As Mio started preparing for his next mission, one thing bothered him: the spectacles he would wear to help create his new identity as an Austrian called Anton Kuenzle. If he ordered a pair with clear glass lenses that would leave his vision unimpaired, the lenses would have no curvature and, if spotted, might arouse suspicion in the target. He opted instead for a prescription pair that could potentially damage his eyesight.
“My uncompromising perfectionism, even at the cost of my own health, is part of my nature,” he would later write. “I always paid attention to all the small details, and I never took shortcuts.”
Mossad agent Yaakov “Mio” Meidad was one of a kind. The Berlin-born Israeli spy whose parents had been murdered in Nazi death camps was known within the agency as “the man with the hundred identities,” and was widely recognized as one of its greatest-ever undercover operatives.
Although many of the obituaries after his death in 2012 at age 93 focused on his role in the Adolf Eichmann abduction, it was another South American mission in the 1960s (a detail of which is described above) that was arguably his most daring: the almost single-handed entrapment and assassination of Herbert (aka Herberts) Cukurs, aka the Butcher of Latvia/Riga.
That Mossad mission and Cukurs’ war crimes – he is estimated to have killed some 30,000 Latvian Jews in the Baltic state – are recounted in Stephan Talty’s excellent new book “The Good Assassin” (out now, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28).
Although it has become a cliché to state that nonfiction books read like fast-paced thrillers – so much so that I now plan to refer to gripping thrillers as having the pace of nonfiction books – that’s doubly true of Talty’s latest tome, which races through its historical tale like a David Baldacci novel.
Talty, 55, is no stranger to the world of espionage, having previously written books about the Spanish spy Juan Pujol (aka Agent Garbo) and Eric Erickson, the millionaire oil mogul who went from Nazi collaborator to U.S. spy at the end of World War II. He has also taken on real-life heroes, having co-written, with Richard Phillips, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea” (which Paul Greengrass adapted for the big screen as “Captain Phillips” in 2013).
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But Talty gets to combine both in his new book, as he recounts the amazing story of the introvert yekke Meidad, who in February 1965 ensured that bloody justice – and boy was it bloody – was finally served on Cukurs for his war crimes. But this was far more than just a simple case of vengeance.
Speaking to Haaretz by phone from his home in New Jersey, Talty says he first came across the Cukurs story while reading Ronen Bergman’s 2018 book “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.”
“I was fascinated by the idea of assassinating a representative of the ‘ordinary men’ of the Holocaust,” he says, referring to the fact that, until this point, it was thought that only Hitler’s main henchmen were in Israel’s sights.
Unusually for a Mossad agent, Meidad had been allowed to publish a memoir in the late 1990s, “The Execution of the Hangman of Riga,” in which he detailed the hit on Cukurs. That proved to be the perfect launchpad for Talty’s own work. “I felt that Mio had told a very straightforward story of what happened, but all the color, and all the political and social events around it, had been left out of that book – so that’s what I wanted to fill in,” he says.
Specifically, Talty is referring to the German Bundestag vote in the spring of 1965 on whether to introduce a statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes. If passed, this would effectively mean that war criminals in Germany would be able to crawl out of the woodwork, free from the risk of prosecution.
Alarmed that Nazis would literally be allowed to get away with murder so soon after the Holocaust, the Israeli government decided to send Germany a message – and it wouldn’t be via Western Union.
In Paris in the fall of 1964, a plot was hatched to kill Cukurs at his new home in São Paolo, Brazil, with the aim of reminding Germany and the wider world that there were murderous monsters still at large who needed to answer for their crimes – and that if no one else wanted to deal with it, the “long arm” of the Mossad would.
Talty calls Meidad “a guy who yearned to play a part in great historical events,” but who recognized that his introverted nature “didn’t suit that very well, so he would reinvent himself again and again. I really think of him almost as an actor,” he says. “I think he liked the act of creating these characters as much as he liked serving Israel and doing the right thing for his country.”
Meidad had been in charge of logistics in the 1960 operation to snatch Eichmann from the streets of Buenos Aires, but Talty says his role in the Eichmann mission “was much smaller than what he did in the Cukurs case. But somehow the Eichmann thing – because it was so public, given there was the trial – has remained the sort of Nazi-hunting event we all remember. It’s almost as if we can only remember one, and that’s it.
