Nicholas Kulish first moved to Berlin as an undergraduate in 1995; he went back in 2004 as a Fulbright scholar, and then again in 2007 to be the bureau chief of the New York Times, where he and his co-author, Souad Mekhennet, stumbled across the story of Aribert Heim. Heim, also known as Dr. Death, had been the world’s most wanted Nazi fugitive; Mekhennet discovered a briefcase in Cairo that revealed that Heim had lived out his life as a Muslim convert in Egypt until he died in 1992. If you’re anything like me, you swore off Nazi books years ago as a matter of principle, but The Eternal Nazi manages that rare feat of being as cinematically riveting as it is morally serious. Nick and I, who have known each other since he returned to Berlin on behalf of the Times, sat down to discuss how he found himself writing about the SS, and what it was like to finish a book about Nazis while reporting on the conflict in South Sudan.
We met in Berlin in late 2007. You’d moved there the summer before to become the Berlin bureau chief of the New York Times. And I remember, very clearly, in our first conversation that you’d told me about how you’d lived in Berlin a few times since 1995ish – first in college, as an exchange student, and later on a Fulbright – and that, when the Times had asked you to move there, your one stipulation was that you were not going to write anything about Nazis unless it was actually news-worthy. There was going to be no Nazi porn on your watch. For the most part, under your tenure, you managed to write very, very little about Nazis. (The minute you were gone it was back to being all Nazis, all the time.) Yet you came out of the whole thing with a book about Nazis. How did that happen? What got you to write about Nazis after you were so reluctant?
Nicholas Kulish: You’re using my own words against me, but if you had tugged me aside and whispered in my ear, “What if I told you that the most-wanted Nazi war criminal in the world, a devilishly handsome former professional hockey player, had hidden himself away in Cairo as a convert to Islam, would you write about that?” I would have said that was a great idea for a novel and I’d love to write it. The fact that it was true made it irresistible. The fact that you’ve brought Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s into the mix gave it a completely new and, for me, incredibly exciting spin.
Let’s go back to the beginning. This suitcase surfaces in Cairo, with all of these documents attesting to the fact that this convert to Islam who died in 1992 was actually Dr. Death, the world’s most wanted Nazi. Who found that briefcase? And how did it come to your attention? What was the first thing you heard about it?
NK: My co-author, Souad Mekhennet, received a tip from a confidential source. That launched the whole thing. She got a hold of the briefcase, came to me, and asked me to go back to Cairo with her and off we went.
And by the time you got there, had the contents of the briefcase been itemized and gone through or did you and Souad go through the briefcase together?
NK: No, it was a dusty leather briefcase with rusted buckles that was stuffed full of all manner of documents, medical records, floor plans for apartments, magazine clippings, and lots of letters. She went through it. We went through it. Even years later we would stumble across a letter that hadn’t stood out but, with added context, revealed secrets of his hiding. There’s a whole letter from his son written almost like a Grimm fairytale, using Heim’s codename, “Gretel,” talking about the wolves tearing her to pieces, because the story has broken in Germany. That made no sense the first time through the briefcase.
What were your first impressions of the shape of the story?
NK: The initial article was very much the story of the briefcase and focused on the fact that this Nazi, rather than hiding in Argentina, was living as a Muslim in a working-class district of Cairo.
And at what point do you figure out that, in your own words, this guy wasn’t just a model Nazi villain, but a sort of James Bond villain as well?
NK: For me the whole James Bond thing goes back to this tuxedo he was wearing in one of the only investigative photos, along with the fact that he was living in the spa town of Baden-Baden in this fabulous villa with his wealthy wife. He had a front company called Camvaro for receiving mail and got money funneled through a Swiss bank account. But I vividly remember going to his hometown in Austria, a tiny little place called Bad Radkersburg on the Slovenian border. And they tell me at the archive that he had a twin brother who died at birth. I started getting this intense “truth is stranger than fiction” vibe.
Right, so for you this is also kind of a Gothic story, in addition to a Nazi one
What does this story not have?
NK: So many of the Nazis were these ex-cons or business failures, general disgruntled losers. The notion of the Aryan superman that they were lauding is the furthest thing from the average old fighter of the National Socialists. But this guy was a world-class hockey player. Tall, handsome, built like a Greek statue, a medical doctor, but part of the Waffen-SS and accused of gruesome crimes at a concentration camp.
This wasn’t some banally evil trains-run-on-time bureaucrat. This guy was truly a monster.
NK: The crimes Heim is accused of committing are hands-on. Witnesses said he injected gasoline into people’s hearts personally. They say he operated on healthy patients, killing them in the process, as a sort of vivisection.
In the documents you found, is there any evidence of contrition?
NK: He insists on his innocence.
You say that he was working on this grand German-English book about how the Jews weren’t even real Semites, so it doesn’t seem like he changed his mind much about the truth.
NK: There’s this convoluted attempt to say that if the Jews of Europe aren’t Semites then there can be no anti-Semitism. It’s a strange form of argument. In his writings you can see a hybrid of Nazi anti-Semitic teachings and the Arab anti-Israeli sentiment of the day cross-breeding. Underneath it all was this urge for forgiveness or amnesty so he could return from his banishment. I wrote the book because these questions of crime and punishment, guilt and responsibility, are so important and crystallized in such an unusual way by this story. These questions are timeless and the impact resonates to issues we still face today.
