The Jerusalem Post Magazine
Newly released information by the Mossad sheds light on the agency’s unsuccessful attempts to catch Nazi war criminals between the ’60s and ’90s.
On January 23, 1964, the committee of the heads of the Israeli defense agencies held a secret meeting on an extremely sensitive topic that had never been considered by such a distinguished forum.
Should Israel continue to hunt Nazi war criminals? And if so, what should be the goal? To kidnap the Nazis in order to put them on trial in Israel, to facilitate their prosecution in their countries of origin, or to execute them wherever they were? The discussion took place less than four years after the Mossad’s dramatic kidnapping of Holocaust coordinator Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Brought to Israel, he was publicly tried, sentenced to death and hanged.
Those present composed the core of Israel’s intelligence and defense establishment of the time: Meir Amit, the head of the Mossad, and his deputy Yaakov Cruz; Gen. Aharon Yariv, head of military intelligence; Yosef Harmelin, the director of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and his deputy, Eli Gavrieli; and police commissioner Yosef Nahmias, along with the directors- general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yaakov Herzog, and the Foreign Ministry, Chaim Yahil. Also attending were the two main Mossad operatives involved, Rafi Meidan, the head of Amal, the department responsible for Nazi-hunting, and Yehudit Nessyahu.
In preparation for the meeting, the Amal department was asked to prepare a list of potential targets, who were chosen according to two criteria. They had to be either Nazis who had had a major role in the implementation of the Final Solution, regardless of whether the Mossad knew where they were, or people who had personally murdered Jews, and whose whereabouts were known.
The list prepared for the meeting by Nessyahu consisted of Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz; Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann; Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller; Eichmann’s right-hand man Alois Brunner; Latvian death squad deputy commander Herberts Cukurs; and Dr. Horst Schumann, who conducted a mass sterilization program in Auschwitz.
At that point in time, the Mossad had managed to track down only the last three people on the list; despite its considerable efforts, Mengele, Bormann and Mueller had continued to elude them. Amal’s position was that it was not feasible to launch another Eichmann-style operation. Since most other countries were not interested in prosecuting Nazi war criminals, the most logical choice was “silent” executions, for which Israel would not take credit.
The general consensus of the meeting was that the Mossad should continue to hunt Nazi war criminals.
What should be done to the criminals once caught?
Some of those present favored “silent” executions, although Nahmias, for example, opposed them as vengeful and did not want Israeli children to be trained as executioners. Cruz, on the other hand emphasized the importance of the deterrent effect of the liquidations, which were not solely for the purpose of revenge, but also served as a warning to those seeking to harm Jews.
In deciding that Israel should continue to hunt Holocaust perpetrators, the committee established an important caveat: the country’s survival was the No. 1 priority, and the resources available for hunting Nazis were limited. Kidnappings were ruled out as impractical, and extraditions could equally serve the goal of seeing Nazis punished. Only if no such possibility existed in individual cases, could “silent” executions be considered.
This decision gave top-level backing to the policy that Israel should continue to hunt Nazis, but participants interviewed many years later remembered an unusual reaction by one of the chief security officials present, which had a profound effect on the course of action chosen and the fate of one of the criminals on the list of potential targets.
Nessyahu recalled that when Cukurs’s name was mentioned, Yariv emitted a strange sound, became pale and very agitated. Yariv was from Latvia, where members of his family had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Yariv’s dramatic reaction to Cukurs’s name (he had played a major role in the annihilation of Latvian Jewry as deputy commander of the notorious Arajs Kommando death squad) had fateful consequences.
According to at least two of the people present at the meeting, this not only helped convince those present that the Mossad should continue to hunt Nazis, but also motivated an operation against Cukurs. He was executed by Mossad agents in Montevideo, Uruguay, just over a year later.
The account of this meeting and its impact on Israel’s policy is one of the more important revelations to be found in three books commissioned more than 10 years ago by the Mossad, which suddenly and recently became accessible to the public on Yad Vashem’s website. The three books are titled The Preparations by Headquarters; The Search for a Needle in a Haystack: On the Trail of ‘Dr. Death’ from Auschwitz – Josef Mengele; and Clouds and Wind, but No Rain: On the Trail of Nazi War Criminals Who Were Not Punished. Written by Yossi Chen (Chinitz), a Holocaust survivor who worked in Military Intelligence as a liaison to the Mossad and later served in the spy agency for 16 years, the three volumes chronicle the policies of successive Israeli governments, the stance of each of the Mossad chiefs toward the hunt for Shoah perpetrators, and what the Mossad did in its unsuccessful attempts to catch them between 1960 and 1991.
