For a long time, when I was growing up in the building I still live in on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I knew one neighbor only as Peter. Tall, bronzed and muscled, Peter lived on the 13th floor. If I was riding the elevator alone with him, he always said, “Hello, how’s your mother?” in an Israeli accent after (sometimes) removing a cigarette from his mouth. When I’d see him talking with my 4-foot-10-inch mother in the lobby, her tiny hands gripping shopping bags from Gimbels, they were so different in size that they looked absurd. Mom knew Peter was an amateur artist; she had once been in his apartment to admire his work. She was an amateur artist, too, and my father teased her that she had a crush since that time she went with him to Pearl Paint on Canal Street to buy more oils.
Then in 1986, everyone in my building found out that Peter was not only an artist; he was also a Nazi hunter. It was the 25th anniversary of the trial and hanging of Adolf Eichmann, and a wave of newspaper articles accompanied a special exhibit at the Jewish Museum. Peter the elevator charmer was none other than Peter Malkin, the former Israeli spy who snatched Eichmann off an Argentine street in 1960. Eichmann, of course, was at that time the most wanted Nazi at large — an ardent believer in the Nationalist Socialist agenda, and a former architect of the Final Solution as the SS Obersturmbannführer in charge of Jewish affairs.
The news was a big topic at my family’s dinner table. Mom was amazed that she knew nothing of Peter Malkin’s stealthy past.
After the excitement those articles caused, he got a book deal. “Eichmann in My Hands” (Warner, 1990), co-written with Harry Stein, shed more light on his role in the capture of Eichmann. Here he claimed that he had been a Mossad agent for 28 years but never killed anyone. Mom wondered if I, too, wanted to read the book, but I was just post-college having fun, and the Holocaust was far off my radar. That sentiment annoyed her greatly.
I recently thought of Malkin again while writing other Lower East Side stories. I tried to find his old book on my bookshelf, but then remembered it was one of the books my husband made me give away after insisting I was a book hoarder and promising I would never miss it. I walked to Strand to see if the store had it. It did, one copy. Signed by Malkin.
I sat in a Broadway cafe with a friend who was amused by my excitement at Malkin’s scratchy signature: “Who? Should I know of him?” Now I was determined to really get to know my elevator companion whom my mother so admired. If I hadn’t appreciated him before, I would do so now.
Peter Zvi Malkin was born in 1927, in a village in Eastern Poland that had roughly 1,400 Jews before the Holocaust, nearly 70% of its population. He had a few persistent memories of that time, including a one-door, one-window heder, a tiny school.
Then, in 1933, when he was almost 5, his family moved him to Haifa, to escape rising anti-Semitism. His parents also took his brothers, Jacob, 6, and Yechiel, 17, leaving behind their eldest child, 23-year-old Fruma, a blue-eyed blonde who lived next door and was a second mother to Peter. She and her husband had three children, but her son Takele was closest to his age; the child was his daily playmate, and his best friend.
Poland in these uneasy times had an exit visa shortage, and cutting through red tape required money the family did not have. Fruma pleaded with her parents to save funds, and she promised they would reunite in the Holy Land shortly. Her parents acquiesced. In his memoir, Malkin recalled boarding a ship, and in British Mandate Palestine he entered a strange new world of foreign sounds and tastes, like oranges, dates and prickly pears. His father and his elder brother found work making bricks in Haifa — and by 1938, with news in the papers worsening, Malkin’s mother was making desperate trips to the local government department to, once and for all, get her daughter and grandchildren out.
Young Peter was a risk-taking kid, often exploring where he should not. People noticed, people talked, and soon someone at Haganah, the pre-state underground militia, heard about his exploits.
In 1941 he was selected at the tender age of 14 to join its secret ranks. Here, he got intensive training in explosives. After the final year of British rule, the group became the core of the new Israel Defense Forces — and with Malkin’s proven knack for detonating bombs, he was a sapper during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948.
A year after Israeli independence in 1948, Malkin joined the Mossad, Israel’s new Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Concurrently, he joined the Department of Internal Security, known as Shin Bet. He artlessly wrote on his application “I like adventure” as his main reason for applying, and despite eyebrows lifted at that answer, they offered him the job, starting at $40 a month. Safecracking and explosives were his fortes, and he trained in many more specialized skills. His cover was as an artist who traveled for inspiration, but he actually took art very seriously, having started painting at 16.
