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Netflix’s new series on Spanish Nazi hunters: Separating fact from fiction

Spanish-language production ‘Jaguar’ provides entertaining action and emotion, at times adhering closely to history — and at others relying on a large dose of dramatic license

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Cast of Netflix's 'Jaguar' limited series (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
    Cast of Netflix's 'Jaguar' limited series (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
  • Blanca Suárez as 'Isabel' and Iván Marcos as 'Lucena' in Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
    Blanca Suárez as 'Isabel' and Iván Marcos as 'Lucena' in Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
  • (L to R) Blanca Suárez as 'Isabel' and Stefan Weinert as 'Otto Bachmann' in the Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
    (L to R) Blanca Suárez as 'Isabel' and Stefan Weinert as 'Otto Bachmann' in the Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
  • Adrián Lastra as 'Sordo' and Óscar Casas as 'Castro' n Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
    Adrián Lastra as 'Sordo' and Óscar Casas as 'Castro' n Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
  • Iván Marcos as 'Lucena' and Blanca Suárez as 'Isabel' in Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)
    Iván Marcos as 'Lucena' and Blanca Suárez as 'Isabel' in Netflix limited series 'Jaguar.' (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)

Netflix has a new series about a group of Holocaust survivors hunting Nazis in Madrid in 1962. Titled “Jaguar,” it’s a typical action thriller, with  lots of shoot ’em up action scenes, pumping music and good-looking actors.

An initial impulse is to write off the Spanish-language production as derivative of other Nazi-hunter films and series such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and Amazon’s “Hunters.” However, to do so would be to miss the point.

The series’ true value lies in the little-known history it brings to light: the incarceration and murder of thousands of Spanish Republicans in Nazi concentration camps, and dictator Francisco Franco’s Spain having given safe haven to hundreds of Nazi war criminals after World War II.

Credit is owed to series creators Ramón Campos and Gema R. Neira for tackling subjects unfamiliar to the general Spanish public, let alone an international viewing audience. But, as with any dramatic treatment of history, there is a critical need for separating fact from fiction.

The fiction: A dramatic setup

The first of the series’ six episodes introduces Isabel (Blanca Suárez), a woman in her early 30s who survived the Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany. She gets a job as a server in a Madrid restaurant catering to Nazi war criminals and members of the expat German community.

Over the course of a year, Isabel stalks Otto Bachmann, a Nazi officer who killed her father in Mauthausen. Bachmann regularly dines at the restaurant with his Nazi cronies, and they are seen gathered there to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and pledge their undying devotion to him, promising to carry out his unfinished business.

Just as Isabel (who, for unexplained reasons, appears to have had weapons and combat training) is about to assassinate Bachmann, she is nabbed by a group of four vigilante Nazi hunters. Like Isabel, they too are non-Jewish Holocaust survivors, but they want to catch Nazis alive so they can be brought to justice and their crimes made known to the world.

Isabel joins the group, becoming its fifth member. “Jaguar” reveals through flashbacks that Isabel was deported at age 10 to Mauthausen with her father and older brother. After her father is murdered, she is separated from her brother and forced to be a servant at the camp commandant’s home. There, she is exposed to various Nazi officers who either work at or visit Mauthausen, including a doctor named Heim.

As the episodes progress, we learn the individual backgrounds of the other members of the group: Lucena (Iván Marcos), Sordo (Adrián Lastra), Marsé (Francesc Garrido), and Castro (Óscar Casas). All suffered greatly during WWII and were physically, emotionally and spiritually scarred as a result.

(L to R) Óscar Casas as ‘Castro,’ Adrián Lastra as ‘Sordo,’ Blanca Suárez as ‘Isabel,’ Iván Marcos as ‘Lucena,’ Francesc Garrido as Marsé in Netflix limited series ‘Jaguar.’ (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)

The group needs Isabel not only to prevent her from going rogue, but also because she is the only one who can positively identify Heim. Through the group’s mysterious handler, Lucena learns that Heim will be escaping Europe through Spain, and that it will be Bachmann’s job to ensure his safe passage.

After the stage is set in the first episode, the rest of the plot deals with the Nazi hunters’ use of their espionage skills to get close to Bachmann so they can snatch Heim. As with all action thrillers, there are many stakeouts, exchanges of gunfire, and near misses.

