An Inside Look at Israel's Operation to Capture Nazi Criminal Adolf Eichmann

An exhibition about the covert Israeli operation to capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960 keeps on revealing new secrets.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The guest book for the "Operation Finale: The Story of the Capture of Eichmann" exhibition, which opened some two months ago, filled up very quickly. So did a second, which, like the first, was placed at the exhibition entrance. Some of the hundreds of pages are full on both sides.

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Yitzhak Elron’s wife, Sara, dancing with the Argentine chief of staff, some 6 months after the clandestine operation to remove Adolf Eichmann in May 1960.Credit: Photos from the exhibition 'Operation Finale: The Story of the Capture of Eichmann'

Most of the visitors to the Beit Hatfutsot: Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv leave phone numbers and e-mail addresses, plus a request asking museum staff to contact them for further details that have not yet been published about the 1960 operation to capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Some of the visitors also bring along newspaper clippings, photos and documents they have kept at home for many years, waiting for the opportunity to display them.

The exhibition was originally displayed at Mossad (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations ) headquarters and was closed to the general public. Minister without Portfolio Yossi Peled initiated the wider exposure of the exhibition, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nazi criminal's trial, in 1962. Thus, for the first time in its history, the secret organization is allowing the general public to see papers and documents, and operational means and methods used during the classified operation.

The exhibition's curator is Mossad employee Avner A. One day Avner noticed a tall, elderly man with erect posture who spent a long time at the guest book. When he approached the man and asked his name, the man replied: "I am Yitzhak Elron, the Israel Defense Forces' attache in Argentina at the time of the operation."

Brig. Gen. (res. ) Elron, now 88, actively helped in the surveillance of Eichmann that culminated in his capture and abduction to Israel, his trial and subsequent execution. Elron told Avner how he and his wife, Sarah, kept Eichmann under surveillance before he was abducted from his home in a Buenos Aires suburb. One day, for example, they sat in a Jeep near his home and waited for him, pretending to be a couple of lovers. Elron, incidentally, never told his wife she was taking part in a secret mission.

When he tried to turn the Jeep around to drive away, the vehicle slipped and fell into a ditch. He got out, unscathed, and the couple went to call for help; when they got back to the Jeep, they found someone had stolen one of the wheels. Now this story too is making its way into the history books.

In the wake of the chance encounter between A. and Elron, the latter produced, from his private archive, rare behind-the-scenes pictures from the operation. They are published here for the first time.

Adolf Eichmann's passport photo, taken after his capture.

Adolf Eichmann joined the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers' ) Party in 1932. A decade later, he was considered an "expert on Jewish matters" for the Third Reich government. He directed all the concentration camps, the theft of Jewish property and the deportation of millions of Jews to ghettoes and death camps. He also played a crucial role in the implementation of the Final Solution.

At the end of the war, the Americans arrested him under a false identity (Otto Eckmann ), but in 1946 he managed to escape. In the summer of 1950, he fled to Argentina with a Red Cross passport, again using a fake name.

During the 1950s, reports started coming in to Israel about his whereabouts. However, Israel - which was, of course, a young state with many domestic concerns - neglected the search for him. Finally, on May 11, 1960, he was abducted near his home in an operation under the command of Mossad chief Isser Harel. From there he was taken to a safe house, where it was established that the man calling himself Ricardo Klement was undoubtedly Eichmann. Nine days later he was flown to Israel in a special El Al plane. His trial began on April 11, 1961, in Jerusalem. He was sentenced to death and on June 1, 1962, he was executed by hanging.

One of the pictures in Elron's album shows the Israeli delegation headed by Foreign Minister Abba Eban, which came to Argentina on the occasion of the celebrations of its 150th year of independence. The delegation was in fact operational cover, and included Mossad and Shin Bet security service people. It enabled Israel to send a plane to Argentina without arousing suspicion, even though there were no scheduled flights between the two countries.

