Newly declassified files shed light on Israel's decision to overcome its sense of unease and enlist the help of Nazi murderers in its espionage agency throughout the course of the Cold War
By Ofer Aderet. Haaretz, Jun 1st, 2023
One day, two and a half years ago, the Jerusalem-based historian Danny Orbach received a surprising phone call from his wife. She told him that a “huge, fat envelope” was sticking precariously out of their mailbox, and that it bore the logo of the Prime Minister’s Office.
When Orbach got home, he was astounded to discover that the Mossad had sent him internal documents that – until then – had been classified, and so were inaccessible to both scholars and the general public. The items were related to a historical phenomenon he was investigating: Nazi war criminals who were employed as mercenaries all over the world during the Cold War. Some of them worked for West Germany, others for the Soviet Union and the United States; some assisted Arab countries and some even collaborated with the Jewish state.
Orbach, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had waited a long time for the documents. “At first, I tried to work through all kinds of people I knew in the organization, but it didn’t help,” he says. “Afterward, I decided to try the most official way. I got in touch with the spokesperson’s unit at the Prime Minister’s Office [to which the Mossad is accountable], and I waited for a reply. I was already quite desperate, though I had been warned that things in that organization move slowly.”
The documents in the envelope helped Orbach write his latest book, “Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries during the Cold War” (Pegasus Books, 2022, with the Hebrew translation published this month by Kinneret-Zmora Bitan). But Orbach was not the only one who ever received a fat envelope from the Mossad. Another was Alois Brunner, though the contents of his envelope were very different. Brunner, who was Adolf Eichmann’s deputy, fled after the war to Egypt and subsequently settled in Syria.
“As Eichmann’s chief aide, he was responsible for multiple genocidal crimes,” Orbach notes. “He was a solver of problems that arose during the deportations and was in charge of a systematic apparatus of hunting people, of plunder and of transport to the camps.” Beginning in the mid-1950s, under a new identity he stole from another former SS official – Georg Fischer – he found new allies. “He chose to devote his life to the Arab struggle,” Orbach says. Living in an apartment in an affluent Damascus neighborhood, Brunner worked for the Syrian intelligence services and was also an arms dealer, notably with Middle Eastern countries that were Israel’s enemies.
On top of this, he came up with a number of outlandish ideas. For example, after the capture of Eichmann in 1960, he suggested that the Syrians mount a seaborne commando operation in which they would infiltrate Israel and liberate the escaped Nazi from prison. Another brainstorm idea of his for springing Eichmann was to abduct Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and offer to trade him in exchange for the Nazi's release.
Orbach did not attribute much significance to those plans, but there is no doubt that they were conceived during what was a very tense period in Israel. Attesting to this is an entry in Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s diary, noting that Nazi gangs were plotting to disrupt Eichmann’s trial. Referring to the same subject, Mossad chief Isser Harel warned that Eichmann’s lawyer was in touch with a group whom he termed “a very dangerous and contemptible gang of Nazis ... of arch-murderers, among them ... some we are looking for.”
At this point, the role of the envelope sent to Brunner by the Mossad begins to loom. In the summer of 1960, the Mossad received information suggesting that Brunner was hiding under an assumed name in Damascus. The Israeli agency took up the gauntlet and made the decision to assassinate him, tasking one of its operatives, Yitzhak Shamir – later Israel’s prime minister – with organizing the mission. He sent to Damascus a former member of Lehi – the pre-state militia that Shamir had led – who spoke fluent Arabic (and whose identity remains unknown). In May 1961, the agent infiltrated the Syrian capital, made his way to Brunner’s front door and identified him, but did not assault him. “Killing the target on the spot was out of the question. Carrying out an assassination in the heart of an Arab capital would have been utterly insane,” Orbach says.
With Brunner’s whereabouts ascertained, Shamir received an “explosive envelope” for the killing, flew to Europe with it and handed it to the agent. The latter returned to Damascus, this time with intent to kill. He dropped off the envelope, addressed to Brunner, at the main post office. The German war criminal opened the envelope on September 13, 1961; the explosion left him blind in his right eye and semi-paralyzed in his left arm. Nineteen years later, in 1980, the Mossad tried again to kill Brunner, again via an exploding envelope that he opened. This time he was badly burned and lost several fingers.
