One can only imagine the negotiations behind “Operation Finale,” the Adolf Eichmann exhibit set to open Feb. 19 at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. They involved museum founder Milton Maltz; the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency; Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv; and Ellen Rudolph, executive director of the Maltz Museum.
This multimedia “world premiere exhibition,” subtitled “the capture & trial of Adolf Eichmann,” expands on a smaller one at Beit Hatfutsot, Rudolph said Feb. 4. Talks began more than two years ago, before Rudolph took the museum’s top post. She called Maltz, who had been piqued by the Beit Hatfutsot original, the “driving force” behind this. Maltz was traveling and unavailable for comment.
The Mossad was also critical, since it was a Mossad operation that flushed out Eichmann, under the pseudonym Ricardo Klement, outside his residence in Buenos Aires in 1960. Mossad agents brought the former SS lieutenant colonel to Jerusalem for trial on charges connected to organizing and implementing the Final Solution, Adolf Hitler’s euphemism for the extermination of the Jews.
The trial, with Eichmann in a bulletproof glass booth and groundbreaking testimony from Holocaust survivors, drew worldwide attention to Israel and spread the word of the Holocaust across the globe. Despite protesting that he was in effect just doing his job (a claim that led German sociologist Hannah Arendt to characterize him as an exemplar of “the banality of evil”), Eichmann was found guilty. He was hanged in 1962. One wonders how Eichmann felt standing trial in a country that didn’t even exist when he was active, Rudolph said.
“Milt had seen the artifacts on display at Beit Hatfutsot, and given his background with the spy museum and the NSA he was very taken by the whole story,” she said, referring to Maltz’s International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and his working for the National Security Agency. Maltz wanted to contextualize the story of Eichmann’s capture, expanding on what he saw in Israel to make this a major traveling exhibition. It will go to the Illinois Holocaust Museum after its Beachwood stay, she said, noting it’s ultimately expected to travel across the country.
Boasting 60 original artifacts and 70 photographs, the 4,000-square-foot exhibition shows how Mossad agents tracked down Eichmann, a key organizer of the Final Solution, to Argentina. Those even include a copy of a letter that came to light late last month in which Eichmann begged the Jerusalem court for clemency.
The exhibit also shows how Mossad smuggled Eichmann to Israel to stand trial for crimes against the Jewish people, including details of a Plan B that Mossad was ready to deploy had its original scheme failed.
What promises to be a magnet is an ultramodern expansion on the booth in which the impassive Eichmann sat. One panel of this three-channel, immersive video installation will feature the prosecutors, one Eichmann himself, and a third, the witnesses and sometimes, the audience. The original booth will be on display, too.
The way Israel handled the Eichmann case was momentous for a “fledgling country” only established in 1948, Rudolph said. Releasing such artifacts to the greater world would be a natural concern for Mossad, she suggested.
“I think one of the big issues is that the Mossad has never released any material for display outside of Israel,” said Rudolph, noting the materials, some quite fragile, are associated with a “major story in Israel’s history.”
Avner Avraham, a museum curator and career Mossad agent, also was heavily involved, both in Tel Aviv and in Beachwood.
With Mossad for 28 years, Avraham began assembling exhibitions 15 years ago, primarily for Mossad agents and their guests, he said by phone Feb. 8.
“What is interesting about this exhibit is it deals with the history of a spy operation, but still today there is no book or movie that can tell you the whole story because no one wrote the story,” said Avraham, who lives in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv. Over the past five years, he has met hundreds of people connected to the trial. He continues to hear from people eager to add fresh information in the Eichmann case.
“The whole idea in a spy operation is that there is no one who knows all the story, no one who knows everything about everything,” Avraham said. “If you are an agent and they arrest you, you don’t know all the addresses, all the names, the agents, you just know the minimum that you need for your mission. The reason I can talk now is it happened 56 years ago – and there are still things that we cannot talk about.”
Rudolph, who described herself as a project manager, noted that the Eichmann case is deeply familiar to Israelis, but perhaps not so familiar to Americans. So the exhibit at the Maltz Museum will explain Eichmann’s role in the Final Solution, and six films specially created for it will help contextualize the material.
“I think people will be surprised at how incredibly complex an operation this was,” she said. “It was really the first major international operation the Mossad undertook,” and it was in a predigital era.
“We look at forged passports, but these were done by hand, not generated on a computer,” she added. “So the artistry involved with the operation and the incredible amount of preplanning, the complexity of the whole thing is just astounding.”
The partners in “Operation Finale” are the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, The Mossad – Israeli Secret Intelligence Service and Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv, Israel.