True Spies, Episode 162 - Extracting Eichmann, Part 1: The Ratline
NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.
GERALD STEINACHER: I know a small inn near Merano, where every now and then illegal Nazi transports and illegal Jewish transports spent the night under the same roof without knowing about each other.The Jews were hidden on the second floor and instructed not to stir and the Nazis on the ground floor were urgently warned not to let themselves be seen outside of the establishment.
NARRATOR: Extracting Eichmann, Part 1 - The Ratline. Italy, May 1945. While the war has ended, chaos reigns across much of Europe.
GERALD STEINACHER: There was hardly any infrastructure. People were fighting for food, for housing, for heating material in the winter. There were millions of people on the move, refugees, Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, anti-communists, slave laborers.
NARRATOR: As well as former Nazis.
GERALD STEINACHER: Many of these perpetrators, they reinvented themselves, they took on a new fake identity, a new name. And they were basically melting into the millions of prisoners of war or refugees at the end of the war.
NARRATOR: Among those trying to blend into the chaos is one of the chief architects - a man with the blood of millions on his hands. Not that anyone recognizes him. Like so many others, he slips through the cracks of a shattered Europe into the future. In this two-part True Spies special, we’ll hear how this man managed to escape his past. That is, until the Mossad caught on to his whereabouts. And in doing so launched one of the most important operations in Israeli history - Operation Finale - the mission to capture Adolf Eichmann. By the late 1940s, Otto Henninger is living peacefully in the forests of northern Germany. Working as a lumberjack, he leases a small parcel of land, drinks heavily, and keeps few friends. Despite his isolation however, Henninger is still a paranoid man. So paranoid in fact, he has already changed his name twice since the end of the war. Before Otto Henninger, he was Otto Eckmann. And before Otto Eckmann, he was Adolf Eichmann, former chief of Reich Security Head Office, Department IV B4, the unit tasked with so-called ‘Jewish affairs and evacuation’. He was, in other words…
GERALD STEINACHER: One of the organizers of the Holocaust.
NARRATOR: This is Gerald Steinacher, professor of history at the university of Nebraska-Lincoln, US, and an expert in intelligence studies. While some men like Eichmann did successfully evade capture in the post-war years, they knew they could only fade away from view for so long.
GERALD STEINACHER: People like Adolf Eichmann were so prominent and so complicit that they could never feel safe from being held responsible and brought to justice.
NARRATOR: Except, perhaps, outside Europe.
GERALD STEINACHER: But in order to leave Europe, they needed some kinds of documentation, some kind of passport.
NARRATOR: And Eichmann has already made plans to acquire a passport. Leaving his isolated existence behind, he takes one of the ratlines developed after the war - escape routes arranged to smuggle Nazis off the continent to a new life. Hiking over the Austrian Alps, Adolf Eichmann - now Otto Henninger - eventually arrives in Italy.
GERALD STEINACHER: Why Italy? There was also no Allied control anymore - and the Italian authorities, they didn't care about these people at all.
NARRATOR: While the Italian government took no notice of the Nazis crossing their border, there were many who did; including hundreds of fascist sympathizers in what was arguably Italy’s most powerful institution.
GERALD STEINACHER: And that was the Vatican. The Vatican would issue a recommendation letter for a person, say, “Well this person is from Austria. He lost everything. He lost his citizenship. Please, Red Cross, issue a travel document for him.” And the Red Cross, of course, would do so. The Red Cross didn't question a letter, the word from the Vatican, so because there was not much screening, this humanitarian service, well intended, was absolutely abused, especially by Nazi perpetrators and fascists from all over Europe.
NARRATOR: By 1950, Eichmann had jumped from one Catholic monastery to another, eventually reaching Rome and then the port city of Genoa. And by the time he got there, friends within the church had also presented him with a brand new Red Cross passport. From now on he would have yet another alias - Ricardo Klement. His destination? Argentina. A country with a fervently Catholic ruler, and an admirer of Nazi ideology, General Juan Domingo Perón. Even after the war ended, Swastikas could be found draped outside buildings throughout Buenos Aires. For men like Eichmann there were old acquaintances, fresh admirers, and new careers waiting for them.
NARRATOR: On June 17, 1950 ‘Ricardo Klement’ boarded Giovanni C, a passenger vessel bound for Buenos Aires, and set sail to both the new world and a new life. On deck, he spotted several former SS colleagues, some of whom were even traveling under their real names
NEAL BASCOMB: But Eichmann still believes that he's being sought and that he still needs to keep himself fairly under the radar.
NARRATOR: This is Neal Bascomb, author of Hunting Eichmann, who notes that, despite his crimes, Ricardo Klement had little reason to worry.
NEAL BASCOMB: The fact of the matter is the hunt for Eichmann has pretty much gone cold.
NARRATOR: As the Giovanni C sailed away across the Atlantic, so did almost all hope of ever capturing the man responsible for transporting millions of Jews to their deaths.
NEAL BASCOMB: As far as the world is concerned, Adolf Eichmann is not an issue, not someone to be sought.
NARRATOR: As the weeks turned into months, and the months into years, Ricardo Klement settled into his new life working at a former SS colleague’s construction firm. Eventually, in 1952, his wife and three boys joined him in Argentina. And by 1956, one of the boys, Nicolas, had a new girlfriend - a second-generation German immigrant by the name of Sylvia Hermann.
NEAL BASCOMB: Eventually Sylvia, as one does, invites Nicolas over to meet her parents to have dinner.
NARRATOR: As the evening progresses, Nicolas begins to feel more at ease. Even when the war comes up in conversation.
NEAL BASCOMB: Nicolas says rather briskly that it's too bad the Germans didn't finish off the Jews during the war.
NARRATOR: Sylvia looks up from her plate.
NEAL BASCOMB: Nicolas, of course, doesn't know that Sylvia's half Jewish. Her father is Jewish.
NARRATOR: And her father, Lothar, is sitting next to Nick. Blinded by the Germans while held at Dachau concentration camp, Lothar pretends to ignore the remark.
NEAL BASCOMB: And you can imagine how long that relationship lasts after that.
NARRATOR: Not long after, Sylvia and her family move out of Buenos Aires, settling in a remote town in the Argentinian grasslands several hours away. But having come across many Nazi sympathizers in Argentina, the Hermann family’s thoughts rarely turn to Sylvia’s ex-boyfriend. He is simply one of many to be avoided. That is until one day in 1957, when Sylvia sits down to read her father Lothar the newspaper.
NEAL BASCOMB: As she did most days recounting the news and sort of updating him on what's going on.
NARRATOR: Among the routine daily news however, one article that Sylvia reads sticks out.
NEAL BASCOMB: About this West German prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, who is really the only person in the world at this point hunting down Nazis. Fritz Bauer makes this announcement that he's searching for former Nazis and he lists a number of key individuals. And on that list is an individual named Adolf Eichmann.
NARRATOR: Immediately Sylvia stops reading. That name, Eichmann. That is Nick’s last name.
NEAL BASCOMB: The fact that Adolf Eichmann allowed his sons to live in Buenos Aires under the Eichmann name was a remarkably stupid thing to do. It was careless. It was unnecessary. But at the end of the day, it was about pride. He did not want his sons living under another name, regardless of the risk that it carried for him.
NARRATOR: “Nick Eichmann,” Lothar asks, “that couldn’t possibly be his son could it?” Sylvia then recalls how Nick never invited her to his house. But he did say that…
NEAL BASCOMB: His father was a high-ranking German officer during the war who had been moved around a great deal.
NARRATOR: And not only that. Nick had always said that his father died during the war too. The man he lived with was his uncle. But still, something didn’t seem quite right to Lothar. Why would Nick never say where he lived? There were hundreds of former Nazis living quite openly throughout Argentina. Clearly he was hiding something and Lothar intended to find out what it was. Alerting the Argentinian authorities, who had after all helped create the ratline out of Europe, would be foolish. So Sylvia and Lothar do something even more drastic.
NEAL BASCOMB: Sylvie and her father send this note to Fritz Bauer.
NARRATOR: The only man seemingly still interested in capturing former Nazis and bringing them to justice. A German Jewish judge, Bauer was demoted and then imprisoned under the Third Reich. Eventually he escaped to Sweden by fishing boat, only returning to Germany after the war.
KARYN HIRSCH: He was well-educated and he became what is the equivalent of Attorney General in the state of Hesse.
NARRATOR: This is Karyn Hirsch, a direct descendant of Bauer’s, both of whom lost family in the Holocaust.