As far as the issues we face today, you’d written me an email at some point last summer about finishing the epilogue to the book under rather surreal circumstances. Because after you left Berlin, you took a yearlong assignment with the Times in Nairobi and, if I remember correctly, you got the chance to tell some South Sudanese about what Nazis were? Tell us about that.
NK: Right. I was in Jonglei state in South Sudan. I was in this village called Gumuruk where there’s no electricity and during the rainy season there aren’t even any roads out of the area. It’s one of the most isolated places on earth. But this guy was a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders and spoke English. He asked me what I was typing and I said, “A book about Nazis.”
He looked at me and said “What are Nazis?”
That was a question I’d never heard in my life. It’s just taken for granted that these are the worst of the worst, the evilest of the evil and everyone’s heard of them.
So I said, “They were really bad and they killed lots of people.”
But that describes a lot of people in South Sudan, as we’ve learned again in the past few months all too vividly.
So he very skeptically says, “Like how many?”
And I answer, “Millions. Tens of millions.”
And he found it sufficient and nonchalantly agreed, “Oh, well, that really is a lot.”
Did you feel like you had to engage in the atrocity competition? And, along those lines, I know this is a hard question but did the writing of this book – after living in Germany on and off for so long – change your opinion on the historic uniqueness of the Holocaust?
NK: Americans are exposed to the Holocaust from such an early age and so many times that you can become desensitized to what happened. But then I would find myself in an archive reading handwritten cards describing certain killings and would just think, it’s always even worse than I remembered it. If you get into Holocaust scholarship, no matter how prepared you are certain moments will crush you from out of the blue with the enormity and the horribleness of what happened.
Did you ever get an icky feeling about writing about a person who was so glamorously evil? I think the best Holocaust book of the last decade was Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, and so much of that book is about how awful he feels using the Holocaust as a mise en scene for a kind of family mystery – because the Holocaust commands such attention.
NK: Those are issues you have to wrestle with for sure, but the story follows his flight after the war, and life on the run is basically never glamorous. You can flee your pursuers but you’re always hiding in progressively less comfortable circumstances. People sense that you can’t go to the police or your embassy so they con you, squeeze you for bribes. Heim built a prison of his own in Egypt that he could never escape.
He became close to his Arab family, yes? Did they know who he was?
NK: The Egyptian family, the Domas, did not know about his Nazi past. He said he was a businessman from Switzerland who moved there because an illness required warmer climes. When the original story came out they were dragged in for questioning by the authorities for days on end but eventually they were left alone.
Tell me about the pursuit of justice in the book.
NK: As important as Heim is in the book, equally important is this veteran of the German army, the Wehrmacht, who basically devoted his life to hunting Nazis. He was called a traitor, cursed. Fellow cops threw his files out or warned their friends he was coming. But he kept trying to catch these guys and Heim especially.
Heim’s story tells us that the pursuit of justice can never lapse. Victims deserve justice no matter how long it takes.
Who was the veteran?
NK: The veteran’s name was Alfred Aedtner. He was a committed member of the Hitler Youth as a boy, from the brainwashed generation that came of age under National Socialism. But as a cop he worked on war crime cases and dragged these guys in to face justice.
To switch tacks a little bit, tell me about the play that you stumbled upon. That story is amazing.
NK: I was in the archive in Vienna for Mauthausen, the concentration camp where Heim worked, and I found this play on the shelves there. It was by a Mauthausen survivor named Arthur A. Becker who worked as a war crimes investigator in the postwar years.
And Heim is in it?
NK: And in there I find these lines about a doctor named Heim who cuts off the heads of victims and it’s him. This is one of the earliest works of art about the Holocaust, produced as a play in Salzburg shortly after the war, and there is Heim, representing the ultimate villain for Becker. I asked the archivists who work there full time and none of them even realized it was in the collection, much less that Heim was a character in it.
What other far-flung places did the research for the book take you to?
NK: There was Tangier, Morocco, where Heim inadvertently moved into a thriving Jewish community. It was hard to find traces of him there because he came and went quickly.
Alexandria as well as Cairo. He was trying to build a sort of dream house on the Mediterranean with apartments for each of his two sons, so they could all be together.
But it also took me to some unusual places in Germany. Bad Nauheim, where an American occupation officer forced war prisoners to build an ice hockey rink because he thought winter sports would be good for the town. That forced them to start an ice hockey team that Heim later played for with a bunch of refugees from far East Prussia.
Copenhagen where his younger son went to get away from the pressure and work in a restaurant overlooking the Oresund.
What were your interactions like with his children?
NK: His older son, from everything we can tell, basically had nothing to do with him from the day he skipped town, the police one step behind. His younger son, Rüdiger, had a completely different relationship with him, staying in Cairo for long stretches to try to get to know him.
Rüdiger was open with us a lot of the time but there were also people he clearly didn’t want to discuss with us and wouldn’t answer questions about. He believed his father was innocent and was extremely skittish after decades of wiretaps and searches and informants buddying up to him.
Heim said he ran away to protect the family from the ordeal of a trial. Instead he set them up for almost half a century of police scrutiny and stories in the press. He would have left them better off if he had just faced the music.