Operation Finale — the story of the capture of notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann by Israeli intelligence agents — premieres on August 29. The film focuses on the team of Mossad agents that traveled to Argentina to capture Eichmann, and bring him to Israel to stand trial for the crimes he committed against the Jewish people.
As you might expect, the film is dominated by male characters. Still, there’s one woman on the team, played by actress Mélanie Laurent, a French Jewish woman IRL. In Operation Finale, Laurent plays Hanna, the doctor who is tasked with sedating Eichmann. But, really, Hanna is mostly there to be the love interest of Oscar Isaac’s character, the Mossad agent Peter Malkin.
According to Laurent, “It’s not the clichéd kind of sexual relationship. Hanna and Peter are still friends and the depiction of that kind of loving friendship is sensitive and beautiful, something which is very rare in films.”
But here’s the thing: Though the film is based on a true story, there was no Hanna in the real operation. The actual doctor on the team was male, Dr. Yonah Eilan.
Meanwhile, the real-life woman who WAS on the team, Yehudit Nessyahu (née Friedman), was completely left out of the film.
So, we’re here to talk about Nessyahu, because she was amazing. Yet she never spoke about her work, wouldn’t allow her picture to be published, or even admit the role she played in the operation, until after she died.
She was born in Holland in 1925 in a religious Zionist family, and moved to Israel when she was 15. In the late 1950s, Nessyahu worked for the Misgeret, an Israeli government agency, to smuggle Jews out of Morocco. “In Morocco, she had a difficult problem because she wasn’t supposed to be a Jew. Her whole circle was non-Jews who ate pork and all kinds of treif [non-kosher food],” a family member told Haaretz. “She was always religious and she said that sometimes, for days, since she couldn’t eat anything else, she existed just on oranges, and that whenever one of the non-Jews took her out for a meal, she would say she was on a diet and could only eat salad. She was very strict about that.”
When the Misgeret’s activities were transferred to the Mossad, Nessyahu became an agent. Ephraim Halevy, who was the head of the Mossad at the time, said, “There were women in such positions [as hers], but the number of women was relatively small compared to now. She wasn’t a seductress and it wasn’t the external physical aspects that caught people’s interest, but she knew how to connect to people and gain their trust.”
And then, in 1960, she was selected as the only woman to be on the team to capture Adolf Eichmann.
Nessyahu wrote, “When I left Israel, I didn’t know what I was headed into. I was told that Isser Harel, the Mossad chief at the time, had asked that I be sent to South America for an operation that he himself was responsible for there. You didn’t ask questions, and when I was told that Isser wanted me to come, I just asked when I had to leave.”
According to former Mossad agent Avner Avraham, “Nessyahu arrived in Argentina to give the house Eichmann was being held in an innocent and normal appearance. Every day at 4 pm, for example, she used to sit outside the house and drink tea in a porcelain cup, so she would look like an institutionalized Western European woman. Her appearance was very anti-James Bond.”
She, along with a male agent Yaakov Meidad, was responsible for keeping the safe houses in order. While her mission of running the household doesn’t sound very badass, she was responsible for keeping the house in order and making sure everyone was fed — including Eichmann himself. And yes, Eichmann got the same kosher food as everyone else.
Nessyahu recalls, “All the people who were involved in the operation, especially those who lived in the house and were in daily contact with Eichmann, expected on some level to encounter the devil himself.” But he wasn’t particularly formidable; Nessayhu described him as a “pathetic little clerk.”
She attended the trial, and remembers feeling that the team “couldn’t help but feel that we had indeed participated in a historic operation, in which the Jewish People brought to justice one of the greatest enemies in its calamity- and hardship-filled history.”
Two years later, Nessyahu participated in another daring operation: to try and find Yossele Schumacher, who was infamously abducted from his parents; a decade later, she was involved in the Lillehammer Affair. She became the head of personnel for Mossad — the highest ranking woman at the time — and retired in 1976.
She passed away in 2003 at age 78.
Operation Finale doesn’t explain why Nessayhu wasn’t in the film; the production notes simply read, “Mélanie Laurent’s role as Hanna is not based on a real person but rather a composite.”
Header Image of Nessayhu by Shaul Golan for YNetNews; of Laurent by Valeria Florini / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.