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The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heimby Nicholas Kulish
Synopses & Reviews
They called it zero hour. Six years of conflict culminated with incendiary bombing raids, artillery shelling, tanks rolling through the countryside. Cities were reduced to rubble. The death and destruction Nazi Germany had visited upon the rest of Europe came home to the Reich with a vengeance. The Allies had won, but the Continent was near chaos. Europe was full of desperate souls on the move. There were caravans of displaced persons clogging the roads in every direction: forced laborers returning to Poland; prisoners of war returning to France and Britain; nearly twelve million ethnic Germans expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, seeking refuge in Germany and Austria. Most haunting by far were the survivors of the concentration camps, who emerged from their imprisonment like walking skeletons. Soon the world realized that the crimes committed in the name of Nazi Germany went far beyond ordinary violations of the rules of war.
The Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, prepared a comprehensive list of suspected war criminals. It was known as the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, or CROWCASS. The first version of the list contained 70,000 names. By some estimates 160,000 people should have been included. The question facing the Allies was how to find and punish even those 70,000 perpetrators in the chaos of the months after Nazi capitulation. The Americans alone had to deal with some 7.7 million German military personnel in custody, including regular Wehrmacht soldiers; members of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, which had played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power; high members of government who had enacted deadly policies; and members of Hitler’s dreaded vanguard, the Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS. Separating them proved difficult.
One clue as to who was who came from a mandatory blood-type tattoo under the left arm of all SS members. Captured soldiers were lined up and inspected for the telltale mark. But the method was not always effective. Two of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, were not detected. Seventeen people named Josef Mengele served in the German armed forces, and when captured, the Auschwitz doctor gave his last name as Memling, a famous Bavarian painter. He did not have the SS tattoo and claimed to be a regular doctor with the Wehrmacht. He ultimately fled custody, as did Eichmann. Neither was forced to stand in the dock for the postwar trials that began in Nuremberg.
The pursuit of war criminals was just one of the Allies’ responsibilities and not necessarily the most urgent. Germany was reeling from a total defeat rather than a negotiated surrender. People were starving, crops needed harvesting, and millions of POWs without jobs were released within months. The U.S. Third Army had released more than half a million prisoners by June 8; the Twelfth Army group freed an average of 30,000 prisoners a day. Meanwhile, the British sent home some 300,000 Germans as part of Operation Barleycorn, specifically so that they could save the harvest. That number grew to more than a million by August 1945 so that former soldiers could also work in mining and transport. There were untold tons of rubble to clear, bridges to rebuild, unexploded bombs to remove. The telecommunication network, postal service, highways, railways, and even local public transport systems had to be rebuilt.
On June 29, 1945, the Allied Supreme Headquarters issued Disbandment Directive No. 5, which authorized a general discharge of German prisoners not in “automatic arrest categories” such as SS members and war criminals. Captured soldiers were simply looked over by a doctor and given a questionnaire to fill out. Interviews were brief. If a soldier was discharged, he received half a loaf of black bread and roughly a pound of lard as rations for the journey home. With such speed and great numbers it was unavoidable that some war criminals would be among those set free.
One of the men kept in custody was Hauptsturmführer Aribert Ferdinand Heim, an Austrian doctor with the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the SS that had grown into a parallel German army. Though a prisoner, he continued to serve as a doctor, treating wounded Germans at the 8279th General Hospital, near Carentan, France, about twenty miles away from Normandy’s Omaha Beach. The hospital was actually a giant tent complex, previously an American field hospital before the United States handed it over to the Germans. When the Red Cross visited in May 1945, there were 1,417 wounded or sick soldiers there. The Red Cross inspector found the conditions to be “excellent” and said that German soldiers had even volunteered that the treatment there was better than it had been on the German side in the last few years of the war.
The tents could be hot during the day and frigid at night, but there were operating rooms, X-ray machines, and a laboratory. The facility was well stocked with surgical equipment and medicine, according to the Red Cross observer. In essence, the German doctors themselves ran the hospital, with four American officers overseeing their work. “On a professional level,” the Red Cross assessor wrote, “the cooperation between the American and the German doctors is good.” That included Heim. His American superiors were impressed with his skill and dependability. In a recommendation, the American captain Edward S. Jones wrote that Heim’s work in the surgical section “had been excellent and essential for the care of the POW patients.”
Heim struck up friendly acquaintanceships with fellow doctors and even a German pastor, Werner Ernst Linz. The pastor observed how Heim “practiced his medicinal arts in a very responsible manner for the well-being of the soldiers entrusted to him.” Dr. Heim was particularly “self-sacrificing” in treating sexually transmitted diseases, doing everything he could to help his patients, Linz wrote in a letter of recommendation.
Though he traveled widely during the war, Heim ended up right where he had begun, in France. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Austrians had the same duty to serve as their new compatriots. Heim insisted under questioning that he had been drafted into the Waffen-SS against his will. His first assignment after earning his medical degree in Vienna at the age of twenty-five had been as a driver during the German invasion of France in 1940. Heim assisted in the resettlement of ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia and worked on earthquake relief in Romania. He had served at the frigid northern reaches of the eastern front in Norway and Finland and been wounded in action.
Just eight days after the first American soldier crossed the Rhine on March 7, 1945, Heim’s unit was captured at Buchholz in western Germany. Heim was fortunate to find himself a prisoner of war on the American side, rather than facing a trip to Siberia courtesy of the Soviets. He was sent to the prisoner-of-war camp in France.
He was not on the CROWCASS list of wanted war criminals, but as a former member of the Waffen-SS he was in the Allied automatic arrest category, and it was not easy to secure release. Arrest and prosecution would have been certain but for an omission. For all the places Heim went over the course of the war, one post was missing from his file—through oversight or intentional removal, it was unclear—a small town in Austria called Mauthausen.
Less than nine months after he was liberated from six years in concentration camps in Germany and Austria, Dr. Arthur A. Becker was in Vienna working as a special investigator for the U.S. Army’s War Crimes Investigating Team 6836. He was a slender, brown-eyed fifty-five-year-old, with noticeable gaps between his teeth, born in the northern German town of Prenzlau. A writer by profession, Becker had studied pharmacology and had been living in Stuttgart when he was arrested. During his incarceration he wore the green triangle of the common criminal, but as he told the American authorities once he was freed, one of his grandfathers was Jewish. He had been arrested for making critical statements about the SS after Kristallnacht.
American war-crimes investigators struggled to build their cases quickly for trials they planned throughout their zones of occupation; they were drastically understaffed. Manpower was shifted first to the Pacific theater, where the United States was still fighting the Japanese. After the Japanese surrender, GIs were sent home as quickly as possible. Those soldiers kept to investigate war crimes were “mostly shell-shocked tank officers who were sent to this new unit as a form of recreation and rehabilitation,” one prosecutor recalled. “They sat around with no idea what to do.” The enormity of the task, as well as the language barrier, required the help of locals, and the ranks of former inmates provided enthusiastic volunteers like Becker.
On the morning of Friday, January 18, 1946, Becker had appointments in Vienna to interview other former inmates—a man named Josef Kohl in the morning and one named August Kamhuber in the afternoon—about the killings of Allied military personnel in violation of the Geneva Convention. Like Berlin, the Austrian capital was a divided city at the time, occupied by British, French, American, and Soviet troops, all with their own zones plus a jointly administered international zone in the first district. The investigative team Becker worked for was headquartered in Salzburg, but even the simple task of bringing witnesses from the Soviet sector required a special settlement between the increasingly mistrustful wartime allies. The Russians deemed the movement of witnesses from their zone to be “kidnapping.”
Much of Vienna’s former grandeur was still obscured by wartime damage. Between the bombing raids and the final Red Army offensive to take the city, large swaths of the old first district had been demolished. In all, some eighty thousand homes had been destroyed or damaged. Displaced persons from all over Europe, including camp survivors and former slave laborers, sought refuge, adding to the housing crisis. Gas, electricity, and telephone services were disrupted, and the Viennese received permission from their occupiers to chop down many of the trees lining the city’s once-lovely boulevards to fend off the cold of the hard postwar winter.
The shortages and rationing were nothing out of the ordinary for Josef Kohl, who had grown up poor and often gone hungry as a child. As an adult, he was bald with a tight-lipped, self-conscious smile, possibly to hide his large and slightly crooked teeth. The Austrian Communist looked more like the trained accountant he was than the street fighter he had become. Kohl took to the barricades in 1934 to fight for the Austrian republic against the fascist takeover and was shot in the chest, the bullet passing through his lung. After the Nazis absorbed Austria into the growing Third Reich, the Gestapo arrested Kohl. Following several months in the Gestapo jail at Morzinplatz in downtown Vienna, he was transferred to the infamous Dachau concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich, where he remained for a year.
