Aribert Heim was a Nazi doctor at the Mauthausen concentration camp. He gained notoriety there for operating on healthy patients, often killing them painfully in the process. Heim, however, evaded prosecution after World War II, spending the last 30 years of his life on the run and ultimately dying in Cairo in 1992. Nicholas Kulish, co-author of The Eternal Nazi, tells the story.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. At the end of their book "The Eternal Nazi," about the concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim, Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet write this: If it were a movie, Aribert Heim would have been caught by Alfred Aedtner(ph) after a chase through Cairo. Eitner was the German police officer who pursued him. His arrest would have been announced by Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Vienna-based Nazi hunter, and Heim would have had his day in court.
Well, the story that Kulish and Mekhennet have reported and told very well has no Hollywood ending. It leaves one's thirst for justice in Aribert Heim's case sorely unquenched. Kulish, who is a New York Times correspondent, joins us now from our studio in New York. Welcome to the program.
NICHOLAS KULISH: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And first, Aribert Heim, tell us about who he was and what he did during the war.
KULISH: He was an SS doctor who served at the concentration camp Mauthausen, and there he was accused of horrible crimes, of operating on healthy patients, killing them painfully in the process, and injecting concentration camp inmates in the heart with gasoline and other chemicals to kill them.
SIEGEL: He also was a professional hockey player, quite a presence, a tall man, 6'3" or so.
KULISH: Yeah, he was imposing. He was handsome. He was a world class athlete. He really sort of had everything going for him in the world except for the sort of guilty secrets of his past.
SIEGEL: And while there were people who remembered or claimed to have remembered what he did as a doctor at Mauthausen, he managed to practice medicine after the war in Germany until he fled that country for Egypt.
KULISH: Yeah, he was living an ideal life in the spa town in Baden-Baden with his own medical practice, a wealthy wife, living in a villa. But those secrets came back to haunt him, and he did, he fled first to Morocco and then on to Cairo, where he would spend decades in hiding.
SIEGEL: First why or how? How was it that a person who had been identified by people who had survived Mauthausen concentration camp, how is that he was never charged as a war criminal?
KULISH: Well, there was a general belief that all the Nazis were hiding in South America, in Argentina and Brazil and Chile. And it was a lot harder, especially in the years when Egypt and Israel were bitter enemies and fighting wars, it was very, very difficult to operate there and to find someone like Aribert Heim.
So in some ways although Argentina is more famous, Egypt may have been a safer hiding place.
SIEGEL: Heim lived in Cairo for some years under a German pseudonym. And then very late in life he converted to Islam and took an Arabic name. What did you make of his conversion? Was it a sincere spiritual event, or was it going deeper cover in Cairo?
KULISH: I think that to be that kind of chameleon, you kind of have to believe the role that you're playing, in a way. I think that on the one hand, changing his name to Tarek Hussein Farid made it much harder to find and capture Aribert Heim. On the other hand, he was described to my co-author, Souad, and I as someone who was a perfect Muslim, knew every greeting, went to prayers regularly, was beloved in the community. He fit himself in.
SIEGEL: And never having justice for his alleged crimes.
KULISH: That's correct. He hid himself so well that they could never locate him, which also allowed the legend to grow up around him.
SIEGEL: I found the most interesting person in this story, for me, was Heim's son Rudiger, who was born after the war. He knew of his father's location in Egypt, he communicated with his father by code, he visited him. Did he ever come to accept that his father did the things that witnesses said he did?
KULISH: For the most part no. his father really drilled into him the idea of his innocence. He got a hold of the testimony against him and would go point by point with his son refuting it, explaining that he was doing real operations to try to save people's lives, that he was misunderstood. And I think that Rudiger, who had grown up without a father and who really wanted to believe in his father's innocence, accepted what he was told.
SIEGEL: He did know that his father had been a concentration camp doctor, though, and by the time that Rudiger Heim was an adult, West Germany, where they lived, had experience a revival in interest in pursuing the country's awful Nazi past.
KULISH: Rudiger Heim is not a Holocaust denier. It's the leap to blaming his own father for what he had done is the one that I think that he doesn't want to make. And I think that throughout Germany, I think it's easier to accept collective responsibility than it is to accept individual responsibility, to say we all did a bad thing but not my father or my grandfather or my beloved aunt did it.
SIEGEL: Your co-author, Souad Mekhennet, was given papers that Heim had left behind in Egypt, and it was really through that reporting that well after his death in 1992 it could be established that he indeed was dead, that there's no point in pursuing him any further.
KULISH: His son packed up an old leather attache case, and there were medical records, journals, applications for renewal of his residency status, so many of those things in there that the son was afraid to try to bring back with him to Germany, that he would be caught at the border, and it would reveal everything that his father had done.
And that created the blueprint for our reporting.
SIEGEL: You also came across some reporting that was a lot less rigorous, reporting that accused the illegitimate daughter of Heim as being a conduit to him. She'd never met the man and was raised thinking he was dead. Tips from Simon Wiesenthal that were totally wrong but were reported, allegations against a coupe in Spain that they were a conduit for funds. Was there just a lot of bad tabloid journalism or the feeling that Nazis are so evil that the rules of confirming things are suspended in the name of virtue?
KULISH: Nazis have this - sort of they're the guiltiest of the guilty. And so if you believe that someone is harboring a Nazi fugitive or supporting a Nazi fugitive, then I think it's pretty easy to say, well, those are bad people, and we can go after them in perhaps a way that if it were someone else, you would stop, you would double-check, you would think first.
SIEGEL: For you, what was the takeaway here about the pursuit of Nazi war criminals, I guess a period of German and Austrian post-war history that's now pretty well closed just by virtue of time having past?
KULISH: I do think that the story tells us that the pursuit of justice can't lapse until the perpetrators are gone because I guess I was speaking with an investigator, and I asked him what's the point of putting 85-year-old men on trial. And he said that, you know, during the Holocaust, newborn babies, 90-year-old great-grandparents, none of them were spared by the people that we're looking for, and so the notion of giving up now because they're old men also doesn't make sense.
And I think that pursuit can also become a prison in its own way. Living in fear is its own form of sentence. And so if you relent, if you give up, then you let the murderers rest easy.
SIEGEL: Nicholas Kulish, thank you very much for talking with us today.
KULISH: Thanks very much for having me.
SIEGEL: Nicholas Kulish is co-author of "The Eternal Nazi."
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