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