For years the residents of the Karnak Hotel near Ataba Square in Cairo knew him merely as Uncle Tarek. The elderly foreigner played with the building’s children and lived a quiet life in the rundown hotel within walking distance of the famous Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar. Little did they know that “Uncle Tarek” was one of the most wanted Nazi war criminals of World War II.
Born in 1914, Aribert Heim served as an SS medical officer during the conflict and was involved in some of the most brutal Holocaust crimes at the notorious Mauthausen death camp. The Nazi doctor injected gasoline into perfectly healthy prisoners or defiant patients. In some cases he singled out healthy Jews with perfect teeth to be decapitated, their skulls boiled and placed on his desk as curiosities.
Heim served only briefly at the Mauthausen concentration camp before being reassigned as Germany faced defeat on two fronts. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Heim was able to avoid investigation by lying to investigators. He insisted that he was simply a regular doctor pressed into SS service. Facing the growing Soviet threat, the American search for Nazi war criminals was often topical at best. Nazis were thought to be an anti-communist bulwark in West Germany.
Having dodged Allied persecution, Heim played on a semi-professional ice hockey team often in front of thousands of fans in post-World War II Europe. Throughout the 1950s he lived in relative peace enjoying life as doctor, husband, and father in West Germany. Yet in 1962, Hiem fled overnight into exile on a tip that he was under investigation from the West German government about his crimes at Mauthausen. He traveled first to Spain, then ruled by fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and then to Egypt. At the time, Egypt was then under the ruled of Abdul Gamal Nasser, a former army colonel turned Arab socialist dictator who welcomed Nazis as advisers. Convicted of no crime, investments in Germany and Egypt allowed him a comfortable life.
In 1979, following the Camp David Accords, Heim’s situation changed. With nominal peace between Israel and Egypt, a Nazi war criminal could prove useful to the Egyptian government as a bargaining chip with Tel Aviv. Short on cash, Heim undertook desperate measures to avoid justice. He legally changed his name to Tarek and took up a residence in the Karnak Hotel, where he was able to escape persecution until his death in 1992.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of when Heim’s story was finally pieced together by two intrepid journalists. Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet reported their findings to the New York Times in 2009. Kulish and Souad Mekhennet tracked down one of Heim’s sons who revealed that he had clandestinely been visiting his father for decades. Heim’s son never confronted him but, overtime suspected the reasons for his sudden flight from Germany. On a visit to Cairo the two journalists discovered documents that verified his story and the decades his war criminal father had spent on the run.
Until that time many thought Heim was still alive and might one day face justice for his crimes.
Subsequently Heim’s story was made into a book by the pair — The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim, released in 2014. This book, along with a A Mosque in Munich, are two recent books of of reportage that show the long impact of Nazi policy during World War II on the modern Middle East.
One can hope that more recent war criminals and perpetrators for genocide from Rwanda to Syria will be less successful at evading justice.
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