LONDON — In March 1965, the West German Bundestag overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to bring to an end the hunt for Nazi war criminals and introduce a statute of limitations for their crimes.
The months leading up to the debate had seen a wave of opposition to the plans across the world. Thousands took to the streets from Tel Aviv to Toronto and Los Angeles to London. Nobel Prize winners, politicians, playwrights and the future Pope Benedict XVI raised their voices in protest. And in Germany, a bitter and divisive national debate broke out about how the country should atone for its sins and how widespread the responsibility for them truly lay.
But in those months another effort had also been launched to derail the German proposals. Hatched in secret by Israel’s intelligence chiefs and approved by prime minister Levi Eshkol, it was one that was nonetheless designed to focus the world’s attention on the hundreds, if not thousands, of perpetrators who had never seen the inside of a courtroom or prison cell — and likely never would if the Bundestag approved the statute.
It was also an effort in which Israel itself would act as judge, jury and executioner. Israel’s foreign intelligence agency the Mossad, it was decided, would hunt down and kill Herberts Cukurs — the “Butcher of Riga” — who was accused of being personally responsible for the deaths of at least 30,000 Latvian Jews.
Cukurs’s assassination, for which Israel would claim no responsibility, would publicize and punish his terrible crimes. It would serve, too, as a warning of the kind of rough justice that would be meted out to others if Germany provided an amnesty to war criminals.
The story of the mission to kill Cukurs is told in journalist and author Stephan Talty’s new book, “The Good Assassin: Mossad’s Hunt for the Butcher of Latvia.” It is a brilliantly written, heart-stopping, and, at times, heartbreaking tale; one that crosses continents from the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe to the jungles of South America.
At the center of Talty’s retelling lie two men: Cukurs and the undercover agent dispatched by Mossad to ensnare him, Yaakov “Mio” Meidad.
Known in the agency as “the man with the hundred identities,” Meidad was a German-born Jew whose parents had perished in the death camps. He had helped abduct Adolf Eichmann and bring him to Israel for trial.
Talty, who first encountered the story of the mission when reading Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” was fascinated by both Cukurs and Meidad, as well as the events that had brought them together.
“It was this idea that these two characters existed on either side of a terrible historical moment and now they had to meet, and Mio had to basically form a friendship with someone who was sort of the face of the ‘ordinary men’ of the Holocaust,” Talty told The Times of Israel.
The ‘Latvian Lindbergh’ goes to Holy Land
Cukurs was, as one survivor later wrote, “full of tremendous contradictions.” Known as “the Latvian Lindbergh,” the aviator had become a household name and national hero in the prewar Baltic state, renowned for his dash and daring.
“I actually found myself admiring the prewar Cukurs,” admits Talty. “He was very much the kind of adventurer who not only built his own planes but dreamed up these kind of bizarre trips and odysseys.”
Those trips had famously seen him fly in 1933 from Latvia to the British African colony of The Gambia in an open-cockpit aircraft he had had cobbled together from cast-off and salvaged parts.
Six years later, in December 1939, he returned from another expedition — a 2,900-mile (4,667 kilometer) flight to Palestine — to enthrall Riga’s Jewish Club with a talk, complete with photographs, describing the sights, sounds and smells of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Petah Tikva and Rishon LeZion.
“I remember Cukurs speaking with wonderment, amazement, even enthusiasm, of the Zionist enterprise in Israel,” a young Jewish man who was there that night later remembered.
This was not the only indication that, his fierce nationalism and occasional anti-Semitic remarks aside, Cukurs was, as one Latvian Jew later put it, “not really considered a Jew-hater.” He was, for instance, often seen with Jewish intellectuals in Riga’s cafes.
Talty’s interest in Cukurs was, in part, sparked by this background. “I wanted to know,” he remarks, “what had changed him into what would seem to be a beast, a monster.”
That description is entirely apt. As Yosef Yariv, the head of the Mossad’s special operations arm, told Meidad when he outlined the mission to him, Cukurs was not “a desk murderer like Eichmann.” Among those who knew his reputation, the mere mention of Cukurs’s name could provoke a physical reaction. When Israel’s intelligence chiefs gathered to discuss potential targets, a list of names was read out. Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, collapsed on hearing that of the man who had murdered several of his family and friends.
Cukurs’s crimes had been committed just under 25 years previously.
Nazis as ‘liberators’; Jews are ‘enemy within’
Under the secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Soviets had snuffed out Latvia’s independence and brutally occupied it in the summer of 1940.
A year later, a second tragedy befell the Baltic states, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union seeing Latvia come under Nazi rule. Some of Cukurs’s fellow countrymen viewed the Nazis as liberators; a view not shared by their terrified Jewish neighbors.
