The Israeli secret agents who captured Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann on May 11, 1960, in Argentina had a chance to grab another Nazi as well – the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele.
That was perhaps the most startling message delivered by Avner Avraham, a retired Mossad agent, curator of the Israeli spy agency’s traveling exhibit on Eichmann’s capture and the chief consultant for Operation Finale, the movie about his abduction, which is in cinemas now. Avraham spoke to a crowd of 175 people Sunday, October 7, at Temple Shalom about the film and the story behind the capture.
In the end, Avraham said, the Mossad concentrated on Eichmann alone, the mission being, as then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion saw it, to capture and prosecute one major Nazi leader, representing all Nazi crimes.
“Ben-Gurion knew that he wanted to make a big trial to tell the story of the Holocaust,” said Avner, who is on a speaking tour in the United States. “It doesn’t matter who he put in the glass box.”
The “glass box” is a reference to the bulletproof booth in which Eichmann sat during his trial in a converted Tel Aviv theater. The scene is recreated in Avraham’s traveling exhibit.
A major organizer behind the logistics of the Holocaust, Eichmann, who held the rank of obersturmbannfuhrer in the SS, was tasked with transporting Jews to the ghettos, and eventually the death camps, in Eastern Europe during World War II. Though captured by the Allies after the war, he escaped punishment by using an assumed name. Following his capture in Argentina, he was tried in Israel and hanged in 1962.
Equally notorious, Mengele, an SS officer and physician, is remembered for his selection process at the Auschwitz-Birkenau rail terminal, where he decided who would be put to work and who would go straight to the gas chambers. He also performed inhumane experiments on prisoners, particularly twins. Mengele also eluded capture after the war.
According to Avraham, he learned just a few weeks ago from Rafi Eitan, 91, the only living agent from the 11-member Mossad team sent to capture Eichmann, that they knew Mengele was in Buenos Aires. Thanks to a source, they even had an address for him.
But the Eichmann plan was much further along, Avraham said, prompting Head of Mossad Issar Harel to concentrate on his capture instead.
“Maybe if they had more time, they could have done something else,” Avraham said.
The Mossad left three agents in neighboring Chile after Eichmann’s capture, the intent being to go after Mengele once Eichmann was out of Argentina. It aborted the operation after Ben-Gurion publicly announced Eichmann’s capture, fearing it would be too dangerous for the agents to return.
“Ben-Gurion made his announcement too early,” Avraham said. “It was important for him because … it was a big announcement for the Jewish people and we cannot just mention it in the newspapers.”
In 1985, acting on a tip, authorities exhumed remains from a grave in Brazil. In 1992, DNA testing confirmed the remains were Mengele’s.
Speaking for 90 minutes at Temple Shalom, Avraham, who spent 28 years in the Mossad, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel, brought to light many details behind the movie, Operation Finale.
For instance, there is the café scene in Israel that shows a waiter – a Holocaust survivor – with a tattooed number on his arm. Originally, filmmakers wanted to use a fictitious number, but Avraham insisted on an authentic one belonging to the father of his best friend.
“It’s against the Holocaust deniers,” Avraham said, worried that deniers would claim, “the number is too long or it’s too short, it’s not true or it’s all fake.”
He also insisted that a flashback scene in a Budapest hotel in 1944, showing Eichmann holding a train schedule to the camps, uses an authentic departure list.
He showed a photo of Eichmann’s executioner – still alive – who has since become an Orthodox Jew.
Besides Temple Shalom, Avraham spoke at The Temple, Oldham County High School (to about 650 students), Louisville Collegiate, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, the combined religious schools of LBSY and The Temple, and HSJS. He also gave an interview to WAVE-TV.
In all, Avraham addressed more than 1,300 people during his three-day stay here.
The Temple, Temple Shalom, Classrooms without Borders and The Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence sponsored his visit.
In one of the more sensitive moments of his talk Sunday, Avraham addressed claims that the movie, which shows Eichmann in emotional moments with his wife and young son, served to humanize him.
It probably did, Avraham said, noting the performance of actor Ben Kingsley, who played Eichmann. But, he added, the purpose of the movie was to portray “a regular man who did evil things.”
Want to know more?
Visit Avraham’s website at aavner.com for more details on the movie and his other projects.