One volume is devoted to the organizational structure of the Mossad and the history of the Amal department. “Amal” was short for Amalek, the tribe ordered by God in the biblical account to be wiped out for attacking the Israelites fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land. Another is devoted to the search for Mengele, and a third deals with all the other Nazi war criminals against whom the Mossad contemplated taking action, but either never did or, as in the case of Brunner, was only partially successful.
(The two letter bombs sent to him in Damascus only wounded him.)
Ironically, none of these volumes recounts the details of the two most successful operations carried out by the Mossad: the kidnapping of Eichmann and the execution of Cukurs. Their omission is not explained anywhere.
When it comes to other practical Holocaust-related issues, such as bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, restitution of communal and private Jewish property and combating the currently rampant Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe, Israel has failed to fulfill its ostensible obligations
The unexpected publication raises other questions, too. I can understand what prompted the Mossad to commission a history of its efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, but what is somewhat baffling is why the agency is publicizing it.
Since when do secret services provide the public with detailed accounts of their clandestine operations? Moreover, since practically all the efforts described were total failures, why publicize them? What did the agency hope to achieve?
Another issue concerns the rationale for choosing the targets, the criteria adopted by the Mossad in compiling the 1964 list. The requirement that the Mossad had to know where less senior perpetrators were to be found led to surprising omissions.
Criminals like Josef Schwammberger, who was the commander of three forced-labor camps in Poland and had personally murdered Jews and deported others to death camps, or the notorious sadist Dr. Aribert Heim, who served in Mauthausen, both of whom successfully hid for many years, were never chosen as targets.
Then there is the question of Nazi collaborators. Today we are aware of the extremely important role played by local helpers enlisted by the Nazis, especially in Eastern Europe, where collaboration included active participation in systematic mass murder.
Yet there were only two individuals from Eastern Europe who were ever named as targets, Cukurs and the wartime Croatian minister of the interior and justice, Andrija Artukovic, whose name appeared on only one list of the many compiled, and no action was ever taken against him. (He was ultimately extradited from the United States to Yugoslavia and sentenced to death, but died in prison.)
Other potential suspects whose names come to mind are Cukurs’s superior Viktor Arajs; Antanas Impulevicius, commander of the 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalion, which murdered close to 20,000 Jews in Belarus; Stasys Cenkus, commander of the Lithuanian Security Police; and Ervin Viks, commander of the Estonian Security Police, all of whom played very active roles in the mass murder of the Jews in their countries.
Another issue unaddressed was the attitude to mass murderers who killed many Jews, but the majority of whose victims were non-Jews. Examples include the Croatian head of state Ante Pavelic and Jasenovac concentration camp commander Dinko Sakic, most of whose victims were Serbs. The Mossad never considered them potential targets.
So what can we learn from the three books? First and foremost, that the search for Nazi war criminals was never a high priority for the State of Israel. In fact, if not for a wave of antisemitic incidents in Europe in 1959, which shocked the Israeli public and prompted the Mossad to set up a special department to deal with antisemitism and neo-Nazism, Amal, which was also given the assignment of dealing with Nazi war criminals, would never have been established. In fact, the Nazi hunt was added to Amal’s agenda primarily because of the suspicion that Holocaust perpetrators might be the organizers of this anti-Jewish hatred, which turned out to be baseless.
Proof of the Nazi hunt’s low priority was the checkered history of Amal. It was planned as a department with 11 employees, yet had its staff repeatedly cut and its status reduced to a section, before it ended its existence with a solitary worker. This rams home the point that for Israel, current needs always trumped memory and revenge under the rubric of justice. In fact, for long periods, such as during the tenure of Zvi Zamir and the beginning of that of Yitzhak Hofi as heads of the Mossad (1968- 1977), Amal did nothing against Holocaust perpetrators.
At other times, in the early Sixties and late Seventies, operational plans were indeed prepared with an investment of considerable time and manpower. The most prominent of these targets was Walter Rauff, the head of the technical department of the Reich Security Main Office, who invented the gas vans used to murder hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Chelmno death camp and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. He escaped to Chile, which refused to extradite him to Germany. The Mossad planned to execute him in his home in Santiago, and twice sent agents there to carry this out, but each time the plan failed for technical reasons. Rauff died of cancer several years later.
