The Hunt for Nazis: The Real-Life Captures That Inspired The Debt

By Joel Bleifuss | September 1, 2011
The Debt's Hunt for Nazi Criminals

Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington)

In THE DEBT, Nazi hunters — and Mossad agents — Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) track down and capture Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen). The events in John Madden’s film are fictional, but the story is grounded in reality. Only the names have been changed.

Nazi War Criminals After the War

“Death To Jews” scrawled on a Buenos Aires synagogue following Adolph Eichmann’s capture

The tumult that followed World War II enabled a number of prominent — and infamous — Nazis to elude justice. Some changed their identities. Others went into hiding, living in fascist Spain (particularly the Mediterranean resort town of Denia) and Argentina. A few high-ranking Nazi officers were put on the U.S. government's payroll, employed by the CIA to use their skills  — honed exterminating some 11 million Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, mentally and physically handicapped people, and communists  — in the war against Red Menace. Yet while these servants of Hitler’s Master Race may have found refuge, not all escaped. Both private individuals and organizations (such as Simon Wiesenthal and the Jewish Documentation Center) and government bodies (the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations) have spent years in the hunt for Nazis, like the 10 war criminals mentioned here.

Adolf Eichmann, the Transportation Administrator

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann, as “Transportation Administrator,” was the man responsible for making sure the trains to the Polish death camps ran on time. He is said to have bragged that he sent more than 5 million Jews to their deaths. When the war ended, Eichmann was helped by Aloïs Hudal, a prominent Austrian Nazi and bishop in Rome who was instrumental in establishing a “ratline” that allowed Axis leaders to escape persecution. Eichmann, under the name Ricardo Klement, was given an International Committee of the Red Cross humanitarian passport and a visa for Argentina, to which he and his family fled in 1947. According to CIA documents made public in 2006, in March 1958, the German BND foreign intelligence agency sent a memo to the CIA, saying that Eichmann had been living in Argentina since 1952 under the name “Clemens.” The CIA took no action, because it was worried that any Eichmann’s trial would reveal that both the U.S. and German officials had been collaborating with former Nazis, who were employed to fight Communism.

Capturing Eichmann

Eichmann on trial in Israel

In 1959, Germany informed Israel that Eichmann was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On May 11, 1960, Israeli agents captured Eichmann after he stepped off a bus, on his way home from his job as a foreman at a Mercedes-Benz factory. Gagged and bundled into an awaiting car, he was taken to a Mossad safe house, tied to a chair and interrogated. His captors smuggled him out of the country (disguised as a drunk El Al flight attendant) and he arrived in Israel on May 21. In his trial, which began in April 1961, Eichmann used what is known as the Nuremberg Defense, arguing, like other Nazis before him, that he was just following orders as a government functionary. His apparent ordinariness led Hannah Arndt to coin the term “banality of evil” in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, Israel’s first and last judicially sanctioned execution.

Josef Mengele, the "White Angel"

Josef Mengele, second from left, relaxes with Auschwitz administrators in 1944

Josef Mengele was a member of the SS and a doctor at Birkenau, the extermination center at the Auschwitz prison camp complex. Camp residents called him the “White Angel.” Part of Mengele’s job was to sort out new arrivals at the camp. Dressed in his white doctor's uniform, he would direct, with an outstretched arm, those who were to be gassed one way and those who were to be spared death the other. He got the moniker “Angel of Death” for the medical “experiments” he performed on prisoners. Pregnant women who arrived at Auschwitz fell victim to his interest in vivisection, before being shuttled off to the gas chambers. Twins, however, were his favorite guinea pigs. Rena Kornreich Gelissen, who survived Auschwitz, gave this account: “Once Mengele’s assistant rounded up 14 pairs of Roma [Gypsy] twins during the night. Mengele placed them on his polished marble dissection table and put them to sleep. He then injected chloroform into their hearts, killing them instantly. Mengele then began dissecting and meticulously noting each piece of the twins' bodies.” Of the approximately 3,000 twins who entered Auschwitz, only about 200 survived.