No pity and no compromise must be shown. No Jewish tribe of adders must be allowed to rise again
Within hours, the now German-controlled press began to pump out the vicious lie that Latvia’s Jews were the “enemy within” who had betrayed their country to the Soviets and participated in the atrocities the Red Army had committed. “No pity and no compromise must be shown. No Jewish tribe of adders must be allowed to rise again,” wrote one newspaper.
No pity was, indeed, shown. “Riga became a pen where Jews were hunted for sport and profit, and Hebert Cukurs was an enthusiastic player in the game,” writes Talty.
Cukurs was no bit player — instead, he became second-in-command of the notorious Arājs Kommando, a 300-strong Latvian paramilitary group which enthusiastically participated in the murder of the country’s Jews.
Eyewitnesses later testified to Cukurs’s brutality. One remembered him in the ghetto to which Riga’s Jews were herded “laughing devilishly… shooting the people like a hunter in the forest.” Another recorded him at the notorious villa at 19 Waldemars Street where the Arājs Kommando held wild drunken parties as they tortured and murdered Jews.
Max Tukacier, a young Jew who had known Cukurs for over a decade and was taken to the house, saw the aviator “beat to death 10 to 15 people.” And Cukurs was recorded giving orders to his commandos at the scenes of the “Aktions” during the Rumbula massacre on November 30 and December 8, 1941, when roughly 25,000 Jews were murdered in or near the Rumbula forest.
After participating in the bloodletting of Riga’s killing fields, Cukurs and his men traveled around Latvia’s villages, towns and small cities, helping round up and murder Jews. Within five months, 60,000 Latvian Jews had perished. As Talty writes, the slim file the Mossad held on Cukurs was so thin, and the eyewitness accounts so few, precisely because of the thoroughness with which he and the Arājs Kommando had assisted the Nazis in their work.
‘The epitome of humanity’
But the most extraordinary — perhaps unique — aspect of Cukurs’s story was what happened next. Like many other war criminals, the Latvian joined the “ratline” and escaped to South America after the war. But, unlike his fellow killers, Cukurs arrived in Brazil under his own name — and then almost immediately began seeking out members of the country’s Jewish community. Cukurs portrayed himself as both a political exile who had been targeted by the Communists and a man who had rescued Jews during the Shoah.
While Cukurs assiduously wooed Rio’s Jews, however, his past started to catch up with him. Back in Europe, fledgling Jewish committees devoted to tracking down escaped war criminals compiled a dossier on the prominent prewar aviator who had become a mass murderer. Within weeks of his arrival, reports of the first possible sightings of Cukurs in Rio found their way back to London. The slow and painstaking process of confirming these reports commenced.
All the while, Cukurs continued to prosper and promote himself. He even gave an interview to Brazil’s highest-selling magazine — which appeared under the title “From the Baltics to Brazil” — in which he was described as “the epitome of humanity.” By 1950, though, the shocking truth — that Cukurs was nothing of the sort — began to dawn on some of his newfound friends in Rio.
Although the Jewish community’s efforts to have him extradited and brought to justice faltered in the face of official indifference, protests led to the collapse of Cukurs’s thriving business and the family was forced to leave the city. By the time the Mossad set its sights on him a decade later, Cukurs was a much-diminished figure, quietly running a small boat rental and air taxi business near São Paulo.
Cukurs’s overweening ambition was the source of both his rise and eventual fall. It was not simply his heinous crimes that made him a target in 1965, but the fact that he had left a trail that was so easy for the Mossad to follow.
“He could have had a very good life in Rio had he just not stuck his head up in the way that he did,” says Talty. “I think his narcissism just was so central to his character that he couldn’t resist it.”
While others like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele were “very particular about leading very mundane lives,” the author continues, “he just felt that Herbert Cukurs was born for the world and that he needed some kind of heroic story around his life to make it meaningful for him.”
This “curse,” Talty believes, led to Cukors’s downfall.
While Cukurs’s actions in Rio may have been foolhardy, he was no fool. As Talty explains, the Mossad mission is “not an action story” but more akin to a tense psychological thriller which pits Cukurs against the man the agency dispatches to trap its quarry.
Meidad himself, Talty says, was very much “the anti-James Bond,” and “seemed to be only fully alive” when he went undercover.
“When he was in character as someone else he was much more confident, much more assertive… than he was in real life,” says Talty.
The guise of Anton Kuenzle, a successful but buttoned-down Austrian businessman who would befriend Cukurs and lure him to his death, was one the Israeli played to perfection. The perfection was necessary, however, as the mission contained no room for error.
