Peter Malchin–Zvika to his friends–has left us, having died in a New York City rehabilitation center following a serious blood infection. He couldn’t have just closed his eyes and left. Zvika never did anything the way normal people do. He was an utterly extraordinary person who did extraordinary things that hardly anybody noticed because Zvika was the grand master at making sure nobody noticed him. Most of the time, nobody even saw him.
That is how he became the greatest undercover agent of his generation, and perhaps the greatest ever. I don’t know anyone whose skills were at once so diverse and so sharply honed, but he was never satisfied with those skills, nor with his own mastery of so much of modern life. He never stopped analyzing problems most of us thought we understood, and a conversation with Zvika was like jumping into an intellectual and emotional tornado. Nobody could maintain that intensity, and he found solace in painting, at which he excelled.
His most celebrated accomplishment was the capture of Adolph Eichmann in Buenos Aires. He was the invisible man who came up to the Nazi murderer on Garibaldi Street and whispered, “Un momentito, senor,” and–his hands encased in gloves to avoid having to actually touch the monster–took him away. During the interrogation of Eichmann, awaiting the proper moment to fly him to his doom in Israel, Zvika started to sketch the captive on a map, and those sketches were subsequently framed and displayed around the world.
But Zvika’s real ability, his great genius I would say, was not simply carrying out dangerous operations. Many have done that. Zvika was utterly unique in penetrating to the heart of intelligence problems, from the security of buildings to the seemingly incomprehensible mysteries of counter-intelligence. It is said that he organized the capture of nearly thirty Soviet agents in Israel, and I once asked him how he tracked them down. “I didn’t track them at all,” he chuckled. “I just asked myself, if I were a Russian spy, where would I be right now? And once I had that answer, I went there and waited for him. It wasn’t hard to spot the guy.”
Zvika was unparalleled at getting inside others’ minds, just as he was unmatched at breaking into buildings. The Israelis used him to check their own security. Once they thought they had made a building or an office impenetrable, Zvika was ordered to break in, and he invariably did it. Then they made it Zvika-safe, and they figured that was the best any human beings could do. Back in the ’50s, when the Singaporeans got Israeli help in setting up their intelligence and security services, Zvika went down to see what they had done. To his surprise, he found that a single building housed both the defense ministry and the intelligence service, and he suggested that wasn’t very smart. “Once someone gets in he’ll get both the defense and the intelligence secrets,” he observed. The Singaporeans weren’t convinced. They thought it was easier to secure one installation than two, and the head of the intelligence service balked at separating the two. This man’s prize possession was a carved turtle, which he locked in his safe every night. Shortly after his conversation with Zvika, the intelligence chief came to his office early one morning and unlocked the safe. The turtle was gone, and there was a note in the safe: “Nothing is really secure, not even a turtle.”
My favorite Zvika story had to do with Egypt. The Mossad was determined to place listening devices in Nasser’s conference room, so that Israel could be privy to discussions at the highest level of the Egyptian regime. Zvika got into the room during the long lunchtime break and crawled under the table–which was covered with a very large cloth that hung down to the floor–to place the bug. As he was finishing, he heard people entering the room, and he remained under the table during the meeting. “The big problem was to watch those feet and figure out which one was getting ready to move.” God only knows how he managed it. Afterwards, back in Israel, he delivered a typically wry after-action report: “The manual is incomplete. We only tell how to break in, but we have to add a chapter on breaking out. Sometimes quickly.”
Later in life, disgusted with what he considered the excessively heavy-handed methods adopted by the Israeli internal security people and contemptuous of the quality of his successors, Zvika moved to New York City and spent most of his time painting and lecturing. From time to time he would help track down some of our monsters, of which Robert Morgenthau has spoken, and Uri Dan has written.
As befit a person who wished to remain invisible, he was a very quiet man. He spoke in a gravelly whisper that you sometimes had to strain to hear. But it was worth the effort, for he was an inspiration, especially to young people. He managed to explain to them that life was very difficult, and sometimes terrible–much of his family was killed by the Nazis in Poland. But with all that, he would say, one had to shoulder life’s burdens and fight for life.
As befit the paradigmatic outsider, Zvika was not much sought after by the modern practitioners of his intelligence skills. Even after 9/11, official Washington shied away from him, although the unworthy officials of our various failed agencies could have learned a great deal from him. And until one of his friends insisted, not even the Holocaust Museum thought to honor him, or even to have him tell his story to a generation that badly needed to hear it. When he finally came, the room was packed, and nobody who was there that day will ever forget it.
Like almost all of the survivors of the Nazi horrors, he was a tortured soul, and his anguish was intensified by the need to keep secret most of the activities of his adult life. Many of his activities will remain unknown for a long time, maybe even forever, and he would approve of that. His own mother only learned of Zvika’s capture of Eichmann on her deathbed. But the glory of the man himself–from his art to his personal wisdom–that we know, and we cherish it, and we will miss it. And we will say the Kaddish for him with all our hearts.