The Mossad didn’t succeeded in assassinating Brunner, but the closing years of his life were distressful for him. In the book, Orbach describes how, after Brunner fell out of favor with the regime, he languished in the cellars of the Syrian secret police "in a tiny, windowless basement cell, without sunlight or medical care.
"He had to subsist on military rations, and choose every day between either an egg or a potato,” Orbach writes. The information was compiled from various sources in a number of languages, including recorded interviews with Brunner’s guards, to which he obtained access. “Luckily, I learned spoken Syrian in the army,” he says. Brunner died in 2001 and is buried in a Muslim cemetery in the Syrian capital. “His archive is in the presidential palace in Damascus. If Assad should ever fall, we might yet learn new and surprising things,” Orbach says.
Orbach, 41, studied history, first at Tel Aviv University and then at Harvard, where he received his doctorate. Currently he teaches military history at the Hebrew University. His interests cover a wide range of subjects, among them the history of intelligence, coups, political assassinations and military disobedience. His first book, “The Plots against Hitler” (English edition 2016), dealt with German resistance movements from 1933 to 1945. The second, “Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan” (2017), is about rebellion and disobedience in the Japanese officer corps during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Orbach’s new book is based on extensive archival research, which included the study of documents from German intelligence, the CIA and the Mossad. Its subjects are Nazis who held various positions in Hitler’s Germany and looked for new occupations after 1945. “The waste matter of history,” he calls them. “It was truly impossible to be a Nazi in the old sense after 1945. They were substantively different in every possible way from the Nazis. Not morally, but in their worldview, at the political and strategic level and also ideologically, because the world was different and because of the appalling defeat. After a defeat like that, you can’t preserve your ideology in full.”
Several possibilities were available to the “new Nazis.” Some continued to adhere to an antisemitic and antidemocratic line, but dropped the struggle against communism. As such, they were able to serve the Soviet Union. Others, who stuck to a distinctly anti-communist line but no longer espoused antisemitism or an antidemocratic viewpoint, worked for the United States. Another group continued to be rabid antisemites and chose to do battle against the Jewish people and Israel, but adopted a new ideology of ostensibly struggling against colonialism, which involved displaying empathy for the developing world and for various “races.”
And there were also those who went on “hating everyone,” as Orbach puts it. They remained neutral on paper, but “incited between the sides that were involved in the Cold War – Americans, Germans, Russians, Arabs, even Israelis – with the aim of getting as rich as possible without committing to any of them,” Orbach says. Some of these fugitive Germans are described as greedy adventurers, some as professional con men. This ideological flexibility accounts for the presence of Nazi mercenaries in every corner of the global arena in which the superpowers faced off in the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of them fantasized about a brilliant future of “Nazi-inspired” revolutions in the developing world, of spectacular terrorist attacks on Jewish targets and the like.
The intelligence services that were their collaborators also sometimes deluded themselves. The CIA, for example, believed that it was essential to utilize Hitler’s former henchmen in order to triumph over the Soviet Union.
The intelligence services of the Jewish state, which was surrounded by enemies, also did not balk at employing former Nazis. One of the more complex cases in this connection is that of Walter Rauff, a German war criminal with buckets of blood on his hands. Rauff played a key role in the development of the Nazis’ mobile murder facilities, the “gas vans” that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Rauff was also one of those tasked with establishing a unit whose objective was to annihilate the Jews of Palestine and to expand the Holocaust into the Levant in general – a plan that ultimately remained only on paper.
He was later posted to Tunisia, Greece and Italy, and in each country he persecuted Jews and resistance fighters alike. After the war, Rauff escaped any trial or punishment. He too joined the collection of Nazis who found refuge in Syria, becoming a military aide to the Syrian dictator Husni Za’im, the capacity in which he helped train the Syrian intelligence services “‘along Gestapo lines.’ Among other things, he designed torture devices to interrogate and terrorize Syrian Jews,” Orbach writes.
In 1949, following a change of government in Syria, Rauff was expelled from the country, and he relocated to South America. On the way, in Italy, he picked up surprising new masters: the Israelis. Bitter at the Syrians for throwing him out, Rauff agreed to sell information to Israel. His handler was Shalhevet Freier, a Foreign Ministry official who was one of the founders of Israel’s nuclear project. At the time, Rauff was posted in Rome to collect intelligence about Arab states. Rauff supplied the Israelis with detailed information about the situation in Syria and also agreed to become an Israeli agent in Egypt, but then decided to move to Ecuador instead. He remained in touch with Freier until 1951.