Another prominent target was Klaus Barbie, the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, who was found living in Bolivia. He was extradited to stand trial in France before the Mossad could carry out its plan to execute him. Two of the other Nazis targeted for assassination were Franz Murer, who played a key role in the murder of the Jews of Vilna, and Ernst Lerch, who fulfilled a similar role in Lublin, both of whom lived in Austria. Despite extensive planning, neither operation was carried out.
There was one case, however, that dominated the Mossad’s activities for years and overshadowed those of all the other targets: the search for Mengele. In fact, after reading the entire volume of more than 370 pages devoted to the search for Mengele, I can say that it very adversely affected the Mossad’s chances of bringing other Nazis to justice. In this case, there was abundant determination to find him and will to take action against him, but at the same time it’s apparent that the obsession to catch Mengele sidelined plans for action in numerous other cases and served as a fig leaf for the lack of results against other Nazi war criminals.
Two additional points are of interest. One concerns the relations of the Mossad with “private” Nazi hunters, those who were not employed by governments. The Mossad maintained fairly close contacts with both Simon Wiesenthal and Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, and on several occasions requested their assistance in obtaining information on various criminals and providing preliminary help on some cases. At the same time, there was occasional tension in their relations, because of their public activities, especially in connection with the media, which were incompatible with those of a secret service.
I never had the opportunity to work with the Mossad, which ceased its anti-Nazi activities in 1991, but I can say that in the few instances when I was able to work with local police in Germany, the results were invariably better than what I could have achieved on my own as an employee of an NGO.
After reading the more than 800 pages of these three volumes, I realized that the story of the Mossad’s efforts to take action against Nazi war criminals fairly accurately reflects the attitude of successive Israeli governments, with one exception, to practical Holocaust-related issues.
If not for Gen. Aharon Yariv for whom the [Herberts] Cukurs case was intensely personal, even that mass murderer would have ended his life in peace and tranquility, rather than meeting the end that he definitely deserved
On the one hand, Israel considers itself the heir of the victims, even though they were never Israeli citizens, and has done a tremendous amount to commemorate their memory and educate Israeli schoolchildren, as well as the public, about their fate. Yet when it comes to other practical Holocaust-related issues, such as bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, restitution of communal and private Jewish property and combating the currently rampant Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe, Israel has failed to fulfill its ostensible obligations, a reflection apparently of the internal tension between its Jewish and Israeli identities, between its contemporary interests and the obligations of historical memory.
In that respect, it is not at all surprising that it was Menachem Begin, probably the prime minister with the most empathy for Diaspora Jewry and the one most affected by the Shoah, who insisted that the Mossad renew its efforts to take action against Nazi war criminals.
Yossi Chen mentions the conflict between contemporary problems and hunting Nazis many times in his narrative, but unfortunately does not indicate exactly which issues were the ones that trumped the quest to find war criminals, leaving us unable to assess these decisions. From other sources, we know, for example, about the German rocket scientists who were brought to Egypt in the early Sixties to build ballistic missiles to destroy Israel, but that was only one of many issues that were given higher priority than hunting Nazis.
In that regard, one can always point to Israel’s successes in executing Arab terrorists in the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and wonder why the Mossad did not enjoy similar success in the hunt for Holocaust perpetrators.
We need also to remember the extent of Holocaust consciousness in Israel. While very strong today, it was much less so in the earlier years of the state. I have the feeling that had Israeli society been more sensitive to the Holocaust then, there would have been more motivation to take action against criminals who played key roles in the Final Solution. By the time that Israelis were more aware and educated about the Shoah, none of the persons against whom the scope of whose crimes would have justified operations by the Mossad were still alive.
In conclusion, one of the ironies of the history of Israel’s Nazi hunting is that the only completely successful Mossad operation after Eichmann’s capture, the execution of Cukurs, was achieved while Meir Amit headed the Mossad. Like almost all of the heads of the spy organization, he was not enthusiastic at all about hunting Nazis, preferring to focus on Israel’s contemporary problems. Thus, for example, at the 1964 defense agency committee meeting, he advocated getting the targets extradited to West Germany, rather than kidnapping them and bringing them to Israel or executing them.
When asked years later whether he really believed that the Germans would punish Nazi war criminals, Amit replied that his stance was motivated primarily by his desire to free Israel from having to deal with the perpetrators, rather than the conviction that they would be appropriately punished there.
Thus, if not for Yariv, for whom the Cukurs case was intensely personal, even that mass murderer would have ended his life in peace and tranquility, rather than meeting the end that he definitely deserved.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine