Fugitives

03.24.14

Hunting Down Aribert Heim, Egypt’s Hidden Nazi

SS doctor Aribert Heim disappeared after the war to lead a secret life in Cairo, ultimately giving Nazi hunters the slip. Now, a new book reveals Heim’s flight, his years in exile, and the manhunt for one of Mauthausen’s most notorious criminals.

In 1975, Rüdiger Heim, approaching his twentieth birthday, decided that he had to see his father again. He remembered little from his childhood. He recalled the soccer goal his father had built and how he would try to keep up with his older brother as the three of them kicked the ball around. Rüdiger also remembered spending time at his father’s medical practice.

His mother and grandmother told the boys that their father was living in Berlin. As a small child Rüdiger received letters from him and wrote notes in return, in one describing how good he was in school, “above all in arithmetic.” On the back of the letter, Rüdiger drew a house with two chimneys under a large sun. He often asked his father when he was coming home. He listened over and over to the tape recordings in which Heim talked to his sons in a calm and reassuring voice.

Through his aunt, Rüdiger received books from his father, such as primers on how to learn English. Heim stressed the importance of studying foreign languages from a very early age and recommended that his older son visit Greece to learn about antiquity. In the letters Heim sent to Herta, there were many recommendations—directions really—for the children’s schooling, their participation in sports, and even when and how to talk to the boys about girls and contraception. He was a gynecologist, after all, but no longer there to give the talk himself.

As Rüdiger grew older, he eventually came to understand that his father was not in Berlin. But he was never told where Heim had really gone. The boys’ home in Baden-Baden was loving but stifling for a teen- ager. Rüdiger had more restrictions than any of his friends, always having to tell his mother and grandmother where he was going. It was difficult for him to leave the house alone after 7:00 p.m. in the sleepy spa town without causing them alarm. The two women seemed to have overblown fears that he might be kidnapped or that someone would want to hurt him. As the 1960s generation came of age, the silence around the war began to break down. As his teachers discussed Germany’s Nazi past, Rüdiger wondered if this explained why his father had left.

The restrictions on his autonomy had become oppressive. At a time when personal freedom and self-expression swept the country, Rüdiger pressed for more independence. He did not join any of the left-wing groups springing up in Germany, but he wanted to be sent to boarding school. At seventeen he left Baden-Baden to go to St. Gallen, Switzerland.

In the international atmosphere he found himself shying away from the other Germans and making friends among the Italians. After graduation he spent a few months in Lausanne studying French, then moved to Florence to study Italian. He had applied to medical school in Pisa, expecting to follow in the footsteps of his father, his mother, and by now his older brother, who was studying in Heidelberg. As he thought about his future, he became determined to see his father again.

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He knew that Aunt Herta had close contact with her brother, and she seemed pleased that he wanted to see him. His aunt told him it was more complicated and dangerous than a trip to Berlin. But she helped him arrange a visit. Although his mother expressed reservations about the trip, she gave him the money to pay for it.

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As Heim looked forward to seeing his younger son, he was increasingly careful about the locations he visited. Not only had the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann, but in Uruguay the Mossad had also executed the SS captain Herbert Cukurs, known as “the Hangman of Riga.” Cukurs was accused of killing thirty-two thousand Latvian Jews in 1941. His body was found in a large trunk in the bedroom of a beach house, with a note saying he had been executed by “Those Who Shall Never Forget.”

Even Cairo’s German community had been infiltrated by Israeli intelligence. In 1965, Egyptian authorities arrested a wealthy horse breeder and former Wehrmacht officer named Wolfgang Lotz on espionage charges. Lotz threw lavish booze-soaked parties for Egyptian generals, cabinet members, and German scientists, rising quickly to the top of Egyptian society while making no effort to dispel rumors that he had been in the SS.

Lotz even attended parties hosted by a Ministry of Information official named Omar Amin, where inebriated guests sang the Nazi anthem known as the “Horst-Wessel-Lied.” Omar Amin was not an Egyptian but rather a convert to Islam once known as Johann von Leers. He had been a leading anti-Semitic propagandist under Joseph Goebbels. Heim had met von Leers a few times, but it was not an acquaintance he had any interest in deepening.

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Heim’s distance from his fellow Germans might have protected him. Lotz was not who he claimed to be. Rather than serving with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, he had fought against him with the British army. He had been born in Germany, and his fluent German led the Mossad to recruit him and send him to Egypt as an agent. The lavish parties were part of his cover, and after his arrest by the Egyptians he earned the nickname “the Champagne Spy.”

Others besides the Israelis and Wiesenthal made it their business to chase Nazi war criminals. Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, part of the 1968 protest generation, joined the hunt when Kurt Georg Kiesinger became chancellor of West Germany. Beate wrote an article for the Parisian daily Combat saying that Kiesinger’s work on Nazi propaganda should have disqualified him from holding office. For her outspokenness she was fired by the Franco-German Alliance for Youth, which only increased her zeal.

In 1968 she publicly slapped Chancellor Kiesinger in the face at a party congress for his conservative Christian Democratic Union. Shaming former Nazis was not enough for the couple. Their tactics became even more extreme. In 1971 they unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap the former Gestapo chief for Jewish affairs in France, Kurt Lischka, from Cologne and bring him back to France by force. The following year, Beate identified a man named Klaus Altmann, who had recently been living in Peru, as the German Gestapo chief of Lyon, Klaus Barbie. New identities were not always enough to prevent discovery was the lesson for those still in hiding.

Reading all the headlines, Heim distrusted anyone who displayed interest in him. At one point he ended up chatting briefly with a motorcyclist in Alexandria. The man might have been just a curious traveler, but he also could have been working for a Western intelligence service. Heim excused himself from the conversation, only to receive a written message from the man at the hotel where Heim was staying.

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Undated file picture of Nazi war criminal Aribert Heim. (Corbis)

“I think that you don’t give the chance to anyone to talk to you,” it read. “Traveling and meeting people or friends is something fun, especially fellow motorcyclists.” He left his name and his phone number “if you need any help.” Heim filed the message with his documents, noting that he had refused to engage because the man “definitely worked for some group.”

Later Heim had a great scare, finding himself face-to-face with a woman who had worked at the very pharmacy downstairs from his medical practice in Baden-Baden. She greeted him saying, “Herr Dr. Heim, what are you doing here?” apparently as surprised as he was. Dr. Heim, or the man who looked strikingly like him, kept walking, pretending he did not recognize her.

Not only the fear of discovery but significant shifts in Middle East politics offered a fresh source of worry as his months of exile stretched to years. When Gamal Abdel Nasser died in September 1970, Heim feared a change in Egypt’s relationship with Israel could jeopardize his safety. In 1974, Israel and Egypt signed an agreement, and in June 1975 the Suez Canal reopened. The days of safety for Germans in Egypt were coming to a close.

Excerpted from The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim, by Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet.