The El Al Stewardess Who Helped Capture Eichmann

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Dr. Luba Volk.Credit: Courtesy

The mourning notice for Dr. Luba Volk this March stated that she was a pensioner who’d worked for El Al. For reasons of brevity, there was no mention of her part in the dramatic operation to capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, which took place 55 years ago this month.

Volk was born in Warsaw in 1925, fled with her parents in a horse-drawn cart a few days after the Nazis invaded in 1939, and about a year later immigrated to the Land of Israel. She was one of the first employees of Israel’s national airline, El Al, which was established in 1948. Among other things, between 1949-1952 she helped organize the airlift operations from Yemen – “Magic Carpet” – and Iraq – “Ezra & Nehemia” (“Ali Baba”).

At the end of the 1950s, Volk went to Buenos Aires with her husband and their small son, for her husband’s work. At that time, there were no regular flights between Argentina and Israel. One day, though, she received a telegram from El Al that was signed by a senior company official, appointing her the company’s representative in the country. The official reason was to organize the landing of a flight that would bring an Israeli delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Abba Eban, to the celebration marking 150 years of Argentina’s independence.

“Gradually, it became clear to me that behind the official role for which I had been appointed, another mission I didn’t know about was lurking,” she later explained. Her suspicions increased when two more El Al employees were sent to Buenos Aires to assist her. “Why were two high-level personnel needed to deal with just the one flight?” she wondered.

When the flight landed, she was surprised to see a large number of crew members in El Al uniforms emerging from the plane. “Though I no longer worked at El Al, how come I didn’t know a single one of the crew members?” she asked herself.

In retrospect, she realized she had unwittingly been recruited into the operation to abduct Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and take him back to Israel; her role as the El Al representative in Buenos Aires was merely cover. The many “crew members” who got off the plane on May 19 were not El Al personnel at all, but rather Mossad chief Isser Harel’s people, who had “hitched a ride” on the official flight.

“I was appointed a special representative of El Al for the purpose of this flight, without knowing its real purpose,” she recalled. Her tasks included arranging the various permits needed for landing and parking the plane at the airport, and obtaining a fictitious license to sell seats for the return flight.

“I was the camouflage operation for the flight, because I conducted a normal set of activities in the areas of licensing and marketing with travel agents. And who would suspect that, hidden among the wave of licensing, ticketing and marketing documents, there was a daring operation to capture a Nazi criminal? That’s why it was decided that I would play my role better if I didn’t know the real aim,” she said.

On May 11, 1960, Eichmann was on his way home from work in Buenos Aires when he was seized by Mossad agents (who had arrived in Buenos Aires from all over the world, acting under the leadership of Rafi Eitan). For nine days he was held in hiding. On May 20, he was brought onto the El Al plane that had landed in Argentina the day before, bringing the diplomatic delegation from Israel.

Eichmann was dressed in the uniform of an El Al crew member. In his jacket pocket were the forged passport and identity card that had been prepared for him. He arrived at the plane drugged and accompanied on either side by two Mossad agents, who pretended he was ill. Alter the plane took off, it stopped for refueling in Dakar, Senegal, and continued on to Israel. On Sunday May 22, Eichmann landed in Israel and was placed under arrest.

Volk watched then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s dramatic announcement of Eichmann’s capture. “This announcement,” she recalled later, “was broadcast by the media all over the world, and of course also in Argentina. I finally realized what the real purpose of the flight had been and what my role was in the operation.” However, along with joy at the mission’s success, she was also fearful of retribution from neo-Nazis.

“I realized that my situation had worsened. Every travel agent I bumped into on the street greeted me with a huge smile and said, ‘Signora, you put one over on us! But kudos to you.’ I felt like I was being followed,” she noted. On the advice of the local Israeli embassy, she left Argentina with her son for a neighboring country, and subsequently returned to Israel. Her husband wound down his business in Buenos Aires and joined them later.

Back in Israel, Volk continued to work for El Al as deputy director general and company secretary. At a tribute to the operation’s participants held in 2007, she was asked whether she and Eichmann were the only ones who didn’t know the true purpose of the flight. “That’s not true! Abba Eban didn’t know either,” she said, correctly.

Three years ago, she visited the exhibition “Operation Finale: The Story of the Capture of Eichmann” at Beit Hatfutsot: Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv, which showed documents, artifacts and pictures from the operation. Volk brought the exhibition’s curator – Mossad agent Avner A. – a number of photos from her personal album, documenting a Buenos Aires tour she conducted for two El Al stewardesses while the abduction drama was underway.

During the past decade, Volk was active in the field of preserving the history of El Al on the airliner’s heritage site. She leaves her husband Arieh, a daughter, a son and grandchildren.

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