The Doctor Who Helped Israeli Spies Catch Eichmann But Refused Recognition For It

Jul 16, 2019
Originally published on July 21, 2019 7:00 am

The fake license plates, forged passports and concealed surveillance camera were locked away in the musty archives of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency for 50 years. Now they are touring the U.S. in a traveling exhibition about the Mossad's legendary capture of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann.

But one object crucial to the mission's success is not on display: the needle used to inject a sedative into Eichmann's arm before he was smuggled onto a plane back to Israel to stand trial.

The story of the needle is also the story of Dr. Yonah Elian, an Israeli anesthesiologist recruited for the Eichmann mission to administer the sedative. He hid the needle in a drawer for most of his life and refused to come out of the shadows — even as the other Israelis on the mission were crowned national heroes.

The fake identification card prepared for Dr. Yonah Elian to take part in the Mossad operation to apprehend Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. The Mossad team posed as El Al flight crew members.
Courtesy of Operation Finale Exhibit

"Many times, I asked him, 'Dad, why won't you talk about this? What's so secret?' " said Danny Elian, the doctor's son, who spent years seeking answers.

The doctor's tale, and the secret he kept, have only come to light in recent years. But Eichmann's story is well-known.

Dubbed an "architect" of the Holocaust, Eichmann oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths. He escaped to Argentina after the war. In 1960, Mossad agents tracked him down, captured him, held him in a safe house, then dressed him in an Israeli flight crew uniform and sneaked him past Argentinian airport authorities onto a plane headed back to Israel.

Elian, known among his colleagues as something of a medical magician for his expertise in safely sedating babies, injected just the right dose of sedative to pass Eichmann off to Buenos Aires airport authorities as a sick crew member.

"That's why the doctor was with him. He needed to keep him like a puppet," said former Mossad agent Avner Avraham, who curated the Mossad's exhibit, "Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann," now on display at the Holocaust Museum Houston.

"My father was always impressed with the doctor," said Amram Aharoni, the son of the late Zvi Aharoni, one of the Mossad spies in the squad. "How could he control Eichmann in a way that on one hand, he wasn't really conscious, he was like a little zombie, but on the other hand, he was still awake and still responding to certain orders?"

Eichmann was brought to Jerusalem for a trial that was broadcast around the world, with more than 100 Holocaust survivors taking the witness stand. He was sentenced to death by hanging in December 1961. At age 56, Eichmann was hanged in June 1962.

The story created the legend of the Mossad, a daring spy agency from a tiny, young country determined to settle accounts with its enemies. Though the Mossad has come under criticism in recent years for its secret assassinations, its capture of Eichmann continues to be glorified in books and movies. The Mossad agents who captured him wrote autobiographies and appeared on television, and many volunteers who played minor roles in the Mossad's operation have shared their stories.

But the doctor never wanted to talk about the Eichmann operation. He even refused to go to the Israeli parliament in 2007 to accept an award for his role in the capture.

His son Danny, a 66-year-old cardiologist, found out about his father's role in the capture from a friend when he was a teenager. For years, Danny pressed his father to explain his silence.

Fake passports used by an Israeli Mossad agent (left) and another one manufactured to fly Adolf Eichmann (right) out of Argentina are displayed in an exhibition in Jerusalem in 2011, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the verdict against Eichmann.
Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images

Elian finally offered an explanation: He had acted against the Hippocratic oath, the pledge that doctors take to do no harm to their patients.

"I told him I understand the argument, but the Hippocratic oath is so unfitting for the situation. This is Eichmann we're talking about. A mass murderer, mass killer," Danny recounted.

Something was strange. In Israel, so much is debated — but not Eichmann.

Danny's twin sister, Miri Halperin Wernli, interpreted her father's silence differently.

"It's not that unusual," she said. "Many people are involved in the Mossad in Israel ... there are things that you don't ask."

Indeed there was something else, something important that their father did not talk about. It was revealed many years later, when Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman published a newspaper story in 2006 referencing a secret government vault.

"Inside that safe was a file which proved that something that was whispered as a sort of an urban legend throughout the years was in fact 100% right," said Bergman, author of Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations.

It was the story of the Mossad's first major operation, according to Bergman's research. Alexander Israel, an army officer accused of trying to sell Israeli military secrets to the Egyptian Embassy in Rome, was captured in 1954 by Mossad agents and bundled onto a plane back to Israel to stand trial. Elian was recruited to sedate him for the flight.

Adolf Eichmann (far left) in an Israeli courtroom, March 9, 1961, where papers were signed automatically extending his detention.
AP

But the mission went terribly wrong. The doctor's drugs killed the captive.

It was not only a failure of the mission, but also a failure of the Mossad's mandate. As Bergman put it, quoting then-Mossad chief Isser Harel, who oversaw the operation: "We do not kill Jews."

The Mossad chief ordered the plane flown back over the Mediterranean Sea, and the Israeli officer's body was tossed out of the plane. His name was erased from army records, and his wife and son were kept in the dark.

The only civilian in Israel who knew firsthand about the cover-up was Elian. A secret government inquiry absolved him of wrongdoing, and he was ordered to keep quiet. The failed operation was one of the "lowest points in the annals of Israeli intelligence," wrote Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman in Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. Elian was one of several hospital doctors the Mossad has recruited over the years to assist in operations, said Melman.

Decades later, Bergman exposed the story in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, without naming the doctor. In 2010, Elian's identity was revealed in the Israeli press and in The Mossad, a book by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal.

Soon after, Elian received a phone call. The caller politely introduced himself as Moshe Tsipper, the son of the Israeli officer who disappeared nearly 60 years earlier. After his father's story was published, Israeli intelligence officials met him and offered more details, but he was still left with questions. Even Eichmann got a trial; his father did not.

Tsipper told Dr. Elian he wanted to hear about his father's last moments and asked Elian if they could meet.

The doctor refused. But he did open up to his own son, Danny, about what happened.

He told Danny the atmospheric conditions on the old Israeli military aircraft affected the way the captive reacted to the sedative, leading to his death. It was not an emotional confession, Danny recalled, but more like two doctors discussing a case.

Still, Danny said, "I know that this thing — this story, this incident — really sat with my father. I mean it really, really stayed with him."

In 2011, Elian stopped taking his habitual long walks, then stopped leaving the house at all. He was growing old and was perhaps ill and depressed, Danny said.

"If I could inject myself with something, I would," Danny recalled his father saying.

The needle Dr. Yonah Elian used to sedate Adolf Eichmann was displayed at the Museum of the Jewish People in Israel in 2012.
Dan Balilty / AP

One day while Danny was visiting his father, Elian got up from his chair, went to his bedroom and emerged holding a small plastic bag labeled "Eichmann Needle."

Danny had no idea his father had saved it all those years.

"Keep this," Elian said, handing it to his son. (His twin sister remembers the story differently and says their father gave the needle to her.)

In April 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Eichmann's trial, Mossad curator Avraham debuted his exhibit about the Eichmann capture in the Mossad headquarters. To prepare for the exhibit, he had interviewed the Israeli agents who took part, but was told Elian did not wish to talk.

Two months later, at age 88, Elian took his own life. He left no note.

Days later, Elian's family received a condolence call from veteran Mossad spymaster Rafi Eitan, who had recruited the doctor for the Eichmann capture. Eitan said he would invite Danny over to tell him more about what his father had done for the Mossad — the stories Danny's father never agreed to tell.

But Eitan never got in touch, and Danny Elian wondered whether the spymaster's offer was sincere. That meeting did not take place until NPR arranged one in February 2018, a year before Eitan died.

Eitan, then 91, and his wife Miriam sat with Danny in their art-filled Tel Aviv living room. It was a polite meeting that turned uncomfortable when they discussed Elian's role in the botched operation.

As the spymaster told Danny about his father's role volunteering for the Mossad, Danny came to understand what he had not previously realized: the timeline. The botched mission, in which Elian accidentally killed the captive, was the doctor's very first mission with the Mossad. Eichmann's capture came six years later.

The realization made Danny understand his father in a different light. Despite the trauma that the accidental death caused Elian, he did not give up his medical practice, and when his country needed him again to capture Eichmann, he got back on a plane. To Danny, this is what made his father a hero.

The accidental death is alluded to in the 2018 Hollywood film Operation Finale, starring Ben Kingsley as Eichmann. Screenwriter Matthew Orton said the doctor's character in the film represents the voice of morality in the Mossad's mission to bring Eichmann to Israel to stand trial, rather than kill him on the spot.

"The whole reason [the doctor] is there is to bring him back alive," Orton said.

Still, Elian's children struggled with their father's lifelong silence and wrestled with what to do with the needle he entrusted to their care.

"It was a significant needle for him," said his daughter, Halperin Wernli. "I think it meant something to him, without expressing what it was."

At first, Danny sought recognition for his late father. He had the needle photographed and published in an Israeli newspaper and approached museums to find a home for it, eventually loaning it to the Mossad's exhibition mounted in Tel Aviv.

But before the exhibition traveled to the U.S., Danny took it back. He thought it belonged in the family, not in the Mossad's traveling show. The label his father wrote in shaky English letters on the bag, "Eichmann Needle," is the only piece of his father's handwriting he has left.

The needle connects two moments in his father's life when he served his country. In one, he was supposed to be a hero. In the other, a ghost.

"The needle is just a needle," Danny said, sitting at his desk at a Tel Aviv medical center. "It does not replace stories, discoveries, confessions that never were."

Danny keeps the needle in a drawer at home. One day, he said, he'll give it to his own children, and they'll have to decide what to do with the legacy.

: 7/17/19

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly referred to Alexander Israel as Alexander Israeli, as does the Rough Translation podcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Israel's secret operation to capture Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann has been retold over and over in books and movies. The agents were crowned national heroes in Israel, but one key figure remained in the shadows with his own secret to keep. It's only come to light in recent years. NPR's Daniel Estrin tells the story.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: At the center of this story is an old, tarnished needle, like for a syringe. It's attached to a little metal handle with some leather wrapped around it.

So then just took out this silver box out of his briefcase?

DANNY ELIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: Oh, wow. That's...

ELIAN: Eichmann needle, OK?

ESTRIN: Eichmann needle.

This was the needle used to sedate Adolf Eichmann, the man who oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust. After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina. Agents for the Mossad, Israel's version of the CIA, tracked him down and captured him in 1960. But they knew they'd have to get him through an airport to a plane. They put him in a flight crew uniform, and an Israeli doctor drugged him.

AVNER AVRAHAM: That's why the doctor was with him. He needed to keep him like a puppet.

ESTRIN: Former Mossad agent and Eichmann expert Avner Avraham.

AVRAHAM: Like, he's not sleeping. He cannot speak. He cannot scream. He cannot - he looks very sick.

ESTRIN: The mission succeeded. And Eichmann was flown to Israel to stand trial, where Holocaust survivors told their stories before the eyes of the world. Then Eichmann was hanged.

This is the story of the doctor on the Mossad team who injected the sedative into Eichmann's arm during the capture. He wasn't a spy. He was a renowned anesthesiologist, Dr. Yonah Elian. He died several years ago, but I met his son Danny in a cafe. Like his dad, Danny is also a doctor. He was a teenager when he overheard from a friend about his dad's role in capturing Eichmann. His dad never wanted to talk about it.

ELIAN: (Through interpreter) Many times I asked him, Abba, why won't you talk about this? What's so secret? Everybody knows about it, so what's the big deal?

ESTRIN: Eventually, his father gave him a little.

ELIAN: (Through interpreter) He'll talk about that as a doctor, he didn't feel quite right about using his knowledge, his power against somebody's will. It's against the Hippocratic oath.