While spying, Malkin often drew stained-glass windows in churches. “I spent a lot of time in churches,” he said in one interview. “If you go to a synagogue, someone is always asking if you’re alone, if you’re married. In a church, in a hundred years no one would ask.”
At the start of 1960, Malkin was debriefed on his latest assignment, which shocked even him. He was to capture Adolf Eichmann. The new mission was called Operation Attila, and Attila was Eichmann’s code name. That May, Malkin and six other Israeli men flew to Buenos Aires, where the Mossad believed it had pinpointed Eichmann’s whereabouts. Mossad’s headquarters in Tel Aviv decided that Malkin would lead the capture, but then another agent would take over interrogation.
How had Eichmann gotten here?
After the collapse of the Third Reich, he was briefly caught, but in 1946 he had escaped from captivity in the United States and spent years hiding in Germany. In 1950, Eichmann went to Italy under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement, but only after a monk got him a Vatican refugee Red Cross passport. On July 14, 1950, he disembarked in Argentina, and for 10 years he worked in a variety of jobs in Buenos Aires. Eichmann was briefly a gaucho.
In August of 1952 he was joined by his wife, Vera Lieble, and his sons, Klaus, Horst and Dieter: The sons were instructed to refer to him as Uncle Ricardo. The Eichmanns had a fourth son while living in Argentina, Ricardo, who reminded Malkin of his lost blond playmate, his sister’s son Takele.
Lothar Hermann was almost blind, and became the unlikely source who had put the Mossad onto Eichmann. A former dissident and a Dachau camp survivor who, after Kristallnacht, left Germany for Argentina, Hermann had lost his sight, the result of severe beatings from the Gestapo. The family lived as non-Jewish Germans, and his daughter, Silvia, knew Eichmann’s eldest son, Klaus, who still used the family name Eichmann at his father’s insistence, even though Eichmann himself went under Ricardo Klement. One day, in an outdoor restaurant, Hermann and his daughter sat down at the table next to Eichmann and Klaus, and Silvia Hermann decided to make introductions. Her father may have been blind, but he had seen Eichmann when imprisoned and had heard his voice. He immediately contacted both German and Israeli authorities about this suspicious “uncle” and they sent someone to investigate in January 1958. After a quick inspection of the unimpressive middle-class Olivos neighborhood where the suspect was dwelling, the Mossad discounted the intelligence; it seemed impossible for a once lofty Nazi to be living there.
In 1960, a new Mossad team found that the man was still living in Buenos Aries, and still under the alias Ricardo Klement, but now renting an even more unimpressive suburban home on Garibaldi Street in the dreary suburb of Villa San Fernando. Hiding near a creek, the team spied on Attila, a thin man in thick black-rimmed glasses. The weather was not kind and they were often cold, as none of these crackerjack minds had realized that May was the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
Through his field glasses, an agent observed a celebratory family dinner March 21 and did the math: The Klements’ anniversary celebration corresponded to what would have been the Eichmanns’ 25th, “silver” anniversary. Attila unfailingly returned home by the same bus each evening from his administrative job at a Mercedes-Benz factory; the bus arrived at his stop at around 7:20. The snoops were increasingly sure that Atilla was Eichmann, and that getting him when he was near the bus stop was the best plan of action. They decided on May 11 as the day it would all go down.
On this cold, rainy day, the green-and-yellow commuter bus pulled up on Eichmann’s stop along Route 202. Atilla did not get off. But minutes later, a little past 7:30 a.m., the next bus arrived.
Malkin wore fur-lined leather gloves so as not to have to touch the man during the scuffle. He wrote, “The thought of placing my bare hand over the mouth that had ordered the death of millions, of feeling the hot breath and saliva on my skin, filled me with an overwhelming sense of revulsion.” “Un momentito, Señor,” Malkin said, using the Spanish phrase he had practiced for this moment.
