Some people may assume that Israel’s vaunted Mossad intelligence service devoted a great deal of energy to hunting for Nazis to seek revenge for the Holocaust. That was not the case. The desire to bring the murderers of Jews to justice was not deemed as important to Israel’s leaders in the early years of statehood as more pressing issues directly effecting the nation’s security. One of those issues, was preventing Nazis who went to Egypt from aiding in Nasser’s development of missile technology.
A few exceptions were made, notably for Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Final Solution. He was tracked by the Mossad to his home in Argentina in 1960, kidnapped and brought to trial in Israel. He was convicted of war crimes and the only person ever sentenced to death in Israel.
The Mossad failed to find many of the Nazis they hunted. One Nazi the Mossad did locate and assassinate was Herbert Cukurs, who served as a General in the SS and was known as the “Butcher of Riga” for murdering 30,000 Latvian Jews. Like Eichmann and many other Nazis, Cukurs found refuge in South America. The Mossad lured him to Uruguay and killed him in 1965.
The agency suspended its search for Nazis until Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977. Begin deemed finding war criminals a higher priority and the Mossad drafted a list of Nazis it would pursue. Information about the mission was revealed in a book by Mossad operative Yossi Chen in a study for the Mossad’s history department entitled, “Clouds and Wind, But No Rain: In the Footsteps of Nazi War Criminals Who Were Not Punished.”
The Nazis on the wanted list were:
Alois Brunner –Adolf Eichmann’s assistant
Horst Schumann – A doctor who conducted medical experiments at Auschwitz
Klaus Barbie – the “Butcher of Lyon”
Franz Murer – the “Butcher of Vilnius”
The only one on this list who the Mossad came close to killing was Brunner. In May 1961, a Mossad agent found him in an apartment in Damascus where he was living under the protection of the Syrian government under the pseudonym Dr. Georg Fischer. The agent’s assignment was just to locate him, so he did not attempt to kill him. Later, the Mossad sent two letter bombs to him, one in 1961 and another in 1980. He was injured but survived.
The Mossad located Mengele, but decided to abandon an attempt to snatch him and focus instead on capturing Eichmann, who was deemed a more important target. Mengele was never tried and drowned in Brazil in 1979.
Rauff and Barbie were found at one point in South America, but operations to kill them were aborted. Rauff was arrested in Chile in 1962, but Germany’s extradition request was denied. Rauff died of cancer at age 77. Barbie was extradited from Bolivia to France where he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. Ironically, he also died of cancer (leukemia) at the age of 77, in his fourth year in jail.
What of the others on the list?
Bormann was sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremberg on October 1, 1946, but escaped to South America. His remains were found in West Berlin and an autopsy indicated he used a cyanide capsule to commit suicide. He was formally pronounced dead by a West German court in April 1973.
Mueller’s death remains a mystery. He apparently died in Berlin in May 1945 and was buried in a mass grave along with other German soldiers in a Jewish cemetery.
Schumann escaped to Africa, but was extradited to Germany and tried in 1970. He was released from prison in 1972 for medical reasons and lived in Frankfurt until his death in 1983.
Murer was tried for his crimes in the Soviet Union — where he was convicted — and re-tried in Austria — where he was acquitted. He lived in Austria until his death in 1994.
Lerch escaped from prison and lived in hiding from 1947 to 1950. In 1960, Lerch was sentenced to two years of imprisonment by a de-Nazification court in Wiesbaden. In 1971, he was accused again of being involved in the Holocaust, but the case was dropped in 1976 because Lerch denied the charges and there was a lack of witnesses. He died in Austria in 1997.
One other interesting footnote. Just as the United States used Nazis for intelligence operations, so too apparently did Israel. According to Chen’s book, Rauf was a paid informant who reported on events in Syria prior to the Mossad’s establishment in 1949.
Another former Nazi was recruited for Operation Damocles, the mission to stop Egypt’s rocket program. SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny agreed to work for the Mossad in Egypt and was responsible for the assassination of Heinz Krug, a German scientist who was helping the Egyptians.
Sources: Yossi Melman, “Like Clouds and Wind,” Jerusalem Report, (October 2, 2017);
Ofer Aderet, “Not just Mengele: The Mossad’s Botched Assassination Attempts on Nazi War Criminals,” Haaretz, (September 11, 2017);
Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, “The Nazi Who Became a Mossad Hitman,” Forward, (March 27, 2016).