ESTRIN: The Hippocratic oath, the pledge that med students take that a doctor should first do no harm to their patients.

ELIAN: (Through interpreter) I told him. I understand the argument, but the Hippocratic Oath is - I mean, it's so unfitting for the situation. And I told him, Abba, this is not just any person. This is Eichmann. We're talking about a mass murderer, mass killer. But that's - he was adamant about that.

ESTRIN: His father even refused to go to the Israeli Parliament to accept an award for his role. Something here was strange. Israel is a country where so much is up for debate, but there's no debate about Eichmann. The doctor's daughter Miri Halperin Wernli didn't pry.

MIRI HALPERIN WERNLI: It's not that unusual. Many people are involved in the Mossad in Israel. There are things that you don't ask.

ESTRIN: And there was something else their father didn't talk about. It only came to light many years later when Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman published an expose about a secret government vault.

RONEN BERGMAN: In that safe, they found a file which proved that something that was whispered as a sort of an urban legend throughout the years was, in fact, 100% right.

ESTRIN: It was a story of a different Mossad kidnapping, of an Israeli army officer accused of trying to sell military secrets to the Egyptian embassy in Rome. Agents put him on a plane back to Israel to stand trial, and they recruited Dr. Elian to sedate him for the flight. But the doctor's drugs somehow killed the Israeli officer. This would not make the Mossad look good in Israel.

BERGMAN: We do not kill Jews.

ESTRIN: The Mossad doesn't kill Jews. So the plane flies back up over the Mediterranean Sea, and the body is tossed out of the plane. Dr. Elian is ordered to keep quiet about the cover-up. Decades later, the journalist exposes the story, and Danny confronts his father about what happened. His father tells him it was an old military plane, and the atmospheric conditions affected the way the man reacted to the sedative. And that's why he died. It's not an emotional confession. It's more like two doctors discussing a case.

ELIAN: (Through interpreter) But I know that this thing, like, this story, this incident really sat with my father. I mean, it really, really stayed with him.

ESTRIN: By this time, his father was in his 80s, and one day he told Danny he had something to show him. It was the needle he used to drug Eichmann, kept in a little plastic baggie with a label in English, Eichmann needle. Danny didn't even know his father had kept it. And then just some months later, the doctor took his own life. Danny says it was because his father was getting old and ill and depressed. He left no note, but he did leave the needle.

HALPERIN WERNLI: It was a significant needle for him.

ESTRIN: The doctor's daughter, Miri.

HALPERIN WERNLI: I think it meant something to him without expressing what it was.

ESTRIN: But Danny wanted to learn more about the missions his father wouldn't discuss. One of the people who paid a condolence call after his father's death was legendary spymaster Rafi Eitan. He promised to tell Danny some stories about his dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

RAFI EITAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ELIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: Danny and I went to see him a year before the spymaster himself died. He'd recruited the doctor for the Eichmann mission.

EITAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He spoke about the failed mission and about the Eichmann capture. After the meeting, as we were driving away, Danny said he came away with clarity.

ELIAN: Much a need - take-home message (foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He now understood the timeline. The mission where the man died and was thrown out of the plane was his dad's first mission with the Mossad. The way Danny sees it, despite the trauma that caused his father, when his country needed him again to capture Eichmann, he got back on a plane. For Danny, that made his father a hero.

ELIAN: Eichmann needle, OK?

ESTRIN: Can I hold it? (Foreign language spoken).

ELIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: The last time I saw Danny, he let me hold the needle. For a while, he donated it to a Mossad exhibit about the Eichmann capture. But then he took it back. He felt like it belonged in the family. It connected two moments in his dad's life when he served his country. In one, he was supposed to be a hero - in the other, a ghost.

ELIAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: Danny says the needle is important but can't replace the stories and confessions his dad never told. So he keeps it in a drawer at home. And one day, he'll give it to his children and let them decide what to do with the legacy. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.