In the fall of 1957, as the world was moving on from World War II and the extermination of 6 million Jews, a teenage girl knocked on the door of a modest home in Buenos Aires.
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They were on a hunt for evil.
When a middle-aged man came to the door, Sylvia gently inquired: “Are you Herr Eichmann?”
The man, at first, said nothing. He seemed startled. His strange reaction to such a simple question convinced Sylvia that he was Adolf Eichmann, the senior Nazi officer who implemented Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” — the systemic slaughter of Jews in concentration camps throughout Europe.
This extraordinary moment, described by historians in several books about Eichmann’s life on the lam following Hitler’s demise, is depicted early on in “Operation Finale,” a new movie about how operatives from Israel’s Mossad intelligence service captured Eichmann, who is played by Ben Kingsley.
But like other based-on-true-story movies, “Operation Finale” is filled with distortions.
Minor: A male doctor on the real capture squad became a female character in the film and the love interest of Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who kidnapped Eichmann.
Major: The role of the blind man and his daughter.
Sylvia Hermann and her father, Lothar, are portrayed as good Samaritans to Mossad operatives pursuing Eichmann, who is living under the name Ricardo Klement.
On screen — and in real life — the teen is the perfect informant. She dated Eichmann’s son, who kept the family name, either out of sheer stupidity or deep reverence for his father’s accomplishments (or both).
In the film, the Mossad agents are anxious to catch the war criminal and bring him to justice. They drive her to knock on Eichmann’s door. They then lurk nearby, surreptitiously snapping photos and providing protection should the war criminal get suspicious.
In reality, the Mossad wasn’t all that anxious to catch Eichmann.
“One of the great myths of the postwar era was that Israeli agents were constantly scouring hideouts all over the world, relentlessly tracking down Nazi war criminals,” Andrew Nagorski wrote in “The Nazi Hunters.” “In the early days of Israel’s existence, there was simply not enough time, energy, or desire to hunt Nazis.”
And they didn’t work side by side with the blind man and his daughter. In fact, the Mossad leadership — especially its famous and feared chief, Isser Harel — didn’t take their tips seriously, nor did they provide them with protection.
After the mission became public, the Hermanns received little to no credit. Lothar had to fight Israel for a promised reward.
“When we finally caught Eichmann in 1960, the chorus of famous and less famous Nazi-hunters who claimed the credit for having found him became louder and louder,” Zvi Aharoni, the Mossad agent who interrogated Eichmann, said in a book about the capture. “The sad truth is that Eichmann was discovered by a blind man and that Mossad needed more than two years to believe the blind man’s story.”
Things did indeed unfold slowly.
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In 1956, Lothar Hermann was a pensioner living a quiet life when Sylvia turned up at the family’s Buenos Aires home with Eichmann’s son Klaus. She had met him at a club, and the two had taken to each other, according to several historical accounts.
Klaus, in the company of Germans, wasted no time disparaging Jews.
“It would have been better if the Germans had finished their job of extermination,” he said, according to Neal Bascomb’s book, “Hunting Eichmann.”
Klaus also bragged about his father, saying he had been a top officer for Hitler but did not reveal what role he played.
Lothar apparently had a good poker face, because he didn’t reveal a few key facts.
One: He was half-Jewish. Two: He had been imprisoned at Dachau, a brutal work camp, for his socialist views. Three: He became blind after the beatings he endured while there, immigrating to Argentina as Hitler tightened his grip on Germany and its Jews.
Whatever romance existed between Klaus and Sylvia didn’t last very long. For one thing, the Hermanns moved several hundred miles away. Her parents also revealed her Jewish roots after hiding them from her, as many other Jews had done after the war.
Still, Lothar remembered that name — Eichmann.
One day in 1957, Sylvia was reading the newspaper to her father when she came across a story about Nazi war criminal trials in Germany. The story went into great detail about the role of a man named Adolf Eichmann, who was still at large.
“She stopped and looked up,” Bascomb wrote.
It couldn’t be a coincidence, Lothar thought. He contacted the prosecutors who were mentioned in the story. They asked him to help by finding Eichmann’s address. Lothar and his daughter boarded a train for Buenos Aires, where they asked around for Klaus Eichmann’s address. Before long, they had it: 4261 Chacabuco Street.
Arriving at the home was intense, Bascomb wrote:
Sylvia had come defenseless to the door. There was nobody to help her if her purpose was revealed. Adolf Eichmann was obviously a murderer, and if he was in fact hiding in Buenos Aires, he had gone to great lengths not to be exposed. Sylvia tried to appear as calm as possible as she waited for an answer.”
Eichmann didn’t answer about whether he was, indeed, Adolf Eichmann. He did say he was Klaus’s father. There were some pleasantries exchanged, maybe some coffee. Klaus then arrived home and was alarmed to find Sylvia there. “Who gave you my address?” he asked, according to Bascomb’s book. “Who said you could visit me?”
Klaus walked her to the bus stop. Sylvia told her father about the encounter.
“It was clear to them that the man at the house was none other than the hunted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann himself,” Bascomb wrote.
The prosecutors in Germany, after learning about the intelligence that the blind man and his daughter had gathered, notified Israeli authorities that they had a solid lead on Eichmann. The Mossad eventually sent an operative to the house. A report came back: Not Eichmann. Why? The house was too meager to be a home for a man of Eichmann’s wealth and stature. The case was more or less dropped.
Lothar became frustrated. He contacted activists, who put pressure on the Israeli government and Mossad, which eventually sent him and his daughter back in search of Eichmann — no protection, no help.
The blind man and his daughter didn’t turn up incontrovertible proof, but another informant — to this day, the details are murky — stepped forward and provided information confirming that the man the Hermanns thought was Eichmann was actually Eichmann. The Mossad organized a raid. Eichmann was captured and brought to Israel for a trial.
It took decades for the Hermanns to receive credit — an oversight that enraged Aharoni, the Mossad agent who interrogated Eichmann.
“Blind Lothar Hermann was left to collect further evidence,” Aharoni said. “The great Isser Harel and his secret service, supposedly one of the best in the world, left the task to a blind pensioner living more than 250 miles away. It is difficult to believe, but this is what indeed happened. Harel’s attitude was simple: Hermann claims to have located Eichmann. Very well, let him prove it!”
And in 1962, Eichmann drew his last breath in a noose.
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