NYJL’s Maxine Dovere interviewed Rafi Eitan and Avner Avraham for the below piece providing background to an exhibit currently up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage called “Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann”.
|Forgive me while I channel Le Carré:
Our meeting was rescheduled several times.
“At this point, the funerals of my friends happen often,” the former minister of Pensioner Affairs, retired general and, oh yes, master spy—Rafi Eitan—told NYJL.
At 90, he remains of sharp mind and wit, with a twinkle in his eyes and an unending supply of stories. As age begins to settle on this hero of Israel, his movement is a bit slowed. His vision is now aided by thick lenses; his hearing, damaged by an explosion, is limited.
However, whether remembering a daylight attack on a British Mandate radar installation or the awkwardness of a meeting with a former foe at a private London club; recounting his fears and emotions surrounding the capture of Adolf Eichmann; or commenting on Jonathan Pollard, his recall is clear and filled with a volumes of details about each operation he chooses to discuss.
Eitan has had many roles in Israeli society: soldier, spy, politician, minister, political advisor, to name a few. Since his “retirement” in 1990, his business acumen has made him a wealthy man. Eitan’s extensive interests include agriculture, real estate development, oil, high-tech companies and other businesses in many places, including Cuba and Africa.
He does acknowledge meeting with the late Fidel Castro, saying wryly, “We were not friends.”
As a member of the pre-state Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah and the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Eitan was actively engaged in “encouraging” the British to leave. Following his years in the IDF and then in the Mossad, he retired as a general. Eitan was then elected a member of Knesset on the combined list of the Pensioners Party and Kadima, and was appointed minister of Pensioners Affairs.
“We wanted to achieve things,” he said.
And he did, succeeding in getting hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding for the elderly.
After the establishment of Israel, Eitan enlisted in the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of America’s FBI or Russia’s FSB, advancing to deputy chief of the operations unit. Transfer to the Mossad soon followed.
He went on to assume advisory positions to several prime ministers—Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Eitan then served as director of LEKEM, the Defense Ministry’s Bureau for Scientific Relations, tasked with securing Western technologies for Israel’s then-nascent defense industry.
Jonathan Pollard, considered a significant source of information, was “handled” through LEKEM. Pollard was caught, convicted and jailed for 30 years. After years of controversy and much advocacy, Pollard was pardoned by an outgoing President Obama in 2015. During Pollard’s incarceration, Eitan was a frequent target of Pollard’s supporters.
“Demonstrations,” he said, “were of no value. They didn’t help Pollard….The activity against me stemmed from a deep lack of understanding of the situation….In intelligence work, there are also failures.”
Rafael “Rafi” Eitan was born on Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1926. His parents had made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from Russia in 1923. Noach Hantman, his father, was a farmer and poet. His mother, Yehudit Volwelsky, was a social activist. Rafi is the oldest of four children.
True to its socialist philosophy, the kibbutz placed children in a children’s house, separated from their parents.
“My mother was not happy,” he said referencing the separation.
In 1928, when his maternal grandparents arrived from Russia and provided funds, his parents left the kibbutz and moved to Ramat Hasharon, then an agricultural village of 100 families. Eitan told NYJL that some 15 years ago, when he was minister of Pensioner Affairs, he received the letter his mother had written to the secretary of the kibbutz when she left.
“Dear friends,” she wrote, “I am leaving the kibbutz. I take with me only my child.” (Her husband, Rafi’s father, left too.)
THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY
At 12, Eitan was sent to agricultural school. By 1940 he joined the Haganah, Israel’s fledgling military force, and in 1944 volunteered for the Palmach, its elite unit. He soon became a commander.
“I was a field animal,” he told NYJL. “I was very good at understanding the geography and could learn maps by heart.”
He took part in the Leil Hagesharim operation, and was active in the attempts to free illegal immigrants from the ships the British stopped from entering port, including the port of Atlit. During one operation, he lost almost all his hearing after a mine exploded near Yagur.
“Remember we were very few in Palestine—only about a million Jews and one million Arabs. Today we are all together about 6.5 million Jews, two million Arabs and another three million in the West Bank and Gaza,” Eitan said.
The teenage soldier rose quickly through the ranks.
“I got missions, like commander of an attack on the radar stations of the British army,” he said.
Even after the tragedy of the Holocaust, the British refused to allow Jewish immigration. He recalled the story of a ship called “Exodus,” which arrived in Haifa on July 10, 1947.
“The British decided to expel the people back to Germany. The Haganah—the Jewish government—decided to explode two radar stations, both on Mt. Carmel. I was the commander of one of these operations. We planned it on the same day the ship was to dock.”
Seventy years later, Eitan relates the details of operations as though he is reading a military report.
“It was the first daytime battle,” he recalled. “Until then, all Palmach operations had been only in the night.”
The Arabs had started bringing in regular military; a full brigade commanded by Gen. Kougia was poised against Eitan’s platoon of 100. Kougia was determined to conquer Haifa. Eitan and his platoon were the line of defense. He suggested an attack from the rear, in the middle of the day. His platoon attacked and “broke the brigade’s spirit and limited its ability.” Haifa stayed in Jewish hands.
A serious leg wound during the 1948 War of Independence subsequently made walking difficult.
“What to do? I joined the intelligence unit. They don’t run in the fields,” he noted with a chuckle.
After the war, the now battle-hardened Eitan had to decide whether to stay in military intelligence or to go to civilian intelligence.
“I decided to join a little company called Mossad,” he said.
Almost a decade later, Eitan was a student at the London School of Economics.
“For living expenses, I got some work…for the Mossad. Of course, I was already a member.”
