Operation Finale, starring Sir Ben Kingsley, Oscar Isaac and Haley Richardson, is now playing in theaters. Based on a true story, the film details the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution, in Argentina in 1960.
Kingsley is masterful in his portrayal of Eichmann as human, but, as he said in an NPR interview, he did not humanize him. This distinction resonates with me from a Facing History perspective. It’s not that we humanize perpetrators in a way that dismisses their actions or creates a false sense of sympathy, but rather that we identify them as human, ordinary men and women, not so different from ourselves. It is their choices, their behavior, that sets them apart. Portraying perpetrators as human calls on us to reflect on our own human capacity for good and evil.
While the history and eventual trial of Adolf Eichmann detailed in Operation Finale is well documented, the story of one pivotal Upstander, is lesser known. Sylvia Hermann (Richardson) was a 16-year old girl living in hiding in Buenos Aires when she befriended Klaus Eichmann in 1956. Sylvia’s father, a blind half-Jewish German who was imprisoned in Nazi Germany for a year in the mid 1930s, moved his daughter to Argentina and raised her as Catholic. Lothar Hermann helped Sylvia recognize the true identity of Klaus’ father and shared the tip with authorities. It wasn’t until 4 years later, in 1960, that the Israeli Mossad acted on the tip, enlisting Sylvia in a risky plot to locate and identify Eichmann in person.
The sparse information that exists in the historical record about the Hermann family’s involvement in the capture of Adolf Eichmann tends to focus on Lothar, which makes me even more curious about Sylvia. How did she feel upon learning about her own Jewish heritage? How did she find the courage to put herself and her family at risk? What kind of life did she go on to live afterward?
Operation Finale is a provocative story that raises more questions than it answers, including complex and timely questions about risk, revenge, courage, trust, personal accountability and ultimately, justice.