One year later, in September 1939, Kohl was transferred again, this time to a year-old camp in Upper Austria. Heinrich Himmler chose the site for economic exploitation so that inmates could be used as slave labor to cut granite from the Wiener Graben stone quarry. The camp was named for the nearby town of Mauthausen. The inmates at the camp were forced, under threat of violence and even summary execution, to carry heavy stones up 186 steep stone steps cut into the hillside. Many simply died from the exertion. The inmates eventually built their own prison, unique in appearance among the concentration camps with its high stone wall and guard towers, giving their camp the look of a medieval castle.
Before the Nazis opened extermination camps in Poland, Mauthausen stood as the only Class III concentration camp in a three-tiered system. That meant that, according to the Nazis’ own rating, it was the harshest in the whole network of camps, even worse than Dachau, Buchenwald, or Auschwitz, designed for “Vernichtung durch Arbeit,” or extermination through work. That year more than half of the nearly sixteen thousand inmates at Mauthausen died or were killed. Kohl remained there for the entire war, almost six years in all, until liberation came in the waning days of the conflict. Now he was free, living again with his wife, Agnes, and working as the head of the branch of Volkssolidarität, or the People’s Solidarity, an organization of former camp inmates.
Becker’s interview with Kohl began at 10:55 a.m., with the witness giving his biographical information, his address on Endergasse in the Hetzendorf neighborhood south of the city center in Vienna, and his account of how he came to be held at Mauthausen. These formalities taken care of, Becker asked, “What do you know about the abuse and murder of English or alternatively Anglo-American prisoners of war?”
“The first English prisoners, who jumped with parachutes into France and there procured civilian clothes for themselves, were brought to Mauthausen in 1940 and there were shot as spies,” Kohl answered. How did Kohl know that they were English? Kohl explained that he spoke English and had talked to the men before they were executed. He went on to describe the mistreatment of the Allied pilots in July 1944, the kicks, the heads slammed against walls, and he named the members of the SS responsible.
Becker wanted to know what Kohl could tell him about the mistreatment and killing of prisoners. “I was a clerk in the sick quarters from April 1940 to June 1941,” Kohl said. “As a result I was present as an eyewitness at the first killings by syringe injections.”
“What sorts of prisoners were killed?” Becker asked.
“First and foremost it was those unfit for work, the weak, and the sick.”
“Are you aware of any other atrocities committed by SS camp doctors?” Becker asked.
“Yes. Camp physician Dr. Heim had the habit of looking in the mouths of inmates to determine whether their teeth were in flawless condition. If this was the case, then he would kill the inmate by injection, cut off the head, and let it cook for hours in the crematorium until the naked skull was bared of all flesh and this skull prepared for him or his friends as decoration for their desks.”
“What else can you say about this Dr. Heim?” Becker asked.
“If he selected an inmate for his experiments, he took care first to question him thoroughly, in particular about the state of his family, whether they were provided for in the event that he was gone. Once he had established that, he performed operations on healthy people. He convinced them through figures of speech that it was just a small, harmless operation and that once they were recovered they would immediately be let go. Then he performed the most difficult, complicated operations such as stomach, liver—even heart operations—on these people that had to lead to their deaths. These people were entirely healthy human beings, and the operations were for experimental purposes,” Kohl concluded.
“Do you know whether Dr. Heim is still alive?” Becker asked.
“I cannot provide any specific information about that,” Kohl said. “It cannot be ruled out that he is in hiding.”
Nicholas Kulish is a correspondent for The New York Times. He was the paper’s Berlin bureau chief from 2007 to 2013.
Souad Mekhennet is a journalist and reports for The Washington Post and ZDF German television. She is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and she previously worked for The New York Times.
NICHOLAS KULISH was the Berlin bureau chief for the New York Times from 2007 to 2013. He now reports from East Africa for the Times.
SOUAD MEKHENNET is a journalist and reports for the Daily Beast, the Washington Post, and ZDF German television. She is an associate at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and previously worked for the New York Times.
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