Mengele's Escape

Mossad agent Rafi Eitan

Following the war, Mengele is thought to have made it to Argentina, most likely helped by Bishop Hudal’s ratline — the same one that also aided Eichmann's escape. While the Mossad agents were interrogating Eichmann in a safe house and planning to get him to Israel, they found out where Mengele was living. But rather than wait and also try to capture Mengele, they decided to first finish their Eichmann mission. Rafi Eitan, one of the Mossad agents who captured Eichmann, told the Associated Press in 2008, "When you have one operation, you're taking a certain level of risk. If you're doing a second operation at the same time, you double the risk ... not only for the second operation but for the first one, as well. … When I have a bird in my hand, I don’t start looking for the bird in the bush. I’ll take the bird in my hand, put it in a cage, and then deal with the one in the bush.” But by the time Mossad agents returned to Buenos Aires, Mengele had fled. Two years later, Mossad had another chance to capture Mengele in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but according to Eitan, Mossad had other “operational priorities,” and he escaped capture again. In the end, Mengele drowned in Brazil while swimming in the Atlantic in 1979 and was buried under the name “Wolfgang Gerhard.” It wasn’t until 1992 that DNA analysis confirmed that Gerhard was indeed Mengele.

Martin Bormann, Hitler's Private Secretary

Martin Bormann

Martin Bormann, who served as Adolph Hitler’s private secretary and was a high-ranking Nazi Party official, was one of two men who very briefly inherited control of Nazi Germany after Hitler committed suicide. The other was Josef Goebbels. Bormann is famous for signing the Oct. 9, 1942 order which stated: “The permanent elimination of the Jews from the territories of Greater Germany can no longer be carried out by emigration but by the use of ruthless force in the special camps of the East.” On July 1, 1943, Bormann ordered that Eichmann be put in charge of exterminating Jews — or “resettling” Jews, as Bormann demanded the genocide officially be referred to. Bormann’s ruthlessness extended beyond the Jewish population to many other ethnic groups, like the Slavs. On Aug. 19, 1942, he wrote: “The Slavs are to work for us. In so far as we do not need them, they may die. Slav fertility is not desirable.”

The Hunt for Martin Bormann

Bormann’s “Wanted” poster

Bormann was last seen on May 1, 1945, trying to get out of Berlin. Whether he was killed that day or he escaped is unknown. Bormann’s chauffeur, Jakob Glas, insisted that he saw Bormann in Munich weeks after May 1. Bormann was tried in absentia by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in October 1946, who sentenced him to death. A cottage industry has arisen to make the case that Bormann survived. Bormann sightings were reported in Europe and South America, particularly in Paraguay. But none were confirmed. Some claimed that he had plastic surgery. Another story has it that with the help of German industrialists he set up a network of shadow companies in which to launder Nazi wealth. Then there is the theory that Bormann lived his remaining years in Moscow, as a retired Soviet spy.

Martin Bormann's Death

Bormann’s alleged skull

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said at a 1967 press conference that evidence indicated Bormann was living in South America. And Ladislas Farago, author of Aftermath: Martin Bormann and the Fourth Reich (1974), made the case, based on government documents, that Bormann was alive and well in Argentina. Farago’s evidence was strong enough to convince Nuremberg Trial lawyer Robert M. W. Kempner to start an active investigation in 1972. Yet in December 1972, human remains were found near where Bormann was last seen and DNA tests carried out in 1998 determined that the skeleton was that of Bormann. Wiesenthal and others remained unconvinced. Some claim the skeleton was indeed Bormann’s, but had been planted there.

Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyon"

Klaus Barbie was known as the Butcher of Lyon, for his work as head of the Gestapo in Lyon, France. He is known to have tortured his prisoners — men, women, and children — by breaking their bones, subjecting them to electroshock, and having Wolf, his dog, bite their genitals. He sent hundreds of people, including many Jews, off to the concentration camps. Most famously, he captured 44 Jewish children and their seven teachers who were being hidden in the village of Izieu. On April 6, 1944, he sent a telegram to Gestapo headquarters in Paris that read: “Forty four children ages 3 to 13 have been captured in Izieu. In addition, the entire Jewish personnel there were arrested. The transport to Drancy [the transit camp outside Paris from which Jews were sent to Auschwitz] will take place the 7th of April on my orders.” Following the war, he worked from 1946 to 1951 for the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, which valued both his police skills and anticommunist zeal. In 1951, the U.S. helped Barbie and his family escape to Bolivia, where under the name Klaus Altmann, he remained protected by one dictator after another. In 1965, Barbie was recruited to work for West German intelligence, for whom he filed at least 35 reports.

