Executing the hangman

According to former agent ‘Anton,’ in 1965 the Israeli government deployed the Mossad to South America to assassinate a Nazi in a way that would resonate internationally and make it difficult for Germany to enact a proposed statute of limitations on war criminals. The target? Latvian Herbert Cukurs, the Hangman of Riga.

Mossad agents converge on a foreign city with intent to kill. Within hours after their target checks into a hotel, he is dead. Within hours of the assassination, his killers have left the country.
There had been meticulous planning, extensive reconnaissance and the use of false passports.
A note pinned to the victim’s shirt identifies his killers as “Those Who Will Never Forget.”
That assassination, of course, is unrelated to the January killing in Dubai of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mahbouh, although the method of operation bears clear resemblance.
The event described above occurred 46 years ago in Uruguay. In a rare departure from the secrecy that normally shrouds such affairs, a member of the hit team has described the assassination in detail – to this writer, as it happens – and with the apparent permission of the Mossad itself.
The victim was not an Arab and had nothing to do with Israel’s ongoing battle against its enemies. He was instead a specter of the past and his killing had a clear moral/political message that was delivered not on behalf of Israel but of the Jewish people.
As related by the retired Mossad operative, who uses the pseudonym Anton, the Montevideo operation was prompted by the German government’s consideration in the 1960s of imposing a statute of limitations on war crimes. If adopted, thousands of Nazi criminals sheltering in South America or under assumed identities in Europe would be free to resurface. The kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 had sent expatriate Nazi war criminals scurrying for their bolt holes. But if Germany absolved them of legal guilt, they could be virtually certain no one would pursue them.
On September 1, 1964, exactly 25 years after the start of World War II, Anton attended a meeting in the apartment of “Joseph,” a Mossad officer in Paris. A dramatic act was needed, said Joseph, to remind the world that the Holocaust was not a crime that could be erased by time. The Israeli government did not want another trial of a senior Nazi. The Eichmann trial had been a catharsis. Any repeat would only reduce its powerful impact. The government was also disinclined to again brazenly violate a friendly country’s sovereignty, as it had Argentina’s in Eichmann’s case, by sending agents to kidnap someone from its streets.
It had been decided instead to assassinate a Nazi in a way that would resonate internationally and make it difficult for Germany to enact a statute of limitations. Israel’s involvement would be discreetly shielded. A target had already been chosen. He was not a German but a Latvian, Herbert Cukurs. A prewar winner of international awards as an aviator, he had sought a role as executioner when the war began. As an SS officer in Riga, he had been responsible for the murder of more than 30,000 Jews. He had even shot a baby in front of its mother. He fled to Brazil with his family in 1946 and now operated a marina in Sao Paulo.
The execution of Cukurs would, if possible, not be carried out in Brazil but in neighboring Uruguay, said Joseph. Brazil had a death penalty while Uruguay did not, and there was always a possibility that the perpetrators might be caught. Before an operational plan was drawn up, an agent would be sent to Brazil on reconnaissance. Joseph offered the task to Anton, who accepted immediately.
A SHORT, balding man of 51, Anton was born in Germany and was of the right age to pass himself off as a German war veteran. His father, a doctor, had served in the German army in World War I and had considered himself and his family fully assimilated into German society. From the living-room window of their house on a central square in his hometown, Anton had seen his comfortable world begin to collapse in the early 1930s, when Nazis staged their first rallies. With Hitler’s rise to power, the students in his high school were obliged to begin the school day with the Nazi salute and the pledge of “Heil Hitler.” The Jewish children were spared the salute and pledge, but were required to stand. Biology classes were now devoted to lectures on Nazi racial theories. The school principal, a dignified man beloved by his students, resolved his dilemma by killing himself.
When Anton was 15, his parents obtained the permits necessary for him to leave for Palestine to study.  At war’s end, Anton was in London in the uniform of the Jewish Brigade when he attended a public meeting called by the World Jewish Congress. As soldiers paraded through the streets outside, Jewish emissaries from Poland and Romania who had survived the death camps told what they knew. Members of the audience sobbed or listened in stunned silence as they learned the fate of European Jewry. Anton would in time learn of the death of his parents in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.
During the War of Independence he fought in the IDF and afterward joined the Mossad. A shy and straightforward man in private life, he had the ability in an undercover role to project a conviviality that evoked trust. He had, on several occasions, displayed a facility for acting coolly in tight situations and had earned a reputation for perseverance and a readiness to take calculated risks. His short stature and mild demeanor made him seem nonthreatening.
