Nazi Hunter Who Would Track Down His Mother's Killer Is Born

Kurt Sauerquell would utilize his job as a waiter at a German restaurant to gather intelligence about war criminals in hiding. Finally, it became a full-time job

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Elliot Welles (left) receives the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit from Dr. Erhard Holtermann, German Consul General in New York, 1996
Elliot Welles (left) receives the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit from Dr. Erhard Holtermann, German Consul General in New York, 1996Credit: ADL

September 18, 1927, is the birthdate of Elliot Welles, the low-profile but hard-driving hunter of Nazi war criminals who entered the field because of his determination to bring to justice the German officer who sent his mother to her death, in a forest outside Riga in 1942.

He was born in Vienna as Kurt Sauerquell, the only son of the former Anna Hoffman and Aaron Sauerquell. His parents separated when he was young, and Anna, a domestic worker, raised him on her own.

In January 1942, nearly four years after the German annexation of Austria, both mother and son were deported eastward from Vienna to Riga.

Separated in Riga

Upon arrival in Riga, the elderly prisoners were separated from the others and placed on buses, supposedly to be transported to the Jewish ghetto. An SS officer pointed to his mother, a relatively young woman, and said, “You accompany the transport with the old people,” Welles would later recount.

Instead of driving to the ghetto, the bus went into the Rumbula forest, where just a few months earlier, one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust in Latvia had been perpetrated. Welles never saw his mother again. But he carried with him the memory of both the name and the face of the man who had sent his mother to be murdered in the forest.

After some time fending for himself in the Riga ghetto, Welles was dispatched to Stutthof, a camp in occupied Poland. In late January 1945, as defeat approached, the Germans sent the inmates of Stutthof on a death march west toward Germany. Kurt escaped from the march, and, according to his son-in-law, Jonathan Vick, spent several months in the woods until hooking up with Allied troops and relief organizations.

It was at the Bad Gastein displaced persons camp that he met Ceil Chaken, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto, in Lithuania. They married, and, in 1949 moved to the United States, settling in New York.

Waiting at the Lorelei

For an English-language name, Kurt adapted his Hebrew name, "Eliyahu," to "Elliot," and changed "Sauerquell," which means "mineral well" to "Welles," in homage to the much admired actor and director.

In New York, Welles took work where he could get it, at a salami factory and at a sugar-refining plant, before, in 1958, beginning a job as a waiter at the Lorelei, a German restaurant in New York's Yorkville neighborhood. A decade later, he became its co-owner.

Working around German expatriates may have been distasteful, but it allowed him to pick up much intelligence, in pursuit of the man who had condemned his mother. He also developed a wide net of other contacts, and after traveling to Germany, Welles found his man - Gerhard Maywald - and in 1976, persuaded authorities in Hamburg to put the former SS officer on trial for war crimes. Maywald received a four-year sentence for complicity in murder.

The results were mixed. As Mark Welles, Elliot's son, told the New York Times in 2006, “He was found guilty on certain counts, and not on others. There were not a lot of witnesses.”

In the late 1970s, Welles suggested to the ADL that it set up a department for tracking war criminals, and began working there in that capacity. An indefatigable researcher, he played key roles in bringing to justice such figures as Boleslavs Maikovskis, a Latvian collaborator with the Germans who had been living quietly in the U.S. for 36 years, and Josef Schwammberger, a former concentration camp commandant.

Jonathan Vick described visiting Riga with his father-in-law in 1995. Welles stopped before a building that had, during the war, served as the city's SS headquarters, where he had been forced to work cleaning out SS vehicles. A man who was entering told them that the structure was now the U.S. embassy. When Welles informed the man of the building's former use, he was asked him if he could return the following week to meet with the ambassador.

The next Monday, Welles, said Vick, "came back and gave the U.S. ambassador a tour of his own facility."

Elliot Welles retired from the ADL in 2003. On November 28, 2006, at age 79, he died of a heart attack, at his home in the Bronx, New York.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen