About a month ago I was at a Shabbat meal at which a museum exhibit about the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 came up. My interest was piqued. But alas, the final day of the exhibit was that week, and I was scheduled to depart for a visit to Denver the following day. I encouraged a friend of mine to go see the exhibit, explaining I would experience it vicariously through her. She never made it, but then randomly this past Sunday afternoon she contacted me to say she had just heard the exhibit had been extended and that today was the final day — with three hours to go until closing.
I practically flew down to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Having been there before, I knew of its spectacular location on the waterfront, floor to ceiling glass window-walls, with the magical backdrop of the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
I arrived just as the sun was setting. Upon exiting the elevator, I was greeted with the stark, black, white and red sign — the colors of the Nazi swastika — spelling out: “Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann,” juxtaposed by the radiating streaky sunset over New York Harbor, Lady Liberty in the distance.
Because I was so late and wanted to see as much as possible, I could not view it with the depth it deserved. Still, even a quick view was breathtaking.
Much of the information in the exhibit was only declassified recently.
The exhibit path was launched by walking through a tunnel, black and white photos and copy about the Holocaust on each side. An eerie red light shone.
These were the consistent colors of the sparsely decorated exhibit: black, white and red.
The aesthetic vibe of the exhibit was that of newspaper sheets. An espionage story unfolding. Executed to perfection.
One room was devoted to the entire team. Instead of just listing their names, or perhaps the more conventional displaying of their photographs, it was a dimly lit room, with faceless, black, life-size cutouts of people, their name and role on their backs, their backs to the viewers, as if to convey the shrouded-in-secrecy element of the operation.
The genesis of the seizing of Eichmann began with a tale of boy meets girl.
An expat German family in Buenos Aires, not publicly Jewish, began to suspect that the teen their daughter was dating was, in fact, the son of Adolf Eichmann. After finding out the whereabouts of his residence and feeling confident they had found Eichmann, this information was passed on to a friend of the family, a high ranking Jewish German lawyer, living in Germany.
He contacted the Mosad.
After a few trips to Buenos Aires with photos in hand, they knew 100%: it was Eichmann.
Operation Finale, to capture the “dybbuk,” the Mosad’s code name for Eichmann, was launched.
Based on the exhibit, this successful capture was nothing short of brilliant. The depth of thought that went into the details is simply astonishing.
An example: a man was found with features similar to Eichmann, or perhaps his face was made to look similar to Eichmann’s. He was photographed and his photo identification papers were brought along on the mission. He was dubbed some name other than Eichmann (say, “Jose Ramirez”). In the event that the Mosad agents would be captured in the midst of the kidnapping and accused of kidnapping Eichmann, the agents could claim that the man they were with was not Eichmann but “Jose Ramirez” — and show “Ramirez’s” papers, and still proceed to smuggle Eichmann out of the country.
Speaking of smuggling him out of the country, how did they do it? Agents drugged him up. Then, using the phony ID papers they had drawn up, they claimed he was the pilot of their plane who had fallen deathly ill, as he was carried by two Mosad agents onto the plane (as i was reading this, I was thinking to myself, now where have I heard this story before — feigning illness or death, smuggling a person out of a city, this time in a coffin . . . oh yes! the Talmudic Rabbi Yochanan! In a small, perhaps unintended way, there was an historic Jewish facet to the operation, too).
El Al Airlines was the air carrier that had flown in the Mosad team, ostensibly a group of leaders joining in national festivities and celebrations in honor of Argentina’s 150th birthday. But El Al was not merely the air carrier. Aside from the Mosad agents, the pilot knew the real purpose of the trip. None of the staff or other passengers along for the celebrations had an inkling.
Also, after Eichmann’s capture, the Mosad agents collectively risked their lives by deciding to remain in Buenos Aires. They sent only Eichmann and two agents back to Israel. They decided that the priority was to get Eichmann to Israel, whatever would be their fate in the next crucial days in Argentina.
As it turned out, the complete Mosad team all made it back safely.
The exhibit includes fascinating artifacts enclosed in glass cases. Item by item, they tangibly weave the story of capture.
I learned some surprising and some very disturbing facts as I wove my way through the exhibit.
I didn’t know Eichmann was a high school drop out and a failed salesman. Unfortunately, he was also a master at logistics and efficiency. His penmanship was perfect. And he escaped Germany as Ricardo Klement with the help of the Red Cross! The Red Cross!! Another shocking fact: two days prior to his execution Eichmann pleaded for clemency.
Until the end, the very bitter end, he assumed no responsibility for his crimes.
The pace of the exhibit is that of a fascinating espionage tale. You know the outcome at the outset. But you follow each fascinating step of how it was executed. Aside from the tunnel that launched the exhibit and the constant coded message of Nazism expressed in the colors, it could almost be any story of intrigue as you follow the posters and inanimate objects.
There is the facet of “The World Was Watching” and how symbolic this was for Israel, and how deep a shift it was for Holocaust survivors, but overall the focus of the exhibit is the process of the capture itself.
Then comes the final room. It hits you with such force; it’s like a punch to the gut.
It’s the booth. The booth Eichmann sat in as he was tried. Bullet proof, in the event anyone attempted to shoot him, due to the profound and haunting emotional agony he triggered for Holocaust survivors.
This room transports one to the actual courtroom of the infamous trial. The walls on either side of the booth are covered in moving footage of the survivors who sat in the bleachers, circling the booth.
The raw pain and emotional outbursts are searing.
There in the center of it all, in the booth, is live footage of Eichmann, sitting, ever so indifferently sitting, expressionless.
As survivor after survivor bears witness, an ordinary looking man sits. Vacant, vacuous eyes. Nothing. Chillingly expressionless.
Instantaneously, “banality of evil” is what pops into my head. Hannah Arendt was right. When you see Eichmann like this, those three words do seem to say it all.
As I was paralyzed, mesmerized, horrified at “seeing” this “ordinary” human-monster, I was suddenly jolted from my reverie by the museum personnel, explaining that the exhibit has now closed and asking me to leave.
I started walking toward the exit, when I noticed them repeating this same request to a man standing nearby, quickly snapping pictures with his camera, trying to get all you can in before they kicked us out.
I said something about unfortunately coming to see the exhibit at the last minute. Last minute? he responded. This was his fifth time coming to the exhibit! Today, he is a history professor. When he was 19, he was in Israel on a summer program. A lottery was drawn for (I think it was) three students to be admitted to witness the trial. He won a spot. At the time, he was pre-med. After the trial, he switched to history. You know, Hitler could look the part of an evil freak, but Eichmann, day after day during his long trial, just came across as a regular guy. You would never have known.
The professor’s mantra today is: “Live in the present, learn from the past, plan for the future” he told me as we were well on our way out of the exhibit, rounding the corner with the breathtaking view in sight, Lady Liberty’s silhouette far out across the water.
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