The operation to capture Eichmann was timed close to the independence festivities, which made it possible for the Mossad to fly Eichmann out to Israel in an El Al plane less than two days later, on May 20. Abba Eban himself did not know about the operation when he came to Argentina. The members of the delegation, incidentally, had to return to Israel on commercial flights. Some of them were dumbfounded to learn that the plane had taken off without them.

Expelled from Argentina

The Israeli delegation at an Argentinian Presidential Palace reception (including Abba Eban, third from right).

In the photo, the members of the delegation are seen at an Argentinean Presidential Palace reception on May 19, 1960. Eichmann, who had been abducted eight days earlier, was being held at the time at a safe house. Among those in the photo are Eban and Maj. Gen. Meir (Zero ) Zorea, GOC Northern Command at the time. The latter is photographed shaking hands with Argentinean President Arturo Frondizi. Next to them Israel's ambassador to Argentina, Arieh Levavi, seen shaking hands with another dignitary. A short while later, after the affair was revealed, he was expelled from the country.

In another photo from Elron's archive, the delegation is seen visiting a major synagogue in Argentina.

One of the series' most interesting photos is Foreign Minister Golda Meir on a visit to Argentina after the operation. The picture shows the Israeli embassy building that was later totally destroyed, in 1992, in a terror action. Some of the people in the photo were part of the embassy staff and had taken part in Eichmann's abduction. Publication of their identity is embargoed to this day.

Another picture shows Zvi Aharoni - at the time working for the Shin Bet and subsequently a top Mossad official - beating a darbuka (hand drum ) at a local restaurant. Elron was there next to him, and says the photo was taken during the period that the two men were tailing Eichmann and photographing him secretly, before the abduction. In another photo, taken during the same period, Elron and his wife are seen in a restaurant with friends and many guests.

Though the Israeli ambassador was expelled after the affair was revealed, the military attache, Elron, was allowed to remain in the country thanks to his good relations with top military people there and thanks to the alibi he had organized for himself in advance: Mossad chief Isser Harel instructed him to go out with the American military attache on the night of the abduction in order to forestall any suspicion he had been involved in it.

Harel passed this instruction along to him at one of their meetings at the Augustus Cafe in downtown Buenos Aires. For this reason, apparently, Elron was able to continue to rub shoulders with army brass and the Argentine regime unimpeded, even after the operation was made public and Eichmann was in Israel.

A memo outlining a plan to remove Eichmann by boat.

In one of the pictures from his personal album, Elron's wife is seen dancing the tango with the Argentinean chief of staff, about half a year after the abduction.

Fifty-two years after the operation, Elron recalls that a top intelligence officer in the Argentinean army came up to him after the fact and said: "Too bad you didn't tell us in advance - we would have handed Eichmann over to you even without an operation." Elron defined this as part of the hypocrisy typical of the Argentineans with regard to high-ranking Nazis that found refuge in their country. In President Shimon Peres' most recent book - "Ben-Gurion: A Political Life" - it is claimed that Argentina did know about the operation in advance. Elron rejects this claim outright and dismisses it scornfully.

Another exhibition visitor also donated her own mementos from the Eichmann operation. Dr. Luba Volk was in Argentina at the time in conjunction with her husband's work. For several years she had worked at El Al but had resigned a year before Eichmann's capture. Ahead of the operation, she was re-recruited as an employee, ostensibly as "El Al's representative" in Argentina - without knowing she was taking part in the operation.

Volk has given the exhibition's curator two photos from her personal album. In one of them she is seen in the company of the two stewardesses on the flight. The three women toured Buenos Aires on the morning of the day the plane took off to Israel with Eichmann on it. In another photo, they are seen at the famous statue of Simon Bolivar - the "father of the nation" of several South American countries. After the operation, when the details became known, Volk was under surveillance by neo-Nazi elements. At the embassy's recommendation, she left Argentina with her young son for a neighboring country and from there returned to Israel. Her husband closed down his businesses in Argentina and joined them later.

A special picture was given by Michael (Mickey ) Goldman-Gilad, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, who worked as an investigator at the special police unit set up in Israel to conduct the investigation of Eichmann (Bureau 06 ), and was the personal assistant of Gideon Hausner, the attorney general who headed the prosecution. Goldman-Gilad was a witness to Eichmann's hanging and the scattering of his ashes outside Israel's territorial waters.