KARYN HIRSCH: My grandfather was taken on Kristallnacht to Dachau concentration camp in Germany and lasted about three and a half weeks.
NARRATOR: So, Fritz Bauer’s determination to continue hunting down Nazis over a decade later is understandable to Karyn, even if no one else was interested. Eventually, Lothar’s letter arrives on Bauer’s desk. And the Hermanns’ trust in this stranger is immediately vindicated.
NEAL BASCOMB: And so he sends them a letter back, includes a photograph of Eichmann, and described to Sylvia and her father what he looked like, what he sounded like, how he carried himself, and basically told them to see if the individual they believed to be Adolf Eichmann and his family were one in the same.
NARRATOR: Lothar Hermann, a blind old man, and his teenage daughter Sylvia are now amateur spies, secretly working with a German judge some 7,000 miles away.
NEAL BASCOMB: To begin this hunt for one of the world's most notorious criminals.
NARRATOR: Armed with Bauer’s description of Adolf Eichmann, they return to Buenos Aires to try and find Nick’s house.
NEAL BASCOMB: And so, one afternoon, after asking around in the neighborhood where Klaus lives, Sylvia goes to this house and knocks on the door and - as she said - in this pretty little dress.
NARRATOR: An older man opens the front door. “Good afternoon,” Sylvia says. “Pleased to meet you young lady,” the man replies. “Are you Nick’s father?” “No, his uncle,” the man says. After explaining who she is, the man invites Sylvia in for coffee. In the kitchen she meets his wife. “Is Nick here?” Sylvia asks. “He left an hour ago,” the woman replies. After a little small talk, Sylvia makes her excuses and heads toward the door. But not before it is opened by Nick himself. “Who gave you my address? Who said you could come visit me?” he yells. The older man calms the situation, walking Sylvia to the door.
NEAL BASCOMB: And Nicolas says. “I'll be right back, father.”
NARRATOR: Sylvia suppresses the jolt she feels inside. ‘Father’. This man is Nick’s father then. Outside, she bids Nick farewell and hurries back to her own father to tell him the news. “Was it him? Are you sure?” Lothar asks impatiently.
NEAL BASCOMB: But Sylvia’s unsure because this individual looks very different. Adolf Eichmann, this photograph that Fritz Bauer had sent her shows this officer, a younger individual. And the man standing in front of her in Buenos Aires is very different. He had been smoking a great deal, drank a lot, had essentially devolved as a human being.
NARRATOR: Lothar is certain, however. Returning home they send Fritz Bauer another letter. This must be him.
NEAL BASCOMB: And then Fritz Bauer's left with the conundrum of what to do with this information.
NARRATOR: After all, Bauer is surrounded by enemies on all sides. The German government is peppered with former Nazis, even as high up as Cabinet level. The Secretary of State, for example, is a lawyer who helped implement the Nuremberg Race Laws, stripping German Jews of their citizenship back in the 30s.
KARYN HIRSCH: There were people who had different points of view, ex-Nazis and so forth in the government, that he had to work with to rebuild a justice system.
NARRATOR: Bauer was even known to have said that once he stepped outside his front door, he was surrounded by enemies. Knowing this, he turns instead to the Americans.
NEAL BASCOMB: And the Americans said to him, “We are not in the business of hunting war criminals.”
NARRATOR: And so Bauer grows desperate.
NEAL BASCOMB: He believes in his heart that these Nazis should pay for their crimes. Nobody is interested in pursuing it except for him.
NARRATOR: Left with seemingly little choice, he makes a bold decision…
NEAL BASCOMB: Which is to go to the one government who may be interested in actually pursuing Eichmann, which is, of course, the Israelis.
NARRATOR: But this is a treasonous offense. Sharing almost any information outside the German government was illegal, let alone intelligence as explosive as the possible location of Adolf Eichmann.
KARYN HIRSCH: And that was at great personal risk. His morality and sense of right overrode what his bureaucratic obligations might have been at the time.
NARRATOR: Bauer arranges a secret meeting at a remote motel with the head of the Israeli mission in West Germany. Arriving separately, the two sit down to talk. Bauer gets straight to the point. “Adolf Eichmann has been traced in Argentina,” he says. The Israeli diplomat is astonished. Explaining why he can’t go to anyone else, Bauer implores the Israeli to do something. “Thank you for the great faith you’ve shown in us,” the diplomat replies, before promptly leaving.