On assignment as liaison officer to the British intelligence service MI6, he “had dinner” with one of the heads of MI6 at the “club.” Eitan was adviser to MI6 on counterterrorism. During one meeting, a conversation about why the British left Palestine ensued.
“The Englishman said the straw that broke the camel’s back was ‘Exodus’ and the explosion of the radar station. That, he said, made the difference! That’s when we [the British] decided to give back the mandate to the United Nations.”
Eitan, who commanded that operation, maintained his silence.
A MOST-WANTED MAN
Several years of investigation, planning and a bit of mazel resulted in the success of the 1960 Operation Finale—the capture and extradition from Argentina of Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
“My most important—and most historic—operation was finding Eichmann, capturing him and taking him to Israel. I was the commander of this operation….I must say, I was not excited. I was determined.”
Eitan continued, “For the first 10 years of the state, we were so busy we had no time to look for ex-Nazis.”
He confided that the intelligence services of Israel—the Mossad—had information about Eichmann in 1953. But only in 1960 did Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion call the head of the Mossad and direct him to bring one of the ex-Nazis to be tried in Israel. Ben-Gurion didn’t name names. He didn’t impose a time limit. He just said it was very important to bring one of the war criminals to trial.
“In 1958, we started the search,” Eitan said.
Four names were put on the table: Martin Bormann, Hitler’s deputy who was already dead; Heinrich Müller, the commander of the SS; the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele; and Adolf Eichmann.
“We already had some information about Eichmann,” Eitan explained.
The attorney general of West Germany, Fritz Bauer, who had escaped from the Nazis, received a letter from a German named Herman living in Buenos Aires. Herman believed he knew Eichmann, and Herman’s daughter had friends in Buenos Aires, one of whom was named Nicholas Eichmann. Herman believed Nicholas to be the son of Adolf Eichmann.
Bauer, who was a Jew, had escaped from Germany during the Holocaust. When he returned, he was determined to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. By 1963, as attorney general of West Germany, he began the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Bauer secured guilty verdicts in 750 of the 789 cases he tried against Auschwitz personnel.
Attorney General Bauer, said Eitan, “did not trust the police in Germany and sent the information about Eichmann to Israel, believing the Israelis were the only ones who could do something. We didn’t react immediately,” Eitan told NYJL.
In 1959, Israeli Attorney General Haim Cohen, a German-born Israeli, made professional connections with Bauer.
“We started searching for Eichmann at the beginning of 1960,” recalled Eitan. “We found him in March of 1960.”
The preparation for Operation Finale was complex.
“At the beginning we thought to take him out by an Israeli ship.”
He noted that Israel was shipping large quantities of Argentinian kosher meat at the time. Two ships, each carrying 10,000 tons of meat, were considered.
However, an alternate plan was then formulated. Argentina was about to celebrate 150 years of independence. After consulting with Eitan, Yisrael Ariel, head of the Mossad, went to Prime Minister Golda Meir to ask her to authorize an Israeli delegation to the celebration, which was being led by famed diplomat Abba Eban. El Al, coincidentally, was inaugurating its first turbo jet capable of crossing the Atlantic without refueling. The plan was formulated.
“We had to prepare the whole operation. The prime minister wanted to have Eichmann in Israel on the 21st of May.”
Eitan noted, “When I held his head, the words of the ‘Partisans’ Song’ were ringing in my head. I remember thinking, ‘Please don’t say this is my last journey.’”
Operation Finale, said Avner Avraham, “was a complex one with many parts. The culmination was the capture and extradition of the arch Nazi, flown to Israel dressed as an El Al officer suffering from some disease.”
NYJL asked Eitan to consider what legacy he would leave. There was no hesitation in the initial part of his answer:
“To make sure the state of Israel and the Jewish people remain strong.”
“The Jewish nation has a history of surviving,” declared the spymaster. “How many nations have such a complicated situation like the Jewish people? I think that the internal ‘emunah’—faith—of the Jewish people will help both the people and the Israeli state survive. There is no doubt we are going under a revolutionary time—mainly because of communications.”
He continued, but on a darker note: “I feel that mankind is developing the ability to destroy itself. No doubt we have enough crazy people that would be ready to make suicide together with the whole world….We are not so far from the ability to destroy the world.”
In 1982, Eitan had said he expected another hundred years of terrorism.
“As a rule, I believe that in the long race against terrorism, defense must come first. We cannot kill all of our enemies, and therefore we must defend ourselves.”
In 2017, he told NYJL that “within 50 to 100 years, we must have world government, world police, a world army that will be able to maintain law and order in every corner of the world. Without this, we are probably not going to survive.”
“Operation Finale: The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann” is on exhibit at the Museum of Living Jewish Heritage at Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Avner Avraham, former Mossad agent and exhibition curator; and the Beit Hatfutsot Museum’s team, led by chief curator Dr. Orit Shaham Gover, created the premier exhibit detailing the story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann. “Operation Finale” was the Mossad code name for the capture operation. The exhibit includes original, deeply emotional film of the Eichmann trial.
Under Avraham’s stewardship, never-before-revealed materials are displayed in order to educate the public about the Shoah—the Holocaust. Organizations and individuals involved are recognized. Some identities must remain secret. The material exhibited was gathered, with permission, from Mossad archives. The trial of Adolf Eichmann is considered a cathartic point in the history of the state of Israel and the world, exposing the realities of the Holocaust learned from the testimonies of witnesses to the “incomprehensible evil.”
For more information on the exhibit and the Museum of Jewish Heritage please visit http://mjhnyc.org/.