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The movie industry often promotes films based on real events that supposedly “changed history”. More often that not, such claims are utter tosh as these movies usually depict nothing more epoch-making than the weekly shop.
But not so Operation Finale, forthcoming film about the sensational kidnapping of the former SS officer who masterminded the Holocaust – Adolf Eichmann – snatched off the streets of Buenos Aires in 1960 by Israeli secret service Mossad.
For it was thanks to Eichmann’s kidnapping and the shocking testimonies at his trial the following year that the world would fully comprehend the horror and magnitude of the Holocaust – a word scarcely used until then.
Although most had a vague knowledge of the atrocities it was not fully appreciated that the slaughter of six million of Europe’s Jews was a single act of genocide – a mechanised and systematised act of mass murder – rather than a simple side-effect of the Second World War.
This appreciation of the Holocaust changed history. It cemented the position of the fledgling Israel as a legitimate nation state.
What makes the Eichmann kidnapping even more extraordinary is that it came so close to failure on numerous occasions.
Today we think of Mossad as a super-slick and faultless intelligence agency but the operation was conducted in the organisation’s early days and the likelihood of success was exceedingly slim.
For a start, the Israelis only found out about Eichmann’s whereabouts by a stroke of luck.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal would later mendaciously claim that he had found Eichmann but the former Nazi was only located thanks to one of Eichmann’s sons, Klaus, revealing his surname to his girlfriend, Sylvia, when they started dating in mid-1956.
What Klaus was not to know was that Sylvia’s father, Lothar Hermann, was half-Jewish, and had been incarcerated in Dachau for a year as a political prisoner.
When Hermann heard the name Eichmann he immediately recognised it and wrote to the public prosecutor in Frankfurt, a man called Fritz Bauer, who in turn informed the Israelis.
However when Mossad was given the information its head, Isser Harel, gave it little credence. Eichmann – and many other former Nazis – were being spotted all over the world and Mossad lacked the resources to follow up every lead.
It would not be until January 1958 that Harel would send out an agent to Argentina and even when Eichmann’s home was located Mossad refused to believe the former senior Nazi lived in such a “wretched little house”.
It would take the bloodymindedness of Fritz Bauer to persuade the Israelis to follow up the lead, which they would eventually do in February 1960 – nearly four years after the initial tip-off.
During that time Eichmann had moved house but the agent dispatched to Buenos Aires found his new address after a fortnight. Eichmann was identified while hanging some washing in his garden.
When Harel and a Mossad team flew out to Buenos Aires the mission to kidnap the former Nazi had been ordered by Israel’s prime minister David Ben Gurion, who knew that requesting extradition from a fascistleaning Argentina was pointless.
Of course, it would have been simpler to have killed Eichmann but the prime minister wanted to bring the murderer of so many Jews to an Israeli court of law.
As a result, the logistical challenge that Harel and his team faced was enormous. Cars had to be hired and safe-houses had to be rented – far more difficult things to achieve in the 1960s in a Latin American country thousands of miles away from Israel than they would be today.
The other major problem was how Eichmann was going to be smuggled out of the country, in the days well before scheduled flights from Buenos Aires to Israel.
Fortunately, a plane of Israeli dignitaries would be flying in and out of Argentina at the same time, although getting him out of the country would involve having to hold Eichmann in a safe-house for a week.
Clearly, much could go wrong. Cars could break down, neighbours of safe-houses might get suspicious, the police could stumble upon the kidnap itself, Eichmann could somehow escape – the list was long.
At 7.15pm on the evening of May 11 the kidnap team set off, however, and lay in wait near Eichmann’s house pretending to tinker under the bonnet of a broken down car.
The plan was to kidnap Eichmann when he got off his regular bus at 7.40pm but he did not appear. As the minutes ticked by, the team grew extremely anxious, worried that any passers-by would get suspicious.
If Eichmann did not appear by 8pm the attempt would be abandoned. As the deadline passed the team decided to wait a little longer. At five minutes past the hour, a bus drew up and a single passenger alighted. It was Eichmann.
When he approached, they saw him reach into his pocket, making the snatch squad suspect he had a gun. The man tasked with grabbing Eichmann was Peter Malkin, who decided that the potential threat meant he should attack their quarry from in front.
Malkin stepped up to Eichmann and addressed him in the only Spanish he knew, saying: “Un momentito, señor.” Eichmann took a step back and Malkin grabbed him.
Again, things did not go smoothly. The two men rolled into a ditch and Eichmann, with his false teeth now stuck down his throat, made a hideous gurgling, screaming, sound.
The squad had to gun the engine of the car to mask the noise but eventually Eichmann was bundled into the car. Miraculously, nobody had noticed the abduction.
For the next eight days Eichmann was held in a safe-house, which tested the agents’ patience as they had to attend to his most intimate needs to ensure he did not kill himself.
The movie shows Malkin having lengthy soul-searching conversations with Eichmann during this period although this is highly unlikely as, according to other members of the Mossad team, the two men did not share a common language.
Eventually, the team managed to bundle a drugged Eichmann on to a plane, disguising him as a drunk air steward. He landed in Tel Aviv on the morning of May 22.
“It was a beautiful spring day when I arrived in Israel,” he commented later, as if he were a tourist.
After his trial Eichmann would be executed on the night of May 31/June 1, 1962. His body was burned and his ashes were thrown into the
Mediterranean early that morning.
After the bucket was rinsed out, the rest would be history.
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