The first step was to create his cover as an Austrian businessman operating out of Holland. Three days after the meeting in Paris, Anton took a train for Rotterdam and checked into a hotel near the railway station. Before the day was done, he had opened a bank account, rented a post office box, obtained visa forms from the Brazilian consulate, received vaccinations required for the trip from a doctor accredited by the Brazilian consulate, gone to an ophthalmologist and deliberately failed the eye test to obtain glasses to help his disguise, arranged a fitting for a suit and ordered business cards. He also began to grow a mustache.
The next day, Anton booked a flight to Rio de Janeiro from Paris in a week. He corrected the proofs of the business card at the printer’s, had a fitting at the tailor’s, picked up his eyeglasses and bought a roomy piece of luggage. He also obtained South American guidebooks and airline timetables. Early in the afternoon he caught an express train back to Paris, where he found that new members of the team had arrived. The weekend was spent in brainstorming in Joseph’s apartment. Communication procedures were worked out and hotels picked for Anton’s stay in Rio and Sao Paulo.
He flew on to Zurich, where he opened a dollar account at the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt, providing a home address in Vienna, and took out a letter of credit for $6,000. Returning to Rotterdam, he went to the Brazilian consulate to apply for a visa. At the tailor’s he had his final fitting for a dark, lightweight suit that would be appropriate dress in Brazil for a businessman. His business cards were ready at the printer’s. There was time for a leisurely dinner at an Indonesian restaurant.
The next morning, the visa was ready. The suit awaiting him at the tailor fitted beautifully. He was on the express train back to Paris in the afternoon. The next evening, only 10 days after the first meeting in Joseph’s apartment, he boarded the plane for Brazil.
IT WAS assumed that Cukurs was linked to the network of ex-Nazis known as the Alte Kameraden. If so, he could be in a position to have Anton’s cover story checked out. From the moment he landed, Anton adhered to his assumed identity as if his every move would be traced. It was only after leaving his card with tourist officials in other parts of the country that he arrived in Sao Paulo.
Anton spent three days examining tourism possibilities in the city before arriving at a restaurant overlooking the Interlagos marina. Finding a table near the window, he ordered lunch. In the marina he could see an older man in a leather jacket talking to a young man and a blonde woman. A cabin cruiser was tied up alongside a line of pedal boats and a hydroplane bobbed gently nearby.
When Anton drove to the marina two days later, the blonde woman was in the cashier’s booth.
“Do you speak English?” he asked.
She recognized his guttural accent. “You can speak to me in German,” she said. “I’m from Dresden.”
Anton switched to German but didn’t bother saying where he was from. “What are you offering here?” There were pedal boats for hire or rides in the cabin cruiser. It was also possible to take a 20-minute flight over Sao Paulo in the hydroplane. Anton began to ask questions about group fares, charter possibilities, advanced bookings, night cruises. The girl wavered after a few moments.
”I’m sorry, why don’t you ask him?” She gestured toward the man in the leather jacket. “He speaks German too.”
Close up, Herbert Cukurs looked older than in his pictures and he wore glasses now. There was almost a sheen of innocence on his face as it focused on the prospect of a new day’s business. The eyes, however, had seen too much to be masked even after 20 years.
“The girl in the booth sent me,” said Anton.
Cukurs’s German was second-hand and it carried a heavy Baltic accent. Anton noticed that one of the frames of Cukurs’s eyeglasses was reinforced by tape. Like the boat, Cukurs had plainly seen better days. He responded with alacrity when Anton asked for a flight over the city. Despite his 64 years, Cukurs was still powerfully built. Sitting behind the pilot’s seat as they flew over Sao Paulo, Anton sensed that he would not be an easy man to kill.
After landing, Cukurs invited him for a drink aboard the boat. Anton had casually mentioned that he represented a group of European investors looking for tourism prospects. Cukurs rose to the bait. As they toasted each other with brandy, Cukurs mentioned that he had some property that might be developed for tourism. Anton’s brief reference to friends in Europe appeared to give Cukurs the idea that Anton was himself one of the Alte Kameraden.
“Where did you serve in the war?” Cukurs suddenly asked. Reacting instinctively, Anton unbuttoned the top of his shirt to reveal a shallow scar. ”On the Russian front,” he said. The scar was from a minor operation, not a war wound.
“What was your rank?”
“Lieutenant,” replied Anton.
Again, it seemed to him that Cukurs understood the modest officer’s rank as a deliberate downplay of his real rank.
To Anton’s astonishment, Cukurs began talking about the accusations against him as a war criminal. A pack of lies, said Cukurs. The Jews were out to get him.
THREE YEARS after his arrival in Brazil, Cukurs had been recognized. He moved to several locales trying to shake off the attention of the Brazilian Jewish community, which demanded his prosecution as a war criminal. Sullen, down-at-the-heels and with his home protected by fences, guns and guard dogs, he defiantly hunkered down in Sao Paulo.
When Anton asked his thoughts about tourism development, something in Cukurs came alive. Anton represented a chance to mount life’s stage once again. Anton sensed, however, that Cukurs’s survivor’s instincts would not easily be neutralized. The blue-gray eyes had not lost their ruthlessness or sharp intelligence. The slightest mistake could be fatal for the operation and possibly for Anton himself.
Anton glanced at his watch and Cukurs hastened to seek a way to maintain contact. “Why don’t you come visit me at my home at your convenience?” he asked. Anton said he had to depart the next day. “When and if I get back to Sao Paulo I’ll be happy to call.”
That night he wrote a lengthy letter to Paris reporting all that had happened so far. If he were to disappear, whoever came after him would be able to pick up where he had left off.
Returning to Sao Paulo a week later, Anton drove to Cukurs’s home. A guard dog wandered along the barbed-wire fence surrounding the compound. Cukurs greeted him warmly. The first thing he showed was the medals he had received as an airman and as an SS officer. Close by was an arms chest with four well-oiled pistols.
Cukurs produced photographs of a beach area that might be developed for tourism. He also had two ranches which he would like to show. Anton agreed to visit. At Cukurs’s suggestion, he bought a pair of boots against the danger of snake bites. He also bought a switchblade knife. They would be alone in the jungle and if Cukurs turned on him he would at least have something with which to fight back. Cukurs took along a pistol and a rifle when they set out.
One of the ranches was on the Crocodile River, which they crossed on a frail, swaying bridge. If Cukurs suspected him there was no better place to arrange a final farewell. Instead, Cukurs paused at one point on a trail and suggested they do some target practice. He handed his rifle to Anton, who put all the bullets into a tree trunk within a one-inch radius. Cukurs’s spread was three inches and he graciously conceded that his guest was the better marksman. At one point, a nail in one of the new boots began to prick Anton’s foot. When he took the boot off and tried to knock the nail in with a rock, Cukurs handed him his pistol and Anton used the butt as a hammer.
The location, of course, was ideal for killing Cukurs. But the object was to make his execution a public statement. A quiet killing in the jungle was not what this was about. They slept that night in the same room in the hut of the absent ranch manager.
THE JUNGLE trip was an important bonding. Cukurs began addressing him as “Herr Anton,” which was at once informal and deferential. Anton began calling him Herbert, friendly and a bit patronizing. The fact that Anton had agreed to make the trip removed from him some of the distrust which Cukurs automatically bestowed on any stranger who entered his space.
When Cukurs suggested that Anton visit Porto Alegre, Anton asked if Cukurs would come along. The lift to Cukurs’s ego was palpable. Anton made the flight and hotel arrangements. They would be arriving separately, and Anton arranged that Cukurs would arrive at the hotel first so that he would not suspect a trap. When Anton knocked on Cukurs’s door, the Latvian opened it with a pistol in one hand. “If you had a long nose,” said Cukurs with a smile, “you might have been in danger.”
The next day Anton announced that he was leaving for Uruguay before flying back to Europe. Would Cukurs come along as interpreter? Already on a roll, Cukurs agreed. Montevideo had been chosen as the killing ground, but this trip was only to be a test.
Before their trip, Cukurs invited Anton to his home for Kaffee und Kuchen, a sort of farewell party. Anton found himself sitting at the head of Cukurs’s table with six sets of eyes examining him – Cukurs, his wife, their three sons and a daughter-in-law, the girl from the ticket booth. The conversation was light, but he was aware that the slightest slip could be his undoing. Mrs. Cukurs brought out a cake she had baked in his honor, which he was able, with sincerity, to praise.
Anton flew ahead to Montevideo, where he began assembling data that would be needed for the final stage, including information about roads in the city, car rentals, license plates and arrival and departure procedures at airports. When Cukurs arrived, Anton took him to a real estate agent with whom they visited several properties. At lunch Cukurs made a gesture for the bill, but Anton easily fended him off, letting him pay for the coffee at their next stop instead.