NEAL BASCOMB: The information that Eichmann may be living in Argentina makes its way to Isser Harel, who is at that point the head of the Mossad.
NARRATOR: Harel sends an agent to check whether this Fritz Bauer is legit. After a brief meeting at Bauer’s home, the agent reports back. “If I had to paint a portrait of this German lawyer, I’d paint him with a book in one hand and a sword in the other,” he says. Knowing the risks Bauer has gone to already, Harel agrees. The intelligence feels solid. Soon after, he sends another agent to Buenos Aires. There the agent surveils the address the Hermann’s have communicated to Bauer but he can’t quite believe what he sees.
NEAL BASCOMB: It's a shabby little house in a suburb of Buenos Aires.
NARRATOR: Various intelligence reports stated that Eichmann had looted the wealth of thousands of his victims during the war. He wouldn’t deign to live somewhere like this. What’s more, in the two weeks the agent watches the house, no man matching Eichmann’s description comes or goes. Eventually the agent cables back to Mossad HQ.
NEAL BASCOMB: There's no way that a Nazi criminal, Adolf Eichmann could be living in such a “shabby little house”. So the investigation is eclipsed at that point, and it's another dead end.
NARRATOR: Angry at what feels another spurned opportunity, Bauer pushes back. He gives the Israelis the source of his intelligence, Lothar Hermann. Mossad boss Isser Harel decides to give it one last shot and sends another agent to Argentina to meet him...
NEAL BASCOMB: And try to determine whether or not this lead that they've been given is worth the ink that's been written about it.
NARRATOR: And this time, the Israeli agent is encouraged by what he sees. The Hermanns seem serious. Lothar talks openly about wanting only to avenge his family’s fate in the Holocaust. The agent leaves promising to look into the matter further. Back in Israel, he reports to Harel that while the intel on Eichmann is decent, more is needed. “Much more,” Harel thinks.
NEAL BASCOMB: When you are the head of this intelligence organization, being confronted by all these leads and false starts and false information, sussing out what is true and what is not true is often a difficult thing.
NARRATOR: Emboldened, Lothar continues his investigations. In April 1958, he and Sylvia head to the Land Records office for Buenos Aires. There they learn that Nick Eichmann’s house is owned by a ‘Francisco Schmidt’. Then, through a contact at the local electricity company, they learn that two meters are registered at the address - one of the names is Ricardo Klement. Lothar knew this was Nick’s ‘uncle’s' name. But perhaps that was merely a diversion, he thought. Maybe Schmidt is Eichmann’s true alias. Not long after, the information is on Harel’s desk. ‘Francisco Schmidt is the man we want,’ Lothar declares. Within a few months however - Mossad agents on the ground have concluded their own investigation. Francisco Schmidt is definitely not Adolf Eichmann. Frustrated, Isser Harel severs contact with the Hermanns...
NEAL BASCOMB: And he decides to basically close the case. And the hunt is largely dead.
NARRATOR: Over a year later, in October 1959, a man by the name of Tuviah Friedman stands on his balcony overlooking the Israeli port city of Haifa. Below he sees locals savoring the cooler autumnal evenings; talk and laughter echoing throughout the streets. But Friedman has never felt worse. A Polish Jew, he escaped a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, before devoting his life to hunting down his oppressors after the war. He has long since given up that work to find peace in Israel. But as he stands on his balcony, he holds a letter from a contact in the West German government. A letter he can’t ignore any longer. “Adolf Eichmann is in Kuwait,” it read. Friedman presents the news to various contacts in the Israeli government.
NEAL BASCOMB: And is confronted by wall after wall after wall of no one interested.
NARRATOR: So, he takes matters into his own hands. Stepping off the balcony, back inside, he picks up the phone and rings Maariv - a Hebrew newspaper - with the information.
NEAL BASCOMB: Trying to shame the Israelis and the world to actually doing something about pursuing these monsters.
NARRATOR: Within a week, papers around the world are splashing news that Eichmann is living freely in Kuwait. Meanwhile letters pour into Friedman’s office. Letters offering tip offs on his true whereabouts. But it isn’t only Friedman who begins to receive these letters. Fritz Bauer does too. And one in particular stands out.
NEAL BASCOMB: And this second source has this very, very similar information than that the Hermanns had given where Eichmann had worked when he arrived in the country. That Eichmann is living in Buenos Aires under the alias Ricardo Klement, and where he is working, where he is living.
