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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Meidad’s parents were killed in Nazi concentration
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
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. jpost.com