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EXCERPT: Eichmann in My Hands, by Peter Z. Malkin

Peter Malkin describes planning Adolf Eichmann's capture after he and his fellow Mossad agents learned of the Buenos Aires sighting. 

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Eichmann in My Hands

By Peter Z Malkin and Harry Stein

Eichmann in My Hands

By Peter Z Malkin and Harry Stein

Uzi and I talked so long into that night, it was almost dawn by the time I made it back to my apartment. The Theater Club, the popular nightclub operating from the basement of my building, had closed only an hour before. Except for a sanitation truck rumbling past, all was still. Exhausted, I climbed to my tiny third-floor apartment and collapsed into bed.

But I could not get my mind to stop racing. Over the previous ten hours, we had agreed on the broad outlines of a plan as well as on the makeup of the team that would attempt one of the most difficult operations ever undertaken. Now all we had to do was pull it off.

The question of who was to make up the team was less difficult than one would suspect. In our business, talent was impossible to miss, if not always adequately rewarded. Anonymous in the outside world, everyone in the secret services had a reputation within the organization.

The third name on the list, after Uzi’s and mine, belonged to Uzi’s second-in-command in the Special Operations Department, Aharon. Swiss-born and rather tight-assed, exacting in his expectations of himself and all others, he was a man with zero patience for mediocrity.

“This is worse than criminal,” I had heard him say more than once, in an incongruous, Germanic slur that called to mind Peter Lorre, “it’s stupid.” Not an easy man to warm to, but on a mission like this, reassuring to have on hand.

Aharon’s particular responsibility would be logistics and planning. It was safe to assume that he would shortly take on the character of a crazed Yeshiva student, locking himself away, staying up most of every night to pore over street maps of Buenos Aires and its environs, memorizing routes in and out of the operations area.

Next there was Meir, also an obvious choice. His strengths were so great that they more than compensated for what, in anyone else, might have been regarded as liabilities: his difficulty with languages and his problem in general of adjusting to new cultures, especially new foods. In Germany the food had not been an issue, but he left speaking the same high school German he knew before our long service began.

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My own feeling was that the language issue was often overstated, that, indeed, not speaking a country’s language can sometimes be an advantage. It makes it easier to play dumb, lessening the possibilities of arguments with cabdrivers and waiters. Even if a stranger does offend somebody, it is likely to be written off to ignorance or inadvertence.

This time the question was moot anyway. Few of us would speak Spanish. Of greater concern was that Meir might start gagging in public on some local specialty. Fortunately Meir would be largely out of sight, occupied with setting up the safe house and vehicle maintenance.

Also included on the team was Danny, my Paris forger friend, absolutely the best in the business. Hollow-cheeked and perpetually mournful, a figure out of an El Greco painting, Danny appeared a more likely candidate for a convalescent home than undercover work. Yet somehow he found the stamina to work meticulously hour after hour. Another man we absolutely could not do without.

I did not know any of the others particularly well: the German-born Hans, who had nearly botched the investigation in South America but who was known to be a first-rate interrogator; a fellow named David, who was to function as the front man; a doctor from a Tel Aviv hospital, who would be charged both with the health of the prisoner and, in our total isolation, that of the team; and several others to be determined, including, almost certainly, one woman.

We were as capable a crew as could be assembled within the Israeli secret services. Though all in our late twenties or early thirties, the key operatives—Uzi, Aharon, Meir, Danny, and myself—averaged more than ten years in the field. Just as important, we were on intimate terms with one another’s styles and idiosyncrasies. Motivation was even more explicitly a given than usual. Except for Uzi, every one of us had lost immediate family in the camps.

Then, too, there was a final member of the team: Isser Harel himself. Unusual though it was for the supreme commander of a country’s secret services to even think of going personally to the field during such an operation, and given the possibility of international repercussions, potentially awkward in the extreme, there was no way Isser was going to miss it, even if it meant that all other work came to a standstill. Having virtually single-handedly molded the Israeli secret services into a potent force, he was maniacally protective of his prerogatives and reputation. But that was hardly Isser’s only motive. He had said—I had heard him—that he would have given anything to get his hands on Hitler. This was the closest he was ever going to get.

adolf_eichmann
  • Adolf Eichmann sits on trial in Jerusalem. He was executed on June 1, 1962.

  • Photo Credit: Open Road Media

I myself took the information that Isser would be in Buenos Aires as a positive development. It meant that we would get whatever we needed immediately, without having to work long-distance or deal with subordinates: safe houses, vehicles, outlays of cash. Nor would we have to worry about the boss monitoring our activities moment to moment or day to day. He would be living in a hotel, apart from the rest of us. Indeed, he was in the process of devising a curious and highly complex plan for himself, in which he would spend most of his waking hours wandering the cafés of the Argentine capital in a predetermined pattern, occasionally, but not necessarily, intersecting with individuals with whom he needed to transact business.

It was a typically Harelian plan. The man was so in love with the idea of clandestine activity that often, to my mind, he seemed to go out of his way to complicate matters that were essentially simple. He was also a sucker for code names. Already he had dubbed this operation “Attila.”

After only a couple of hours of sleep I was back in Uzi’s office. Meir and Aharon were on hand for the meeting, too. It struck me that in some unspoken way we were suddenly appraising one another with different eyes. Together, we were about to turn the world upside down. For a minute or two it was as if we hardly knew each other.

Then Uzi broke the ice. “Well, you’ve all slept on it. Any bright ideas?”

Vintage Uzi. Where Isser was the prototypical lone wolf, always seeking security and secrecy, often reluctant to confide even in his most senior aides, Uzi would sit with his team for hours, reviewing every possible course of action. No matter how important the operation, his style was always to encourage consensus. Though it was a given that in the end the decision would be his, he always conveyed the sense that everyone’s ideas were valuable and valued. There was nothing altruistic in this; he valued resourceful operatives and had less than no interest in those who knew only how to follow orders.

“We’d just better hope that this man Klement stays put,” spoke up Aharon drily, in his odd Swiss slur. “Hans is still over there, snooping around.”

“That’s out of our control,” noted Uzi. “Why don’t we take a look at what we’ve got on film?”

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Meir snapped off the light, and an instant later there appeared a head-and-shoulders’ shot of a man in his midthirties in SS regalia: prominent cheekbones, sharp nose, thin lips, impassive eyes peering coolly at the camera from beneath the shiny black visor. The face might have been plucked from central casting, the very image of the Nazi commander, cruel, decisive, utterly sure of himself.

Uzi motioned for the next slide, also taken during the war, but this time unposed, from a distance. The man, wearing a greatcoat and jackboots, holding a riding crop, was looking off to the left.

Behind me the door swung open. I turned. There stood Uzi’s pretty secretary, Alona, a cable in her hand, staring.

“Eichmann,” she gasped.

“Uzi took the cable from her hand. “Yes. But that information stops here.” He paused. “You understand?”

She nodded, clearly shaken.

“Good.”

“You want me to hold your calls?”

“Please.”

As soon as she was gone, Uzi moved on to the next slide: a man of late middle age, balding and hollow-cheeked, a pair of black spectacles perched on his nose above a thick moustache. He was dressed in a neat but obviously cheap suit. Klement, near his San Fernando home.

“Eichmann,” she gasped.

“Let’s never forget,” spoke up Uzi finally, “that that’s part of the difference between him and us.”

Uzi took the cable from her hand. “Yes. But that information stops here.” He paused. “You understand?”

She nodded, clearly shaken.

“Good.”

“You want me to hold your calls?”

“Please.”

As soon as she was gone, Uzi moved on to the next slide: a man of late middle age, balding and hollow-cheeked, a pair of black spectacles perched on his nose above a thick moustache. He was dressed in a neat but obviously cheap suit. Klement, near his San Fernando home.

I leaned intently forward. Could this really be the same man?

“Run the two of them together,” I asked.

The first shot reappeared beside this one. I concentrated on the facial features, eyes, ears, shape of nose, angle of chin. It seemed possible Klement’s teeth were false. Only the ears and cheekbones of the stooped figure in Buenos Aires bore a clear resemblance to those of the SS man.

“It’s not easy to tell, is it?” I murmured.

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“These shots have been examined by our best photo ID people,” noted Aharon, “and they’ve conferred with doctors at Tel Hashomer Hospital. They feel good about them.”

“Obviously there’s some risk,” cut in Uzi. “That’s a given. We can’t be one hundred percent sure until we’ve got him.”  There was a long silence. “Once we’re sure,” spoke up Meir for the first time, “why don’t we kill the bastard on the spot?”  Uzi nodded. “We all share that feeling, I’m sure.”  Meir shook his large head bitterly. “What chance did he give those people at the camps?” he demanded. “I saw them, the ones that survived. What kind of consideration did he show them?”  The others were more surprised than I was. Not having been with him in Germany, they had never heard Meir speak with anything close to this degree of passion. For a long moment no one made any response.  “Let’s never forget,” spoke up Uzi finally, “that that’s part of the difference between him and us.”

