Espionage officer opens spy agency’s vaults to tell story of Nazi’s abduction from Argentina and trial for war crimes
There is the comb, the cigarette holder and the house keys he had on him when he was captured; the needle used to sedate him during his abduction from Argentina to Israel; and the booth in which he sat during his trial.
Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, has lifted a veil of secrecy to display publicly for the first time documents, equipment, artefacts and personal testimonies relating to the capture, abduction and trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was hanged in Israel almost 50 years ago.
Operation Finale, an exhibition at the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, is curated by a serving Mossad officer, who can only be named as Avner A. Ninety per cent of the material on display comes from the Mossad archives, the first time in the agency’s history that it has opened its vaults.
The exhibition includes espionage equipment, such as a camera hidden in a briefcase and items used to forge documents and number plates; the original Mossad file on Eichmann, handwritten on yellowing paper; and the booth in which he sat during his trial. It discloses that the target was identified by his ears.
Eichmann was in charge of implementing Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jewish people, in which six million people died. After the war he was captured by Allied forces but escaped and fled to Argentina. There, a Holocaust survivor whose daughter was dating Eichmann’s son became suspicious about the identity of the boy’s father, and Israeli intelligence was alerted.
A complicated operation, involving about a dozen agents, most now dead, was prepared and executed in May 1960. Eichmann, who was living in Buenos Aires under the alias Ricardo Klement, was surreptitiously photographed and the images compared to those from his SS file. From the shape of his ears it was concluded that Eichmann and Klement were the same person.
He was bundled into a car on his way home from work by a team of Mossad agents. One of them, Rafi Eitan, who attended last week’s opening of the exhibition, described in video testimony what happened. “Eichmann’s head was in my lap,” he said. The agent examined his body for known scars and said he felt ecstatic when he found them.
Eichmann was taken to a safe house. Asked to identify himself, he first gave a German alias, then his Argentinian identity. On the third time of asking, he responded: “I am Adolf Eichmann. This is indeed my name.” Then, recalled Eitan, he asked for a glass of wine.
An elaborate plan to spirit him out of he country without alerting the Argentinian authorities was put into action. An El Al plane brought an official Israeli delegation to Buenos Aires as a cover for taking the high-value target back. He was passed off as a sick airline employee, dressed in an El Al uniform and heavily sedated in a first class seat.
Luba Volk, now in her 80s, played an unwitting part in the abduction. A former El Al employee who had relocated to Buenos Aires, she was contacted by the airline and asked to help secure documentation for the flight. She had no idea of its true purpose.
After the news emerged of Eichmann’s capture and removal from Argentina, Volk was forced to leave the country and return to Israel. “My name was on all the documentation,” she said, while visiting the exhibition this week. “I was very proud I took part, but I had one great regret – that I didn’t know what I was doing while I was doing it.”
Fifty years on, the exhibition illustrates what now appears to be primitive methods of espionage. There were no computers on which to store and cross-reference information or create forged documents; no means of communication between agents on the ground; and little surveillance at Buenos Aires airport, either of the Mossad agents bringing bulky equipment in battered suitcases or of Eichmann being smuggled out of the country.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, announced the capture to the Israeli parliament and a stunned world. Eichmann was charged with 15 counts of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership of a hostile organisation.
After a trial lasting eight months, during which 99 Holocaust survivors gave evidence, Eichmann was sentenced to death and hanged on 31 May 1962 – the only time in Israel’s history that the death penalty has been enacted. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered at sea, beyond Israel’s territorial waters.
Avinoam Armoni, the museum’s director, said the episode was crucial in shaping Israel’s identity. “Until the Eichmann trial no one [in Israel] really spoke about the horrors of the Holocaust. Many survivors kept silent, even to their children,” he said.
The trial had been a life-changing event for people like him, born immediately after the war. “It was like a dam opening. I remember sitting, glued to the radio. I grew up saying I’m not a Jew, I’m an Israeli – and suddenly we were confronted with this story.” The exhibition, he hoped, would help to keep the story in the collective consciousness of the Israeli people.
Micky Goldman, an Auschwitz survivor who became a policeman in the new state of Israel, joined the investigation unit which gathered evidence against Eichmann. He also testified at the trial and witnessed Eichman’s execution.
“I had no grudge against him,” he said in video testimony for the exhibition. “I knew back then and I know it to this day that a human being cannot avenge what the Germans had done to us. I perceived him as a tool through which I could learn the truth about the Holocaust. Apart from that, he was nothing to me. He, who sent me to Auschwitz.”
The exhibition has had an unbelievable response since opening last week, Armoni said. After it ends in April, the organisers hope to take it abroad.
Avner A, the curator with 25 years service as a Mossad agent, says the story is still incomplete. “Every day I find something new, often from small stories of people coming to see the exhibition,” he said. “My role is to find all these small pieces and put them together. I am still investigating. We still don’t have the whole story. But this is as close as we can get.”
from Harriet Sherwood