A dark and narrow tunnel leads into Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann, on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York until December 22. Its walls bear familiar images of the Holocaust — Jews in line for “selection” at Auschwitz; the little boy in Warsaw with his hands up; human skeletons in liberated camps.
At the end of this darkness, in the foyer beyond the exhibit, sunlight streams in through floor-to-ceiling windows. Looking out, you can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. For a moment the ghosts dissipate.
Operation Finale tells the story of Adolf Eichmann’s capture with “true crime” suspense. The walls and displays are all black and red, to remind us that the exhibit is about Nazis. The spies who caught Eichmann, we discover, were practiced shape-shifters and expert decoders.
The trouble is, that’s not the whole story. Little mention is made of the many hiccups the abduction suffered. Operation Finale surely has an interest in construing the Israeli Mossad’s capture of Eichmann in a positive light, but it mostly ignores the astonishing blunders that beset Operation Finale. Among many other snafus, Zvi Aharoni, who spearheaded the mission, made a failed initial attempt to photograph Eichmann by calling out at Eichmann’s home to make sure no one was there. When Eichmann’s wife answered the door, Aharoni and his assistant posed as American real-estate developers with an improbably poor grasp of English. Later, while mounting a stakeout near Eichmann’s house, Aharoni hurriedly put his jeep into reverse, drove into a ditch, and overturned the vehicle.
The dossier of certificates, telegrams, files, and carbon copies on display is comforting almost, an antidote to the gruesomeness of the Holocaust. The public has never before seen many of these documents and artifacts from the Mossad archive — among them, fake Argentinian license plates and forged identification documents used to smuggle Eichmann out of Argentina — and they make for exhilarating viewing. We don’t faint at the effort of remembering the camps and the crematoria; instead, we follow a neat spy thriller.
Here lies the rub: Operation Finale skips over inconvenient details to tell this story. In its presentation of Eichmann’s character, too, it hews closely to the conventional portrait of Eichmann as a sort of sicko in full possession of his wits. The only other Nazis focused on are not bureaucrats like Eichmann but notorious camp criminals. A “Who’s Who of the Holocaust” display, complete with a light-up touch-screen, lists fast facts about several of these mass murderers. The display hearkens to a certain dark corner of World War II historiography, to books profuse in profiles of particularly sadistic SS officers. To put Eichmann in the same category as butchers and vivisectionists like Josef Mengele is, to quote the revered political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, “cheap rhetoric and bad history.” (Arendt was criticizing attorney Hausner’s comparison of Eichmann to the wicked Haman from the book of Esther. Eichmann was a bureaucrat — not, as he claimed ad nauseam, just a “small cog in the machinery” — but a bureaucrat whose role was different in kind from that of the camp officers. His character — obfuscating, unrepentant, defensive, rather unintelligent — is enough for one exhibit and should be treated in its own right.
Even an exhibit that glamorizes Eichmann’s capture cannot overcome the problems posed by his ambiguous character, his many lies, and his overdetermined trial.
Operation Finale itself strays from its conventional portrait and slips into the language of Arendt’s “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” (By this Arendt meant not that the Holocaust itself was somehow banal, but that many of the key figures in its planning and execution were thoroughly ordinary-seeming men.) The exhibit opens with this attention-grabbing header: “Man behind the Massacre.” Then we find a milder pronouncement: “The Nazis set about fulfilling their vision with the collaboration of millions of enthusiastic” — wait for it — “functionaries.” These “functionaries” “prove[d] more than willing to plunge the world into catastrophe.” Yet that word, “functionary,” sticks. In the exhibit’s biography of Eichmann, other words like it gum up the works: “Eichmann zealously managed the transport of millions of innocent people to death camps in occupied Poland.” The phrase “zealously managed” is almost laughable. Is that the best we can say of this criminal?
Even an exhibit that glamorizes Eichmann’s capture cannot overcome the problems posed by Eichmann’s ambiguous character, his many lies (some of which Arendt took at face value and accepted as evidence of “normality”), and his overdetermined trial. A short film on the trial’s legacy struggles to formulate a takeaway, commenting rather tonelessly after a brief mention of Arendt that “people were forced to come to terms with the fact that the crimes of the Holocaust were not necessarily perpetrated by psychopaths.”
Operation Finale ultimately settles for the grandiosity and staginess that Arendt disdained. At the end of the exhibit we discover, in a dimly lit room, a nondescript glass booth — the glass booth where Adolf Eichmann famously stood trial. In a rather literal turn, projected footage of Eichmann plays behind the glass case. On either side we see footage of the audience and the panel of judges. Strings swell as we watch the grim proceedings, à la Schindler’s List.
The theatrical setup and surround sound remind us that this became a show trial, with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister and a towering figure of the Zionist movement, as “the invisible stage manager of the proceedings” (Arendt), and our uncanny dual attitude as museumgoers and filmgoers makes for uncomfortable viewing. “It was precisely the play aspect of the trial,” Arendt writes, “that collapsed under the weight of the hair-raising atrocities.”
And it is precisely the play aspect of the trial that the exhibit plays up, for the eerie, ghostlike absence evoked by the glass case is too much like the absence caused by the Nazis. We must have some footage that floats through the room and lends it some life, some spirit, even a sinister one, rather than looking at nothing. To look at nothing would defeat the whole purpose of the manhunt and thus the exhibit.
Operation Finale is, then, another effort at reclamation, just as Eichmann’s trial meant to rewrite the play so that the victims sat in judgment on their executioners. (Ben-Gurion declared: “For the first time, Israel is judging the killers of the Jewish people.”) The prosecution’s goal was to offer “a living record of a gigantic human and national disaster,” to deny Eichmann his self-concept as a cog in the Nazi machinery. Eichmann needed to be a touchstone for the evils of Nazism and his death the death of Nazi lies, once and for all. Consequently, the story of the kidnapping must also be one of heroism free of human error. Operation Finale’s agenda, crisp and unsubtle, follows the agenda Ben-Gurion set during the trial.
Arendt was suspicious of the ulterior political motives behind such rewrites. The Holocaust is irreclaimable; not even Eichmann’s show trial could help that. Perhaps the blunt force of a didactic exhibit with some pretty cool props is a necessary evil in an age of extremism. But Arendt, who was wrong about a great many things — Eichmann was far more deceptive, anti-Semitic, and unrepentant than she makes out — nonetheless makes a convincing counterargument. We must see shades of gray where we are most tempted to see things in black and white; we must resist making easy object lessons of history, especially when it comes to the Nazis and men like Eichmann.
— Andrew Koenig is a freelance writer and copy editor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University.