Unarmed, he grabbed Atilla’s right hand, spun the man around by the shoulders and pinned his arms behind his back. The man’s scream was piercing. Malkin pressed his hand over his mouth. Atilla’s false teeth dislodged. The leather gloves were quickly “soaked through with his spittle.” He took him on his shoulders, and spirited his target into a waiting black Mercedes-Benz. A fellow spy drove them both to a “safe house” in a rented villa 90 minutes south, in a more upscale neighborhood in the Florencio Varela district, where there was a garden with Moorish arches, a plush carpet and a stone wall to keep out nosy neighbors. In the safe house, Atilla denied he was Eichmann even as the doctor quickly examined his mouth lest he had poison hidden on him. Then Atilla was checked for a scar of 3 centimeters beneath the left brow, two gold bridges in the upper jaw, a rib scar of one centimeter, a Secret Service tattoo, his shoe size and other markings.
“You have SS number 45526?’ Mossad interrogator Hans asked Atilla.
The men were startled.
“Was ist deine name?” another agent named Zvi Aharoni demanded.
“Ich bin Adolf Eichmann.”
In a small bedroom, a blanket concealing the only window, Eichmann was blindfolded and manacled by his ankle, in striped pajamas. Hans worked on him to see if he knew where other prominent Nazis were hiding, including Josef Mengele.
At night the spies stayed inside in the villa. As the team whiled away the hours with chess and cigarettes, a female agent arrived to cook and clean. In the pre-PC era when he got his book deal, Malkin wrote that the men had hoped for a sexy woman to arrive and change the atmosphere. But instead they had been sent Rosa, a chunky Orthodox Jewish spy whom he knew back from Tel Aviv. Oh well, at least now they had a cook. Eichmann ate only kosher food during his 10-day stay in the safe house.
Malkin was assigned to feed and shave the prisoner, and to make sure he moved his bowels. He also oversaw his deep knee bends — Eichmann had to stay in shape to survive the trial. While Malkin sat in the room on his shift, he began to secretly draw him, using the sketch pencils, acrylic paints and makeup he carried in his disguise kit. All he had in his possession was a South American travel guide he had purchased for the trip. He used its map-covered pages for a canvas.
He had plenty of time alone with Eichmann over 10 days, and he surreptitiously began with a black-and-gray portrait overlaying a map of Argentina. On the next page, he imagined him in SS regalia. “I continued drawing in a kind of frenzy. Now I had him watching a railroad train, counting the cars; now in abstract, lying prone atop a flatcar, bearing a machine gun; now, on facing pages, appeared Hitler and Mussolini; now my parents and, in muted pastels, her eyes immense and brooding, my sister,” he wrote. The Mossad wanted Eichmann to sign a form saying he was traveling to Israel on his own accord. He would not sign for Hans, who had spoken to him so harshly. Malkin decided to give it a try, never admitting he chatted regularly with Eichmann, partly to understand the mentality that had sent millions, including 150 of his relatives, to their deaths. They spoke in broken German and a half-Yiddish that Eichmann understood well. The man who had a master file he labeled “The Final Solution” maddeningly claimed he was no anti-Semite, that he even studied Hebrew with a rabbi in Berlin. To study how to kill them better, Malkin suggested.
“I have nothing against the Jews,” Eichmann insisted. This did not sway his guard, who had lost so many relatives. “On the contrary, I love Jews.” To add insult to injury, Eichmann went on to recite the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One…” He asked to be tried in Germany. “You must be tried in Israel,” Malkin told him. He told him that if he signed, his wife and little ones could come to the trial. (This actually happened in Ramale Prison on April 30, 1962, and Vera Eichmann’s visit was revealed only recently.)
Eichmann called Malkin by his agent code name, Maxim: “Do you dance, Maxim? Do you like music? I hope you like Viennese waltzes.”
“We found ourselves co-conspirators of a sort,” Malkin wrote. “He knew as well as I did to fall silent at the sound of approaching footsteps.”
Malkin served him a good red wine that a fellow operative had been saving for the Sabbath, and played flamenco music on an old record player in the villa. Music cheered the Nazi. Malkin toasted him. He sneaked him a Kent. More relaxed, Eichmann confided to Malkin that he had lived in fear. “For 15 years I expected what has happened to me — and it has happened.” He also admitted that he had spoken to a fortuneteller in Argentina, who told him he would not live past 57; he believed her.
