In 2010, Avner Avraham put together an exhibit on the capture of notorious Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina by the Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA). Eight years later, the exhibit is now at the Florida Holocaust museum, and it’s bigger than ever.
Not only is the exhibit in St. Petersburg at the moment, but so is the former Israeli spy who put it all together. Avner Avraham sat with us at the Florida Holocaust Museum to talk about life as a spy.
What’s it like to be a spy?
If I tell you, I have to kill you.
This doesn’t deter me. He’s joking, right? Right?
What do you think of James Bond? Good spy or bad spy? The flashy suits? Yes or no?
I can tell you something. I think that the people that made the James Bond movies were so creative. Sometimes they needed to think about spy stuff that all the agents use, but in some cases they became the leaders of the ideas. Because they, for example, build a gun and then we see it, and then the Mossad, we say, “Hey it’s a good idea. Let’s do it.”
He pulls out his cell phone and shows me a picture of himself at a James Bond exhibit in London. Then he shows me his watch and tells me to look at the number seven. I read my way around the face of the clock: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 007. Yeah, he’s totally a fan.
How did you end up becoming a spy? What appealed to you about that line of work?
I worked with Mossad when I was a soldier. And then, immediately after I finished my service as an officer, they asked me to join the Mossad. It was only two days after I finished the army. I worked for 28 years. I traveled around the world. I can say that one part of my life was traveling with the Prime Ministers in a diplomatic way. And I also took part in the Camp David Summit with Arafat and Prime Minister Barak. And the other things I cannot talk.
How has the digital era changed espionage? Like, is Google helpful for spies?
When you search Google, what percentage of the internet can you search?
I have no idea.
When you ask Google a question, do you think that he goes to 100% of information on the web?
That’s a good question. I’m going to say no.
I’m going to say less than 5%. That’s why you need to know how to find things on the internet. For example, sometimes you need to go to a library and make the search inside the library website. The Google will not show it to you. Sometimes it will not show you the deep inside information. Sometimes you can see the first hits are because of commercial payments.
I think that at the end of the day it’s the human being — when people meet people and talk with them and make them become spies — it’s the same. But of course, think about the new generation flying today. They come to the airport with just their passports. They don’t need to print out the e-ticket. That’s why we call it e-ticket. But in this exhibit you will see the original old-fashioned flight tickets with the ice cream colors. It was like a notebook, with pages. If you travel to different places, you have to cut, all the time, the pages.
And think about the Leica camera. Think about the new generation. From four, five, six years old, they’ve got an iPhone and they make a picture and they post it on Instagram. And try to explain to them what it means to develop a picture and why you need to wait a few days and why after a few days you’ve got a bad message that everything is black because they made a mistake when they developed the negative.
That’s why, when we say never again, and when we want to tell the story for the new generation, the new generation will forget also the negative. They will forget the tickets and, of course, they will forget the holocaust, the stories and —
I hope not.
For example, people ask me now about Poland. They’ve got a new law that you cannot mention Poland got involved in the war and things like this.
The new law restricts comments about Poland’s role in Nazi crimes that took place on Polish soil. It’s being condemned as a form of Holocaust denial.
I think the biggest and the most important proof that the Holocaust happened are the camps. Auschwitz for example. If people boycott traveling to Auschwitz, they will make these places [extinct]. One day they will sell the land for industry. The reason that the place is still alive is because hundreds of thousands of people visit, every year, the camps. That’s why it’s important. It’s a huge evidence. Think about Treblinka. You know the name Treblinka?
Treblinka was a Nazi death camp in Poland. About 700,000-900,000 Jews were murdered by Nazis here. Jewish prisoners revolted, but the uprising was largely unsuccessful. Only 100 Jews escaped and survived the Nazi manhunt.
There’s nothing there, if you go to Treblinka. You won’t see anything — only a memorial site. Stones with names. Zero. There is nothing there. And I think there’s only one survivor — the last survivor passed away — because it was a place that people came, and they took them directly to their death. No tattoo. No anything. Just directly to the shower and the shower was a gas chamber.
What was your favorite disguise or cover?
Long pause. Let’s say something like this. Most of the people in the Mossad are not James Bond. We don’t look like James Bond; we are not pretty like James Bond; and we don’t wear suits like James Bond...
I developed special equipment, and from time to time I used to travel to very rare places to meet the real James Bonds and teach them how to use it. So if you see in the movies a cave, and suddenly in the cave you have a room with a big plasma and you see James Bond is coming and he’s got his new pen with a gun machine in the pen, and he’s got the glasses with the camera. So I developed things, but it was also not just to develop, but also to use them and teach how to use them and try them. Sometimes if you want to try something on the moon, you have to fly to the moon...
It’s all about thinking differently.
Wait a second...he never answered my question. That’s my logic for not including it in the question tally, and I’m sticking to it.
What did you like the most about being a spy?
To travel around the world and to meet new people, new cultures, and to learn.
Least favorite part of the job?
I think there are many divorced people in Mossad. And the reason is because they need to travel and to be far away from home for a long time, and holidays they don’t celebrate with the kids. I think it has damaged the life when you are so far away. It is also true for soldiers that are sent far away from home. On the other hand, you have more opportunities [said jokingly], but it’s only after you’re divorced.
I probably can’t ask you this, but I’m going to ask anyway. Have you ever had to assassinate someone?
No...I just can mention that I took part in the peace summit at Camp David. Sometimes the mission is to form a peace agreement — you need someone to be there and to help from our point of view.
Well, it was nice knowing you all. You’ve been good readers, and I wish you all the best in life. In the event that the Mossad hunts me down for spreading all their secrets, know that I lived a good life, and I loved every minute of writing for this paper. No regrets. I’m pretty sure he was just kidding.
Read Jen Ring's feature on the exhibit — and its backstory — here.