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A Spy Thriller at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: Adolf Eichmann and Operation Finale

July 24, 2017 - by Ethan Wolff
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The birth of a nation and a cloak-and-dagger spy thriller come together in the new exhibition Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann. The exhbition provides an insider account of the capture of Eichmann, a Nazi Obersturmbannführer in charge of the logistics that led to the deaths of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. Eichmann might have lived out his days as a manager of an Argentine Mercedes-Benz plant were it not for a chance recognition, and a daring raid by Israel’s Mossad. Visitors to Lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust can now see the original spycraft from the operation, on display through December 22nd. 

exhbition museum of jewish heritage

Image: Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Ariel Efron

That these artifacts have even left Israel is highly unusual. The show originated with an internal Mossad exhibition, which was never meant for public view. The release of equipment and documentation from the Israeli secret service is unprecedented. (At the time of the raid, secrecy was so extreme that the Israeli cabinet wasn’t even aware of the mission.)

adolph eichmann nazi

In adapting the show to the U.S., the curators explain who Eichmann was, and how this mastermind of genocide managed to escape to South America. The exhibition transports visitors back in time, to a decidedly analogue era. You can see the facial recognition technique used to confirm Eichmann’s identity. It has a back-of-the-envelope looseness, but it worked: ears were the giveaway. (You can try your own eye in an interactive display that tests your ability to recognize Nazi fugitives over time; it’s not easy.)

mossad license plate kit briefcase

Original suitcase containing a kit for preparing license plates (Mossad Archive).

In the words of Museum President and CEO Michael S. Glickman, “every good spy story has the equipment that was used.” Here you’ll see the actual Leica camera used for surveillance photos, a faked license plate and the briefcase kit that made it, and, of course, maps. Every good spy story also needs forged IDs, a body double, notes on scars, a safe house, a fraught plane ride, and a Plan B. You'll find them all here.

eichmann trial room museum jewish heritage

Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Ariel Efron

It is difficult to enter the final room of the exhibition and not get chills. A small theatre has been created with its centerpiece the actual bullet-proof booth that protected Eichmann. The installation approximates the atmosphere of the trial, eyewitness testimony on side screens juxtaposed with the defendent’s responses, which range toward blank, or vacant. There’s footage of camps, there’s the verdict itself, and there is Eichmann speaking in his own defense, displacing responsibility onto his superiors. (Earlier in the show it’s noted that at a time when the Nazi war machine was spiraling down, Eichmann found the resources to send 400,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths.)

Beyond the significance of the operation, the exhibition also explains why this trial was important. Although we take “Trials of the Century” for granted now, in 1961 an internationally broadcast trial was a new thing. This was the first mass media trial. It reached a public that knew relatively little about the Holocaust. It was one of the first outlets for survivors to express themselves. In the process, the outlook on survivors shifted. As Consulting Curator Yitzhak Mais explained in comments before the exhibition's opening, the Eichmann trial was the moment “the Holocaust entered our living rooms.” As Mais puts it, it allowed survivors “who were looked at as somewhat dubious to become cultural heroes.”

a world destroyed eichmann

Image: Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Ariel Efron

As a counterpoint to the thought that everything here is history, of relevance only to a passed set of circumstances, there is a final panel emblazoned with Eichmann’s own words: “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

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