Capturing Adolf Eichmann
The true story behind one of the most famous covert missions in history.
A new film, Operation Finale, starring Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley, retells the extraordinary secret Mossad mission to capture Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. While the film takes a few liberties with events, here’s the true story how one of the key architects of the Holocaust was brought to Israel and put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Eichmann was responsible for planning the logistics of transporting six million Jews to their deaths. He boasted that he was responsible for the deaths of at least five million people. In 1945 he declared, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
With the help of Catholic officials, Eichmann adopted the name Ricardo Klement and sailed for Argentina in 1950. His wife and children joined him two years later.
Eichmann, like so many other Nazis, evaded justice for decades. He was initially captured by US troops following World War II but he masked his real identity, calling himself by the pseudonym Otto Eckmann. He escaped from Allied custody and spent four years roaming Europe with the help of a network of unrepentant Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Eichmann worked in Germany, then spent time in an Italian monastery. With the help of Catholic officials, Eichmann adopted the name Ricardo Klement and sailed for Argentina in 1950. His wife and children joined him two years later.
In Argentina, Eichmann did little to hide his identity. Although he was officially Senor Ricardo Klement, Eichmann socialized with the considerable German population in Buenos Aires and rubbed shoulders with Argentinian Nazis. He worked at a local Mercedes-Benz factory. Eichmann’s son was secure enough in their well-established German neighborhood to go by his real name, Klaus Eichmann. That slip ultimately led to his father’s capture.
In the 1950s, Klaus started dating Sylvie Hermann, a local girl who shared his German roots. She lived with her parents in the Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos, which was mostly German and home to many Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Her father, Lothar Hermann, was a Holocaust survivor who subsequently hid his Jewish heritage.
During one dinner at the Hermann home, Klaus boasted about how high ranking his father had been in the SS and declared “It would have been better if the Germans had finished their job of extermination.” Sylvie’s father said nothing; he steered the conversation to different topics, but inside his thoughts must have been whirling as he decided to take action to bring Adolf Eichmann to justice.
Nobody, including his daughter Sylvie, knew that Lothar Hermann was half Jewish. He’d been imprisoned in Dachau because of his Socialist beliefs in 1936, and had been blinded by Nazis. After the 1938 anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht, Lothar immigrated to Argentina with his Christian wife. Following the dinner with Klaus Eichmann, Lothar called a contact in Germany, alerting officials that Adolf Eichmann was alive and well in Argentina.
Lothar Hermann called a contact in Germany, alerting officials that Adolf Eichmann was alive and well in Argentina.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal also dedicated his time to capturing Eichmann. He learned from a letter shown to him in 1953 that Eichmann had been seen in Buenos Aires, and he passed along that information to the Israeli consulate in Vienna in 1954. In 1960, Wiesenthal arranged for private detectives to covertly photograph members of the family at the funeral of Eichmann’s father. Eichmann's brother Otto was said to bear a strong family resemblance and there were no current photos of the fugitive. Wiesenthal gave these photos to Mossad agents.
Tipping Off Mossad
Identifying Eichmann wasn’t enough. Anti-Semitism continued to pervade Germany in the 1950s, and local prosecutors found little will to hunt down the architect of the Holocaust. It was only when word reached Fritz Bauer, a Jewish prosecutor in Frankfurt, did someone decide to take action.
Before the Nazis seized power, Fritz Bauer had been the country’s youngest district judge and a legal superstar. When Nazis seized power in 1933, Fritz was thrown out of the legal field and imprisoned in a concentration camp for nine months. He spent most of the war hiding in Denmark and Sweden, and returned to Germany in part because of a burning desire to bring Nazis to justice. Yet when he received the tip about Adolf Eichmann, Fritz Bauer realized efforts to prosecute him might be futile given the anti-Semitism rife in Germany. Risking arrest for what was a treasonable offence, Fritz sent word to the Mossad in Israel about Eichmann’s whereabouts.
Fritz Bauer’s information was forwarded to Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad. Harel had been trying to track down Eichmann, as well as other high ranking Nazis who’d evaded justice, for years. Faced for the first time with credible information about Eichmann’s location, Harel began organizing a top-secret operation, codenamed Dybbuk, Yiddish for an evil spirit. Many of the members were themselves Holocaust survivors who had lived through the horrors of torture and genocide that Eichmann orchestrated, including Rafi Eitan who was a senior figure in Israeli intelligence.
Peter Malkin, who is prominently featured in the new film, joined the Haganah in Palestine at the age of 11 when World War II broke out. Though he grew up in pre-state Israel, much of his family was killed in the Holocaust. Before he left to hunt down Eichmann, he visited his mother who, for the first time, told him exactly what had happened to his older sister Fruma. She’d been living in Poland with her husband and children when war broke out and was murdered in a camp outside Lublin.