The facts: Spanish Republicans in the Holocaust

The members of the Nazi-hunting group in “Jaguar” represent survivors among the half a million Spanish  Republicans who fled Spain following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and found themselves at the mercy of the Vichy government after Germany occupied France in 1940.

The nationalist-fascist Franco regime in Spain refused to recognize their Spanish citizenship and classified them as enemies of the state. As a result, several thousand Spanish Republicans joined the French Foreign Legion or French resistance groups.

According to José María Irujo, a senior investigative journalist for the El País newspaper, thousands of Spanish refugees were forced into French detention camps, and 48,000 were deported to Germany. Of these, 9,161 were deported to Nazi concentration camps, with 8,000 going to Mauthausen and its sub-camp Gusen.

“Two-thirds did not survive and about 450 were gassed,” Irujo told The Times of Israel in an email interview.

An estimated 197,464 prisoners passed through the Mauthausen camp system between August 1938 and May 1945. At least 95,000 died there, more than 14,000 of them Jews. Although nationals of every German-occupied country passed through Mauthausen, among Spanish Republicans it was regarded as “the camp of the Spaniards,” according to Irujo.

Irujo said he was not aware of any families or children, like Isabel in “Jaguar,” who were imprisoned at Mauthausen.

Alejandro Baer (YouTube screenshot)

Dr. Alejandro Baer, a sociologist who studies Spanish memory of the Holocaust, confirmed that Spanish children were not among the prisoners at Mauthausen.

“I write about this in my book with Natan Sznaider titled ‘Memory and Forgetting in the post-Holocaust Era,’” said Baer, who is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.

The authors make the distinction between the persecution of Jews and Spanish Republicans during the Holocaust. The former were made to suffer and die because of who they were, while the latter were persecuted for their political beliefs.

Baer illustrated this by citing the example of the first train containing entire families that rolled into a German concentration camp —  Mauthausen in 1940. The train was filled with 927 Spanish Republican refugees from southern France, but only the men were processed into the camp. The women and children were sent back to the French-Spanish border.

“Jaguar” hints at this distinction between men and families when in a flashback, Isabel’s father tries to get her to stay in the cattle car as the German soldiers force people out. Isabel doesn’t listen and ends up witnessing her father’s murder, and narrowly avoids being shot herself when the Nazi officer Bachmann decides to spare her.

Spain as a haven for Nazi war criminals

Spain cultivated a myth that it remained neutral during WWII. The truth is that the Franco government played both sides.

“[It was] both an open sympathizer of the Nazi cause and a cautious nonbelligerent country trying to gain the favor of the Western Allies,” Baer wrote in an article he co-authored with Pedro Correa, “Spain and the Holocaust: Contested Past, Contested Present.”

After the war, Spain welcomed Nazi war criminals (possibly hundreds) and allowed them to live freely within its territory.

(L to R) Blanca Suárez as ‘Isabel’ and Stefan Weinert as ‘Otto Bachmann’ in the Netflix limited series ‘Jaguar.’ (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)

“Spain was one of the main havens for the Nazis after the Second World War, in some cases as the base from which to flee by boat to Brazil or Argentina. In many other cases, it was the friendly country in which to restart a new life. Our cemeteries are good proof that some [Nazis] died here in peace,” Irujo said.

Irujo wrote about this phenomenon in his book, “The Black List: Nazi Spies Protected by Franco and the Church.” In the late 1990s, the journalist was searching in the Spanish government archives and came across a list drawn up by the Allies in 1947 of 104 Nazis who were hiding in Spain. Irujo researched and discovered that none of them were handed over.

“The Allies drew up several lists of Nazi refugees in Franco’s Spain and claimed them without success… Many [Nazis] found refuge in the houses of Spanish families, and others remained in hiding with the help of the Franco regime and the Church,” Irujo said.

Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff. (Courtesy)

This lack of cooperation in delivering Nazis to justice continued beyond the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, including under successive democratic governments.

“There was no change in Spain. There was no attempt to clean the stable out. We couldn’t do anything there, which is a tragedy,” said Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, Israel director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Not all Nazis kept a low profile. Some lived openly without changing their names and mingled with officials in Franco’s government.

“Diplomats, businessmen, journalists, film producers, professional agents and members of the SS, the Gestapo, the Abwehr and the SD made up an extensive Nazi network with contacts in the dominant elites of Spanish society,” Irujo said.

