For decades, the Mossad followed the trails of eight Nazi war criminals and repeatedly missed or bungled opportunities to assassinate or capture them. Or, as an internal Mossad report concluded in 2007, “Israel’s envoys failed to carry out the verdict history had tasked them with.”
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- The Nazi doctor who came to Israel to 'cure' kids with Down syndrome
In May 1961, Mossad agent N. knocked on the door of a third-floor apartment on George Haddad Street in Damascus. The man who opened the door in a bathrobe was Alois Brunner – the Nazi war criminal who was Adolf Eichmann’s assistant and who helped deport and murder thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Brunner lived in apartment number 7 under the pseudonym Dr. Georg Fischer. N. later reported that Brunner looked “agitated and suspicious” when he answered the door. He had good reason, of course: Eichmann was being held in an Israeli prison, awaiting the start of his trial for crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity, after being abducted by Mossad agents from his home in Argentina the previous year.
Stood facing the war criminal, N. didn’t take the opportunity to kill him on the spot. He settled instead for carrying out his assignment: finding Brunner’s current address while supposedly looking for another person.
Until recently, the full story of the hunt for Brunner was kept locked away in the Mossad archive, along with other stories of Nazi war criminals who eluded the espionage agency. In 2007, the story was told in full in “On the Trail of Nazi War Criminals Who Weren’t Punished” (in Hebrew), written by Holocaust survivor and Mossad operative Yossi Chen for the organization’s history department.
Last Thursday, 10 years after it was written, the book was finally posted on Yad Vashem’s website, together with the full report Chen had written about the abortive hunt for the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele.
Chen’s book reveals that from the 1950s to the ’80s, the Mossad invested considerable resources into hunting down eight leading Nazi war criminals. The Mossad planned to kill them, abduct them or extradite them to a state that would put them on trial.
But most of these operations failed, and we can say in retrospect that some of them were bungled.
The only significant success was the capture of Eichmann in 1960. The most resounding failure was the attempted capture of Mengele, who was also hiding in South America. Most of the other targets eventually died a natural death or fell prey to illness.
If at first you don’t succeed...
Brunner was a prime example of this. The initial plan was to assassinate him by letter bomb. Two such packages were dispatched, both reached their destination and exploded – but each failed to kill their target. Apparently Brunner’s eyes and fingers were injured in the respective blasts.
The time and exact circumstances of Brunner’s eventual death are not known. According to the last known report about him, he died in great pain at age 89 in 2001, while being held in custody in Damascus.
The man who organized Brunner’s attempted assassination was future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He recruited N. – a former member of the Lehi organization, the pre-state militia also known as the Stern Gang – and N. operated in Europe and Arab states under a fake Arab identity. After positively identifying Brunner in Damascus, N. returned to Europe, met Shamir and presented him with the information. The Mossad starting preparing the “punishment execution,” as the mission was dubbed in the book.
Shamir, accompanied by then-Mossad chief Isser Harel, picked up the letter bomb from the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence division. Shamir gave N. the package and the latter flew from his home in Europe to Beirut, from where he drove to Damascus.
N. handed the package in at the post office branch near Brunner’s apartment. A few days later, the media reported an explosion at the post office and that a “foreigner” picking up registered mail had been injured. Later, the Mossad learned that Brunner’s eyes had been damaged, but he resumed everyday life.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1980, the Mossad tried to kill him again using the same method. This time, the letter bomb was sent to him from Austria. Mossad operatives found that Brunner was interested in medicinal plants and obtained envelopes of an Austrian association of friends of medicinal plants, booby-trapped one of them and sent it to Damascus.
The second mission was botched in two ways: First, the envelope ripped when the agents tried to insert it into the mailbox slot, presumably due to its size and weight. Later, after they managed to send it (apparently via the local post office), the Mossad agents’ car rolled into a ditch beside the road to Vienna. They had to be extracted by local firefighters.
This time, when Brunner opened the package, he injured his fingers. To verify this, the Mossad agents telephoned the hospital he was in, pretending to be relatives.
The book says the agents had planned to publish an anonymous statement “taking responsibility” for the assassination if it was successful. It was signed “Those who will never forget.” But Shabtai Shavit, then-head of the Mossad’s Masada unit and later its chief, scrapped the idea, considering, as he put it, “the absence of impressive results.”
‘In the name of justice’
The idea of taking responsibility for the assassination of a Nazi war criminal was also raised in relation to another target: former SS commander Walter Rauff, who developed the mobile gassing vans that preceded the gas chambers.
In this instance, too, Mossad agents came to Rauff’s doorway in Chile – although they never met him. They prepared a press statement in advance, again signed by “Those who will never forget,” and planned to have it sent to newspapers worldwide. The statement was to be backed by a telephone announcement to editorial offices, stating, “Today in Chile, we executed one of the greatest Nazi war criminals – commander of the Gestapo’s technical department who developed and directed the mobile gas vans in which more than 100,000 Jews were exterminated. We are a group of those who will never forget the Nazis’ crimes so we decided, in the name of justice, to execute him.”
This media plan had to be dropped when Rauff escaped assassination.
Rauff got lucky more than once. He was arrested by the Americans after World War II, but escaped from a detention camp while awaiting trial. He fled to Syria, where he worked as an intelligence consultant to the Syrian army. He left for Italy in 1949.
The book says that despite being a war criminal, Rauff operated as an intelligence source for Israel in the period before the Mossad was founded in late 1949. He met official Israeli delegates and gave them information – for money – about events in Syria. His handler was Shalhevet Freier, who worked in the Foreign Ministry and later became a senior scientist in Israel’s nuclear program.
Rauff was arrested in Chile in 1962, but Germany’s extradition request was denied and he was released. In 1978, he was added to the Mossad’s target list, following the decision by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet to resume the hunt for Nazi war criminals. The Mossad was charged with bringing them to trial or eliminating them.
Freier was called in once more due to his past relations with Rauff, and said he was ready to go to Chile to meet with him – but this time in order to set up the assassination attempt. Ultimately, that plan wasn’t carried out and the Mossad recruited other agents for the operation.
The book describes two assassination plans on Rauff: One involved shooting him in front of his home as he either emerged from or entered it. The other was to kill him inside his home or his yard.
Then-Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi traveled to Chile to supervise the operation. In March 1980, after Rauff’s house was located, a two-man detail was sent “to wait in a dark corner” outside the house until Rauff emerged. But he didn’t leave the house that day, so the two agents returned to base.
They lay in wait for him the next day as well, but he didn’t leave the house that day, either. They eventually approached the gate, but a Chilean woman who lived with Rauff came out and started yelling: “What do you want? You have nothing to look for here!” Rauff’s dog also started barking. The agents considered breaking into the house and killing the war criminal, but ultimately fled without performing their task.
“They were close to killing him, so close – it was practically within reach,” the book observes. “But with all the desire to carry out the mission, it wasn’t accomplished. The gun wasn’t drawn from the holster, the finger didn’t pull the trigger.” Four years later, Rauff died of cancer at age 77.