“But I thought the whole thing about the amnesty and statute of limitations made this a wider story. Germany was really trying to avoid facing the Holocaust, and that statute of limitations debate along with the Cukurs assassination forced them to face their own history.”
“The Good Assassin” is a story told through several characters: Cukurs and Meidad, obviously, but we also learn of the horrific experiences of a young Latvian Jew, Zelma Shepshelovich, who was probably the only person to hear Cukurs confess to his murderous actions.
“I just loved her as a character,” Talty explains of Zelma, whose wartime and post-wartime experiences are recounted. “I felt that she represented the kind of fighting spirit of a lot of Jews in Latvia. You know, after you hear some of these stories about Jews being led to the pits and having very little resistance at that point in the process, it was just great to find someone like Zelma, who was constantly fighting and looking for a way to get justice after the war.”
Talty admits a fascination with Cukurs, because “before the war he was someone that I really would have admired – someone who built his own airplanes, took his life in his hands when aviation was really kind of a death wish, and made a success of it as a self-made man.” Indeed, before the war, he was known as “the Lindbergh of Latvia,” an irony that will not be lost on anyone who has just watched “The Plot Against America.” But when the Germans arrived in Latvia in June 1941, “of course he turned into this savage killer. And that transformation – which kind of reflects Mio’s own transformation to catch him – really attracted me. I wanted to know why.”
His answer to the question was that since Cukurs had collaborated with the Soviets during their own occupation of Latvia prior to the arrival of the Nazis, “He knew that he could end up in the [death] pits himself if he didn’t find a ready victim he could pursue.
“I think it started out with self-preservation, but then he got to be one of the ‘lords of Riga’ and just obtained the kind of power he had always dreamt of,” Talty says of Cukurs, who served as deputy commander in the notorious Arajs Kommando death squad. “I found it fascinating that he wasn’t a rabid anti-Semite; he just kind of chose himself over his former neighbors and friends,” he notes.
One of the most remarkable things about Cukurs is that when he went on the run and resettled in Brazil after the war, he never sought to establish a new identity for himself. He kept his old name, which Talty sees as “a testament to his vanity. He didn’t want to become this anonymous nobody.”
He continues: “The thing about Cukurs is that he was a self-publicist. When he was discovered in Brazil in 1950, [there were] dozens – if not hundreds – of articles about him and interviews with him. He wanted to be in the spotlight, so he exposed himself. He talked about his version of what had happened during the war, so I got all of those articles translated by a Portuguese translator and, you know, there he was – justifying himself and his own actions.
“He really was his own worst enemy. There were other guys like Cukurs in Latvia, but one of the reasons that the Jews of Latvia remembered him was that he was so famous and such a self-promoter. And the same thing happened again in Brazil, so he really did set a trap for himself,” Talty says.
‘Cukurs’ – the musical
One never expects Cukurs to come out of the book well, but what is perhaps more shocking is how seemingly enthusiastic the Latvians were to abandon their Jewish compatriots to the Nazis and participate in the roundups and mass killings. (I had a similar experience recently reading Hadley Freeman’s book, “House of Glass,” which showed how so many French Jews were horrifyingly keen to hand their Jewish neighbors over for slaughter.)
Talty himself admits to being surprised by their actions, “especially as before the war Latvia was almost seen as a sanctuary – it didn’t have this terrible history of pogroms and things like that. I think Cukurs’ story and his betrayal [of the Jews] is reflected in the wider country.”
And we’re not just talking ancient history here either. A 2014 musical staged in Riga presented Cukurs as a national hero, and right-wingers have spent several decades painting him as an innocent man. “I think this is where the Mossad almost worked against itself, because they didn’t give him a trial,” Talty says. “The rightists in Latvia have taken advantage of that: there’s no trial, there’s no guilty verdict and so he is innocent – which of course is nonsense.
“His rehabilitation is part, of course, of a rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world. But to choose someone like Cukurs as your representative? I think that eventually will backfire because the testimonies are very strong against him,” Talty adds.
A tragedy of any spy’s life is that their life-endangering efforts will probably never gain the recognition they deserve, certainly not in their own lifetime and maybe not even posthumously. But Meidad never received the acclaim within Mossad that his skills seemingly merited. Talty believes this is because he was the eternal outsider.
