In Israeli exhibit, capture of Nazi Adolf Eichmann still resonates

McClatchy NewspapersApril 4, 2012 

TEL AVIV — The man who was showing a group of school supervisors around the museum exhibit looked unassuming enough, wearing a plaid shirt, gray jeans and black Converse sneakers, a pair of sunglasses perched on his forehead.

But he was no ordinary guide. Going by the name of Avner A., he's an agent of Israel's secretive Mossad intelligence service and curator of an exhibit here on the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the former senior Nazi officer and key organizer of the Holocaust whom Israeli agents abducted in Argentina in 1960 and executed two years later after a trial that riveted Israel.

The exhibit at the Museum of the Jewish People, showing top-secret documents and items that had been kept under wraps for decades in the Mossad archives, offers a rare view into the operations of the organization, Israel's overseas intelligence arm.

Titled "Operation Finale," as the capture mission was called, the show displays the tools of espionage from another era.

Among the items is a briefcase with a small hole and button underneath that housed a hidden camera used to snap photos of Eichmann, who was living under a false identity in a nondescript neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

There's also the suitcase kit — complete with aluminum sheets, used to create fake license plates — along with the stamps and writing implements used to forge documents the Israeli operatives carried in Argentina. Also on view is the needle that was used to sedate Eichmann before he was put on a plane to Israel and the personal belongings he was carrying when he was captured: a comb, a pocketknife, a cigarette holder and the keys to his home.

"No one has researched this, and it's very interesting to constantly discover new things," Avner said in an interview. He said his work on the exhibit and its public display had led him to people who had more items and information related to the Eichmann capture.

"People involved have come forward with stories and pictures," he said. "This is the fuel that keeps this going."

The son of the doctor who'd sedated Eichmann donated the needle. During the interview, Avner took a phone call. The caller had been the Israeli military attache in Argentina at the time of Eichmann's capture and was offering to share photos he'd saved.

A 25-year veteran of the Mossad, Avner declined to discuss the nature of his work at the agency, saying he could speak only about the exhibit. He produced a business card that identified him only as the exhibit's curator, listing an e-mail address but no phone number.

Avner described himself as a history buff, and said he'd originally assembled the Eichmann materials for internal display at the Mossad. They were shown later at the Israeli Parliament, and at the suggestion of Yossi Peled, a Cabinet minister who's responsible for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, the exhibit was taken to Tel Aviv for public viewing. Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962.

The museum show discloses details of the meticulous preparation that went into the capture of Eichmann, who'd managed the logistics of the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and death camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

After the Israeli government received information locating Eichmann in Buenos Aires, where he worked at a Mercedes-Benz factory, a Mossad agent was dispatched to photograph him surreptitiously. The images then were compared with wartime photos of Eichmann, and 10 similarities were found — including the left ear, nose and forehead — carefully noted in a sketch and accompanying handwritten report that are on display in the exhibit.

Members of the capture team from the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, entered Argentina separately from different countries with false travel documents, armed with a dossier that outlined Eichmann's physical characteristics, based on information gleaned from his SS file and other sources.

After staking out his house using tourist maps, Shin Bet agents seized Eichmann on the evening of May 11, 1960, when he got off a bus on his way home from work. He was held for nine days in a safe house and questioned as the Israeli agents awaited a special flight of Israel's El Al airlines that was carrying a delegation who'd been sent to participate in Argentina's celebrations of 150 years of independence.

The flight was a cover for the return journey with the captive. Eichmann would be hustled aboard dressed in an El Al uniform and passed off as an ill crew member.

Rafi Eitan, who commanded the abduction team, recalled in a videotaped interview shown at the exhibit the heady moments after Eichmann was seized. "Eichmann's head was in my lap" as they sped away in a car, he said. He quickly felt for scars that Eichmann was supposed to have on his arm and abdomen, to verify the captive's identity.

"I was excited, but of course I kept cool and reserved," Eitan recalled. Another agent warned Eichmann in German that "if you value your life, keep quiet."

Oon arrival at the safe house, Eichmann was asked repeatedly for his name. After initially giving two aliases, he acknowledged his true identity, Eitan recalled.

"I am indeed Adolf Eichmann," Eitan quoted him as saying. "May I have a glass of red wine?"

(Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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