How the Nazi who Brought Millions to their Deaths was Brought to Justice
The massacre in Orlando has many people thinking about the power of hate, and the weaknesses in our defense against it.
An exhibition at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage provides lessons and insights from another dark chapter in world history. In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman tours “Operation Finale: The capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann.”
The Maltz Museum exhibition is the first in the U.S. to show how one of the world’s most hated war criminals was brought to justice. Erika Gold of Beachwood is a museum docent. For her, it’s personal. “Eichmann was very instrumental of killing most of my relatives.”
Gold narrowly escaped the Nazi’s systematic murder of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews. She and her mother were on a truck transport from her native Budapest to a concentration camp.
“She jumped off; she winked at me. I jumped after her, and we walked away. At that point we went into hiding.”
Gold has spent most of her life in America. “Since 1950. Long time.” Now a retired medical technologist and community volunteer, she’s never been reluctant to share her story. “I was very lucky. Very lucky.”
Adolf Eichmann, head of the Nazi’s homicidal “Jewish Department,” must have thought he was lucky, too, when he changed his name to Ricardo Klement, obtained a fake passport from the Red Cross, and escaped to South America after the war.
But in 1960 Eichmann’s luck ran out.
The story of how Israeli secret agents pursued, captured, and smuggled thim out of Argentina was kept under wraps for more than a half century.
The Maltz Museum exhibition lays it all out, from the hatred that motivated the SS lieutenant colonel, to the aftermath of his historic 1961 trial.
Eichmann was a high school dropout and a failure as a salesman, but his logistical skills and zeal for killing rocketed him to the top of the Nazi hierarchy.
Docent Erika Gold tells museum visitors how Eichmann managed the transport of millions of innocents to their deaths. “He got an award for being so efficient and killing like 400,000 people in a 2-month period. And he got an award for that. It’s just mind-boggling.”
The truth uncovered
In 2011, after Israel declassified the case of Eichmann’s capture, Mossad agent AvnerAvraham says he displayed the documents and artifacts at the headquarters of the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service.
"The head of Mossad got a request from the Prime Minister Netanyahu to put this exhibit at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.”
From there Avraham moved it to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where, two years ago, the founders of the Maltz Museum, Milton and Tamar Maltz saw it. Maltz Museum’s executive director, Ellen Rudolph, says they were captivated by it.
“And wanted to bring it to the United States, expand the story, and talk more about the trial and the legacy of the trial.”
Rudolph and her staff worked with Mossad and the Tel Aviv museum to add films, videos, labels, and interactive displays to the scores of photographs and 60 original artifacts in the original exhibition.
She says the Beachwood museum’s 4,000 square-foot multimedia exhibition, “Operation Finale,” has been one of its most popular. So the run has been extended through the Republican National Convention.
The exhibition will move on in September to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, and Rudolph says a number of other museums have expressed interest.
“It is definitely traveling to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, and we expect that it will travel across the country.”
Maltz Museum Communications Director Samantha Fryberger says thousands of Cleveland public school students have seen the exhibition.
They wonder, she says, why justice was delayed. “One of the first questions that students often ask is why Israel didn’t pursue the Nazi criminals immediately following the war, why it was so long, 1961, before he went on trial, why so many Nazis were able to just disappear.”
Many assumed Israel would seek immediate revenge.
"What they didn't understand it that Israel wasn't a state until May of 1948, and for them, they had a lot of other problems to deal with than find a Nazi criminal.”
The break in Eichmann’s case came out of the blue. In 1960 the Mossad received a tip from a man named Lothar Herman, a German who had emigrated to Argentina after the war.
“He was a survivor of the Holocaust, Dachau,” says Fryberger, “and his daughter went out on a date with someone named Nick Eichmann.”
The letter Herman wrote to Israel’s spy agency after confirming that Nick was Adolf Eichmann’s son is displayed under glass at the Maltz Museum.
”It’s an official communication,” says Fryberger. “All the artifacts that you’ll see here are Mossad documents.”
"Operation Finale" is at the Maltz Museum in Beachwood through July 24th.
In a spy story worthy of Hollywood, we learn how inventive Israeli agents pulled off a clandestine mission in a pre-digital age.
Fryberger points to a lathe on display. It was for duplicating keys. “They actually created a key to Eichmann’s house in case they had to break into it on Garibaldi Street. They actually ended up capturing him as he got off a bus. So they didn’t have to do that, but they had that capability.”
Also on display are some of Eichmann’s own things. “You’ll see here if you come through. These are the objects that were actually in Eichmann’s pocket when he was captured. There’s a comb and there are keys. There’s a cigarette holder and a pocket knife.”
Former Mossad agent AvnerAvraham says that’s all he had on him when he stepped off a bus in Buenos Aires and Mossad agents closed in.
"At the beginning they asked him in Spanish, ‘Momentito, Senor.’ It means just a minute, excuse me. They jumped up on him, took him, put him in the car.”
Laying a glove on him
But the agent assigned to restrain Eichmann had a problem.
“He was also a Holocaust survivor and didn’t want to touch him with his hand. So he brought gloves and use it during the capture. And after the years he became a famous artist, and he made this cast that we see here, he made it from the gloves.”
Avraham says nabbing Eichmann wasn’t as complicated as getting him out of Argentina. “After the capture the Mossad decided to smuggle him to Israel as an El Al employee, as a crew member. And he dressed like El Al, you know, with all the uniform and the hat.”
The fake Israeli passport Mossad made for the Nazi is on display in the exhibition.
The man in the glass booth
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the bullet-proof glass booth used at Eichmann’s trial. An immersive video installation lets us see and hear the accused, the prosecutors, and the testimony of survivors who until then had not told their stories.
A woman testified about how quickly she lost her family. “The SS man came up. He took the baby from my sister’s arms and handed it over to my mother. Then he also took the 5-year-old boy to my mother.”
“And they are no longer alive?” asks the prosecutor. “No,” she replies.
“And neither is your mother?” he asks. Again she replies, “No.”
Rudolph says Eichmann’s televised trial opened the floodgates.
“Survivors really didn’t talk about their experiences even to their spouses or their children. Seeing survivors publicly testifying in this trial that was broadcast throughout the world began to allow them to speak about what happened to them.”
Maltz Museum docent Valerie Levinson’s parents survived the Holocaust. “And they never spoke of anything. As a child you don’t ask questions. So I never knew to ask.”
The Eichmann exhibition gave her some answers and some closure. “Everyone needs to come and learn and grow from it.”
Emily Baumberger’s not Jewish. She came from Mantua to see the exhibition.
“It’s important because it tells the truth. My age bracket, we were not taught this in high school. We were not taught what happened to the Jewish people, at all.”
But today the Maltz Museum’s Samantha Fryberger says the Nazi Holocaust is part of the curriculum for Cleveland public school students. “They’re here to learn about Holocaust education, and also about stopping the hate.”
She says their understanding is enhanced by listening to the stories of those directly affected.
“We get letters from students all the time who are now able to empathize and feel, because they heard from an Erika Gold for instance tell their personal story.”
What Erika Gold says she still fails to understand, though, is what Adolf Eichmann is quoted as saying in a Life Magazine article published while he was awaiting trial.
It’s on display in the exhibition. Eichmann says, “To sum it up, I regret nothing.”
“He was sorry that he didn’t finish, “ says Gold. “He actually said that.”