NARRATOR: As a lawyer, Bauer knows the information is too specific to be simply made up. And now he has a second, independent, source saying exactly the same thing as the Hermanns. Eichmann is in Buenos Aires, and here is his address.
NEAL BASCOMB: And this information is too certain at this point for Bauer to back off.
NARRATOR: Until 2021, the identity of this second source was classified. But it has since come to light that he was a German expatriate by the name of Gerhard Klammer. As a student under the Third Reich, Klammer saw what the Nazis were doing to the Jews with his own eyes. Disgusted, he wanted no part in his country’s fate and escaped to Argentina. After studying as a geologist he began working at a Buenos Aires construction company in the early ‘50s. Soon he noticed the place was infested with former Nazis, learning that one of them - Ricardo Klement - was none other than Adolf Eichmann. Filled with hatred for the man, he alerted the German government several times to his whereabouts. But there was never a reply. By the time Eichmann is back in the papers in 1959, Klammer has long since left the company. But around that time, by sheer chance, he spots Eichmann getting off a bus and follows him home. This time, Klammer does his homework, and manages to get his warning to the one man who does care about capturing Eichmann - Fritz Bauer. Klammer even sends Bauer a picture of him and Eichmann from their time working together. Promising Klammer complete discretion, Bauer rips it in half to remove him from the scene. Bauer knows that this - a picture of Eichmann in Argentina is a game changer.
NEAL BASCOMB: And so he eventually decides, “I need to confront Harel in person.”
NARRATOR: Bauer doesn’t dare risk leaving Germany with the intelligence in written form. So, he memorizes it all, using specific dates and addresses as the cues for the rest of the information to come flooding back to him. Then he arranges a secret meeting with Israel’s Attorney General, Haim Cohen, and boards a flight to Tel Aviv.
NARRATOR: Unbeknownst to Bauer though, Cohen has also summoned Mossad chief Isser Harel to the meeting, along with one his juniors, Zvi Aharoni. After he lands, Bauer makes his way to the Attorney General’s office where he is greeted by the three men. After a short introduction, Bauer launches straight into the new intelligence.
NEAL BASCOMB: He conveys these two sources, all the information that back each other up, and says, “You have to go get him. This is now a certainty. You must act.”
NARRATOR: As the meeting goes on, Bauer becomes more and more incensed. “This is simply unbelievable. Two completely independent sources mention this name Ricardo Klement and his address. Any second-class policeman would be able to follow such a lead,” he roars.
KARYN HIRSCHK: We come from tough stock, so to speak.
NARRATOR: Bauer’s descendant, Karyn Hirsch, again. Harel assures Bauer that the second source changes the intelligence dynamic completely. But Bauer is not prepared to wait any longer.
NEAL BASCOMB: Many months, actually years, have passed since the Hermanns had first brought this information through Bauer to the Israelis.
NARRATOR: If the Israelis don’t act immediately, Bauer declares he will have no choice but to begin official extradition proceedings in Germany - a move that would almost guarantee Eichmann being tipped off and disappearing. Knowing what’s at stake, Cohen asks Bauer to wait while Harel sends the fourth man in the room, Mossad interrogator Zvi Aharoni, to Buenos Aires.
NEAL BASCOMB: Zvi Aharoni is tasked with finding where Eichmann is, taking photographs of him, and determining if Klement is Eichmann.
NARRATOR: To Aharoni, it is a unique mission. He may find the man responsible for the deaths of every single one of his family besides his mother and younger brother. Shortly after the encounter, Cohen and Harel are in the office of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself to recount the meeting. An investigation that started half the world away with a blind old man and his teenage daughter is now at the office of the leader of the Jewish state. Ben-Gurion is impressed with Bauer - a man who has come personally to a foreign country with this information at huge personal risk. “If Eichmann is there, we will capture him and bring him to justice,” Ben-Gurion states. But Harel can hardly believe what he is hearing.
NEAL BASCOMB: Now, at this point, you have to understand that Isser Harel believes that capturing Eichmann is probably almost impossible. Go to a country thousands of miles away from Israel in a place where they have very few resources in a community that is quite anti-Semitic [and] has many former Nazis living there. If it was up to him he would have Adolf Eichmann killed, whether it's shot in a dark alley or run down by a car, whatever, but just eliminated, assassinated for the crimes that he committed against the Jewish people. That would have been a much easier operation.
