As Holocaust survivors they assisted in the Jewish struggle for the independence of Israel in its early days as IAF pilots and eventually became Mossad agents who assisted daring Nazi hunting operations around the world. This is the fascinating story of Zvi Tohar, Shmuel Vedels and Zeev Liron
Vered Talala | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida
The Israeli Air Force site unveils the personal story of three pilots who served in the IAF in its early years, for whom capturing Nazi criminals was a personal matter as much as it was a national one and that took part in covert and daring operations to capture Nazis all over the globe.
The Tall Captain with the Kept Mustache: Zvi Tohar
The late Zvi Tohar participated in one of the most dramatic cases in Israeli history which occurred in May 1960 and resulted in the headlines: “Adolf Eichmann Captured”. Tohar was the head pilot and captain of the flight intended to bring the criminal from Argentina to Israel. He was born in Germany and during WWII escaped the Nazis by traveling to Britain and volunteering to the RAF’s Flight Academy. After the war he made “Aliyah” (immigrated) to Israel and took part in hundreds of flown IAF missions such as transportation of ammunition and provisions to the besieged villages in the Jerusalem area as a part of the struggle for independence.
Tohar joined EL-AL, the national flight company, in the early 50’s and three years later became the first Israeli Captain in EL-AL. Since, he demonstrated his flying skills and level-headedness as a Captain in a number of test-flights of the company’s new aircraft.
Tohar was the only member of the crew who knew the real purpose of the flight which was disguised as a flight transporting a special diplomatic delegation to Buenos Aires, in honor of the 150th year celebrations of Argentina’s independence.
“We have a flight in which we will be transporting an Israeli delegation to the Argentinian independence celebrations. On the flight back, we will be bringing Adolf Eichmann back with us”, said to him the late Issar Harel, the Director of the “Mossad” (Israeli Intelligence and Special Operations agency) as a part of the preparations for the operation (Taken from “Hunting Eichmann” by Neal Bascomb). Tohar remained cool when he understood that this wasn’t a standard flight to South America and stated that he “Appreciates the importance of the matter”.
His “coolness” was what eventually saved the operation in its crucial minutes. While the “Bristol Type 175 Britannia” aircraft prepared to take-off to Israel with Eichmann on board, suddenly, the Argentinian control tower instructed them to wait which resulted in a command issued by the “Mossad” Director to take-off without permission. Tohar, an experienced IAF pilot knew how to deal with the situation and sent the head Navigator of the flight, a former IAF Navigator, in order to clarify the issue. Tohar feared that the Argentinian Air Force was on ready alert and that if the flight would take-off without confirmation they might deploy a fighter aircraft. It quickly became clear that the delay was caused by an administrative matter.
In El-AL, Tohar received warm praises. There are those who describe him as a Tall Captain with a kept mustache and reserved behavior. “He was one of a kind, one of Israel’s first pilots”, said Baruch Tirosh, a friend of Tohar who also took part in the daring operation. Tirosh served as the airline team manager. “Tohar and I took part in other classified ‘Mossad’ operation before this one. After our conversation with Harel in his office where we were exposed to the operation, he and I drove to the airport in Lod and thought how we were going to make this flight succeed, even though it seemed impossible then. It was clear to us as Israelis that all the Nazi criminals need to be captured”.
“Are we bringing Eichmann or Mengele?”
The operation to bring Eichmann to justice was filled with obstacles and induced a great deal of concern, but its success allowed the trial of Eichmann in Israel. Among the dozens of people who took part in the operation, stood also the late Shmuel Vedels. He was one of the two captains on board the flight, alongside Tohar. He was a quiet and modest man who was born in Vienna, escaped the Nazis while his whole family was massacred in the Holocaust as a result of Eichmann’s activity. He was a combatant in the “Haganah” and a pilot in the 1948 War of Independence who dropped ammunition and equipment to the besieged Jerusalem.
A part of Vedels book in which he describes his experience of the famous El-Al flight to Buenos Aires, has recently been revealed in the “Atmosphere” Magazine. “When El-AL Operations notified me about the special flight to Buenos Aires, it seemed very strange to me: From Lod to Argentina and with a ‘Britannia’ airliner, which was a British aircraft for medium to long range flights. It was a ridiculously complex flight: a long navigation, hostile countries on the way, the need for refueling and more. Furthermore, in those times it was inconceivable to provide a special aircraft and flight exclusively dedicated to such a far destination even for the President or Prime Minister”.
In clear and clean handwriting he continues: “In the EL-AL Operations room, I studied the list of the crew-members who were appointed to this peculiar flight. When I saw the names a few more string connected in my head and the feeling that this flight had a much greater purpose than transporting a diplomatic delegation to the Argentinian independence celebrations grew stronger. I knew the crew-members well and knew that for most them, just as it was for me, the Holocaust was a tragic, molding and influential event which held great significance to their lives”.
When he saw Harel, he asked him directly, “Are we bringing Eichmann or Mengele?”, shocking him. “How do you know?” he answered, Vedels did not hesitate and declared: “Now I know”.
Shmuel Vedels | Photoraphy: EL-AL
Hunting “Doctor death”
The fascinating life story of the late Zeev Liron leaves no room for indifference. He was born in Poland, attempted to flee the Auschwitz Death Camp and the Death Marches twice, made “Aliyah” to Israel, received his Flight Wings from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, became one of the first IAF Fighter Pilots, took part in many operations and served as a senior “Mossad” Agent.
In his Biography, “From the Depths to the Skies”, Moshe Ronen discovered that in 1984 Liron joined a private operation initiated by Mossad and Shabak (Israel’s secret service) agent Zvi Malhin, with the goal of capturing Dr. Josef Mengele.
After the operation of bringing Adolf Eichmann to trial in Israel, Mengele became the most wanted Nazi criminal. Dr. Mengele was one of the doctors who performed sadistic experiments on Jews and Gypsies in Auschwitz. It is said that he was the man who sent Liron to life and his mother and father to death.
Malhin offered Liron to take part in the operation and be responsible for its aerial side. Liron recruited Amnon Halivni, an Israeli transportation pilot who agreed to fly the plane back to Israel with Mengele on board. Liron, a graduate of the first IAF pilot course, was determined to execute the operation which was meant to bring the Nazi Criminal to trial in Israel, but the operation did not take place and it later turned out that Mengele died in 1979.