Highly unusually, Meidad, at his own insistence, worked in Brazil without any reinforcements or a Plan B. The decision, writes Talty, “deviated wildly from his precise, very Germanic methodology; it was as if he’d thrown away 20 years of spycraft in order to go after Cukurs.”
Meidad’s family and former colleagues emphasized to Talty that the mission was “personal” for him.
“I think he really relished this one-on-one confrontation with a perpetrator of the Holocaust,” Talty says. “He saw it really as a test of everything he had been as a secret agent and… he wanted to outwit Cukurs and bring him down himself.”
And then there was Cukurs himself. “He was a very difficult target in that not only [was he]… paranoid, but he was intelligent and he could anticipate what an Israeli agent would be doing,” says Talty. “It was very much a psychological battle, and I think Cukurs very much was almost his equal in that.”
Lines are drawn
On one side of the battle lines stood Cukurs, who constantly sought to test whether Kuenzle truly was who he said he was. Those tests included staging a shooting contest between the two men on a remote plantation in the middle of the Brazilian outback to ascertain whether Kuenzle’s claim to have served on the Eastern Front during World War II rang true.
On the other side stood Meidad, who needed not merely to allay Cukurs’s suspicions but also to figure out the bait which would best reel him in. In this he excelled, says Talty.
“He had a certain empathy towards Cukurs and his journey, and his bedraggled state when he met him, [when he was] not obviously living up to his own dream of himself,” Talty says.
The prospect Meidad dangled before Cukurs of regaining his lost wealth and respect through a business partnership eventually led to the mission’s bloody denouement in a house in Montevideo where a small Mossad team awaited.
It was, however, a close call. A combination of Cukurs’s ever-vigilant paranoia, bad luck, and a reluctance on the part of some of the Mossad squad to believe that killing a lone 65-year-old man would really prove that hard nearly led to disaster.
“It was Mio’s nightmare,” says Talty. “There was kind of a schism between him and the Sabras [in the Mossad team] in that they believed they could handle any situation that missions threw at them, and he was very particular in saying this man is a formidable physical opponent.”
Not until the Mossad men finally came face-to-face with Cukurs — when, as Meidad later said, “he fought like a wild and wounded animal” — did they realize how prescient those warnings had been.
A flood of blood to cover tracks
It is perhaps fitting that the answer to the question which first drew Talty to Cukurs’s story — what had led the adventuresome aviator down the path of mass murder? — was provided by a survivor.
Zelma Shepshelovich, a magnificent figure whose story Talty’s book also tells, was relentless in her attempts after the war to attain justice for her own murdered family and the thousands of other Latvian Jews who died alongside them.
In 1979, she appeared as a prosecution witness in the Hamburg trial of Viktor Arājs, the commander of the paramilitary battalion of which Cukurs had been such an eager member. During his time on the stand, Arājs revealed that Cukurs had collaborated with the Soviets during their short occupation of the country before the Nazi invasion. Terrified of exposure, and the bloody consequences that would follow, Cukurs sought to cover his tracks by joining Arājs’ band of killers.
As Talty writes: “It wasn’t, after all, a deeply rooted anti-Semitism that drove the former aviator. He betrayed the Jews because if he didn’t, he would likely have been murdered alongside them. The sacrifice of those men, women and children was necessary for him to go on living.”
Cukurs was not unique. But in Latvia, a country with no history of pogroms that some had viewed as a sanctuary in the 1930s, he came to symbolize what Talty terms “the double cross that had snared the Jews.” For its imperiled Jews, the speed and viciousness with which many of their friends, neighbors and fellow countrymen suddenly turned upon them was palpable.
It is, as Talty readily acknowledges, impossible to prove whether the news of Cukurs’s death changed any minds when the Bundestag came to reject the amnesty proposal in the spring of 1965.
“I want to believe that it played a psychological part in giving the Holocaust a face, but really I can’t substantiate that with sources,” Talty says. “But it was certainly part of a movement re-evaluating what had happened during the Shoah in Germany and I think it was important for that reason.”
Talty recognizes too that the Mossad’s decision to kill Cukurs and not bring him to trial had one unintended consequence. The effort in recent years by Latvian nationalists to rehabilitate the former national hero has exploited the fact that no jury ever convicted him of war crimes.
There is, however, a glimmer of light in Talty’s retelling of this dark story. It is represented by Jānis Alexander Vabulis, a young civil servant who fell in love with Shepshelovich and — at great personal risk — sheltered her throughout the war.
“I think he represents a certain percentage of Latvians that went out of their way [to help Jews],” Talty suggests. “I found a lot of testimonies about Jews finding farm houses and families who were very religious and very Christian and immediately brought them in.”