The photograph Goldman-Gilad donated was taken during Eichmann's trial in Israel, but in contrast to the familiar pictures from the trial, it shows the participants in the drama from an unflattering angle in which everyone looks tired. Alongside Eichmann sitting in the glass booth, the photo shows Goldman-Gilad, Hausner and Eichmann's German lawyer, Dr. Robert Servatius. Judge Moshe Landau is seen presiding from the bench. The lens of the camera also captured the back of a witness who was testifying on the stand at the time.

Shin Bet operative Zvi Aharoni (left, with drum) in Argentina.

At the exhibition, which is accompanied by a splendid catalog edited by curator Avner A. and published by the Diaspora museum, there are many rare documents and pictures connected to the capture operation. Other items, not in the catalog, are shown here for the first time. One of them is a memorandum from a meeting in advance of the operation at which three people were present. They are labeled "the department head," "Zvi" and "Drori."

The first paragraph in this handwritten document deals with the way Eichmann will be identified after his capture. "Identification will made of the various photos of Titus with the ones Zvi has brought," it says (Titus was the code name for Eichmann ). Zvi was Shin Bet man Zvi Aharoni. The second part of that paragraph determines: "The identification will be made by a police expert and a person who knew Titus in the past." The second paragraph in the memorandum discusses the possibility of smuggling Eichmann to Israel by boat, a plan Mossad chief Harel wanted to examine. "The ship Kedma, which sails from Haifa to Eilat via Durban on April 28, 1960, could be put at the disposal of the operation, as well as three other ships going between Eilat and Durban."

Another item shown here for the first time is a series of passport pictures of Shin Bet man Yehuda Carmel, who was one of Eichmann's two doubles. In the series of photos, Carmel is seen before and after being made-up. Carmel entered Argentina with the delegation headed by Abba Eban, and with a forged passport under the name Zeev Zichroni. After Eichmann was captured, this document was used for taking Eichmann out of the country.

While gathering material for the exhibition, the curator also found an envelope with photos of Eichmann in it, taken by a hidden camera concealed in a bag used by Zvi Aharoni. These photos were printed as passport photos and were intended for the preparation of a forged passport. In the end, there was no need for them because Eichmann was photographed with his face made-up, facing a camera at the apartment to which he had been abducted.

The Mossad in its current format was established in 1949. It was a small organization lacking in resources and experience in worldwide activity. "Capturing the Nazi criminals was not at the top of the state of Israel's agenda in its early days," says Neomi Izhar, the exhibition's historical expert. "The state was busy with recovering from the War of Independence, establishing itself economically, and absorbing Holocaust survivors and the big immigrations." The exhibition shows the public, for the first time, documents testifying to this - two memorandums between the Shin Bet and the Mossad, in their earliest incarnations, in which they put off dealing with the issue of capturing Eichmann.

One of these, headed "Re: Eichmann, Adolf," was written back in 1952. "We hereby transfer to your attention all the material we have on the above," wrote one organization to the other. "As you will have seen from the recent correspondence, there was an intention that we would take the matter into our hands. However, after gathering some preliminary details, we have found that we do not have the means to devote suitable attention to dealing with the matter." A handwritten note in the margin of the letter says: "The authority does not want to deal with this. Please archive the file." A handwritten piece of paper says: "It is not its role to deal with capturing Eichmann."

However, the exhibition also reveals another document from August 1948: "We are dealing with the matter of sending a suitable person to form a relationship with his wife. Perhaps with her help, we will be able to inform of his location. In case we do not succeed in informing of his location, we believe his wife and two children should be abducted and brought to a secured place."

The exhibition catalog, which was published last month, also contains many stories from the operation and its surroundings. Some of them were already told in the past but now, when they are presented alongside the findings from the field, they take on new significance. One such story connects Eichmann's capture to its origins. On May 23, 1960, the Mossad representative in Germany received a top-secret cable, stating: "Go to Tolstoy immediately and tell him Dybbuk has been captured and taken to Israel. You must give him the message between 2:00 and 2:30 P.M., local time."

