Florida Holocaust Museum's Eichmann exhibit recounts daring capture, riveting trial of Nazi officer

Former Mossad agent Avner Avraham is curator of the "Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann" exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. He retired from the Mossad three years ago and now spends all his time on the exhibit. (DIRK SHADD   |   Times)
Former Mossad agent Avner Avraham is curator of the "Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann" exhibit at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. He retired from the Mossad three years ago and now spends all his time on the exhibit. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published Feb. 8, 2018

In May 1960, the young nation of Israel appeared to be sending a delegation to Argentina to join the country's 150th anniversary celebration. But the plan instead was to smuggle agents into the country to carry out one of the most daring espionage operations in history: the abduction of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

Knowing that Argentina might never extradite Eichmann, Israeli secret intelligence agents snatched him off the street as he was walking home from the bus. Drugged and disguised as an injured crewman, he was loaded onto a plane headed to Israel for history's first televised trial, one that captivated millions around the world.

You can see how this exploit unfolded in "Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann," the new blockbuster exhibition that opens Saturday at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. Running through July 15, it is the first exhibition to tour the United States to fully document the story of the Nazi war criminal, using recently declassified artifacts from the Mossad, Israel's Secret Intelligence Service.

The saga is the stuff of legend, and a movie is currently in production starring Star Wars' Oscar Isaac as Mossad agent Peter Malkin and Oscar winner Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, the Nazi officer who masterminded the logistics to transport millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps.

Avner Avraham, the curator of the exhibition, was an adviser on the film, set to be released in September and also called Operation Finale. He spent two months on the set last fall in Argentina and said he filmed a scene with Isaac in which they played cards in a cafe.

A former Mossad agent himself, Avraham calls the exhibit "my last mission." He worked in intelligence for the spy agency but likes to joke, "If I tell you any more I'll have to kill you."

His mission these days is to tell the story of the Mossad agents who pulled off the operation. And more than 70 years after the Holocaust ended, the number of survivors who can tell their stories is dwindling.

"My mission is to tell the story again and again. I think it is the mission of my generation," said Avraham, 53, who retired from the Mossad three years ago and now spends all his time on the exhibit. He is also working on a book about the story's unknown heroes.

It started about seven years ago, when he happened upon boxes in the Mossad archives that had long been forgotten, containing all the files on the Eichmann case. He found the camera used to surreptitiously snap a picture of a "Riccardo Klement," later identified as Eichmann by his distinctive ears. And when he saw Eichmann's picture on the fake passport that was used to smuggle him on the plane to Israel, "I was shocked," he said. "No one had touched them for 50 years."

Avraham compiled a display of the artifacts in Mossad headquarters, which is closed to the public. But in 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of the trial, they were put on display for the public for the first time in Israel. And for the last two years, "Operation Finale" has traveled the United States.

Using photographs, film and the recently declassified spy artifacts, the exhibit was hailed at stops in Chicago and New York last year for playing out more like the plot of a spy novel than a typical museum exhibit.

Though the hunt and capture were fascinating, Eichmann's was the first televised trial, shown around the world. And it was the first time many of the viewers, including Israelis, learned about the details of the Holocaust.

In her 2011 book The Eichmann Trial, renowned historian Deborah Lipstadt said this was different from any other war crimes trial because it featured the stories of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were too traumatized after the war to tell their stories. With more than 100 witnesses, it captured the emotions that weren't a part of the document-heavy Nuremberg trials. Many, she noted, hadn't even told their own children.

"It transformed Jewish life and society," she wrote. "It changed our perception of the victims of genocide."

The most somber area of the exhibit is the trial, told through video montages surrounding a replica of the actual bulletproof box Eichmann sat in. There's footage of prison camps and corpses and starving prisoners as testimony from the trial is replayed. The idea is to give visitors the feeling that they are at the historic 1961 trial, Avraham said, as he toured the construction of the exhibition in St. Petersburg.

Historians note the trial and the surrounding media coverage sparked renewed interest in the Holocaust and fueled an increase in memoirs and scholarly works that helped raise public awareness.

After his conviction, Eichmann made history in 1962 as the first and last person executed by hanging in Israel. He was cremated, his ashes scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.

"It was symbolic," Avraham said of the death sentence. "Symbolic of the Holocaust, his ashes symbolic of the people who died in the gas chambers. And there was no grave. And it's irreversible."

Avraham has met with thousands of people as the exhibit has toured the world. He is still adding to the collection, almost every week, as people send him photos and papers from their family collections. He owes it to the Holocaust survivors to keep at it, he said.

"In one decade we will not have them anymore. So we have to find a new way to tell their story."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.