The Nazi Doctor Who Got Away With Mass Murder, Fled to Cairo, and Became a Muslim
‘The Eternal Nazi’ tells the gripping story of the hunt for Aribert Heim, and the German detective who relentlessly pursued him
The terrorists were blood-soaked fanatics, but they did get one thing right: In postwar Germany prominent ex-Nazis thrived at all levels of society, including the highest echelons of government. The Nazi past eventually became the defining mark of German national identity. At least in West Germany, starting in the 1980s, every schoolchild saw pictures of emaciated corpses and was told that all Germans were responsible for the horror. The meaning of being German, the schoolchildren learned, was that Germany could never do anything like that again. But in the 1950s and ’60s the conscience-struck teaching of German guilt had not yet begun, and Nazi history existed mostly in what fathers refused to say to their children, what husbands concealed from their wives. Some children rejected their fathers utterly; some demanded to know more; and some loyally made excuses for Nazi misdeeds.
Like Mengele’s son Rolf, Rüdiger Heim shielded a murderer: He visited his father secretly, kept his whereabouts concealed, and funneled money to him so he could evade justice. (German law declares that a defendant’s family cannot be prosecuted for obstructing a criminal case in this way.) But Rüdiger protected his father in part because he thought he still might find out something that he needed to know. Both Rolf Mengele and Rüdiger Heim wanted to—had to—see and know who their father really was and what he had to say for himself. The answer, in both cases, was nothing, yet both sons shied away from the judgment that every civilized reader demands. The sons of Mengele and Heim denied their fathers’ victims what the victims needed most, to see these men on trial, and in this way they augmented their fathers’ crimes. Yet Rüdiger Heim comes off rather well in Kulish and Mekhennet’s book: He deplores anti-Semitism and is haunted by the German guilt for the Holocaust. He just can’t believe that his own father did what history says that he did.
When Heim landed in Egypt in 1963, he found himself on welcoming, even familiar ground. President Nasser, if one trusts his own words on the subject, was as true a disciple of the Nazi cause as had ever lived. “During the Second World War, our sympathies were with the Germans,” Nasser told the Deutsche Nationalzeitung in May 1964, adding that “The lie of the 6 million murdered Jews is not taken seriously by anybody.” Wehrmacht Gen. Wilhelm Fahrmbacher prepared the Egyptian army for its effort to destroy Israel in 1948, and Wilhelm Voss, a former SS weapons expert, developed the Egyptian missile program. Johann von Leers, a convert to Islam known as Omar Amin, served Nasser as an anti-Semitic propagandist. Von Leers was famous for his lavish dinner parties, where his wife Gisele strutted about in primitive-looking gold jewelry and hinted that she was the reincarnation of a Bronze Age priestess. The circle of old Nazis in Egypt was riddled with spies. Because of the CIA’s partnership with ex-Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen, many of the SS men in Egypt drew American paychecks. The most intriguing figure in this crew was Wolfgang Lotz, who was actually a blond, blue-eyed, German-born Jew masquerading as a Nazi. Lotz in fact worked for Mossad. Wary of this treacherous atmosphere, Heim had minimal contact with the other ex-Nazis in Egypt; in this as in so much else he was a man alone.
In February 1979 Der Spiegel broke the story that Dr. Aribert Heim, a Nazi war criminal whose location was unknown, was supporting himself by profits from his Berlin apartment building; the money was being channeled through Heim’s sister. In order to avoid getting in trouble for tax evasion, to show that the building’s profits went to Heim and not to her, the sister had to prove that he was still alive. So, Heim provided an audiotape in which he attested to his own existence and to the fact that he was still in hiding, living off rent paid by German citizens.
A political firestorm erupted. Heim’s tenants were outraged, along with the rest of the German public. Millions of Germans had recently been shaken by the vastly popular American-made mini-series Holocaust, which brought home the horrors of the Nazi genocide, and they were newly enthusiastic about war-crimes trials for aging Nazi offenders like Heim. Within months, Heim was tried and convicted in absentia and his livelihood seized. He was forced to move to a small room in one of Cairo’s many run-down hotels, where he became friends with the landlord’s children and tried to teach them English and French. (Heim was a fluent speaker of both languages, along with Arabic.) His landlord and his dentist started talking to him about the Muslim faith, and soon Heim was reading the Quran. Heim embraced Islam in 1980 and took the new name Tarek Hussein Farid.
His conversion might have been sincere, but perhaps he merely wanted a better disguise, afraid that Aribert Heim was now a household name, and that the law was closing in on him.
Kulish and Mekhennet show that the search for Heim was really the work of one man: Alfred Aedtner (who was aided by the famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal).
Aedtner was a Wehrmacht veteran who, after he became a police detective in 1964, tirelessly pursued German war criminals at a time when most of his fellow Germans wanted to forget or excuse the “excesses” of the Third Reich—or protect the perpetrators. The nondescript Aedtner was a mild, well-dressed aficionado of schnitzel and beer whose steely drive to bring Nazis to justice is never completely explained. Aedtner is the other protagonist of The Eternal Nazi, and he is every bit as significant as the vampiric entity of the title. Heim plays that ageless near-mythic figure, the evil man with a clear conscience, unrepentant to the end. The stolid Aedtner is simply a professional called to a task.
It is just as unclear to Aedtner’s son as it is to Kulish and Mekhennet why Aedtner was so dedicated to prosecuting Nazis, a job that meant traveling all over Europe to take testimonies, tracking down endless hints about potential witnesses, and following up tantalizing rumors that almost never panned out. (Heim was, over the years, said to be in Spain, Chile, and a number of other places where he never set foot.) Aedtner’s son says, “He wanted to get them,” the Verbrecher, the Nazi wrongdoers, and that desire made him work endless frustrating hours. The authors think that maybe Aedtner’s dedication to hunting Nazis “grew out of nothing more than an ingrained opposition to suffering, and he could never get over the extreme, almost limitless suffering that the Nazis had caused.”
If this was it, then Aedtner’s simple reaction accomplished something more than all the elaborate theories about Nazism put together. Aedtner would never have put it this way, but he probably agreed with the sentence from the Book of Job inscribed at Birkenau, which gives these words to the Nazis’ victims: “O Earth, cover not up my blood, and let my cry never cease.”
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