Several former employees of the Shin Bet security service, including former chief Avraham Shalom, and former employees of national air carrier El Al gathered yesterday to reconstruct the daring capture of Adolf Eichmann. Television personality Dan Margalit convened participants in the complex operation at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak's Massuah Institute for a panel discussion. As a result of his successful capture in Argentina, Eichmann, who managed the logistics of Hitler's Final Solution, was tried and convicted in Jerusalem of war crimes, an event that changed Israeli and global perception of the Holocaust.
The display of testimonies at the Massuah Holocaust studies institute was surprisingly efficient considering that the witnesses are no longer young and consider every detail important.
Margalit moderated with focused skill, however, participant Baruch Tirosh also attributed the efficiency to recent meetings held by the operatives, during which they filmed their versions of events.
After the discussion, I visited Massuah's permanent exhibit which recounts the genocide of Europe's Jews through witness testimony from Eichmann's trial and illustrates its impact on Holocaust awareness in Israel and on Israeli culture in general. The exhibit includes video and audio clips as well as an exhibit of the headlines in various newspapers announcing Eichmann's capture. Recent additions to the exhibit include the simple ballpoint pen with which the captive Eichmann signed a document "agreeing" to be brought to trial in Israel.
Surprisingly, according to yesterday's testimony, the tensest moment in apprehending the architect of the Final Solution was not grabbing him off the street. Avraham Shalom recounted that the secret service operatives practiced at least 200 times how they would set upon Eichmann on his way from the bus to his home and get him into the back of a rented car in less than twenty second. A second vehicle, in which Shalom himself was riding, was devoted entirely to blinding Eichmann before the ambush.
Eichmann was grabbed as planned and forced into the car (there are several versions of what he said at that time) and brought to a planned safehouse - to which the team had a number of alternative locations - where he was held for several days until being flown to Israel.
However, according to co-pilot Shaul Shaul yesterday, it was pilot Zvi Tohar who saved the operation with his level-headedness.
El Al's Britannia airplane was waiting in a Buenos Aires airport maintenance area with the abductors and their prisoner on board, about to move onto a runway for takeoff. However, the control tower ordered the plane to wait. The unusual instruction mandated a difficult and dangerous decision: Mossad chief Isser Harel decided to take off on the spot and without permission, fearing Eichmann's wife had notified Argentinian authorities of her husband's disappearance.
Tohar decided to wait, sending Shaul to the control tower to clarify the reason for the delay. It was decided that if Shaul did not return within ten minutes, the plane would take off without permission - and without the co-pilot. It became quickly clear the delay was administrative, and the plane soon got clearance to leave for Hangar No. 2 at the Lod airport.
Tirosh recounted yesterday that upon landing, Isser Harel asked where to find a telephone, dialing himself and telling the person on the other end of the line - David Ben-Gurion - the famous words "The monster is in handcuffs".
Also outstanding was yesterday's testimony by former Mossad agent Yaakov Meidad, known according to the background material for his ability to change identities and endear himself to people. Meidad rented the car used in the capture, leaving a $5,000 deposit in $20 bills. Meidad's testimony was the most electrifying and graphic. He described the captured Eichmann as a small and fearful man. "You would not believe what a wimp he was, how he signed, how he behaved. This man dealt in the murder of millions. I would hardly appoint him to manage a post office."