For the Sake of the Jewish People
Once the secret team was assembled, they gathered in Isser Harel’s office. Harel took a deep breath and began: “I want to begin by speaking to you from my heart…. This is a national mission of the first degree. It is not an ordinary capture operation, but the capture of a hideous Nazi criminal, the most horrible enemy of the Jewish people. We are not performing this operation as adventurers but as representatives of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Our objective is to bring Eichmann back safely, fully in good health, so he can be put to trial.”
The team listened as Harel continued. “We will bring Adolf Eichmann to Jerusalem...and perhaps the world will be reminded of its responsibilities. It will be recognized that, as a people, we never forget. Our memory reaches back through recorded history. The memory book lies open, and the hand still writes.”
In the days that followed, using different routes, the team made their way to Argentina. They rented two safe houses from Buenos Aires’ Jews. They began to surveille Eichmann. For weeks, they tracked Eichmann’s movements, scrutinizing pictures of him to make sure they had the right man. Finally, on the night of May 11, 1960, the team was ready to capture Ricardo Klement, aka Adolf Eichmann, drug him, and bring him to a safe house.
As they waited in darkness for Eichmann to come home, they worried. Normally extremely punctual, this night Eichmann was late, failing to get off his usual 7:40pm bus. The plan was to abandon the operation if Eichmann failed to appear by 8pm, but the team waited a few more minutes, until he exited the next bus at 8:05. As he walked down his quiet street, the Mossad team pounced, grabbing Eichmann and bundling him into the backseat of a waiting car. It was an emotional moment. Peter Malkin wore gloves because he couldn’t stand the thought of touching the man who’d planned and ordered the deaths of his relatives.
In the car, they inspected Eichmann to make sure he was the right man. They located the scar under his arm where his SS membership tattoo had been removed, and checked that an appendectomy scar was in where their records indicated it should be. Finally, the team members breathed a sigh of relief: they had Eichmann.
After Eban’s visit to Buenos Aires to celebrate its 150th anniversary, Eichmann would be smuggled on board his flight back to Israel.
Now they faced a daunting ten-day wait until they could smuggle him out of the country. Unwilling to trust the security of another country’s airline, Harel insisted that Eichmann fly to Israel on El Al, the national carrier of the state of Israel. The only problem was El Al did not fly to Argentina.
Getting Eichmann Out
The timing of Eichmann’s capture provided the perfect cover. On May 20, 1960, Argentina was to celebrate its 150th anniversary of independence. Israeli authorities arranged a special one-time El Al flight bringing Abba Eban, the great Israeli statesman, to Argentina to join in the celebration on an El Al plane. After Eban’s visit to Buenos Aires, Eichmann would be smuggled on board his flight back to Israel. The operation was so secret that not even Eban knew about it until afterwards.
Ben Kingsley as Eichmann
For help with logistics, the Mossad team turned to Luba Volk, a former El Al corporate secretary who now lived in Buenos Aires, and asked her to make all the logistical arrangements necessary for El Al to fly to Argentina. Meanwhile, members of a local fascist group, including Eichmann’s son, frantically searched the area for Eichmann, including breaking into a synagogue and threatening locals. Finally, on May 20, a sedated Eichmann was smuggled onto the flight disguised as an ill flight attendant and brought to Jerusalem.
As soon as the plane took off, the Mossad team on board stood to congratulate each other and told the unsuspecting flight crew the truth: the man they were bringing home with them was none other than Adolf Eichmann. (Argentina was so incensed that Israel captured a Nazi on its soil, it refused to let El Al fly to the country again until 2017 when regular flights were finally started.)
Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Israeli authorities tried Eichmann for 15 crimes including crimes against humanity. The trial lasted for 57 days and was televised in 37 countries around the world. Fifteen years after the Holocaust, 112 witnesses testified against him, and for many it was the first time hearing first-hand accounts of what happened to Holocaust survivors.
The testimony was shocking. One cameraman covering the trial, who had lost his family in the Holocaust, fainted when a witness described how she was shot at again and again by Nazi soldiers and fell among dead bodies into a mass grave. A Polish witness described seeing a Jewish woman carrying a baby running away from Nazi troops. She begged them to spare her baby and some non-Jews behind a nearby fence held up their hands to catch the child. “The Nazi grabbed the baby from her arms, shot the woman twice and took the baby in his hands,” the witness described. “He tore the baby as one would tear a rag.”
Golda Meir later noted how crucial it was to bring the architect of the Holocaust to trial:
Although nothing ever can or will bring the slaughtered back to life, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 was, I believe, a great a necessary act of historic justice…. I...am absolutely convinced that only the Israelis were entitled to try Eichmann on behalf of world Jewry, and I am deeply proud that we did so. It was not, in any sense, a question of revenge. As the Hebrew poet Bialik once wrote, not even the devil himself could dream up an adequate revenge for the death of a single child, but those who remained alive – and generations still unborn – deserve, if nothing else, that the world know, in all its dreadful detail, what was done to the Jews of Europe and by whom.
Eichmann was convicted on all counts. He was sentenced to death and hanged on June 1, 1962, the only prisoner ever executed in the State of Israel. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the sea, outside of Israel’s territorial waters.