Did Freier feel comfortable about employing a Nazi? Apparently not, because at first he kept it secret even from headquarters in Tel Aviv, perhaps out of concern that he would be ordered to break off contact with the new agent. When he finally did report about Rauff, he was surprised to discover that the Foreign Ministry found no reason to object to the ex-Nazi’s employment. At the same time, the service he did Israel did not accord him immunity: In 1980, a Mossad team was sent to assassinate him. The squad planned to waylay him outside his house in Chile, where he had eventually settled down, but his wife started to shout and his dog barked. He died about a year later from cancer, entering the history books as a Nazi criminal who was both an agent of the Mossad and on its hit list.
Rauff was not the only war criminal Israel employed. Among the documents that awaited Orbach’s perusal in the envelope from the Mossad, he also found the file for the recruitment and employment of Otto Skorzeny, a former officer in the Waffen-SS who also worked with the Mossad. "There were more redactions there than [visible] lines," Orbach notes, referring to the censorship that continues to deny researchers full access to these historic documents. Still, he adds, he was able to find out “far more” about Skorzeny from other documents the Mossad sent him.
A “shady figure” is Orbach’s summation of Skorzeny. In World War II, he gained fame in commando operations, notably the daring raid that freed the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity in September 1943. After the war he became a businessman, arms dealer and mercenary “who was constantly looking for adventures to overcome his boredom,” Orbach writes. He helped recruit military advisers for Syria and was involved in various deals with German experts who were advisers in Egypt’s missile program.
In 1960, Mossad chief Harel considered launching a manhunt for him, but his successor, Meir Amit, preferred to prepare the ground to recruit him as a source for the organization. Rafi Meidan, a former commander of Amal, the Mossad’s Nazi-hunting unit, was assigned to the mission. To get to Skorzeny, he first befriended his wife, Ilse. According to various reports, the two conducted an intimate relationship, which ultimately paved the way to her husband, with whom she maintained an “open relationship,” according to the Mossad report. After setting up a meeting with the target, Meidan brought in Avraham Ahituv, a future director of the Shin Bet security service.
Ahituv and Skorzeny met in a Madrid hotel. For Ahituv it was a tortuous task, as he “hated what he was doing,” Orbach says. Ahituv immediately brought up the elephant in the room and spoke about the Holocaust. Skorzeny asserted that he had not taken part in the annihilation of Jews. Later, he surprised Ahituv by saying that he liked Israel, which he described as a small, daring country whose people even “excel in physical work.” Israel, he added, is the solution to antisemitism, and all Jews should immigrate there. Afterward the two became absorbed in an argument about the “Jewish question,” and only then arrived at the subject that was the reason for their meeting: Skorzeny’s recruitment by Israel to scuttle activity by German rocket scientists in Egypt.
According to the Mossad’s in-house report as well as Meidan’s own testimony, Skorzeny did not ask for money, but rather requested one “small” favor: help in clearing his name and getting himself removed from the most-wanted list compiled by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Those requests were not fulfilled, but the collaboration still went ahead. Long afterward, Mossad agent Rafi Eitan told journalist and author Ronen Bergman that in his view, Skorzeny hoped that collaborating with the Israelis would ensure that he avoided Eichmann’s fate. Only the Mossad, he thought, could offer him “a life without fear.” From the Mossad documents, Orbach also learned that the connection between Skorzeny and his Israeli handlers continued in the years that followed as well.
Our man in Damascus
In addition to the material from the Mossad, Orbach drew heavily on the archives of the German intelligence services. When he talks about perusing documents belonging to the BND, the Federal Intelligence Agency, it almost seems that his nonfiction book has given rise to a plot in which the author is a character. “I had to apply to an email address and then wait,” he recalls. “In Germany, as opposed to Israel, you can be sure you’ll get a reply. German federal legislation stipulates that a German governmental authority, be it the postal service or an espionage agency, is obligated to reply to everyone who contacts it – and they absolutely uphold that law.” Thus, a few months later, “I did indeed receive a letter stating that my request was being processed, and then another few months went by before another letter arrived inviting me to set a date for a visit by calling a certain phone number.”
So the day arrived when Orbach found himself at the entrance to the BND headquarters in Berlin, which he recalls as a threatening building “that looks like the castle of a villain from a James Bond movie – huge, gray and heavy, like a citadel.” His hosts, who did not introduce themselves, told him to leave his phone at the entrance and took him via elevators and labyrinthine corridors to an empty office whose only furnishing was a desk. “They brought the files, told me until what time I could stay and how to leave the premises for lunch – they escort you to anywhere place that’s farther than the washroom,” he says.
