New exhibit follows the hunt for a Nazi leader

June 10, 2017 at 5:11 PM EDT
In 1962, Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust, was executed in Israel, the culmination of a years-long search for him by the Israeli government. The backstory that led to that moment is now on vivid display in “Operation Finale,” an exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Eddie Aruzza, a correspondent for PBS station WTTW in Chicago, has this story.

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: I was beaten up and they took me to jail.

EDDIE 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.

DAVID DRAGON: When they caught me with some bread they took me in a room and there were about 10-15 high SS men; I think he was there too.

EDDIE 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: 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 a small exhibition in the Mossad headquarter.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Mossad is Israel’s equivalent of the CIA and in the late 1950’s 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.

AVNER 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 find out this is probably the same man if you look at the shape of his left ear.

EDDIE 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. 12 Mossad agents traveled to the South American country from Europe on separate commercial flights to try to avoid suspicion. These are their airline tickets.

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.

AVNER AVRAHAM: They start asking him general questions from your age, the size of your shoes and immediately, what is your number of the SS, 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.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Eichmann was smuggled out of Argentina on the only Israeli Airline El Al flight to ever travel to that country.

Adolf Eichmann’s trial began on April 11, 1961 in a converted theater in Jerusalem and the centerpiece of this exhibit is the actual bullet proof 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.

AVNER AVRAHAM: And the trial changed the life in Israel because people start talking about the Holocaust and people start dealing with this.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed in May of 1962. His ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.