One of the Mossad’s greatest achievements was capturing Adolf Eichmann and successfully bringing him from Argentina to Israel to stand trial. Former Mossad agent Avner Avraham curated the traveling exhibit that is now at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, “Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann.”
“The goal was to bring him alive,” Avraham told The Jewish Press. “You cannot bring a body to trial.”
There was a real concern that someone would kill Eichmann at the trial as well. This is why Eichmann sat in a bulletproof glass booth. The very same booth is on display as part of the exhibit and is strikingly set in front of screens that show parts of the actual trial, with English subtitles.
Would someone really have tried to kill him the courtroom?
“Of course,” Avraham said. “They made sure that the policemen who guarded him had no relatives were not connected to the Holocaust. For the Mossad agents who captured him, it was tough. They needed to stay with this animal and take him to the toilet with an open door. Some of the Mossad agents were Holocaust survivors. The woman who cooked for Eichmann thought about poisoning him.”
Asked whether such an operation would be easier to carry out today, he said it would be, for one main reason.
“It would be easier because of digital cameras,” Avraham said. “Back then, you needed to have people take a photo and develop a picture. It took two days.”
But Avraham said if the operation was done today, they might have had to use a private jet. Eichmann was drugged, but today, airport security personnel might ask more questions if a passenger seemed incoherent or confused.
It was not only the Mossad’s intelligence that allowed for the capture of Eichmann. It was also his son’s stupidity. While his father went by the name of Ricardo Klement, Klaus Eichmann kept the infamous last name and made anti-Semitic remarks to his girlfriend Sylvia Hermann. Her father, Lothar, was half Jewish and blind from beating from the Gestapo at Dachau. The Hermanns contacted authorities and the information led to the capture. When the Mossad was contacted by Fritz Bauer, they did not believe Eichmann could be living in a house that was small and not luxurious.
One interesting part of the exhibit in a bronze cast of the leather gloves Mossad agent Zvi Malkin wore when he captured Eichmann. Malkin told The New York Times in a 2003 interview that he wore gloves because he did not want to directly touch Eichmann. There’s also the handwritten letter Eichmann wrote asking Israeli President Yitzhak ben Zvi for a pardon as well as a letter from some who were against Eichmann being executed. Video footage of the trials shows Eichmann’s reaction to the announcement that he will be executed. He collects his papers and folders, like a professor who has finished class and is going home, not like a man who is going to his death.
“It is astonishing to see a man unrepentant with a poker face,” said Sami Steigmann, a Holocaust survivor who works at the museum. “For me, one thing that is interesting is that they did not have DNA so the ear (from a previous picture) was used to identify him. The Mossad was in the early stages also so things were not easy.”
Steigmann also said that David Ben-Gurion announced the capture of Eichmann too early and it allowed notorious Nazi Josef Mengele to escape as agents were in Buenos Aires, waiting to attempt to capture him.
Alice Greenwald, former Associate Museum Director for Museum Programs for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. was on hand to see the exhibit. She said it was important for people to see that there was due process.
“We didn’t just execute people,” Greenwald said. “We made them stand trial. It was a civilized response to uncivilized behavior.”
She added that it is important to see that Eichmann did not look remarkable or uncommonly strong.
“When you make monsters out of Nazis, you forget the human capacity for evil,” she said.
Eichmann was hanged in 1962.
Holocaust survivor and author Fanya Gottesfeld Heller came in her wheelchair and looked at the different photos and documents on display.
“It’s important for people to see it and know about it,” she said. “People like me won’t be around forever.”