Thirty Years Later, Poison Suspected Behind Death of German-Jewish Leader

Prosecutors are considering exhuming the remains of Werner Nachmann, who died in 1988, in a renewed investigation of his death

Nachmann, second right, in a 1978 ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of Nazi riots in Cologne
Klaus Schlagmann / AP Photo

German prosecutors are investigating suspicions that Werner Nachmann, a former head of the Germany’s Jewish community who died at 62 in 1988, was poisoned. The possibility of exhuming his remains and doing an autopsy is being looked into with an eye to launching a murder investigation.

The renewed examination of the circumstances of Nachmann’s death, which was attributed to a heart attack at the time, started last summer. It was preceded by an investigative report by Andreas Muller, a reporter at the Stuttgarter Zeitung who found previously unknown documents related to Nachmann’s death, documents that raised suspicions he may have been poisoned. Nachmann was a senior figure in Jewish affairs in Germany, but his name was sullied after his death when reports emerged suggesting that he had embezzled large sums of money belonging to the community.

In conversation with Haaretz, Muller said he began investigating the case by chance last May, after it was reported that Nachmann’s son Marc was appointed to a senior position at the Goldman Sachs investment bank. “I decided to investigate what is actually known about this 30 year old affair,” he said. “I discovered that many questions remained unanswered.”

Werner Nachmann in 1973
Gräfingholt, Detlef / Bundesarc

During his investigation Muller got hold of a collection of documents gathered by a private detective in Frankfurt, who had been hired by the Jewish community in Germany after the murder to gather some relevant facts. The documents, written from 1988 to 1991, included minutes from the questioning of a person close to Nachmann, his friend and business partner Brunnhilde H. (her full name was not disclosed). She was the person who raised suspicions that Nachmann had been poisoned.

The documents showed that Nachmann had told her on several occasions of his suspicions that he was being poisoned, even describing the method and naming the person suspected of doing so. On the day of his death he said he believed they had succeeded. According to the documents, his friend confronted the person Nachmann suspected, who replied: “That will need to be proven.”

The report in the Stuttgarter Zeitung says that a few days prior to his death Nachmann was afflicted by serious health problems. His colleagues in the Jewish community reported that at the last meeting he attended four days before his death, he looked “like a walking corpse” and “like a broken man.”

Last July, Muller transferred the new documents he found to prosecutors in Karlsruhe, Nachmann’s home town, where he is buried. “These minutes never reached the prosecution at the time. Now they’re determining whether to launch a murder investigation,” he told Haaretz.

Before a decision is made, the question of whether after 30 years any residue of the poison can be found in Nachmann’s remains must be addressed. Experts at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Ulm University, which was charged with investigating the matter, told the Stuttgarter Zeitung that in principle there is a chance of finding evidence of poison in a body even years after death.

Nachmann left behind his wife Aviva and son Marc. After his death, the two left Germany.

Nachmann was chairman of the Central Committee of German Jews from 1969 until his death in January 1988. Five months later it came out that he was suspected of embezzling millions of German marks from the community and from funds intended for needy Holocaust survivors. His wife later said he left her penniless.

Newspapers at the time reported allegations that Nachmann used the stolen money to try and salvage his failing private business ventures. However, a globe-spanning attempt to locate the money failed. Reports were that he was in financial straits and that his textile factory went up in flames several times before his death. One theory was that he committed suicide because of this.

The Jewish community welcomed the renewed investigation. Nachmann’s family and associates have not spoken publicly about these new developments.