At dinner that evening in a charming Montevideo restaurant, Cukurs suddenly addressed the waiter in Yiddish. “Redst ah bissel Yiddish?” Do you speak a bit of Yiddish? Cukurs had picked up Yiddish from the Jews of his Latvian hometown, Libau. The waiter did not look at all Jewish and Anton, who remained deadpan, assumed that Cukurs was watching his reaction. But Cukurs’s question may have reflected a broader paranoia. That evening the two men went to a casino where Anton placed a few chips at one of the cheaper roulette tables and won $200. He insisted on splitting the winnings with Cukurs.
This would be their last time together for a while. From Montevideo Anton was to fly back to Europe via Buenos Aires “to consult with my associates.” Anton gave Cukurs his POB number in Rotterdam and asked him to mail him the used airline tickets after he returned to Sao Paulo so that the matter of expenses could be settled with the bookkeepers. It was a nice touch that added to Cukurs’s sense that he was on the team.
BACK IN PARIS, Anton spent several days writing up his report before the team members gathered to work out the final plan. Cukurs would be lured to Montevideo and taken by Anton to an isolated building. There he would be subdued. The charges against him would be read to him as well as the verdict handed down by “Those Who Will Never Forget.” Only then would he be killed. A note containing the verdict would be left on the body.
Four men, including Joseph, would join Anton in Montevideo on the eve of the operation. Others would provide logistical support in Europe and South America.  On December 31 Anton sent a letter to Cukurs wishing him a good year and asking him to obtain visas for Uruguay and Chile. That night the team members went out to celebrate the arrival of 1965, a welcome respite.
The next stage would be a precise, complex choreography for an entire team. The planning encompassed airline itineraries, hotel assignments, car rentals, preparation of false documentation, allocation of money in various currencies, establishing methods of communications among the members of the team and between them and Europe. The timing now depended on Cukurs’s announcement that he had obtained his visas. A colleague was dispatched to Rotterdam to check the postal box every day. On January 20, the anticipated letter from Sao Paulo arrived. Anton bought a ticket for Buenos Aires on a January 28 flight that included a brief stopover at Sao Paulo. Four days before that date, he sent a telegram to Cukurs asking him to meet him at the airport.
The transit passengers in Sao Paulo were last to leave the aircraft. As he debarked, Anton saw a movie camera pointing at him. Holding it was Cukurs. Anton raised his hand in a friendly wave that would hopefully shield his bald pate, his most distinguishing feature. In the three months since they had last seen each other, Cukurs’s survival instincts had recovered. Anton understood that the filming was no friendly gesture but a warning.
In the transit lounge, Cukurs made an unnerving admission – he did not yet have his visas. Anton’s angry reaction was not feigned. He and his associates needed to work with people they could absolutely rely on, he said. If Cukurs wished a relationship with them, he must never mislead them and thereby waste their time and money. If Cukurs wanted in, he had to be in Montevideo when the team arrived in a few weeks. Chastened, Cukurs apologized and said he would start the visa process immediately. Over coffee, he asked the name of the hotel where they would stay in Santiago after visiting Montevideo and the Punta del Este resort. It seemed to Anton that Cukurs was still checking him out.
The conflict within Cukurs was tangible. On the one hand, Anton represented the one chance he had of again becoming a player instead of a quasi-fugitive. On the other hand, he was leaving his safe haven in the company of a man about whom he knew little. Cukurs resolved the dilemma by deciding to live with it. He would take his pistol with him. Before leaving, he handed the film of Anton to his wife. “If anything happens to me,” he told her, “he’s the one who did it.”
A CALL from Cukurs reporting receipt of his visas kicked the operation into gear. Within four days, the first of the other team members arrived in Buenos Aires from Europe. Leaving them to search for a safe house in the Argentinean capital, Anton flew to Montevideo. Another team member joined him there and the two set about finding a house where the deed would be done. It proved difficult.
At last, a possible location was found by Anton’s colleague in the fashionable Carrasco Quarter on the seafront. The small villa, called Casa Cubertini, was far from ideal. A cottage was under construction only 30 meters away and workers were there throughout the day. Anton studied the building from the street for a few moments. “Okay,” he finally said. “It will work.”
In the days before Cukurs’s scheduled arrival, the men familiarized themselves with the escape route. Although Anton’s knowledge of Spanish was rudimentary, he made a point of scanning the newspapers every day for anything that might affect their plans. One morning he saw an item that one of the roads they planned to use was to be closed for repairs. There was time to work out an alternative route.
Anton purchased a suitcase, which he kept in the trunk of his car to take the place of the one he would abandon in his hotel room. He would not be checking out of the hotel after the killing and would need a suitcase containing clothing and other items at the airport so as not to arouse suspicion if asked to open it.
