Museum exhibits the trial and capture of Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for the planning and implementation of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to annihilate European Jewry during World War II, might have lived out his days after the war as Ricardo Klement in Argentina had it not been for the fateful intervention of a German Jewish refugee, his daughter, and Israel’s foreign intelligence service.
The dramatic story of Eichmann’s capture, extradition and trial in Israel, where he was found guilty and executed for “crimes against the Jewish people,” in 1962, is told in a multimedia exhibition that opened recently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan: Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann. The exhibition, which runs through Dec. 22, is a co-production of Beit Hatfutsot—The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv; the Mossad Israeli Secret Intelligence Service; and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Operation Finale is relevant today, 55 years after Eichmann’s trial, as memories of World War II fade, and the population of Holocaust survivors dwindles, said curator and former Mossad agent Avner Avraham.
“The story of the Holocaust is the biggest crime against humanity,” he said. “Never again—we must tell what happened to a new generation.”
The exhibition, first shown in Israel, Ohio and Illinois before its debut in New York, “is part of the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s core mission is to teach a diverse audience about the events of the Holocaust” and the dangers of intolerance, said Erica Blumenfeld, director of Collections and Exhibitions at the museum.
“Operation Finale was the Mossad’s code name for it’s top secret mission to capture Eichmann, said Avraham. The exhibition is composed of three sections: an introduction that details the prewar political and economic climate in Germany that led to the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler; the Mossad mission; and Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.
Otto Adolf Eichmann, born in 1906 in Germany, grew up in Austria. A poor student, Eichmann left school and found work as a salesman for an oil company before losing his job during the depression. He joined the Nazi party in 1932, then the SS (Schutzstaffel) paramilitary organization under Hitler. Eichmann’s logistical skills helped his career rise in the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) security and intelligence service in Berlin.
Jews, Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, the mentally impaired and others thought to be of inferior races, were targets for genocide. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942, the Nazis adopted the “Final Solution” to the Jewish question. On display in the exhibition is a report prepared and signed by Eichmann that was presented at the meeting, detailing the number of Jews from each European country to be exterminated. As head of Gestapo’s Department of Jewish Affairs, Eichmann zealously planned the logistics for the transport of Jews to killing centers in Poland and the Soviet Union. Even as Germany was losing the war, Eichmann implemented the transport of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz. After the war ended in 1945, Eichmann was detained in two American POW camps, yet managed to escape to Northern Germany, where he hid until 1950. With the aid of a network of former SS officers and Catholic Church authorities, Eichmann traveled to Italy, where he obtained a Red Cross Humanitarian passport under the alias Ricardo Klement and sailed to Argentina—his wife and children would join him two years later. Eichmann held a series of low-paying jobs until securing a position at a Mercedes-Benz factory. Eichmann’s identity was discovered in 1956, after a chance meeting between Lothar Hermann—a German Jewish refugee who had fled to Argentina after being imprisoned in Dachau before the war—and his daughter Sylvia’s boyfriend. Hermann became convinced that the young man, who called himself Nick Eichmann, was Klaus Eichmann, the son of the fugitive Nazi war criminal. Hermann conveyed this information to Dr. Fritz Bauer, also a survivor and the chief prosecutor of the German State of Hesse, who then shared this information with the head of the Israeli delegation in Cologne, who relayed it to the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked Mossad chief Isser Harel to organize a secret operation to capture Eichmann and smuggle him to Israel for a public trial. The Mossad’s code name for Eichmann became Dybbuk—demon in Jewish folklore. Carrying false identities and tourist maps of Buenos Aires, the 11-member team flew to Argentina in April 1960, where, living in rented apartments and switching cars frequently, they shadowed Eichmann, learning his routine. The 130 recently declassified artifacts on display from the Mossad archives, which include maps, case files, forged documents, surveillance photos and other predigital espionage tools, reveal how the team abducted Eichmann near his home in a Buenos Aires suburb, and flew him to Israel aboard an El Al plane.
Period radios are on display, along with recordings from around the world in different languages announcing Eichmann’s capture, including Ben-Gurion’s announcement to the Knesset on May 23, 1960. In a reconstructed trial space is the bulletproof glass booth Eichmann sat in during the trial. Visitors can watch video images of the trial projected on three screens, of the prosecution, witness testimony and Eichmann’s unemotional response.
Avraham, who is working now on a book about Eichmann and has an advisory role in an upcoming MGM film on the subject, said that since the exhibition’s opening, people have reached out to Avraham about their families’ connection to the mission of trial. Tom Hurwitz, a New York documentary cinematographer, recalls his father Leo Hurwitz, who was hired by Israeli producer Milton Fruchtman as a television producer for the trial.
“My father had been one of the inventors of live TV production at CBS when it came into existence just after the war,” said Hurwitz. “The Eichmann trial was the first trial televised live. He used advanced techniques in which witnesses, judges and Eichmann were seen in close up and cut against each other. That added tremendous drama to the televising of the trial.”
The trial, televised worldwide, had a profound impact on public perception of the Holocaust and survivors, Avraham said, particularly in Israel.
“Until then, Holocaust survivors didn’t share their stories,” he said. “People in Israel thought, ‘Why didn’t you fight?’ There were more than 100 witnesses. Their stories of survival were open to kids and neighbors who started thinking that these people were heroes and not people who didn’t fight.”