“He had this heavy German accent, which would immediately arouse suspicion [in Israel] even if it was subconscious, and he didn’t have that driving personality that a lot of men who rose in the Mossad had. He just didn’t fit the mold they were looking for as a leader of men.
“I guess people prefer the James Bond figure as opposed to the George Smiley type,” says Talty, comparing Meidad to the British master spy created by John le Carré. “But he could just become these people – which probably does point to the fact that he was frustrated in his real life. He just wanted to become these larger-than-life men and was more confident even in danger in playing these roles than he was being Yaakov Meidad back in Tel Aviv.”
Despite being arguably one of the espionage agency’s greatest spies, Talty says Meidad always “stuck out like a sore thumb,” not only in his appearance – which was more pallid, deskbound clerk than international man of mystery – but also in how he approached life.
“He wanted Plan A, then Plan B, C and D, whereas a lot of Israelis just felt they were going to be able to pull it off,” Talty explains. He adds that Meidad “always felt Israelis had this mystical overconfidence in themselves that he didn’t trust, with his background growing up in Germany.”
“The Good Assassin” joins that already groaning bookcase of volumes about the Mossad, many of them only too happy to add to the mythologizing about the agency. But what is fascinating about Talty’s book is its revelations about how close the assassination – which eventually took place in Montevideo because Brazil had the death penalty for murder – came to abject failure.
“I had always had an impression of Mossad as a clinical, perfectionist agency that seemed almost never to make mistakes,” Talty says, adding that his research into the killing did “go against my idea of the Mossad as this omni-powerful organization.” For starters, it was all done on a shoestring budget and was pretty much a one-man show starring Meidad until it came to the actual assassination (in an empty house in suburban Montevideo).
However, Talty admits to being impressed by the initiative of the individual agents, and how they solved their own problems. “I think one thing that characterizes Mossad and its agents is how much they leave to the free mind of their own operatives, and how much room they give their men to innovate,” he says. “I think the CIA would have planned that operation down to the last napkin in the hotel. It was very much not a perfect mission – they got the result they wanted, but they came very close to having it turn into a disaster.”
‘Mountain of guilt’
When four Mossad agents eventually managed to kill Cukurs after Meidad successfully lured him to Uruguay for a supposed business meeting, his body was left in a trunk in the Montevideo home with a sheet of paper atop the corpse outlining his war crimes – notably his “personal involvement in the murder of 30,000 men, women and children.” It was signed: “Those Who Will Never Forget.”
Yet when a Mossad agent called a string of German news outlets to tip them off about Cukurs’ death, not one of them followed up on the story – leaving the team sweating that the death would go unreported before the crucial March 10 debate on a potential amnesty for Nazi war criminals.
“They almost blew the mission in the final act,” Talty observes. “It almost reminded me of criminals who plan the perfect murder, but their planning ends at the moment the other person dies. They don’t think of alibis and things like that.
“As agents, they were very antithetical to the press; they just hated journalists, so they had never thought through that part of the operation” he says. “I do think this mission, which doesn’t follow the classic rules of super-organized, almost clockwork precision – that really does show in the media aspect toward the end. But Mio is the anti-James Bond, so there is no reason that this should not be the anti-James Bond story.”
Despite the frenetic nature of the operation toward the end, it was ultimately a case of mission accomplished. The German Bundestag voted overwhelmingly against the introduction of an amnesty, with one particular lawmaker, Adolf Arndt, famously coming out against it at the 11th hour.
“We all knew, really,” Talty's book quotes Arndt as telling his fellow parliamentarians. “I know I also share the guilt. You see, I didn’t stand in the street and scream loudly when I saw them driving away our Jews in lorries. I didn’t put on the yellow star and say, ‘Take me too.’ … We must take upon ourselves this very heavy and, alas, very unpopular burden. We must not turn our back upon the mountain of guilt and sin which lies behind us.”
I conclude by asking Talty if he believes the Mossad’s success in eliminating Cukurs ultimately became something of a curse, since it encouraged Israel to increasingly turn to the agency to “fix” its problems.
“I think it’s one of the first examples of carrying out state policy or state objectives through Mossad missions – and I think that sword cuts both ways,” Talty responds. “I feel that Israel became too dependent upon these means, because the Mossad was so good at it in many ways.”
Israel, he says, mulling his words, “turned down a path that I do think has been over-traveled over the years.”