The Doctor Who Helped Israel's Mossad Catch Eichmann But Refused Recognition Yonah Elian played a key part in spiriting Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann out of Argentina to stand trial in Israel. His family couldn't understand why he never spoke about the heroic role he served.
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The Doctor Who Helped Israeli Spies Catch Eichmann But Refused Recognition For It

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

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

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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.

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