Eventually, Malkin got the signature.
With so many spies in one house, Rosa and Malkin now shared the room that had two single beds. One night, he whispered to her that he was talking to their prisoner against orders. Sympathy was an uncrossable line, and Rosa was horrified, but she listened to what they had discussed. Afterward, she scolded him: “You act like you’re in love with him!” Eventually so many emotions were brought up by the capture that Malkin joined Rosa in her bed one night, and he held the woman, clothed, in his arms, crying.
The operation to commandeer Eichmann was timed close to festivities celebrating 150 years of Argentine independence from Spain, which made it possible for the Mossad to fly the first El Al plane to land in Argentina without suspicion, even though there were no scheduled flights between the two countries. The delegation was in fact an operational cover, and included Mossad and Shin Bet security service people. Operation Atilla was so top secret that the delegation leader Abba Eban, then minister of education and culture, may not have even known about Eichmann’s capture. When Eban disembarked, he gave a speech in astonishingly perfect Spanish, after strains of “Hatikvah” played. Malkin and his spy pals were at the airport to watch. They waited for word on what day the plane was leaving, which turned out to be less than 48 hours later, on May 20. When told all was a go, Malkin quickly used his makeup kit to change Eichmann’s appearance on the flight to Argentina, dressing him in an El Al uniform as a steward. Eichmann loved being in uniform again, and straightened his posture. It was not lost on Malkin that Eichmann was leaving the country with a Jewish star on his hat. “Recognize that star?” he asked him pointedly.
As they headed to the airport, Malkin’s teammate, Dr. Klein, rolled up Eichmann’s sleeve to give him an injection. Were they killing him? No, Malkin assured him, this was the day he was going to go to Jerusalem, and they needed him as mellow as possible. Eichmann was ushered on board the El Al aircraft with the forged passport for Israeli agent Zeev Zichron. Malkin had made up Eichmann up to look like the passport photo of Zichron.
Mossad agents decided it was best to tell the other passengers on board, since it was a lightly populated flight and many of those delegates who had come for the Independence Day festivities were not allowed back on and had to fend for themselves to get home. The passengers were understandably flabbergasted that they had to book alternate commercial flights. One of the men on board, however, was El Al’s chief mechanic, who fell to pieces, having lost his 6-year-old brother in the camps. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced to the Knesset that Adolf Eichmann had been captured on May 23, 1960. You can imagine the hullabaloo in Israel. But there were no medals or interviews for the agents. Rather, there was absolute authority of safety rules — they were instructed to tell no one of their involvement.
In 1961, starting on April 11, Eichmann was put on a trial that would last for more than four months.
Every word of the trial was filmed to document evil that much of the world was denying. Eichmann, however, did not view himself as evil, saying famously, “Nothing is ever as bad as it appears, or one could put it another way, nothing is ever as hot as when it is cooking.”
Malkin went just once to the courthouse, walked near Eichmann’s glass isolation booth, locked eyes with Eichmann and nodded. He never went back. He said he didn’t want to hear the trial.
On August 14, Eichmann was sentenced to death and found guilty on all crimes against humanity and the Jewish people.” He was hanged June 1, 1962 and his last words (in German) were: “Long live Germany. Long live Argentina. Long live Austria.” Eichmann was cremated at a secret location, and his ashes were disseminated into the Mediterranean Sea, beyond the limits of Israel’s official waters. No country would endure his grave, nor would his grave ever be a site of pilgrimage.
Malkin stayed mum on his involvement, but broke the rule once, in the spring of 1967, when his mother fell ill and he got permission to abandon an assignment in Athens. His beloved ima was dying in a Haifa hospital, 12 years after Eichmann’s ashes had been scattered. “Mama, I captured Eichmann. Fruma is avenged,” he told her. She did not answer. He repeated his claim. Gradually her eyes opened. Her hand squeezed his. “I understand,” she managed to say.
