It’s got all the elements of a spy thriller.
Fifty-five years ago, one of the key architects of the Holocaust was executed in Israel following an astonishing capture and trial. His name was Adolf Eichmann.
Most of the evidence used to bring him to justice was kept classified until only a few years ago. That’s when a former Israeli intelligence official with a keen interest in history curated a number of artifacts into an immersive exhibit that’s equal parts history and thrilling spy story. It has now come to Chicago in only its second showing outside of Israel.
Join us for a look inside the exhibit “Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann.”
Eddie Arruza: The number forever etched into his arm has faded slightly. But David Dragon’s memories of where he got it are still fresh.
David Dragon, Holocaust survivor: I was beaten up and they took me to jail.
Arruza: The soon to be 94-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp talks of his experience as he tours a new exhibit about the capture of one of the key architects of the Holocaust: Adolf Eichmann. David Dragon believes he encountered Eichmann at Birkenau.
Dragon: When they caught me with some bread they took me in a room and there were 10 to 15 high SS men; I think he was there too.
Arruza: When Eichmann entered a Jerusalem courtroom in the spring of 1961, it was the culmination of years of attempts by the Israeli government to find him and bring him to justice.
The backstory that led to that moment is now on vivid display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. Titled “Operation Finale,” the exhibit brings together original artifacts that were only recently de-classified by the Israeli government and curated into an immersive experience by former Israeli intelligence officer, Avner Avraham.
Avner Avraham, former Mossad officer and curator of “Operation Finale”: Six years ago I was a Mossad employee and I found some boxes with very rare stuff from the Operation Finale – the Capture of Adolf Eichmann – and I decided to put together a small exhibition in the Mossad headquarters.
Arruza: Mossad is Israel’s equivalent of the CIA and in the late 1950s Mossad was tipped off to a love story involving Eichmann’s son Klaus and this teenage girl, Sylvia Hermann. Sylvia’s father, a German Jew, had fled to Argentina with the rise of the Nazis. Eichmann and his family also made their way to Buenos Aires after World War II, evading allied capture.
But when Sylvia’s father recognized the last name of the boy she was dating, he notified Israeli officials. A Mossad agent posing as a tourist later arrived in Argentina with this Leica Camera and surreptitiously took pictures of the man going by the alias Ricardo Klement.
Avraham: They sent these pictures to Israel together with Eichmann pictures from SS file that the Mossad got – pictures from the war – and the Israeli police laboratories compared the pictures, and (found) out that this is probably the same man – if you look at the shape of his left ear.
Arruza: From there, Operation Finale took off. With Argentina having become a haven for former Nazis, and the government not honoring extradition requests, Israel’s prime minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion, approved a clandestine mission to try to capture Eichmann.
Twelve Mossad agents traveled to the South American country from Europe on separate commercial flights to try to avoid suspicion. These are their airline tickets.
The exhibit also features new documentaries, that include interviews with individuals involved with the Eichmann case, and some recreations of the mission that on more than one occasion, was on the brink of failing.
Eichmann was captured on May 11, 1960. He was taken to a safe house where the possessions he was carrying at the time are part of the display. He also had identification with the alias he had taken on in Argentina, Ricardo Klement. But as agents interrogated him, Eichmann eventually tripped himself up.
Avraham: They start asking him general questions from your age, the size of your shoes and what is your number in the SS file and he said exactly the Eichmann number and he understood he made a huge mistake, and he asked for a glass of red wine.
Arruza: Eichmann was smuggled out of Argentina on the only Israeli Airline El Al flight to ever travel to that country. It was sent there ostensibly on a diplomatic mission.
Adolf Eichmann’s trial began on April 11, 1961 in a converted theater in Jerusalem and the centerpiece of this exhibit is the actual bulletproof booth used by Eichmann along with the three original chairs that he and two security guards sat in.
Visitors to the exhibit can get a sense of the intensity of the trial. A triptych of video screens surround Eichmann’s booth showing videos of the audience, the accused and some of the more than 100 Holocaust survivors who testified.
Avraham: And the trial changed the life in Israel because people start talking about the Holocaust and people start dealing with this.
Arruza: Eichmann found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed in May of 1962. His ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.
Avner Avraham says presenting the Eichmann story as a spy thriller is designed to engage people into learning more about the Holocaust. And a man who witnessed it firsthand agrees.
Dragon: It’s perfect people should come see it – it’s something to see.
“Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann” is on exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie through June 18.
March 2: Jewish community centers around the United States have been forced to evacuate in recent weeks after being targeted by bomb threats. What’s behind the uptick in anti-Semitism?
Jan. 26: For 36 years, professor Peter Hayes sought to understand and explain the Holocaust to students at Northwestern University. He joins us to discuss his new book.
Dec. 30: Beginning Monday, city residents under the age of 18 will no longer be required to pay the $14 admission fee at the museum in Grant Park thanks to a gift from a pair of Kansas donors.