The Holocaust, as you’ll probably know, produced some of history’s worst human beings. The thing is, though, besides those who made it into your textbooks—the Hitlers, Görings and Himmlers—many escaped unscathed, free to live out the rest of their days pretending to be mild-mannered expats who’d moved to Argentina simply because they preferred empanadas and polo to bratwurst and car manufacturing.
One SS member to ultimately escape prosecution was an Austrian concentration camp doctor called Aribert Heim, who later became known as “Doctor Death.” The atrocities committed in the Nazi camps have their very own scale of horror, and Heim sits somewhere near the top (his trademark was injecting gasoline into healthy people’s hearts and keeping their skulls as trophies). Despite his horrific crimes, he managed to mostly evade the authorities, and when they did finally catch up with him, in the early 60s, he had already fled Germany.
Almost 50 years later, New York Times journalist Souad Mekhennet got a tip that Heim had converted to Islam and had been hiding out in Cairo. she teamed up with another NY Times journalist, Nicholas Kulish, and the pair decided to follow up what they’d heard, hoping to track down Heim and explain what exactly had happened after his sudden disappearance.
An article about Mekhennet and Kulish's search for Heim was first published in the New York Times, before the pair turned their investigation into a book, titled The Eternal Nazi. I recently spoke to the writers about their experience, the briefcase of Heim’s possessions they were handed in Cairo, and the effect the story had on them and those closest to Dr. Death.
What exactly had Heim done to become the most wanted Nazi in the world?
Nicholas Kulish: He worked as a Waffen-SS doctor in a series of concentration camps, including Buchenwald, in Germany, and Mauthausen, in Austria. He was accused of committing hideous crimes in Mauthausen in 1941, including operating on healthy living patients, killing them in the process, and injecting gasoline into people’s hearts. He also used to take the skulls with particularly good teeth as trophies and keep them on his desk.
And he then managed to escape after the war.
Well, what a lot of people find unbelievable is that he was held in custody—first by Americans, then the German authorities—for more than two years after the war, but there was no sign on his record that he’d served in Mauthausen, so he was released under the Christmas amnesty in 1947.
How he did he manage to get that wiped from his record?
No one really knows. It could have been a lucky oversight; they were shuffling millions of soldiers around half of Europe.
SM: Also, the witnesses to Heim’s atrocities were in Austria, and it took the investigators quite some time to really figure out who and where Heim was.
Yeah, one story I found interesting was how Nazi hunters started putting things together after Heim was explicitly mentioned in a play written by a Holocaust survivor.
NK: Yeah, that was a fascinating thing – it was one of the earliest works of art about the Holocaust. The playwright, Arthur Becker, was a kind of assistant war-crimes investigator in Mauthausen and took down the first known testimony about Heim’s crimes in 1946. Then he writes this play in which the villain is a doctor who collects skulls as trophies. So Heim has become this bogeyman Nazi murderer within two years of the war.
When really Heim was off playing professional ice hockey.
SM: Yes, he had moved to Bad Nauheim [near Frankfurt] and was playing for the Red Devils ice hockey team. Then he met a girl from a very wealthy family and moved to a tremendously big villa in Baden-Baden, where he settled as a gynocologist.
How long was it until the Nazi hunters caught up with him?
NK: He received a phone call in 1962 asking him if he was the doctor who worked in Mauthausen. He then had this incredibly casual encounter with a couple of investigators, but he knew what it meant. He borrowed his brother-in-law’s Mercedes and basically hightailed from Germany into France and France into Spain, then ditched the car before moving on to Morocco. His brother-in-law was pretty angry with him when he picked up the car. He said, “The least you could have done would have been to wash it.”
And it was in Egypt that he converted to Islam and became Tarek Hussein Farid. It’s apparent in the book that he was very good at hiding who he really was. Do you think his conversion had something to do with that?
SM: We heard a few theories, and one from his immediate family was that when Egypt started to have closer relations with Israel, Heim started to feel very unsafe there. So one way to change his name and blend in better would have been to convert to Islam. But on the other hand, his Egyptian adopted family believed that he had a genuine interest in the religion and that he prayed and followed all the rules. So it depends on who you talk to. But he definitely succeeded in making people believe he had a genuine interest in Islam.
Can you tell me a little about the family he lived with in Egypt?
