It's one of the greatest, true detective stories ever. Featuring eight spellbinding missions, Nazi Hunters tells how a select band of secret agents and avengers hunted down some of the most evil men in history...And finally brought them to justice.
Intense, visceral, and narrated by real-life Nazi hunters, every episode tells the story of one electrifying mission. And, from Klaus Barbie's dramatic pursuit in Bolivia, to the audacious Mossad operation to kidnap Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, recounts how the Nazis finally met their nemesis.
Nazi Hunters BIOS
The immediate post-war years were a time of chaos and horror as Allied forces attempted to round up and capture German soldiers and Nazi Party members across war-ravaged Europe. It was in this confused and often lawless environment that surviving Jews first began to exact their revenge on the Nazis.
In Italy, France and Belgium, Jewish soldiers who had fought alongside the British in the Eighth Army’s Jewish Brigade banded together to form an informal network later termed the 'nokim', Hebrew for 'avengers'.
In Germany and Eastern Europe, the nokim's ranks swelled with survivors of the ghettos and camps, many of whom had been members of the Jewish resistance even as their friends and families were being exterminated by the German killing machine. During the chaotic post-war period, their thirst for vengeance only increased in seeing how many Nazis were escaping or being released by the Allies.
The nokim soon set up their own underground execution squads, tracking down senior members of the Nazi regime with information from survivors and members of the Jewish underground, and using logistical support quietly provided by their British colleagues.
Although their ultimate aim was to kill, they also operated their own form of justice, reading out charges and acting as judge, jury and executioner. Their preferred method of killing was strangulation, a 'dry' method that left no blood or other traces. Other Nazis met their death in car 'accidents' or were 'helped' to commit suicide. It is believed over 1,000 Nazi officers were dealt with in this way.
In the next few years, the avengers traveled further afield in their efforts to track down fugitive Nazis – to Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, South America, and even Canada. But the summary executions possible in the free-for-all of the immediate post-war years could not continue forever.
Focused on helping Jewish refugees flee to Palestine, the leading figures in the movement to create an independent Jewish state increasingly felt the executions could harm their cause. It would take several more years before the official state-sanctioned successor to the avenging executioners emerged – manned by many of the same individuals – in the form of the overseas arm of Israeli intelligence, or Mossad.
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion set up Mossad in 1951. But with the immediate claims of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was 1958 before he issued the order to hunt down senior Nazis and bring them to justice. A hit list was compiled, and in 1960 Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped in an operation that caused an international sensation. The ensuing trial convinced Israelis that their new country was both determined and capable of ensuring Jews would never again be threatened in such a way.
After Eichmann was caught, Mossad considered expanding its activities targeting Nazis. But with limited resources, Eichmann remained just one of the two significant successes of the Israeli secret service, alongside former Latvian death squad commander Herbert Cukurs.
One of the most famous survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, Simon Wiesenthal has come to personify the post-war efforts to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Dubbed the 'Avenging Archangel of the Holocaust', Wiesenthal worked tirelessly up until his death in 2005 at age 96, and the Los Angeles Center to which he gave his name in 1977 continues his Nazi-hunting legacy to this day.
Born into a family of Orthodox Jews in Buczacz, Western Ukraine (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Simon Wiesenthal survived the Soviet invasion of the late 1930s, and after the arrival of the Nazis in 1941, watched helplessly as his mother was deported for execution. The young architect also believed his wife Cyla had been executed until the two were miraculously reunited after the war.
Wiesenthal was first imprisoned in Janowska concentration camp and was later transferred to a small forced labour camp where conditions proved more tolerable. Because of his professional skills, Wiesenthal was singled out and assigned design work and, through contacts with Polish contractors eventually established links with the underground and escaped with their help in October 1943. He was recaptured by the SS the following year and, convinced he faced torture and certain extermination in the death camps, made three failed suicide attempts in quick succession.
After that, Wiesenthal was transferred from one concentration camp to another: first back to Janowska, then Plaszow, then to Auschwitz where the crematoria were working to full capacity and unable to cope with the influx of yet more victims, and finally on to Buchenwald. By February 1945, Wiesenthal had experienced eleven concentration camps before spending six days in the freezing confines of a packed, open freight train destined for Austria's notorious Mauthausen camp.
Upon his arrival there, Wiesenthal's condition was so poor he was put into a hut reserved for those on the verge of death. Amazingly, he clung to life and was little more than a tottering bundle of bones by the time the Americans liberated the camp in May 1945. Wiesenthal's first act as a free man was to dictate a list of 91 names of camp officials. Consumed by the desire for justice, he later tracked down more than 70 of them.
In 1947, Wiesenthal established a centre in Linz, Austria, to collect information for use in future war crimes trials, and despite the convictions at Nuremberg, many of the most notorious Nazis remained at large. As the Cold War set in, Nazi hunting fell from the political agenda and a dispirited Wiesenthal closed the Linz office in 1954.
Wiesenthal's enthusiasm was rekindled in 1960 when Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichmann who was later tried and executed. Wiesenthal opened the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna where, collating sightings and tip-offs from a worldwide network of sympathizers, human rights activists and even former Nazis, he pursued the 90,000 people named in the German war crimes files.
Among his greatest Nazi-hunting successes were the capture of Franz Stangl, Commandant of the Sobibor death camp, Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank, and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a guard at the notorious Majdanek concentration camp, who became the first female war criminal to be extradited from America, and who was the inspiration for Kate Winslet's character in the film The Reader.
In 1977, Rabbi Marvin Hier established the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. A multi-faceted Jewish defense, education, and human rights agency, Wiesenthal allowed the center to bear his name on the condition that it not confine itself to the commemoration of the Holocaust, but pursue instead an activist agenda of Holocaust-related issues.
Serge & Beate Klarsfeld
Arguably the most successful and most daring European Nazi-hunters, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld came from very different backgrounds to forge a partnership that would bring to justice some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals of all including, most famously, the 'Butcher of Lyons', Klaus Barbie.
Born to a Protestant family in Berlin in 1939, Beate was the daughter of a Wehrmacht pilot who fought for the Third Reich during the war. Growing up in post-war Germany, she learned almost nothing about the Holocaust and it wasn't until she moved to Paris in 1960 and met Serge that she began to understand the atrocities that had been perpetrated in her own country. Beate has stated many times since that all her actions have stemmed from her moral outrage as a German.
Serge Klarsfeld is a French Jew who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first hand. When the Gestapo arrived to take the family into custody for deportation, his father told them his wife and children were at the baths being disinfected when, in fact, they were huddled in a closet behind a fake wall.
The Nazis arrested his father and Serge was never to see him again. He later discovered he perished at Auschwitz. It was this formative loss that prompted Serge's subsequent lengthy and painstaking campaign to document every French Jew who died at the hands of the Nazis.
The couple's Nazi-hunting career was prompted by their realization throughout the 1960s that former Nazis were leading respectable lives in German society as judges, politicians and businessmen — something which seemed intolerable to them. Their indignation reached its apex in 1966 when former Nazi propagandist Kurt Kiesinger was elected chancellor of Germany.
Beate assembled a dossier of Kiesinger's wartime activities and presented it to the French and German press, but she didn't stop there. In 1968, she pushed her way through a crowd to get close to him and publicly slapped Kiesinger in the face. It was a blow that resonated around Europe and is still discussed in German schools today.
Beate's action resulted in a jail sentence but she and Serge shrewdly turned her appeal into a trial of Kiesinger. The following year, Beate campaigned against him, helping Willy Brandt win the chancellery.
Using both legal and illegal means to pursue and prosecute ex-Nazis comfortably ensconced in Europe and South America, Beate and Serge repeatedly applied their persistence and cunning. They prefer not to use the term 'Nazi-hunting' since so many of those they tracked weren't hiding but living quite openly.
Their life's work has been difficult and often dangerous. Both of them have served jail time and have endured numerous death threats and attempts on their lives, but no one has done more to force France to face up to its collaborationist past and bring the war criminals living among them to justice.