Michael Maor, a Holocaust survivor who was instrumental in catching Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, died on Tuesday at the age of 86, after a life of travail, agony and adventure.
The most famous mission in which he was involved was capturing Eichmann and transporting him to Israel for trial, a mission described as “dangerous and not simple at all.”
Serving as a Mossad agent, Maor obtained in 1960 documents that incriminated Eichmann when he broke into the offices of the General Prosecutor in Frankfurt, Germany. Maor’s operators ordered him to search for the German prosecution file on Eichmann and photograph the documents, without leaving behind any traces. Armed with a key and a blueprint of the building, he did it. He photographed the documents on the prosecutor’s desk.
“They were authentic and proved his activity during World War II beyond doubt,” he said of the documents he photographed in an interview with Israeli news website Ynet. "Someone else who went through the Holocaust and didn't have the nerve would have broken down there. It’s true that I had no advance preparation, but I was an officer in the paratroopers, trained in weaponry and martial arts. I was an athlete and feared nothing."
Much later it would turn out exactly how Maor managed to break into the secured building and “steal” the classified information: Fritz Bauer, a German Jew, had become chief prosecutor and “invited” the Mossad to break into his office and “steal” the Eichmann papers.
With Maor’s photos in hand, the Mossad team was given the green light and some weeks later Eichmann was caught in Buenos Aires and was abducted and flown to Israel for trial. (Eichmann was one of the architects of the “final solution,” being given responsibility for the logistics involved in mass-transporting Jews to ghettos and death camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.) He was convicted and executed in 1962.
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Maor was born in 1933, the year the Nazis rose to power, in Halberstadt, Germany. Later he would flee with his parents to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where following that nation’s conquest by the Nazis the family was forced to wear yellow stars. At the father’s urging, the family fled to an area controlled by the Italians, only to find themselves incarcerated with other Jews in the concentration camp on the Italian-occupied island of Rab.
In 1943, when the Italians surrendered to the Allied forces, the family fled to partisans in Yugoslavia, where they were subjected to German attacks. Each time they would escape into the forest for a day or two, Maor recalled. Then one day, his parents encouraged him to run ahead – and when he returned, he discovered they had been murdered.
“The Germans shot everything that moved,” he said in filmed testimony stored at Yad Vashem. “There were nights that I wept – 20 years later I still had no tears for anything else. Suddenly, I was left alone. It's a horrible feeling. You’re 10 years old, looking left and right, and you have nothing, nothing,”
After the war he was picked up by fighters with the Jewish Brigade and brought to Israel by boat in June 1945. His next stop was Kibbutz Mizra, where he won accolades as an athlete and even won an Israeli championship. He was drafted into the paratroopers in 1951 and taught jumping, went through officer training, took part in fighting and during the Sinai campaign, became chief of staff to Rafael Eitan in the paratroopers.
In 1959 he returned to his country of birth, Germany, to study photography. Following that he joined Mossad, where, according to the Yad Vashem website, posing as a photographer, he participated in numerous successful missions besides the one to bring Eichmann to justice.
Further along, Maor would set up the intelligence section of the Israeli Border Police force, and would lead it for 15 years. He was married to Sarah and had three children and four grandchildren.