An interview with career Mossad agent and film consultant Avner Avraham
Operation Finale, the new historical spy thriller, is based on the true story of the mission to capture Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann.
Fifteen years after the end of World War II, Israeli Intelligence mounted a top-secret mission to abduct Eichmann, who had fled to Argentina after Germany’s defeat, where he was living in Buenos Aires with his family.
Head of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs division during World War II, Eichmann was the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to eradicate European Jewry, responsible for orchestrating the deportation and transportation of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps.
To ensure historical authenticity, film director Chris Weitz relied on the expertise of Avner Avraham, a former Mossad agent and world authority on the Mossad. Avraham, who turned his love of history into a second career as museum exhibitor, lecturer and writer, spoke about his role as film consultant, and the exhibition he curated on the mission—Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolph Eichmann.
In 2011, as Mossad Communications Officer, Avraham mounted a small exhibition on Eichmann’s capture at agency headquarters.
“I found all the original items: papers, passports, maps,” he said. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw it and asked if it could be shown to the Israeli public, and so it was shown in the Israeli Parliament for a month, and then it was moved to the Museum of the Jewish people in Tel Aviv.”
Avraham then curated a 5,000 square foot exhibition for American audiences detailing the mission, including more than 100 documents, records, photographs, videos and equipment—including the original bulletproof glass booth in which Eichmann sat during the trial, that has traveled the country.
As memories of the war fade, and the population of Holocaust survivors dwindles, Avraham sees Operation Finale as a spy movie with a famous cast that both entertains and educates its audience about the Holocaust.
“I feel it is my mission, to tell the story of the Holocaust in a different way,” Avraham said. “People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘It’s a lovely day, let’s go to a Holocaust museum.’ The different way is to show a Hollywood movie about the Mossad, and when people see the movie, they laugh, that’s the idea. So last year, when I found out there was a movie based on my exhibition name, I contacted Fred Burger and Chris Weitz. He came to Chicago to see the exhibit, and decided to make me an advisor to the movie. I started with photo research, then I came to the set and I was there most of the time. Even without changing the script, I helped them to make the movie very close to the reality.”
After Israeli Intelligence confirmed that the man living under the alias “Ricardo Klement” in Argentina was Eichmann, the Mossad and Israeli Security Agency, Shin Bet launched the mission, “Operation Finale.”
“After they prove this is the same guy, the agents come from different places to Argentina. When we made the movie I saw that everybody has “Air France:” on their suitcases, and I said, ‘Hey, you can’t all use the same passports,” said Avraham. “So we changed it to Luftansa and the other airlines used in the operation.”
After he was held for 11 days in a safe house, Eichmann was smuggled aboard an El Al plane, disguised as a crew member.
“In one scene, a Mossad agent is putting the visa on a passport. When the El Al Plane landed in Argentina, one of its crew was a Mossad agent who came looking like Eichmann,” said Avraham. “The idea was to alter his passport and send Eichmann instead of him back.
So in the movie they showed the passport with the original picture of the agent, and you see how the Mossad removed the picture of the agent and inserted the picture of Ben Kingsley (who plays Eichmann). I’m proud, because it is a way to honor one of our agents.”
Avraham added that there are two characters in the film who are Holocaust survivors played by actors, and that he used the actual concentration camp identification numbers of real people, not just fake numbers. Avraham was an extra in two scenes.
“They shot a scene that was supposed to be a café in Israel. I’m sitting next to Oscar Isaac (who plays agent Peter Malkin), and we are playing cards, and there is Israeli music, and on the wall the name of the café is my son,” Avraham said. “In another scene, I’m coming to the Eichmann trial. There are hundreds of people waiting outside the courtroom in a long line, and I’m the first one who enters, and then Oscar Isaac, and the policeman who talks with Oscar is my voice—they took my voice. It’s the first time I found I have an Israeli accent: usually its not good, but for the movie it was good.”
During Eichmann’s trial, which was televised worldwide, 99 Holocaust survivors testified, many speaking publicly for the first time, about the atrocities they witnessed. Eichmann was convicted and hanged on May 31, 1962, for crimes against the Jewish people. The trial had a profound impact on Israeli society, changing peoples’ perception of survivors as victims, to heroes.
“Eichmann used to say he was a small cog in the machine, but actually he was the machine. I cannot say something good about Eichmann, but he was a good example of a Nazi. He was exactly what Israel needed for the trial. He was involved with most of the camps. He was in charge of all the train systems. He was the architect of the Holocaust. He was in charge of the schedules. He got letters, requests: ‘Please release this one, because he is a scientist, we need him for our war machine.’ But he wouldn’t listen,” said Avraham. “It’s like if you have a mouse in your house, and you cannot go to bed without finding all of them —if there was another one you would find it. That was Eichmann. So he was the machine.”
Ben Kingsley’s nuanced performance is chilling, and Avraham asserts that Kingsley plays Eichmann “in the right way, because he was a family man, like me and you.”
“He had a small boy born in Argentina, he had a wife, he had kids. And for all those years he was a regular man,” said Avraham. “Like the Nazis, they were our neighbors and suddenly they became Nazis. Tomorrow a regular man could do something similar to the Americans. This is the evil thing. Regular people killed the Jewish people.”
The full story of Eichmann’s capture remains to be told, said Avraham, who receives emails, letters, and photos everyday from people around the world, whose relatives were somehow involved with the mission. He is writing a book now highlighting them, including the many Argentine Jews who gave their assistance without knowing the true meaning of the operation.
Operation Finale is now playing in limited release in theaters.