April 23, 2019

Why Israel did not capture Nazi criminal Josef Mengele

Israel’s Mossad was very close, painfully close, to capturing one of the most infamous Nazi criminals: Josef Mengele.

This and other stories from Israel’s Nazi hunt were officially published Sept. 5 by the spy agency. The Mossad handed three thick books of documents and narrative to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, and the main stories contained in these books are now public. The story of how Mengele narrowly escaped Israel’s agents is the most chilling among them.

Along with Adolf Eichmann, he was the main target of the Mossad when Israel began its hunt for Holocaust perpetrators. Eichmann was captured, and the story of his capture is well known and well documented. He was brought to justice and executed by Israel.

Apparently, his capture saved Mengele, the doctor from hell. The Meltzer File, in which the story is told, first reported by Ronen Bergman and Yossi Melman in Yediot and Maariv, brings to fore both dilemmas we are all familiar with. It paints Israel in colors quite familiar to all observers of its policies and politics.

Operational dilemmas: Should Israel try to capture both these Nazis at once, or should it begin with one, and then move to the other? The head of Mossad wanted both criminals to be captured at the same time, but the operatives on the ground thought this was too risky, and preferred to get Eichmann first, then Mengele.

Political considerations: Prime Minister Ben Gurion announced that Eichmann was captured, alerted all other Nazis that Israel is after them, and thus aborted the attempt to get Mengele.

A few years ago, the Israeli archives released the transcript of the cabinet meeting in which Ben Gurion revealed to his ministers that Eichmann was captured. “The security services have been looking for Eichmann, they found him, he’s here and will be put on trial,” he told the ministers, who had no idea about this operation. He added that he’d make the announcement in the Knesset and finished by noting that the Law for Doing Justice to Nazis and their Accomplices allowed capital punishment.

Managerial hurdles: In July, 1962 two Mossad agents identified Mengele near Sao Paulo Brazil and were asking further instructions. But the permission to act never arrived. The Mossad was in disarray at the time over the German Scientists affair that forced out its longtime chief, Isser Harel. Priorities were changing. Harel’s successor, Meir Amit, once explained Israel’s inaction by arguing that “we didn’t have the luxury of going after Nazis anymore.”

In many ways, the story of this missed opportunity is not alien to Israel. Operational dilemmas, political considerations and managerial hurdles occasionally thwart Israel’s actions. Still, this story is about a different country, a different era. This is evident by the use of Yiddish as the spoken language of both Mossad agents – Bergman chronicled how the agent of Mossad, identifying Mengele in Brazil in 1962, responded by using his mother’s tongue: “Dos is er, dam kleine dreck” – “this is him, the little shit.” Ministers of the cabinet also moved to Yiddish amid the shocking news of Eichmann’s capture. “The gasp of astonishment this was greeted with is audible from the immediate response of Yitzchak ben Aharon, who slipped into Yiddish: ‘How? Where? Wie macht men das?’ To which Ben Gurion responded curtly ‘that’s what the security services are for.’ ”

Rafi Eitan, one of the few survivors of that long gone era, rejected an attempt by a radio host to tag the agents who captured Eichmann and almost capture Mengele “heroes.” Not heroes, Eitan responded, “regular people.” In the cabinet meeting following Eichmann’s capture, Ben Gurion similarly rejected the idea of giving medals to the operatives participating in the hunt after the Nazis. Here is this part of the transcript:

Eshkol: I already said they deserve congratulations, I don’t know if it’s a person or a group, but I suggest that at the [Knesset] session the prime minister express special appreciation for this action, maybe with some kind of token.

Ben-Gurion: What kind of token?

Eshkol: We don’t have medals.

Ben-Gurion: The reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself…

Imagine that: the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.

Yes, the world has changed. Israel is surely changed.