He was walking down the street clutching a large bouquet of flowers, a smiling family man by the name of Ricardo Klement. He was looking forward to celebrating his silver wedding anniversary that evening.
When he reached his house on Garibaldi Street in Buenos Aires, the front door was opened by his wife, Vera. Ricardo pushed the flowers into her hands and gave her a kiss. From inside came the sound of happy laughter: the children were already dressed in their party clothes.
Ricardo Klement had no idea that he was being tracked by Mossad secret agents. Nor did he know that those Israeli agents had been on his trail for more than a year.
They were convinced that Klement was not his real name. They had received a tip-off that he was actually Adolf Eichmann, the most senior Nazi still on the run. As Hitler’s right-hand man, Eichmann had been responsible for organising the mass deportation of millions of Jews to death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. When the war came to an end, and the Third Reich collapsed, he had escaped capture by vanishing into thin air. For almost fifteen years he had evaded Mossad.
But in 1959, a German prosecutor named Fritz Bauer received a sensational tip-off. The daughter of one of his Argentina-based friends had been dating a lad named Eichmann (unlike his father, he had retained the old family name). Ignorant of the fact that the girl was Jewish, the young Eichmann bragged of his father’s role in exterminating millions of Jews.
Fritz Bauer contacted Mossad, who immediately set to work on the operation to capture Eichmann. Absolute secrecy was paramount: if Eichmann got any hint of Mossad being on his trail, he would disappear again.
The undercover operation was led by Isser Harel, the brilliant head of Mossad. He was determined to bring Eichmann to justice. ‘At all the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals this man was pointed to as the head butcher,’ he wrote. ‘His were the hands that pulled the strings controlling manhunt and massacre.’
As Mossad began to research Eichmann’s past, it transpired that he had remained incognito in Europe until 1950, when he was helped to escape to Argentina. He and his family moved several times before settling in Buenos Aires, where he was said to have changed his name to Ricardo Klement.
But Mossad’s agents needed to be absolutely certain they were tracking the right man. It was the silver wedding anniversary flowers that provided them with the clinching evidence. They knew that Eichmann’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was on 21 March 1960. When they saw ‘Ricardo Klement’ hand the flowers to his wife on the evening of that day, they had confirmation that Klement and Eichmann were one and the same person.
The Mossad operation to capture Eichmann coincided with Argentina celebrating 150 years of independence. This provided Isser Harel with the perfect cover to smuggle thirty special agents into the country.
Nothing was left to chance. Mossad set up a bogus travel agency in Europe to ensure that there would be no problems with visas or plane connections.
Harel was acutely aware that Mossad was violating Argentinian sovereignty by kidnapping Eichmann: secrecy was therefore of the utmost importance. By 11 May, the Mossad team was ready to swoop.
Harel knew that Eichmann usually returned home from work at around 7.40 p.m. He stationed his agents in the street shortly before this time. Two of them pretended to be repairing the engine of their car. A second Mossad vehicle was parked thirty yards behind the first one.
Two buses arrived but Eichmann was not on them. Harel was about to call off the operation when a third bus pulled up and a middle-aged man alighted. It was Eichmann.
As he neared the Mossad car, one of the Israeli operatives called ‘just a moment’ before jumping on him. Eichmann was terrified. ‘He let out a terrible yell, like a wild beast caught in a trap.’
The other agents bundled Eichmann into the car and drove off at high speed. Eichmann was gagged and his hands and feet were tied together. He was told that he would be shot if he made a sound.
He was taken to a safe house where he was interrogated. He offered no resistance: indeed, he went out of his way to be helpful.
‘Gone was the SS officer who once had hundreds of men to carry out his commands,’ recalled Harel. ‘Now he was frightened and nervous, at times pathetically eager to help.’
Eichmann was held for a week before he could be flown to Israel aboard an El Al flight. The Mossad agents pretended to be helping a brain-damaged patient return to Israel. They faked papers to this effect. To make the ruse more convincing, they drugged Eichmann and carried him onto the waiting plane.
Exactly eleven months after his capture, Eichmann was put on trial in Israel. He was indicted on fifteen criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against the Jewish people. Eichmann’s only defence was that he was following orders.
It was not enough to save him. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to death. He was hanged on the last day of May 1962, in an Israeli prison.
This excerpt is from Fascinating Footnotes From History by Giles Milton, published by John Murray.