Barbie's Hunters

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld; Beate Klarsfeld after slapping the Chancellor

In 1971, Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld exposed Barbie’s whereabouts in Bolivia. Serge, a Romanian Jew whose father died in Auschwitz, and Beate, a German Christian, met in Paris and married in 1963. Their story, particularly the hunt for Barbie, is told in the 1986 made-for-TV movie Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story. (Beate was played by Farah Fawcett.) Beate gained international notoriety in 1968 when she slapped West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger at a Christian Democratic Union convention. After she slapped him, she said,  “Kiesinger! Nazi! Step down!” Kiesinger had worked for Hitler’s foreign ministry as the liaison to the propaganda ministry. Following the slap, Beate was arrested for libel and “premeditated infliction of bodily harm”  and sentenced to one year in jail. When asked by the judge if she understood her crime was an act of violence, Beate replied, “Forcing us to live under a Nazi Chancellor is an act of violence, but a woman slapping a man in the face is not.” The sentence was reduced to four-months probation  — a revision the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described as a “merciful judgement.”

The Trial of Klaus Barbie

Klaus Barbie on trial in Lyon. Insert: Barbie’s Bolivian passport

Following the Klarsfelds’ discovery of Barbie in 1971, the Bolivian government refused to extradite him until January 1983, when he was arrested and sent to France. Barbie’s arrest revived questions about the United States’ postwar collaboration with the Butcher of Lyon. In 1983, Allan A. Ryan, Jr., a Reagan Justice Department official investigated and found nothing wrong with the relationship. He concluded: “The job of understanding and countering Communist influence was there, it was legitimate and important, and it had to be done. If a Klaus Barbie was available and effective and loyal and reliable  — and those who worked with him found him to be all of those  — his employment was in the best interests of the United States at the time.” In 1987, Barbie was convicted of crimes against humanity, sentenced to jail for life, and died in jail in Lyon of leukemia four years later, at the age of 77.

Aribert Ferdinand Heim, "Dr. Death"

Aribert “Dr. Death” Heim

Aribert Ferdinand Heim, an Austrian, was an SS doctor at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Known by the moniker “Dr. Death,” Heim experimented on Jewish prisoners by injecting various substances, including petrol, water, phenol and poison, into their hearts. Following the war, he spent some time in a U.S. prisoner of war camp, after which he moved to Baden Baden, where he practiced gynecology. In 1962, he heard that police were waiting at his home and he went into hiding. According to his son, he ended up in Egypt and died there in 1992. But his death is disputed. Both Germany and Austria offered a reward for his capture. He was said to be in Spain, Paraguay, Egypt, the Balkans and Canada. In one report, a former Israeli Air Force colonel, Danny Baz, claimed to be a member of a group of Nazi hunters, code named The Owl, who kidnapped Heim in Canada and took him to the California costal island of Santa Catalina, where he was executed. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and Serge Klarsfeld say Baz is lying. In 2008, the Simon Wiesenthal Center listed Heim as one of the 10 most wanted Nazi war criminals.

Erich Rajakowitsch

Dutch Jews on their way to the camps

When Anne Frank wrote in Diary of a Young Girl, “These wretched people are sent to filthy slaughterhouses like a herd of sick, neglected cattle. But I won't talk about it, I only get nightmares from such thoughts,” the man responsible for those nightmares was most likely Erich Rajakowitsch.

When Rajakowitsch applied to join the SS, his friend Adolph Eichmann wrote him letter of recommendation, proclaiming the Italian-born lawyer to be “somebody who puts himself at the disposal of the cause with heart and soul, a National Socialist of the purest race.” Rising in the ranks, Rajakowitsch was the SS officer in charge of the Special Office for Jewish Affairs in Holland and responsible for sending Anne Frank and about 110,000 other Dutch Jews off to concentration camps and gas chambers. When asked to spare a few Portuguese Jews, Rajakowitsch famously declared, “Jews are Jews — out!” Rajakowitsch disappeared after the war. After Eichmann was captured in Argentina, he told Israeli investigators that he had talked to Rajakowitsch while living in Buenos Aires. And the hunt was on. Simon Wiesenthal, then head of the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, tracked down Rajakowitsch in Milan, where, under the name Enrico Raja, he imported metals and machinery from Eastern Europe. His cover blown, he fled to Switzerland, which expelled him as an “unwanted person.” In 1963, he finally gave himself up to Austrian authorities. For his part in the Holocaust, Rajakowitsch was sentenced by the Austrians to two and half years for having with “malicious forethought created a situation which brought about danger of life for human beings and which resulted in their death.”  After six months, he was quietly released and returned to Milan.