There was, however, one important document he didn’t succeed in obtaining through the official archives of that or any other intelligence agency. It was a cable in which Eli Cohen, Israel’s spy in Damascus, referred to the Nazis he met there. “In the end I found it quoted in a book by [Israeli journalist] Uri Dan from the 1960s,” he says, and points out what every novice historian eventually learns: In some cases, what is hidden by censorship in one place, is open in another. You just have to know where to look.
And that’s how Eli Cohen, who was sent to Syria by Unit 188 of Military Intelligence, ended up being mentioned in a study dealing with Nazi mercenaries in the Cold War. Cohen arrived in Damascus in 1962, equipped with a miniature Morse code transmitter concealed in a double-bottomed cigarette pack, powerful explosives camouflaged as soap, a shortwave radio and other espionage accessories. He posed as an Argentine businessman of Syrian origin named Kamel Amin Thaabet. His original mission was to provide information about military and political developments in Syria. But his superiors also asked him to find out what he could about German war criminals in Damascus.
“Despite the Mossad’s failure to assassinate Brunner, the Israelis still wanted information about his whereabouts, as well as about his escaped colleague Franz Rademacher, the expert on Jews in the Nazi Foreign Ministry and a mass murderer in his own right,” Orbach writes. Already in June 1962, before his first home leave, he received a message from Tel Aviv asking him for more information about Brunner and other Nazis who were in hiding.
Cohen was able to ingratiate himself with the circle of Arab Nazis in Damascus. Brunner stated afterward that Cohen had visited his apartment, but Orbach found no evidence of this, though “Cohen definitely kept an eye on Brunner,” he says. In contrast, a visit Cohen made to Rademacher is documented. In their conversation Rademacher said that “the Jews and the Germans are looking for me everywhere. They are unjustly accusing me of killing Jews during the war.” The next day, Cohen reported to Tel Aviv about the Nazi criminal’s location and noted that he was working for Syrian intelligence. He provided his precise address and also his wife’s name. He concluded the message: “I am ready to kill Rademacher.”
“From Cohen’s point of view, that visit was a very bad idea, because Rademacher was under the close surveillance of the Syrian secret police. A year earlier he had been recruited to the Federal Intelligence Agency, via worldwide neo-Nazi connections,” Orbach writes.
The Mossad, to which responsibility for running Cohen had passed from Military Intelligence, wasn’t enthusiastic about the suggestion of eliminate the Nazi in Damascus. Its top brass “would not let their prize asset in Damascus risk himself with a reckless assassination of dubious value,” Orbach writes. The message Cohen received was unequivocal: “refrain at all costs from any action regarding R. [Rademacher] that may foil your main task. Maintain your interest in R. and send us more information about him.” Subsequently a blunter message was received: “Leave him alone and focus on your main task.”
Orbach thinks that Cohen’s handlers in Tel Aviv made a serious mistake by not instructing him from the start to keep away from Nazis. “For a spy such as Cohen with such a brittle cover story, the attempt to approach such people (and certainly to plot their assassination) was sheer madness,” Orbach contends in his book.
Not long after their meeting, Rademacher was arrested by Syrian security agents and accused of being a spy. Subsequently he was deported to West Germany. Is that the reason that Cohen’s real identity was revealed? “As we know, there are a great many arguments about why and how Eli Cohen was caught. Instead of continuing to poke around in that little corner, I expand the canvas and show how Cohen’s story was intertwined with the story of the Nazis and the German espionage networks in Damascus, and with his attempts – clumsy and dangerous – to hunt down Nazis,” Orbach told Haaretz.
The relations between Syria and the West deteriorated, he explains, and Damascus started to tilt increasingly toward the Soviet Union. “Syria became fed up with the array of German double agents and crushed the different espionage networks that were based on former Nazis,” Orbach says.
“Against this background of spy hysteria, the Syrians suddenly took seriously one of Eli Cohen’s neighbors, a retiree of the security services, who informed on him after expressing suspicions all along, as well as an alert posted by the Indian Embassy to the effect that someone was interfering with their transmissions. That, in my opinion, was the background to the request for aid from the Soviet Union in locating the source of the transmissions, which in the end led to the arrest of Eli Cohen.