February 23 was judgment day. At 9:30 Anton was at the Montevideo airport watching the Air France plane land. When Cukurs descended, he scanned the terminal balcony and spotted him. The two men waved to each other.
Anton greeted Cukurs heartily when he emerged from passport control and led him to his black Beetle. After checking Cukurs into his hotel on the Plaza Independencia, they walked next door to the Lufthansa office to confirm the reservations for Santiago and then drove to the real-estate agent’s office. The agent took them to see two properties, both of them overpriced. Anton thanked him. “We may call again,” he said. As he and Cukurs got back into the car, Anton said he wanted to make a quick visit to the property he had rented as a temporary office.
The street in front of the villa was empty. Anton parked opposite the entrance and walked to the door. Unlocking it with a key , he walked straight inside, leaving the door wide open and staying in Cukurs’s line of sight. Cukurs followed. As he entered, the door slammed shut and three men behind it leaped on him.
It was a moment Cukurs had been anticipating for 20 years. Roaring, he shook free. The three Israelis had stripped to their underwear so that the clothes they wore in the getaway would remain untorn and unbloodied. Fighting desperately and with astonishing strength, Cukurs ripped the door handle off. Anton now joined in the attempt to subdue him. “Lasst mich sprechen,” Cukurs shouted. Let me speak. He tried desperately to get to the pistol in his pocket.
Concerned that his shouting would reach the nearby construction workers, Joseph shoved his fingers into Cukurs’s mouth. Cukurs clamped down hard and almost bit one off. Joseph picked up a hammer and struck him, but Cukurs kept struggling. Giving up the efforts to subdue him, Joseph pulled his pistol and fired two rounds into Cukurs’s head. His heavy body was lifted into a trunk and the death sentence, written in English, pinned to his shirt. Glancing down the street, Anton could see no indication that the construction workers had paid attention to the shots.
The men were gripped by thirst, which they slaked at the kitchen sink. After showering and dressing, they wiped surfaces on which they might have left fingerprints. The men piled into two cars and headed for the city center. Anton, in the lead, watched his speedometer to make sure they remained under the speed limit. He paid heed to every traffic light and stop sign. Joseph urged him to speed it up a bit but Anton refused. Outside a coffee house on Plaza de Cagancha, Joseph got out. The coffee house would be the check-in point for the team members on their way to the airport after they finished tending to their final bits of business.
Anton parked his car near the hotel. He removed the suitcase he had prepared from the trunk and hailed a taxi. At the coffee shop he and Joseph were soon joined by the others. They went over their operational checklist to make sure they had forgotten nothing and reviewed their rendezvous procedure in Argentina. Each man then departed on his own for the airport. As he waited for his plane, Anton went over the steps he had taken since morning and could detect no loose ends. He called the hotel to announce that he would not be returning. The advance payment he made would cover his and Cukurs’s bills. He also canceled the air tickets he booked for himself and Cukurs to Santiago and the hotel reservations in Chile.
At the Buenos Aires airport the team members were greeted by a colleague, who told them which hotels they had been booked into. He provided each with yet another set of passports and identity papers. That evening the team met in an upscale restaurant where they shared a bottle of champagne. Absent was Joseph, who had gone to a doctor to have his finger stitched. There was no mention of the execution. They were not killers, any of them, but none had any compunction about the vengeance they had taken.
A few days later, with the team members safely back in Europe, one of them telephoned AP and Reuters in Frankfurt to inform them of the execution. He told them where the body would be found and read out the verdict of “Those Who Will Never Forget.” The news agencies informed the Uruguayan police. When no press reports appeared, calls were placed again to the agencies a few days later. Both said that the Uruguayan police were unable to find the villa. The caller repeated the location and stressed that this was not a hoax. The next day, March 7, 1965, the discovery of the decomposing body of Herbert Cukurs, “Hangman of Riga,” was flashed on the news wires from Uruguay together with the contents of his death verdict.
World reaction was almost universally sympathetic to the killers, who were presumed to be Jews. Many survivors from Riga who had never before testified came forward in different countries to speak of the horrors perpetrated by the Latvian engineer who found sport in the murder of Jews. Reading these accounts, Anton felt a chill when he thought of the intimacy he had shared with the man.
Fast-forward to today: The trial of wartime death camp guard JohnDemjanjuk currently under way in Munich reflects the Germangovernment’s decision in 1969 not to impose a statute of limitations onwar crimes.
This article is based on a book in progress. abra@netvision.net.il