Franz Paul Stangl, "The White Death"

Franz “The White Death” Stangl

Franz Paul Stangl was the Austrian-born SS commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps. As commandant of Treblinka, Stangl wore a white uniform and carried a whip. Prisoners called him “The White Death.” Stangl described his reaction to exterminating Jews this way: “To tell the truth, one did become used to it ... they were cargo. I think it started the day I first saw the Totenlager [extermination area] in Treblinka. I remember [SS officer Christian] Wirth standing there, next to the pits full of black-blue corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity — it could not have. It was a mass  — a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said ‘What shall we do with this garbage?’ I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo. ... I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the ‘tube’  — they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips.”  At the end of the war, Stangl was detained by the Americans but escaped to Syria, and, with the help of Catholic Bishop Aloïs Hudal’s ratline, fled to Syria, where he was joined by his family. He moved to Brazil in 1951, where he eventually found work at the Volkswagen plant in São Bernardo do Campo. In 1961, Austria issued a warrant for his arrest. And even though he was registered at the Austrian consulate in São Paulo under his real name, he was not arrested until 1967, when Simon Wiesenthal tracked him down. In October 1970, he was convicted in Germany of the murder of 900,000 people and sentenced to life in prison. He died eight months later of a heart attack.

Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan

Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan was the assistant wardress of Maidanek, a concentration camp in Poland where the female and child prisoners made clothing. She was responsible for choosing which women and children would be sent to the gas chambers, and was famous for whipping women for sewing on their prison numbers incorrectly. She earned the nickname “The Stamping Mare” for her propensity to kill women by stomping on them with her metal studded jackboots. She is also known to have grabbed children by their hair and thrown them on to trucks bound for the gas chamber, and to have kicked away a stool to hang a young girl. After the war, she was arrested and convicted in Austria of assassination, infanticide and manslaughter. Sentenced to three years in prison, she was released early. She married an American soldier and eventually ended up in Queens, N.Y., where her neighbors knew her as a friendly person who kept her house scrupulously clean. In 1964, the New York Times, acting on a tip from Simon Wiesenthal, revealed her identity, and in 1973 she became the first Nazi to be deported from the United States. She was tried in Germany, and in 1981 sentenced to life in prison. She died in 1999.

Herberts Cukurs

Herberts Cukurs started his career as a celebrated pilot and ended it by being labeled the Butcher of Riga. He earned this violent moniker for numerous heinous acts of mass murder: for rounding up Jews and putting them in a Riga synagogue before setting the temple on fire; for drowning 1,200 Jews in a lake; and for helping murder, on Nov. 30, 1941, 10,600 people in a forest near Riga. Following the war, he escaped to Brazil, where he lived in São Paulo, and ran a charter business, taking tourists on scenic airplane flights. In 1965, a secret group of Mossad agents lured him to a house in Montevideo on false pretenses, where they executed him, shooting him in the head two times. Following his death, newspapers in Germany and South America received the following notice: “Taking into consideration the gravity of the charge leveled against the accused, namely that he personally supervised the killing of more than 30,000 men, women and children, and considering the extreme display of cruelty which the subject showed when carrying out his tasks, the accused Herberts Cukurs is hereby sentenced to death. Accused was executed by those who can never forget on the 23rd of February, 1965. His body can be found at Casa Cubertini Calle Colombia, Séptima Sección del Departamento de Canelones, Montevideo, Uruguay.” In 2004, Latvian nationalists issued commemorative postal envelopes to honor Cukurs as a national hero. Then Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks issued the following statement: “Those who produced such envelopes in Latvia evidently do not understand the tragic history of World War II in Latvia or in Europe.”

Dinko Šakić

As the 23-year-old commander of the Jasenovac concentration camp, known as “the Auschwitz of the Balkans,” Šakić is remembered by prisoners for his black uniform and boots, his white horse and his whip. At the end of the war, Šakić moved to Argentina where he lived for more than 50 years under his own name. He was tracked down by Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and in April 1998, war crime charges were filed against him in Zagreb and he was extradited. In 1999, he was convicted in Croatia for crimes against humanity, specifically killing Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. The New York Times, reporting on the verdict, said Šakić’s crimes included: ordering executions; failing to treat the sick; working prisoners to death; torturing people with a blowtorch; hanging inmates, leaving them dangling for days; and shooting two people to death for smiling. After the verdict was read, Šakić responded by clapping his hands and laughing. Several years later, he said in an interview that his only regret was that he didn’t kill more Serbs.

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