The death of a Nazi-hunter

It is a shame that Cukurs’ many heinous crimes were never presented to a court of law, but at least he was not able to escape punishment.

July 5, 2012 21:19
4 minute read.
Neo-Nazi man giving Hitler salute

Nazi salute neo-Nazi 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Tim Shaffer)


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Late last week, “Anton Kuenzle” died in Tel Aviv and momentarily emerged from the shadows of anonymity enforced on Mossad operatives. Ironically, the media reports of his demise focused primarily on his participation in the abduction of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, but it was his role in another operation against an escaped Nazi war criminal living in South America which was probably his most outstanding individual achievement.

Whereas “Kuenzle” was one of a relatively large team of at least a dozen Mossad agents who participated in the Eichmann kidnapping in Buenos Aires, it was Yaakov Meidad posing as “Anton Kuenzle” who virtually single-handedly organized the assassination of notorious Latvian Nazi war criminal Herberts Cukurs in Uruguay in 1964.

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That operation was exceptional in the annals of the Mossad, which to the best of our public knowledge devoted relatively little attention to the issue of escaped Nazi war criminals, except for the cases of Eichmann, Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele (the infamous “Angel of Death”) and Gestapo chief Heinrich Mueller, and was not involved in the assassination of former Nazis.

The background to the action was also a product of special historical circumstances.

At that time, there was talk in West Germany of applying the statute of limitations to murder, which would have prohibited the prosecution of killers, including Nazi war criminals, if 20 years had passed since the crime had been committed. That discussion lit a red light in Jerusalem, where the fear was that such a step would end the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice, even though many of the worst murderers were still at large.

According to a memoir Meidad published in Hebrew 15 years ago under the pseudonym he used in the operation, this was the background for the unusual decision made by Israel, which wanted to signal West Germany that if they stopped bringing Nazi war criminals to trial, the Jewish state would have no choice but to track them down and execute them.

The reason the first target of the operation was Cukurs, who was notorious for his brutality as the deputy commander of the infamous Latvian Arajs Kommando murder squad which killed at least 30,000 Latvian Jews and actively participated in the mass murder of many additional thousands of Jews in Belarus, had to do with the legal status of his case.


Toward the end of the war, Arajs and Cukurs, along with many of the Latvians who served under them, retreated with the German forces and posed as innocent refugees fleeing Communism, a ruse which enabled many of these killers to emigrate overseas, primarily to Anglo-Saxon democracies. Cukurs escaped to Brazil and was living in Sao Paulo, where he was eventually discovered living under his own name.

The Soviet Union, which had occupied Latvia, asked for his extradition but the Brazilians refused, claiming that they could only extradite Cukurs to the country in which he had committed his crimes – which no longer existed (due to its occupation by the Soviets).

Under these circumstances, it appeared there was no hope the “Butcher of Riga” would ever be held accountable for his heinous crimes.

The plan formulated by the Mossad was complicated because it called for the assassination to take place outside Brazil, where there was still a death penalty for murder. Meidad, who posed as an Austrian business man interested in investing in a tourism company, had to earn Cukurs’ trust, so that he could be lured to Uruguay, where the operation could be carried out with less risk for the Mossad agents.

Meidad did so successfully, despite the emotional difficulty of posing as a Wehrmacht officer and spending lots of time with a brutal mass murderer with so much Jewish blood on his hands.

Meidad’s parents were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

Eventually, after weeks of courting Cukurs with the hope of considerably expanding his aviation tourism business (Cukurs was a famous pilot), Meidad convinced the Latvian to meet him in Montevideo, where a Mossad team was waiting for him.

The original plan was to hold a trial and then execute Cukurs, but the minute he walked into the safe house, the Latvian realized what was about to happen and he fought against his captors, who executed him on February 23, 1965. The operation was portrayed as the work of “those who can never forget” in a message sent to local media outlets.

The State of Israel never officially admitted its role in the execution of Cukurs, but 15 years ago, Meidad wrote a memoir with journalist Gad Shimron under the pseudonym “Anton Kuenzle,” entitled The Execution of the Hangman of Riga, which was published first in Hebrew and then eight years ago in English, and fully clarified the circumstances of the operation.

Ironically, the fact that Cukurs was never convicted in a court of law in recent years inspired Latvian right-wing extremists to try to portray him as a blameless national hero, an effort which reflects the current attempts in the Baltics to distort the history of the Holocaust by minimizing the highly-significant role of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian Nazi collaborators in the mass murder of Jews.

In that respect, it is a shame that Cukurs’ many heinous crimes were never presented to a court of law, but at least he was not able to escape punishment, thanks in large measure to the daring exploits of Yaakov Meidad, to whom we all owe a debt of deep gratitude.

The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office.

His most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, has a chapter on the failure of independent Latvia to honestly face its Holocaust past and the efforts to rehabilitate Cukurs as a national hero.

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