|By Dr. Efraim Zuroff|
In the minds of many people, the continent of South America is practically synonymous with Nazi war criminals, and for good reason. During the initial years after World War II, many of the most important escaped Holocaust perpetrators found a refuge in Latin American, and especially in Argentina. Thus, for example, Adold Eichman the person responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution all over Europe escaped to Buenos Aires, as did Josef Mengele, the notorious doctor from Auschwitz known primarily for his pseudo scientific experiments on twins and triplets designed to learn the secret of multiple births (which he hoped to use to engineer a population explosion in Germany). They were not the only perpetrators to begin life anew in the Argentinean capital. Walter Kuschmann (or Pedro Olmo?? As he was known), the Nazi police chief of Lvov escaped there as did Edward Koschmann, who played a role in the mass murder of the Jews of Riga, Latvia and Ivo Rojnica, who served during years of the war as governor of Dubrovnik, Croatia and was a prominent member of the fascist Ustasha movement .
Important Nazi war criminals who settled elsewhere in Argentina included Josef Schwammberger, the commandant of the Rozvadow, Mielea and Przemysl, forced labor camps in Poland, who personally murdered numerous inmates under his charge, and was living in Cordoba,. Erich Preibke who served in the Gestapo in Rome an organized the execution of 335 Italian hostages (among them 75 Jews), as a reprisal for a partisan attack in Rome in Which 30 German soldiers were killed, and was living in Bariloche, and the married couple Dinko and Nada Sakic who served, he as commandant and she as a guard at the Stara Gradiska woman’s camp, at the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp., nicknamed for good reason, the “Auschwitz of the Balkans,” who were found living at Santa Teresita.
The large influx of Nazi war criminals to Argentina was not at all accidental. Today, thanks to the important book The Real Odessa by Argentinean journalist Uki Goni, we know that the Peron government actually launched a well-funded initiative to find Nazi war criminals in search of f haven and offer them refuge in Argentina. In other words, Holocaust perpetrators did not have to fool the local immigration authorities to “sneak” into Argentina, but rather were considered highly-desired immigrants.
The situation in other South American countries has not been as fully researched, but it does nt appear that any of the other countries attempted anything even close to the Argentinean effort. Nonetheless, numerous high-ranking and especially important Holocaust perpetrators found refuge elsewhere in South America. Among the more notable examples were several show settled in Brazil such as Franz Stangl, deputy director of the Harthern (Austria) euthanasia center, who built the Sobibor death camp (250,000 Jews murdered there during the years 1942-1943) and was commandant of the Treblinka death camp (875,000 Jews murdered there from summer 1942 until fall 1943) who found refuge in Brasilia, Brazil; the deputy at Sobibor Gustave Franz Wagner who lived in Sao Paulo and Herberts Cukurs, the deputy commandant of the infamous Latvian Arajs Kommando, a death squad of volunteers which murdered at least 30,000 Jews in Latvia and were also active participants in the mass murders in Belarus, primarily in Minsk. Josef Mengele, it should be noted moved to Brazi in the early sixties and died there in 1979.
These days South America is gain in the spotlight of Nazi-hunting as the search for world’s most –wanted Nazi war criminal, Dr. Aribert Heim, is being conducted primarily in Patagonia, an area of southern Chile and Argentina. Heim served as a doctor in three Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen, during he years 1940-1941. It was in the latter camp, during the fall of 1941, that he earned the nickname of “Doctor Death,” for the sadistic crimes he committed in his capacity as camp physician. According g the meticulous records he kept of the numerous operations he carried out on his unsuspecting victims, Heim personally murdered hundreds of inmates by injecting phenol (gasoline) directly into their hearts. He also carried out operations without anesthesia, performed various experiments on inmates and was known to use body parts of the people he murdered as decorations in his office. In late 1941, he was transferred out of the camp and spent the rest of the war with a Waffen-SS unit in Finland.
The fact that he was several years removed from his crimes at Mauthausen when World War II ended, might explain why he was not initially prosecuted by the Allies. Although he was arrested and held in an American detriment camp until 1947, Heim was not among those brought to trial on those years for crimes at the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Following his release, Heim practiced as a gynecologist in Germany, most recently in the city of Baden-Baden, where in 1962 he was about to be arrested by the West Germany authorities. He was apparently tipped off, however, about his impending arrest and was able to escape and has not been caught yet. Over the years there were reports that he had found refuge in Egypt (where he worked as a doctor for the local police), Canada, Uruguay, Spain and various other locations. But he was never caught. Although Simon Wiesenthal considered him one of the most important Nazi war criminals still at large, interest in this case waned as years went by with no success.
In 2004, however, one of Heim’s two sons who live in Germany committed a financial crime and as a result, all the family bank accounts were examined. To the surprise of the investigators, a bank account was revealed in a British bank under the name of Aribert Heim with 1,200,000 euros along with 800,000 euros worth of stocks and bonds. All the children had to do to get the money was produce a death certificate of their father, but they had never done so. The obvious conclusion was that Heim was still alive and the practical result was the establishment by the German police of a special task force to find “Dr. Death.”
This task force approached the Wiesenthal center when they learned of our intention to launch “Operation: Last Chance” in Germany in January 2005. They requested that we name Dr. Aribert Heim is the number one target of the project and we agreed, even though the primary purpose behind “Operation: Last Chance” was to discover Nazi war criminals whose existence and whereabouts were unknown to us. Ever since then we have been involved in an intensive search for Heim who in the meantime has been elevated to the No. 1 position on our annual “Most Wanted List” (due to the assumption that Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s top assistant who has been living in Syria for decades, is probably no longer alive).
Over the past three and half years our office I Jerusalem has received hundreds of tips, information, and leads regarding the whereabouts of “Dr. Death.” He has literally been “seen” all over the world from an airport in Phoenix to Las Vegas, Japan, Vietnam, Belgium, Canada, Austria, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and many other places. But after analyzing all the data and in close calculation with the German police special unit, we reached the conclusion that the most probable area for Heim to hide in is somewhere in the corridor between the Chilean port city of Puerto Montte and the Argentinean ski-resort of Sau Carlos di Bariloche. The former is the home of Heim’s illegitimate daughter Waltraud Diharce, ne’e Boesen and the latter a well-known haven for numerous Nazi war criminals. And it was for that reason that we headed there in early July to try and advance the investigation which we hope will lead to the capture and prosecution of the world’s most wanted Holocaust perpetrator.
From the outset, it was clear that our role did have some important limitations. For starters, we could not arrest him ourselves nor could we in theory hold him captive. But we nonetheless were able to achieve two important objectives for the operation. We were able to coordinate our efforts with those of the highest police and Interpol institutions in Chile and Argentina and we succeeded in publicizing the reward of 315,000 euros for Heim's capture and had an excellent opportunity to explain the nature of his horrific crimes to the wider public. The latter was particularly important, since only when we reached Patagonia did we realize how little impact had been made on the local population by our previous campaign, launching "Operation:Last Chance" in Santiago and Buenos Aires in late 2007. This also explains why we were contacted during the trip by quite a few local informants, who had potentially-valuable information which might possibly lead to Heim's capture.