Avner Avraham used to keep secrets, but now he tells stories. The former Mossad agent and current movie consultant visited Pittsburgh last week to highlight his work with “Operation Finale.”
As he explained in a speaking tour that included student oriented programs at both Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Winchester Thurston School, as well as a public lecture at Duquesne University’s Power Center, well before the 2018 film about the capture of Adolf Eichmann reached international audiences, he had created a private exhibit — also titled Operation Finale — specifically for those within the Mossad. The accumulation included photographs of former agents and artifacts from the famed exercise.
The exhibition was visited seven years ago by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who requested the collection be moved to Jerusalem and made public. Interest in the materials grew, and in subsequent years, Avraham’s assemblage traveled to Tel Aviv, Miami and New York City. With each stop, Avraham, who spent 28 years in the Mossad, attracted increasing interest.
Here in Pittsburgh, Avraham, who retired from the agency four years ago, told the nearly 200 Allderdice students gathered last week that his work moving between identities was interesting. In the Mossad, he said, “you can’t be reached.”
Avraham’s life changed when a simple Google search for “Operation Finale” turned up the film of the same name he gave his exhibit.
“I emailed the producer and director, explained my relationship to the story and they brought me in as a consultant,” he recalled.
Films vary in their commitment to historical truth and Avraham, a self-described “history buff,” wanted to ensure accuracy. So when he observed a scripted scene on-set in which 10 undercover Israeli agents all conveniently arrived on the same airlines to begin locating Eichmann, Avraham cried foul.
“It was important to me that the real story be preserved, so I battled the director,” he said.
Ultimately, the director, Chris Weitz, relented, and agreed to depict the clandestine operatives arriving on different airlines.
Much like in the Mossad, “it’s all about small details,” said the speaker.
Bringing Avraham to Pittsburgh is “a wonderful way to teach a story about Eichmann, the Holocaust and Israel,” said Tsipy Gur, executive director and founder of Classrooms Without Borders, which sponsored Avraham’s visit.
“In 1961, as the Eichmann trial captivated millions across the globe, I was a young child in Israel,” Gur told the teenagers. “I remember people fainting from what appeared on television. The trial was so important because it gave survivors permission to tell the stories,” and for many listeners, it was their chance to hear the horrors of the Holocaust.
Today, teaching younger generations about the Holocaust can be challenging, said Avraham. “With high school students you have to find a way to connect with them.”
Whether it is through recounting episodes as a spy, asking students about their own dreams and whether they would be willing to forgo happiness for civil service or even using humor to tell the story in a different way, there are ways to broach the subject, he said.
“I just feel such a need that this education continue. … The history can’t get lost,” said Janelle Price, a social studies teacher at Allderdice who previously traveled to Poland on an educational mission with Classrooms Without Borders.
Hearing a narrative from someone so familiar with the mission was “really a privilege,” said Maddie Kyle, a 10th grader at Allderdice. “A lot of people are not exposed to this.”
Fellow 10th grader Troy Jacobson agreeed.
“This was a good opportunity to bring a lot of kids together to understand what’s happening,” said Jacobson. “It was really cool to get a spy’s perspective on this. I’m going to go see the movie now.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.