Well, there was one other time he let out the truth, the day he hailed a cab in New York City with a Mossad friend in the back seat. Malkin recognized a Polish accent. It turned out the cabbie was from the same town Malkin had fled as a young boy. He knew how Fruma was killed, and how all the others in town met their deaths. In 1941, he said, the Jews in town were rounded up near the fountain, then taken to a camp outside Lublin. The driver had survived as a slave laborer and escaped, but not before the man had witnessed Eichmann making rounds. His seatmate poked him and whispered, “Are you going to tell him?” No, he could not. He left the cab and turned back to see his friend talking to the driver, who was now looking his way, wonderstruck. The driver called out, “Is this true?” Finally, Malkin called back, “Yes!” The driver gave Malkin’s Mossad friend back the cab fare. He could not take any money — his passenger had already repaid all Jews a thousandfold. By most accounts, by this time he was already the most successful agent in Israel’s history, the Jewish James Bond. After he caught Eichmann he also nabbed Israel Baer, the Soviet mole whom the Russians had sent to Israel. Baer had claimed to be born to Austrian Jews. Malkin was rightfully proud that he clandestinely acquired a list of ex-Nazi nuclear scientists collaborating with the Egyptians. He once eavesdropped on a meeting of Arab officials by hiding under their conference table. He eventually rose to become chief of operations in the Mossad.
But he did not work for Israel only. On Malkin’s passing in 2005, Robert Morgenthau, now a renowned former Manhattan district attorney, said of my neighbor, “I think he was the outstanding intelligence agent of the 20th century.” Starting in the late 1970s, Malkin assisted Morgenthau on several investigations, including one involving CIA agents suspected of selling weapons and explosives to Africa. In addition to consultant fees, Morgenthau repaid Malkin by expediting his green card.
Not all Peter Malkin anecdotes are so heavy: I chuckled reading how he once used his expert disguise gifts on his mother before a mission; he arrived at her Sabbath dinner in Haifa, pretending he was a foreign student who showed up at her door at the request of her son. Via an unspecified spy apparatus, he changed the sound of his voice and the appearance of his mouth. For several minutes he had her convinced, but then she realized who was really sharing challah with her. “You are going to kill me!” she cried. However, further in the meal his mother guessed that he was going away on a top-secret mission. “Even a secret agent,” he said, “can’t lie to a Jewish mother.”
In the spring of 2005 I first found out that my own mother had stage IV ovarian cancer, a disease she would battle for the next two years. At the time of the diagnosis I was working on a book with her, a funny novel about the members of her retirement club, the Happiness Club, who were always complaining about their children not coming for a visit. She had taken notes on several Happiness Club members, including a Holocaust survivor named Irene Zisblatt, whom she recorded in the late 1990s for the Century Village retirement newspaper she edited, the Hawthorne Herald. She asked my brother and me to turn the newspaper article into a documentary. We were insulted that she was suggesting our next film together. Spielberg saw value where we did not, and Zisblatt’s story was included in the documentary he produced, “The Last Days,” which won an Oscar in 1998. The second it won, the phone rang — “Told you so,” my mom said.
I laughed again about that call so many years later. My mother was right about bothering to get to know your neighbors, and your duty to the future if you are a storyteller.
The other day, while my daughter did her eighth-grade homework, I rode the elevator to Malkin’s old floor and rang his doorbell. A middle-aged woman whom I have seen in the laundry room but had never spoken to answered.
I explained what I was writing. “Oh I recognize you,” she said. “You have a young daughter, right? A teen. An Australian husband?” She introduced herself for the first time: Irena Nuic-Werber. She was in real estate. She briefly asked me to wait, as she wanted permission to participate in my article by name, for normally she and her husband are very private people. Yes, her husband Daniel was quite honored. He felt it was important to help celebrate Malkin.
“When we bought [the apartment,] there was his art up to the ceiling — vibrant colors, red, yellow, orange. Many of his artworks were painted on maps. It was breathtaking,” Nuic-Werber told me. “We did not meet him, obviously, but we bought from an attorney who knew him well, who had stories. We were very touched to live here, as much of my husband’s family perished in the Holocaust.” Tears welled in her eyes. “We think of his apartment as a sacred place,” she said, “In Israel, you know, he is very famous. I wish he was more well-known in America.”
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is currently working on her first nonfiction book, about a Lower East Side kid who was a stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 Antarctica expedition (Simon & Schuster, 2017).