Manhunt for ‘Last Nazi’: A Story Of New Leads or Misled Media?
VIENNA — It would have been a fitting epilogue to the Simon Wiesenthal story.
Shortly before the famed Nazi hunter was laid to rest last month, it appeared that the trail leading to his last big prey suddenly had gone hot. Media across Europe breathtakingly reported on the tightening noose around Aribert Heim, the S.S. doctor known as the “Butcher of Mauthausen” and the second most-wanted Nazi war criminal believed to be alive.
In the weeks since, news outlets around the world have recounted in convincing detail the information that led German authorities to an area on Spain’s southeastern coast. By last week, the Nazi’s hiding place reportedly had been located. And in recent days, the Spanish police carrying out the search have been confidently announcing that the former S.S. doctor soon would be captured.
But if Aribert Heim’s arrest is imminent, it’s news to the man in charge of the investigation.
“I wish it were true that we are closer to apprehending Dr. Heim,” Michael Klose, the German state prosecutor with jurisdiction over the case, told the Forward. “We don’t know if he’s still alive, and if he’s still alive, where he lives.”
The Heim story began making headlines in late August, when an exhaustive report on the case by respected German magazine Der Spiegel was picked up by media around the world. Forty-three years after the S.S. doctor went on the run, police in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg were said to be hot on his tail. New information regarding Heim’s whereabouts had reportedly come to the attention of the Stuttgart-based Zielfahndung, a crack police squad led by Hans Schrade, breathing new life into the manhunt.
The 91-year-old Heim was believed to be living out his final years on the Spanish island of Ibiza, in the German expatriate enclave of Figueral, depending on money from an account in his name at a Berlin branch of Sparkasse Bank. Hundreds of transfers, totaling some $220,000, allegedly were wired by one of Heim’s relatives from the German bank to an account in the Catalonian town of Palafrugell, up the Spanish coast from Ibiza.
But according to Klose, it has been at least two decades since German investigators focused on Ibiza. And while German police have looked during the past two years into the alleged bank transfers, the state prosecutor said that no firm information about the money is currently known. To hear Klose tell it, the real story about the first investigation to generate headlines since Wiesenthal’s September 20 death is one of manipulation of the media by the famed Nazi hunter’s successor.
“The journalists who reported this story mostly summarized leads that were given to them by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem,” the state prosecutor said. “This information was collected over the years — there is information that was gathered in the 1960s, information that was gathered in the 1970s and information that was gathered in the 1980s, as well as relatively new information. It sounds as if everything is based on new information, but that is not the case. Not everything that was written was really current; many parts of it are already old.”
The allegation that the Wiesenthal Center’s office in Israel spun the Heim story in order to garner press coverage was dismissed as “utterly baseless” by its director, Efraim Zuroff. He bristled at the suggestion that his office had manipulated the media, arguing that the decision to go public was made by the German police, or by the Spanish police with the knowledge of German authorities.
“Are we interested in the media writing about the Heim case?” Zuroff said in an interview with the Forward. “Yes, we have an interest in that. But do we recycle clues from 20 years ago? That’s ridiculous. Why would I mislead journalists? That’s the easiest way to ruin my credibility.”
By most accounts, Zuroff is considered to be one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on tracking down war criminals. The first director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and the founding director of its Israel office, he can claim a key role in dozens of investigations into alleged Nazis. Zuroff’s reputation is such that within a year of the Rwandan genocide, the government in Kigali invited him to discuss how to bring those responsible to justice.
Zuroff said that allegations implying he is a publicity hound are reminiscent of charges leveled against Wiesenthal in the past. He acknowledges hosting Jörg Schmitt, who co-wrote the Der Spiegel report, in his Jerusalem office. But Zuroff insists that the initiative was taken by the German magazine, which he said came to him this past spring. Schmitt confirmed that Der Spiegel approached Zuroff about the article.
While denying the allegations against him, Zuroff asserted that much of the recently reported information on the Heim case is untrue. In this respect, his position appears to dovetail with that of Klose, who said there are currently no new developments leading to the S.S. doctor. The views of both the German state prosecutor and the American-born Nazi hunter, however, seem to be at odds with those of the Spanish police squad conducting the search.
“The unit specialized in hunting war criminals got information that this person was in the Levante region,” said Spanish National Police spokesman Jose Maria Seara, referring to the area on the Spanish mainland closest to Ibiza. “The information was corroborated by our preliminary investigations.”
“I would not be surprised,” Seara told the Forward, “if we were to arrest him soon.”
Acting on the German arrest warrant, the Spanish police unit is reportedly scouring the region for a well-off elderly German with private nursing care, as well as combing retirement homes in pursuit of the S.S. doctor. To date, dozens of searches up and down the coast are said to have been conducted.
That the Spanish police may have been spurred into action because of Zuroff’s advocacy is cause to rethink how to hunt down Heim, said Benjamin Ferenz, one of the first people Simon Wiesenthal approached for support in his quest to track down Nazi war criminals. Ferenz, the chief prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg and one of the liberators of the Mauthausen concentration camp at which Heim performed his medical experiments, cautioned that the search for justice should take into account other needs and priorities.
“You can condemn the crimes, you can call upon the local police to arrest him and consider what they’ll do,” Ferenz told the Forward. “They can do all kinds of things to show that we haven’t forgotten, that we haven’t forgiven. But to say that the police should start working on it, and spend a lot of money and police power which is needed elsewhere, is in my opinion foolish.”
Concerns about blurring the distinction between investigator and advocate were what kept Wiesenthal in Vienna, despite a lifetime of entreaties from his wife, Cyla, to move to Israel. Were he to operate out of the Jewish state, Wiesenthal believed, his hunt for Nazi war criminals would be dismissed as little more than Zionist propaganda.
Only a month after Wiesenthal’s death, such allegations are now being leveled at his Jerusalem-based successor. But whether Zuroff spun the Heim case for media consumption is ultimately beside the point, argues Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“The credibility of the Wiesenthal Center is not the issue here,” Edelman told the Forward. “Nazi criminals should be haunted, traced and prosecuted to the last one. It is important for society and humanity at large to be reminded that crimes against humanity are not forgotten and are never forgiven.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this article included a reference to two people considered possible accomplices. That reference was removed because they were found not to have been involved.
With reporting by Ruth Weinberger in Vienna and Marc Perelman in New York.