He moved into a little hotel called Kasr el Madina, and the owner’s family felt sorry for him because he was this older foreign man living alone. He eventually became close friends with the owner, and they used to cook for him and hang out. He more or less adopted them as family and they adopted him. He became very close to Mahmoud Doma, who we interviewed several times for the book. Heim became Mahmoud's and his younger brother’s second father, because their father passed away when they were very young.
What was it like telling the family that the man they knew had done all these horrendous things?
They had no idea that he was hiding or who he really was, so it came as a big surprise to them. They didn't about his second identity. But they did know that he’d been married and had two children in Germany. They also met Rüdiger [Heim’s younger son] at one stage because he started to visit his father.
How aware were his real family of what he’d done?
Well, we spoke to his wife before she passed away and she said she had no idea until she first heard the accusations [after Heim met with the investigators in Baden-Baden]. It appeared that her mother had told him there would be no way the family could face such a trial and said it would be better for all of them if he took off.
NK: One of the central ironies was that he supposedly fled to protect his family, in Germany in 1962, when a Nazi war criminal could get off with a slap on the wrist or a couple of years in prison, before going back to a normal life. Instead, he subjected his family to half a century of phone taps, questioning, and searches, and set himself up for decades in exile, essentially turning Egypt into his own prison.
What were Rüdiger’s feelings when you spoke to him? How did he reconcile what his father had done with the father he was visiting in Cairo?
SM: My impression was that he didn’t want to believe that his father would have committed all these evil crimes, and he didn’t want to know whether he’d really done it all or not. He was totally obsessed with trying to prove that his father was innocent.
NK: Heim had two sons, and it’s really telling how different their reactions were. The older son more or less knew and remembered his father and going through all the questions and police investigations. He had nothing to do with his father and never went to visit him in Cairo. Whereas the younger son, who was six when his father disappeared, barely had the faintest memory of him, so he went in search of a father he never knew and who he always longed for.
Was there anything you learned while working on the book that surprised you?
One thing that surprised me was how many real Inglourious Basterds stories there were. Groups with names like Vengeance and the Avengers tracked down and killed former SS and Gestapo members. Tuviah Friedman, who later worked with [renowned Nazi hunter] Simon Wiesenthal, hunted down Nazis in post-war Europe. The SS captain known as the Hangman of Riga was found in a trunk in the bedroom of his beach house in Uruguay, executed for his part in the Holocaust.
SM: Also how the Mossad tried to kill Nazis in Egypt. Hans Eisele, who was also a Nazi doctor, was sent a letter bomb, but it exploded in the delivery guy’s hands.
What did you personally take away from the experience?
It was a chance to learn about what happened in Germany from a totally different perspective. The Egyptian family handed over Heim's dusty, rusty old briefcase, which was stuffed full of letters and medical records and a long report about Jews and anti-Semitism, which he obsessed over. I took away that there are still so many things that we don’t know about—and, I mean, I grew up in Germany and studied history, but there are so many things we don’t know.
What about you, Nick?
I asked a retired judge who was hunting Nazis in his spare time, “What’s the point in arresting these 90-year-old guys? What’s the point in going after them?” And he said, “At the concentration camps they sent 90-year-old men and women to their death, and they had no problem killing newborn babies. So you pursue justice at any point and at any cost.” There’s a reason why there’s no statute of limitations on murder here in the US, and that’s because the victims deserve justice, no matter how long it takes.
What do you think of the theory held by some that Heim is still alive and out there somewhere?
SM: Well, there is no body. Our research led us to believe that he was buried in a common grave, but of course the final proof is not there. From the Nazi hunters’ perspective, this kind of skepticism is a normal part of their job. There was an investigation into Heim going on in Germany, but because of our research and because of further proof, the case was closed.
NK: On the one hand, this guy made so many escapes after the war, and the idea of him slipping away one last time—of faking his death—is a really attractive one. On the other hand, Heim would be turning 100 in June, but people still feel that justice hasn’t been done—and, in some ways, you could never really catch enough people for the crimes of the Holocaust.
Do you think they’ve mostly missed their chance now?
In the late 40s and early 50s, when almost all the Nazis perpetrators were there to be caught, the Americans were more concerned with fighting the Soviets, and the Soviets were more concerned with fighting the Americans. The Germans just wanted to build Mercedeses and BMWs and to forget about the whole thing, so it was only later—once these people started dying—that people were ready to go after them.
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The Eternal Nazi, published by Doubleday, is available now.