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From St. Petersburg museum to Hollywood, 'Operation Finale' curator talks about daring Nazi spy tale

Avner Avraham, the former Mossad agent and curator of the exhibition called Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. The blockbuster exhibition on the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Aug. 21, 2018

Little more than a month after an exhibit on the famous Nazi-hunting exploit Operation Finale ended its run at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Hollywood has put the story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on screen. The exhibit's curator is glowing.

Operation Finale opens in theaters Aug. 29 starring Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust. The buzz on the film is good, and it was moved up to Labor Day weekend after preview audiences gave it strong reviews.

Avner Avraham, the curator who oversaw the exhibition's five-month stay in St. Petersburg, was an adviser on the film and had a small part as an extra playing cards in a cafe next to Oscar Isaac. He is featured in an official vignette by MGM on the making of the movie. As the film's "Mossad consultant," he says, "Eichmann used to say I was a small conduit machine, but actually he was the machine."

The story is one of the most daring espionage operations in history. In 1960, the new country of Israel's spy agency, Mossad, undertook the abduction of Eichmann from the streets of Argentina and disguised him as a crew member to smuggle him back to Israel for a trial. It was history's first televised trial, one that captivated millions around the world and allowed many Holocaust survivors to tell their stories for the first time, 15 years after the war.

Avraham walked the red carpet with the film's stars at New York's Lincoln Center recently and in a phone interview this week said he was gratified by the film and the audience reaction.

"It's not a documentary, but this is a way to tell the story of the Holocaust for people who don't want to hear about the Holocaust," Avraham said. "People don't wake up and say, 'What a lovely day, let's go to the Holocaust Museum.' But they go to the cinema to see the wonderful Ben Kingsley playing Eichmann. And maybe they will remember something and maybe they will read about it and maybe take their kids to the nearest Holocaust museum."

Making an entertaining spy movie, he said, is "like medicine inside a candy."

Oscar winner Kingsley's performance in particular got high praise from Avraham, 53, who retired from the Mossad three years ago and now spends all his time on the exhibit and is working on a book.

"It's very easy to say Eichmann was a monster. But he was a regular human. He's got four kids, a family, he built a home for them. Just like the other Nazis who believed in something and made evil things," Avraham said. "Some people say the movie humanizes Eichmann, But he was a human being. That's the whole idea."

Among Avraham's contributions was giving filmmakers a real wrist tattoo number from a Holocaust survivor from Hungary when one of the actors shows an Auschwitz concentration camp tattoo. He also advised them on the names of the many airlines stamped on the spies' luggage, and showed them how agents swapped a picture of Eichmann onto a fake passport used to get him out of Argentina.

And he brought potatoes to the set for a scene making fake passports. Years ago, forgers would cut a fresh potato in half and use it to transfer a stamp from one passport to another.

"If you look carefully you'll see one of the potatoes I put out there."

Avraham said Operation Finale, the exhibit, which uses photographs, film and declassified spy artifacts, is booked solid for the next three years at museums around the country.

He has seen the movie three times and can't wait to see it again.

"Every minute of the movie means to me a lot because I remember the set, I remember what happened on the set that day," Avraham said. "I can see my fingerprints in the movie."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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