Is Otto Bachmann Otto Skorzeny?

It seems that the character of Otto Bachmann is inspired by a real-life Nazi named Otto Skorzeny, who lived out his life comfortably in Spain after the war.

Otto Skorzeny, Austrian-born German SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) in the Waffen-SS in World War II. (WikiCommons)

“Jaguar” places the fictional Bachmann at Mauthausen, seemingly conflating the real SS Captain Georg Bachmayer — who was indeed a commandant at the camp, beginning in March 1940 — with Skorzeny.

The Netflix narrative only makes sense if the Otto in Madrid is Skorzeny. Indeed, the details of Bachmann’s life in Spain line up with those of Skorzeny.

Skorzeny was a notorious commando who spearheaded many daring raids and was Hitler’s favorite soldier. He is best-known for gliding onto a mountaintop fortress to rescue Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, from rebels in 1943.

In Spain, Skorzeny was a wheeler and dealer who made a fortune by doing deals with just about anyone — locally or internationally.

A 2020 documentary, “Europe’s Most Dangerous Man: Otto Skorzeny in Spain” (also on Netflix) shows various journalists and researchers using a trove of declassified and newly discovered personal documents to piece together exactly what Skorzeny did after the war.

“Skorzeny collaborated with the CIA from Spain, and his business weighed much more than politics since he did not distinguish between political colors. He even influenced the Spanish administration to get German companies to participate in the construction of American bases in Spain,” Irujo noted.

The documentary film provides evidence that Skorzeny also worked for Israel’s Mossad. After Skorzeny trained Egyptian and Palestinian forces, and allegedly introduced Egypt to Nazi scientists who could help develop Egypt’s missile program, the Mossad recruited him in exchange for taking him off its hit list.

Did Skorzeny help Nazis escape to and through Spain?

In “Jaguar,” we clearly see the fictional Bachmann doing this.

“Skorzeny was a real macher, so it is entirely possible he was helping Nazis reach Spain,” Zuroff told The Times of Israel, using the Yiddish term for “mover and shaker.”

Irujo disagreed. “There is no evidence that beyond his business activities he helped other Nazis flee,” he said.

Aribert Heim was a real Nazi doctor

“Jaguar” does not use a pseudonym for SS Dr. Aribert Heim, the notorious “Dr. Death” and the “Butcher of Mauthausen.”

SS doctor Aribert Heim aka Dr. Death and the Butcher of Mauthausen (WikiCommons)

Aribert was known for being an absolute sadist who tortured camp inmates sent to him for medical attention (the horrific specifics are repeatedly mentioned, especially in the series’ final episode). He killed hundreds of people in the mere six weeks he was in Mauthausen, according to Zuroff.

Heim fled to Spain in 1962 after being tipped off that German investigators were closing in on him. Following the war he had lived a quiet life with a wife and children in Baden-Baden, Germany.

“He worked as a gynecologist, of all things,” said Zuroff.

Irujo, who worked on the Heim case for several years, insisted that Skorzeny was not involved in helping Heim escape Europe, and that claims that Heim took long-term refuge in Spain are false.

Heim did, however, escape through Spain, but his destination was unknown for decades. Zuroff, Irujo and others followed tips placing Heim in Chile, where his illegitimate daughter lived. This proved incorrect when Heim’s son Rudiger admitted in 2009 that his father died in Cairo in 1992.

Heim was among a number of Nazis who sought refuge in the Middle East. In Cairo, Heim converted to Islam and assumed the name Tarek Hussein Farid.

Nazi hunters never found find Heim, and will probably never even know where he is buried. Heim requested that his body be donated to science, but that was rejected in an Islamic country. Instead, he was buried in an unnamed pauper’s grave.

“It’s as though he is posthumously laughing at us,” Zuroff said.

Blanca Suárez as ‘Isabel’ in Netflix limited series ‘Jaguar.’ (Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix)

There were no Nazi hunter groups in Spain

Although Isabel and the rest of the “Jaguar” group make for enlightening entertainment, they are entirely fictional.

“There were no vigilante groups [as portrayed in ‘Jaguar’] to my knowledge,” Zuroff said.

Irujo was even more definitive on this point.

“In Spain there were no groups dedicated to hunting the Nazis,” he said.

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