And yet, in the couple of days that followed, studying the thick Eichmann file, I increasingly saw Meir’s view. Having for so long made a practice of keeping my distance from such material, I found myself repeatedly, unexpectedly shaken. Even more than the broad outlines of the man’s career, it was the details that affected me. What kind of mind could have conceived of a conference to set out guidelines as to whether, for example, a quarter Jew should live longer than a three-eighths Jew and by how long? Who, in God’s name, could have sat month after month listening to innocent souls plead for their lives—German-Jewish heroes from World War I; people he had known as a child; parents, themselves resigned to their fate, on behalf of their small children—without once being moved to pity? What manner of human being could have dreamed up so many ruses designed, finally, to deny even the doomed a suggestion of dignity?

By the time I laid aside the file, I felt more than just sick to the core; there was also a profound sense of apprehension. Eichmann loomed as a more formidable adversary than anyone I had ever tracked before. By the millions, people just like me had perished at his whim. Fifteen years earlier, Nazi generals in the field—whole armies!—had leapt at his command. If on the page his evil seemed absolutely extraordinary, so did the force of his personality. What stupidity, what arrogance, had led me to take sole responsibility for his capture? The possibilities of something going wrong were infinite. A cop could happen by at the wrong moment or someone could look out a window. And afterward all that would be remembered by my colleagues, possibly by the entirety of the Jewish people, was that Adolf Eichmann had been within our grasp, and I had let him get away.

Reflexively I began to bury myself in work. It has always been my policy to focus entirely on the task at hand. That is why I’ve never enjoyed dealing with more than one assignment at the same time; it makes me less effective. To be at my best, I must live an assignment twenty-four hours a day, and I have little patience for anyone or anything that distracts me from it. That is the way I now began to feel even about my own self-doubt.

adolf_eichmann
  • An illustration of the safe house where Peter Malkin and his crew kept Eichmann after his capture.

  • Photo Credit: Open Road Media

For this mission the physical preparations alone were endless. To start with, since the purchase of certain supplies in Argentina would likely arouse suspicion, Aharon, Meir, and I had to think our way through the operation step by step and day by day, working and reworking the list of what could be safely had there (hammers, nails, saws, wood, and other mundane building materials; ventilation and sanitary equipment) and what would have to be immediately dispatched from Israel. Eventually the following was sent to Buenos Aires, to four different addresses on three different airlines packed in well-lined but innocuous-looking packages:

• Eight French communications units, plus reserve batteries

• Four pairs of British field glasses

• Six pocket flashlights

• A dozen false license plates

• Two kits of miniature electric tools

• Three pairs of handcuffs

• One portable forgery lab

• Burglary tools, including safety locks

• Full makeup kit, including wigs, false teeth, and facial hair

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At the same time, I undertook a crash program in the gym emphasizing strength and reaction time. Finding myself obsessed with the need to hone my skills in a more realistic setting, I seized on my reputation for madcap and unpredictable behavior. To the surprise and growing horror of my colleagues, none of whom had the slightest idea what I was doing, I began catching them unawares, leaping at them as they strolled down the hall whistling or rounding the corner reading a memo, and seizing them round the throat. I found women particularly useful as subjects in the development of a grip that was at once strong enough to cut off all sound louder than a gasp, and restrained enough to cause no lasting damage. With men, the larger they were, the better; I needed lots of practice on my hoist technique. My very favorite subject was a guy named Mikael, a mountain of an agent, 260 pounds of muscle, who soon took to fleeing at the very rumor of my presence in the vicinity.

Uzi got a tremendous kick out of my suddenly irrational behavior. Several times I spotted him down the hall, watching me on the prowl, an expectant smile on his lips. But I couldn’t help but notice how careful he was to keep his own distance throughout.

Oddly no one ever questioned me about any of this. Ignorant as they were as to what was afoot, everyone on the premises was well aware that anything might be going on at any time, and nothing was necessarily what it seemed; that, by allowing themselves to be victimized, they might be contributing to the success of an operation.

Aside from Isser, the only person in the building safe from attack was internal security chief Amos Manor. This had nothing to do with his prominence. Rather, I was aware of how troubled he was just now. A large and generous-spirited man, Manor had always been very much one of the guys. One of the few nonparticipants fully briefed on Attila, from the beginning he expressed concern about the absence of so many skilled agents at once and the effect that might have on vital operations at home. It was not an easy position to take, and I, for one, admired his guts in holding to it; but, too, it was his disappointment in not being in on the mission himself. Amos had survived Auschwitz, but most of his family had not.

“Peter,” he said to me one afternoon, taking my arm as I passed in the hall and leading me into his office, “come talk to me.”

We spent a half hour or so discussing domestic security questions, who should assume which of my responsibilities during my absence and which matters deserved most immediate attention. As I got up to leave, he put an arm around my shoulder and looked at me gravely. “Do me one favor. Give his neck an extra little squeeze for me.”

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Eichmann in My Hands

By Peter Z Malkin and Harry Stein

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Featured still from "Operation Finale" (2018), via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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