The trial of Eli Cohen (left). Damascus, 1965.
The trial of Eli Cohen (left). Damascus, 1965. Photo by AFP
Text size
related tags

Nazi diplomat Franz Rademacher signed one of the most chilling documents in the history of the Holocaust. In October of 1941, Rademacher went to Belgrade, and upon his return to Berlin submitted an expense account noting the purpose of his visit: “extermination of the Jews of Belgrade.” Rademacher was in close contact with Adolf Eichmann.

At the start of the 1950s Rademacher was convicted in Germany for complicity in murders of Serbs and sentenced to three years in prison; the Israeli press covered the trial. He was released until the hearing of his appeal − and disappeared; at one stage he settled in Damascus. In 1966 he was brought back to Germany and re-tried. The proceedings continued for a number of years but stopped in 1973 when Rademacher died.

This story offers an important moral, which goes beyond the history of the Holocaust: Everything that has been published about the fate of Nazi criminals and about the activities of secret services, anywhere in the world − including the Mossad − should be taken with a very large grain of salt. It is almost never possible to know what is true and what is fiction.

In September 1967 two Israeli journalists who were very close to the Mossad, Uri Dan and Yeshayahu Ben Porat, published a book about Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who was active in Syria, and executed there in 1965. The story presented there is ostensibly based on an exchange of messages between Cohen and his handlers. One day, according to Dan and Ben Porat, Cohen discovered Rademacher’s address in Damascus and was even a guest in his home; he reported this to his superiors and asked for further instructions.

Cohen’s handlers in the Mossad ordered him to concentrate on his main mission and not get entangled in hunting Nazis. According to Dan and Ben Porat, Israel transmitted the information it received from Cohen about Rademacher to West Germany; in turn, it demanded that Syria extradite the Nazi and the Syrians did so.

Now veteran Israeli journalist Samuel Segev has published a revised edition of his book on Eli Cohen, which was first published in 1986 ‏(“Alone in Damascus: The Life and Death of Eli Cohen”; Keter, in Hebrew‏). In it he writes: “In September 1966 German intelligence agents abducted Rademacher from his home in Damascus, put him in the trunk of a car with diplomatic license plates, drove him quickly to Lebanon and from there flew him in a special plane to Germany.”

According to Segev, “There is no way of knowing how the German intelligence agency learned of Rademacher’s new address, but many years later one of Cohen’s handlers at the Mossad‏ said in a private conversation: ‘The shitty Germans screwed Eli for us.’”

All this is very baffling: Why would the Germans bother to abduct Rademacher? And how was it exactly that the Germans “screwed Eli for us,” considering that Cohen was executed in May 1965, a year and a half prior to Rademacher’s supposed abduction?

As is usual in books about the Mossad − and frequently, also, in books about the fate of Nazi criminals − this story appears without any mention of a source.

About eight months ago, the German weekly Der Spiegel published a new revelation about Rademacher, uncovered in U.S. Central Intelligence Agency documents: Starting in 1962 he apparently worked for the German overseas intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, known as the BND. He lived in Damascus and from there he regularly dispatched intelligence reports, for pay. The Americans knew about his presence there as early as 1957. ‏(In this context it should be noted that the CIA files contain a lot of nonsense too, including a report from the 1950s to the effect that Eichmann was hiding in Jerusalem.‏)

And the Mossad? And Eli Cohen? The report in Der Spiegel does not match what is written in Samuel Segev’s book. According to the German weekly, Rademacher had already been arrested on suspicion of spying in July 1963 − that is, half a year before Eli Cohen submitted his report, which Segev says he did the day after his meeting with Rademacher on December 2, 1964.

According to Der Spiegel, the Syrians held Rademacher in prison for more than two years. Der Spiegel does not give details of the circumstances of his return to Germany, but presumably, had Rademacher been “abducted,” the publication would not have omitted such a detail.

The impression is that everyone has something to hide, perhaps out of shame. Everyone is trying to deceive history. Including the Mossad. Its archive is closed to research, including the files on Nazi war criminals.