’s 11 immediate handlers, whose names and photos are revealed for the first time, look like ordinary people with no common denominator. Some are bespectacled, some stern faced, some smiling, and one—Judith Nessiyahu, who played the safe house’s “mother”—has round glasses, straggly short hair and what seems like a giggling smile, all of which make her look like a librarian who just won the lottery.

There was also no pizzazz in their gadgetry. A simple Leica camera inside a document bag with a small hole facing the lens—both items are in a glass case at the beginning of the show—sufficed to photograph Eichmann, aka Ricardo Klement, outside his house in Buenos Aires as agents posing as developers engaged him in conversation. Neomi Izhar, the exhibition’s historian, explains that authorization for the kidnapping ultimately hinged on a draftsman’s meticulous analysis that proved the target’s ears matched Eichmann’s ears as they appeared in his SS file photo. These photos are also on display, just past the Leica and near the original ear sketches.

The identification’s challenges were dwarfed by the abduction’s. Lifting a man in Argentina and landing him unscathed halfway around the world was unlike anything the Mossad had ever done. Its previous coup, snatching Nikita Khrushchev’s secret 1956 anti-Stalin speech, involved three people. This operation deployed 67, all listed on the exhibition’s entrance wall, ranging from forgers and mechanics to pilots and the doctor who kept Eichmann sedated until his flight was in midair.

To reduce visibility, agents entered Argentina individually, at different times and from different places, all on false documents. A forger who joined them in Buenos Aires supplied false license plates, produced from a template in a special briefcase that can be viewed at the center of the exhibition, as well as passports and papers, including Eichmann’s departure documents. Other agents arranged several safe houses, cars and food.

And there was improvisation as well. El Al did not fly to Buenos Aires, but Argentina was celebrating its 150th birthday, so the Mossad decided to salute the event with a dignitaries’ delegation that landed in a special El Al flight, led by a clueless Abba Eban, then education minister. Two days later that plane took off for Tel Aviv via Dakar, Senegal, with a drowsy Eichmann aboard. He was dressed, like the agents carrying him, in an El Al steward’s uniform; the passport in his pocket presented him as one Zeev Zichroni.

For Israelis, the kidnapping and trial were transformational.

“I listened to the radio broadcasts with my brother daily after school,” recalls Dr. Roni Pate, an immunologist visiting the exhibition. “Our parents and neighbors would join and we’d all huddle around the radio; that’s how it was throughout the country.” As Dr. Pate speaks, a video screen behind him plays prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s famous accusation, “standing with me here today are six million prosecutors.” And between the video and the glass booth, three poster-size photos show the audience at the trial: pensive, silent, transfixed. “Until the trial, survivors didn’t talk,” says the operation’s commander, Rafi Eitan, now 86, seen on another screen.

The Jewish Diaspora was, of course, equally electrified by the trial, but it was also involved in Eichmann’s capture. Lothar Herman, a German-born Argentinean Jew, suspected that his daughter’s suitor was Eichmann’s son. He alerted Fritz Bauer, the Jewish Attorney General of Hessen, West Germany, who alerted the Mossad.

The exhibition’s statement that Bauer’s stubbornness made a skeptical Mossad probe Ricardo Klement’s identity is an admirable concession that Israeli espionage owes one of its major achievements to a Diaspora Jew, a gratitude expressed also through the display of the teleprinter and tickertape by which an agent was ordered to inform Bauer of Eichmann’s kidnapping.

The site of the exhibition—a museum tucked between Tel Aviv’s glitzy skyscrapers, where the descendants of Eichmann’s victims now thrive, and the Mediterranean, where Eichmann’s ashes were strewn after his hanging and cremation—is emblematic. Unlike Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, which documents the Nazis’ mass-murder of the Jews, this institution hails prewar Jewish life and creation—the vision of the museum’s founder, ghetto fighter Abba Kovner, who delivered one of the most riveting of the trial’s 120 testimonies, some of which is viewable at the exhibition.

In hosting this exhibition, the Museum of the Jewish People says the Mossad, too, is a Jewish creation, like the state and military that Eichmann’s victims so tragically lacked when they needed them the most. The spy agency’s motivation in this initiative is unclear, but museum CEO Avinoam Armoni plans to shed more light on his improbable partners’ relevant deeds, from rescuing ancient Torah scrolls to airlifting oppressed Jews. “I hope,” he says, “it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

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