After decades of false sightings, the Simon Wiesenthal Center claims it is closing in on Aribert Heim, a former physician nicknamed the “Butcher of Mauthausen” because of the torture experiments he conducted on Jewish prisoners at the concentration camp in Austria.
According to Efraim Zuroff, director of the center’s office in Jerusalem, a recent visit he paid to South America has yielded clues that Heim is alive and hiding in a remote area between Chile and Argentina. If indeed still alive, the Austrian doctor would be 94 years old.
“I think we are closer than we ever were,” Zuroff told the Forward. “Both Argentina and Chile appear ready to make a big push.”
Three years ago, Heim sightings in Spain generated international media reports of his impending capture. When contacted by the Forward to discuss the sightings, the German state prosecutor leading the cold-case investigation into Heim’s whereabouts alleged that Zuroff had manipulated the facts in order to garner press coverage.
Pressed this past week about the German allegations in 2005, Zuroff noted that reports of Heim living Spain did not originate with him, adding that the claims he is now making are based on his recent fact-finding trip to South America.
Zuroff traveled to Chile and Argentina in mid-July in order to sensitize the local authorities and the general public about the campaign to catch Heim. The trip took an unexpected investigative turn during a visit to the southern Chilean fishing town of Puerto Montt, where Heim’s daughter lives.
Zuroff said he met three people who claimed either to have seen Heim in the past 45 days or to have information about his whereabouts. Based on those testimonies, as well as briefings with the German police unit that has been tracking him for years and with the Israeli embassy in Chile, he claims that the former Nazi is hiding out somewhere between Puerto Montt and the Argentinean town of Bariloche. The two towns lie a relatively short distance away from each other but are separated by the high Andes.
The South American trip is part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Operation: Last Chance,” which aims to bring aging war criminals to justice before they die. Heim tops the list of wanted Nazis. The center, the German and Austrian governments and a private donor are jointly offering a reward of nearly $500,000 for information leading to his capture.
Horst Haug, a spokesman for the Baden-Württemberg state police, which is running Germany’s long-standing investigation of Heim, confirmed a recent meeting with Zuroff but added that until Heim was captured, “there was nothing new.”
“There has been repeated speculation about this over the years,” he said, adding that the Simon Wiesenthal Center have more freedom to investigate abroad than do the German authorities.
Zuroff’s trip to South America generated broad coverage in the local media. He said that he was able to hold face-to-face interviews with acquaintances of Heim’s daughter, and he described this as a “turning point” in the investigation. Zuroff said she had refused to meet with them and was away during their visit.
“She is the key to Heim,” he said, but declined to elaborate.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center will soon put out advertisements about Heim in national newspapers in both Chile and Argentina, as well as in local papers in Puerto Montt and Bariloche.
While in South America, Zuroff met with Argentina’s justice minister and the head of Chile’s law enforcement agency, and with Interpol officials in both countries.
“We briefed them and stressed that it was important that this be their own investigation and not something by a foreign country,” Zuroff said. “I think they were already reaching that point, and this why we are very hopeful.”
Heim was indicted in Germany after World War II on charges of murdering hundreds of inmates at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941. He was held for two-and-a-half years by the American military but was released without trial. He worked as a gynecologist in Germany until 1962, when he fled the country after being tipped off that German authorities were about to indict him.