NARRATOR: Unlike Isser Harel though, David Ben-Gurion is a politician - not a spy.
NEAL BASCOMB: Ben Gurion sees an opportunity in Eichmann, and that is to capture him, put him on trial in front of the world. And he believes that will do two things: remind the world what happened to the Jews during the war and to remind the Israeli youth why the state of Israel needs to exist because of crimes committed against their people. And by capturing Eichmann and putting on a trial, he can do that.
NARRATOR: With his orders, Harels sends Zvi Aharoni to Argentina. On the first of March 1960, he lands in Buenos Aires.
NEAL BASCOMB: He does not speak Spanish.
NARRATOR: But what he does have is the Sayanim - Hebrew for helpers, the Sayanim is a global volunteer network of Jews willing to help Mossad agents in any way they can, without asking any questions.
NEAL BASCOMB: And this can be anyone from an Argentinean offering a safe house to helping obtain papers or license plates to even providing material like cameras or the like to various agents.
NARRATOR: Aharoni tasks one of the local Sayan to deliver a present to ‘Nick Klement’ at the address slated as Eichmann’s. The Sayan knows nothing of the actual meaning of the exercise. Holding a neatly wrapped box containing an expensive cigarette lighter, the Sayan knocks on the door. When there is no reply, he walks around the back. There, two people are emptying a brick shack. Showing them the present, the Sayan asks whether Mr. Klement lives here. “They used to live here, but they’ve just moved,” one of them replies. But then he suggests the Sayan speak to the carpenter indoors. Hearing his story, the carpenter takes the Sayan to the garage where Dito one of the Klement sons, works.
NEAL BASCOMB: Not far from the house where he was supposed to be living.
NARRATOR: Arriving, the carpenter shouts out: “Dito! This boy would like to speak to your father.” Explaining himself again, the Sayan gives Dito the present and leaves. When he hears of the encounter, Aharoni cross-references the information with what he knows of Eichmann’s family. Dates of birth, facial features, height. Dito was likely Dieter, the third son, he concluded. That night Aharoni cables a code-phrase back to HQ: The driver is red. Klement is likely Eichmann but there’s a problem. They don’t know where Klement has moved to. Aharoni follows Dito from work several times, but every time loses the trail in the Buenos Aires traffic. Frustrated, he orders the Sayan to go back to the garage. This time he demands to know the Klements’ address, for the present was never delivered.
NEAL BASCOMB: Dieter Eichmann confronts him.
NARRATOR: “If they were so desperate for my brother to get the present, why did they write down the wrong name?” Dito asks. “There is no Nick Klement. It’s Nick Eichmann.” The Sayan is nonplussed. Perhaps he has the wrong mark. But en route to the garage, he stopped at the old address, one last time, to ask the same carpenter for help in tracking down the Klements. Feeling bad about the lost ‘present’, the carpenter gave him the exact directions to the new address.
NEAL BASCOMB: Through this sort of farce that Aharoni sets up.
NARRATOR: “Take bus 203 to Avellaneda Street and it’s right there,” the carpenter says, before adding that “that German still owes me money.” At a cafe near the Israeli embassy, Aharoni waits nervously for the Sayan. When he finally arrives, he is much more downbeat than usual. “What’s wrong?” Aharoni asks. “We followed the wrong person. Their name’s not Klement. It’s Eichmann.” Aharoni can hardly believe his ears. Keeping his cool though, he simply says: “Ah, don’t worry about it.” The two part ways, the Sayan under strict orders not to mention the episode to anyone.
NEAL BASCOMB: Zvi Aharoni, throughout these weeks that he's in Argentina trying to determine where Eichmann had gone and eventually whether or not Riccardo Klement is Adolf Eichmann, he takes a lot of risks - that sort of tradecraft that Aharoni eventually uses.
NARRATOR: Knowing he’s close, Aharoni gambles again. This time, he’ll go to the house himself.
NEAL BASCOMB: To get close enough to Eichmann to take his photograph.
NARRATOR: On reconnaissance, Aharoni sees only two houses in the entire area by the 203 bus stop. Recruiting another Sayan, he approaches the properties.
NEAL BASCOMB: Impersonating an individual looking to purchase real estate in this rather rundown remote area.
NARRATOR: Inside his briefcase, Aharoni has fitted a camera. The lens faces out of a small cut in the side, while a minute button by the handle releases the shutter. Upon greeting the woman at the right-hand house, the two men ask who lives next door. “They’re German. Klement. Just moved in,” she says. And with that, a woman appears from the Klement house. The men repeat that they are Americans interested in buying land for their employer. But this lady is far less accommodating, suspicious of these men with slightly strange accents.
NEAL BASCOMB: Aharoni is essentially shooed off the property.
NARRATOR: And that’s before he can take any pictures. Two days later, Aharoni heads to meet the Sayan again. Walking toward him, he waves a piece of paper in the air wearing a wall-to-wall grin. “Zvi, Zvi,” he says. “I found the registered owner of that house. It’s Veronika Liebl de Fichmann.” Ahaorni’s heart stops. Adolf Eichmann’s wife was called Veronika Liebl. And as an experienced German-born Israeli spy he knows that Fichmann is not a real name. Either it’s a typo or it was deliberately changed. This was Vera Eichmann. The next day Aharoni sets off for the house once more, bringing an embassy secretary with him to blend in.
NEAL BASCOMB: All this is to get close enough to Eichmann to take his photograph.
NARRATOR: Driving past, he spots a man of at least 50, thin build. Balding. High, sloped forehead. Aharoni has looked at Eichmann’s picture enough times to know. This must be him. But it’s not easy to tell from afar. Then, on March 25, Aharoni spots this man arriving at the house again. And this time he’s holding flowers. Walking inside, he presents them to the woman. Clearly it’s some sort of occasion. Looking at Eichmann’s file again, Aharoni’s heart stops a second time. Adolf Eichmann and Veronika Liebl were married on March 25. Today is their anniversary. That night Aharoni cables headquarters again: The driver is black. Klement is Eichmann.
NEAL BASCOMB: This then begins the next stage of this manhunt.
NARRATOR: Not one for leaving things to chance, Mossad boss Isser Harel has already set plans in motion.
NEAL BASCOMB: To capture Eichmann under all these really difficult circumstances, Harel assembles a team which comprises really the top agents within the Mossad at that point.
NARRATOR: Nearly 50 years later, Neal Bascomb met many of them and almost immediately he could see why they were the best.
NEAL BASCOMB: Most, if not all of them, had fought in the War of Independence for Israel. And so, they had been behind battle lines, been operating undercover for years, and were quite impressive.
NARRATOR: The man Harel made commander of the operation, for example, was one Rafi Eitan - nickname ‘Rafi the Stinker’ after he crawled through a sewage system to blow up a British radar installation on Mount Carmel. But that wasn’t all.
NEAL BASCOMB: They had all lost family members and so this mission to them was very personal. It was something that they were willing to risk their lives for.
NARRATOR: And there’s another reason why these True Spies are perfect for the job.
NEAL BASCOMB: I remember when I first met Avraham Shalom, who was the deputy head of operations at the time of the capture of Eichmann, and just being struck by how ordinary he was and seemingly the furthest thing from what you would imagine a spy to be. And I asked him at one point, “What made you so good as a spy, as an agent?” And he said, “Close your eyes and try to describe me.” And so I closed my eyes and sort of shuffled my way through trying to remember what he looked like. And he says, “That's exactly why I was so good, because I came off as ordinary, came off as someone you'd never remember. And many of these agents were very similar. They could fade into the background quite easily.”
NARRATOR: And they need to be able to do exactly that for a mission like this.
NEAL BASCOMB: The Israelis, if caught or captured, would decimate Israeli intelligence. But the mission to capture Eichmann, because of Ben-Gurion, was that important.
NARRATOR: Knowing of all the risks, Harel makes an unprecedented move. He will go to Argentina himself. Next time on True Spies, the Mossad prepares to finally capture Eichmann.
OMER MALKIN: It was almost exactly the same time every day, 7:30 p.m. is when the bus arrived. Eichmann would get off the bus and walk toward his home. The day that the operation had to happen, the bus arrived and Eichmann didn't show up.
NARRATOR: That’s next time on True Spies.
Former journalist and book editor Neal Bascomb (pictured) has written 10 books, including Hunting Eichmann.
Gerald Steinacher is a professor of history at the university of Nebraska-Lincoln.