"Tolstoy" was the Mossad code name for Dr. Fritz Bauer, the Hessen district attorney. "Dybbuk" was another of the code names for Eichmann. The cable's signatory was Mossad man Shlomo Cohen Abarbanel, brother of Haim Cohen, the Israeli attorney general and subsequently president of the Supreme Court. Three years earlier Cohen Abarbanel had met Bauer for the first item, receiving from him the crucial lead in whose wake the operation began: the Eichmann family's address in Buenos Aires. Now that Eichmann had been captured, the Mossad head wished to inform Bauer personally about the operation - an hour and a half before Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion took to the podium in the Knesset and made the dramatic announcement.

Bauer, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, had received the information about Eichmann's location from another German-Jewish lawyer, Lother Hermann, who had immigrated to Argentina during the war. His daughter, Silvia, had a new suitor named Nick Eichmann, the son of the Nazi criminal. Harel sent two people to verify the information and they came back with the identical conclusion: apparently that wasn't Eichmann's home. The suburb where it was located looked to them dreary and poor, unsuited to the domicile of a top Nazi officer. In this way, the opportunity to capture Eichmann was nearly missed.

In 1959, Bauer became very angry about the lack of progress in the investigation. This time he provided Israel with new information: Eichmann was using the false name Ricardo Klement. Aharoni set out for Argentina, located the house and came back with current photos of Eichmann. The comparison between the photos and his picture from World War II indicated with high probability that it was the same man.

The exhibition reveals for the first time the report on the matter from the police Criminal Investigation Unit. "Seventy percent of the participants in the operation to capture Eichmann were Holocaust survivors or had come from Europe. Among the small group that captured him, Rafi Eitan was the only native-born Israeli - a "sabra," notes historian Izhar. "However, once he landed in Israel, all the guards, the police and the prison personnel assigned to watch over him throughout the trial were deliberately of Mizrahi origin (Jews of Middle Eastern descent ). The working assumption was that they would not have personal grudges or family ties to the Holocaust.

"To understand the greatness of the operation, it is necessary to put on glasses from 50 years ago," says Izhar. "The media world and the mobility then were completely different from what we know today. On the one hand, it was easier to forge documents, but on the other there were no mobile phones or e-mails. All communications took place at an entirely different pace. For this reason, among others, it was important to the Mossad head to be in the field in person."

The new catalog also has drawings by Peter Zvi Malkin, the man who leapt on Eichmann and captured him on that Buenos Aires street. Malkin was born in Poland in 1929 and came to Palestine as a child. Most of his family, including his sister and her three children, perished in the Holocaust. He joined the Haganah prestate underground militia when he was 12-years-old and spent 27 years in the security services. In addition to being a fighter and an expert on explosives, he was also an artist.

"For art, like for spying, you need inspiration, diligence, and an ability to concentrate that you have to preserve down to the last millimeter," the catalog quotes him as saying. In Argentina, he bought a guidebook to the country. To pass the time while he was guarding Eichmann between his capture and the flight to Israel, he began drawing and writing on the pages of the guidebook. Some of the drawings from those days appear in the catalog.

Rectifying an injustice

At the exhibition entrance, there is a plaque with the names of 67 people who participated in the operation. Five years ago the participants were invited to the Knesset by then Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan - who had commanded the Eichmann capture operation - to receive certificates of appreciation and a medal for their participation. With the opening of the exhibition, it emerged that the list was not complete. For example, the names of Elron and his wife were missing.

In the catalog, the injustice has been rectified and their names have been added. In the wake of the chance encounter with the curator, the two were invited to hold a gallery talk with exhibition visitors. To a full auditorium, Elron told about his contribution to one of the most important and famous operations in the history of Israel.

In light of the exhibition's success, it will now continue until August 31.

Dr. Luba Volk (center), a stewardess on Eichmann's El Al flight.



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