The Apartment on the Avenue de Versailles
Mio walked into the lobby of the building on the Avenue de Versailles and called out “Bonjour!” to the concierge through her tiny window. Not waiting for a response, he went quickly up the marble stairs. Puffing by now—he was a bit out of shape—he reached the wooden door of Yariv’s apartment and pressed the bell. He was confident he hadn’t been followed; he’d stopped in front of the gigantic Radio France building a few blocks away to check for tails. It would have been unfortunate to bring one to a meeting with Yariv, who was touchy about such things.
The door opened and Yosef Yariv, the head of Caesarea, the special operations arm of Mossad, nodded at Mio. With his honking beak of a nose and thick pelt of unruly hair, the forty-year-old Yariv resembled a predatory desert bird. Now his piercing blue-gray eyes studied his friend.
“I’m glad you made it,” he said.
Mio said nothing, only nodded and walked past. Yariv locked the door, then turned. “From this moment onwards,” he said, “your name is Anton Kuenzle. You’d better start getting used to it.” Mio showed no reaction; he was an introvert, raised in Germany as a Jew in the early thirties, which encouraged, if not required, certain kinds of masks to be worn. And besides, it was Mio’s stock-in-trade to become different people, sometimes for a few days, other times for much longer. Inside Mossad, where he was one of the great, perhaps the greatest, under-cover operatives, he was known as “the man with the hundred identities.” Back home in Israel, his family lived in a house that sat behind a steel gate, through which the agency sent a car every time he was leaving on an assignment. His son would later say that when the car drove off and they heard the loud clang as the gate swung closed behind it, they knew their father had already transformed into another person. Calling it a cover identity wasn’t quite right; when Mio assumed a new persona, it didn’t cover anything, let alone his real personality. It was his real personality, for exactly the length of time he was required to inhabit it. A fellow Mossad agent once claimed, “I swear to God,” if you woke Mio in the middle of the night, he would immediately begin speaking in the language of his false persona. On those days when he was driven to the airport, he never looked back to wave to his children because, in his mind, he had no children.
The two walked ahead into a small guest room. Another operative—Mio called him Michael, though that wasn’t his real name—sat at a small table with cups and saucers and a pot filled with coffee. A “fairly thin” file sat next to the cups. Mio nodded at Michael and took one of the empty chairs. Yariv followed suit. He looked at the other two, his eyes cool.
“You must be wondering why I summoned you here,” he said. The two men said nothing.
“Well, it all begins with the final confirmation we received about a Nazi war criminal who lives in one of the South American countries.” Michael looked at Mio, who glanced back, remaining silent. Yariv explained that in eight months, on May 8, 1965, the world would mark the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. German politicians and ordinary citizens were calling for an end to the hunt for Nazi war criminals and for a statute of limitations to be applied to their crimes. Mio didn’t react, but, as someone who avidly read the newspapers, he must have seen the headlines. Germany was preparing to enforce an 1871 law that mandated a twenty-year limit on murder prosecutions. Two other amnesties, for assault and for manslaughter, had gone into effect in 1955 and 1960 with little protest around the world. Charging any Nazi officer or soldier with those crimes was now forbidden inside Germany. But soon the killers themselves, the very worst of the worst, the men and women who’d physically pulled the triggers on the machine guns and the rifles and the pistols and smashed in the heads and strangled and bludgeoned their portion of the six million, could emerge from their hiding places and walk free in the sun. It seemed utterly fantastic, but there it was.
The statute, Yariv said, was popular in West Germany. Every poll showed solid majorities in favor of it, and the governing party, the Christian Democratic Union, had thrown its weight behind the law. Only the Bundestag, the feisty German parliament, could delay the amnesty by passing a bill that would push the deadline a few years into the future, allowing the remaining unindicted National Socialist murderers to be found and prosecuted for at least a short time longer. But Yariv told Mio and Michael that Israeli leaders were increasingly pessimistic about this possibility. “The chances of accepting this proposal are small . . . There is no guarantee that the politicians are prepared to extend the Statute of Limitations, not by four years, not by ten years, and, for that matter, most probably not at all.”
It’s been only twenty years since the release of the survivors of the death camps, and we owe it to them, and to the six million who did not survive…
Mio noticed his friend’s voice starting to rise in the quiet room, though his face showed no change in expression. “It is absolutely inconceivable,” Yariv said, “that tens of thousands of Nazi war criminals, who never paid for their heinous crimes, should now be able to crawl out of their hiding holes and spend the rest of their lives in peace and tranquility . . . It’s been only twenty years since the release of the survivors of the death camps, and we owe it to them, and to the six million who did not survive and are unable to avenge themselves—we must thwart this shameful process.”
Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol and his intelligence chiefs had secretly decided on a mission. A killing was required, a certain kind of killing that would reveal the Nazi monsters who’d escaped punishment and publicize the nature of their crimes. Unlike Mossad’s kidnapping and subsequent execution of Adolf Eichmann four years earlier, there would be no trial, no lawyers or judges, no legal niceties, no essays by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker. And the operation had to be completed before the vote in the German parliament, currently scheduled for sometime in the spring.
“The Nazi whose turn has come,” Yariv said, “is Herbert Cukurs.”
It was a Latvian name; Yariv pronounced the “C” in “Cukurs” correctly, like “Ts,” TSOO-krz. (It means “sugar.”) At a conference of Israeli intelligence chiefs in January, the names of potential assassination targets had been read out. When the speaker came to Cukurs, one of the men in the room collapsed. It was Major General Aharon Yariv—no relation to Yosef Yariv—head of the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Cukurs had murdered several of Yariv’s loved ones and friends during the war; his reaction was one reason why the Latvian’s name had been chosen.
Mio had never heard of Cukurs, and he showed no emotion at the idea of ending his life. “Outwardly,” he said, “I kept a poker face.” If he was chilly in his personal life—and he was, to his children’s eternal regret—he was even more clinical when working. A quickening of the breath, a raised eyebrow, would for him have been a breach of professional ethics. But inside, he was deeply stirred. His mother and father, a German patriot and a recipient of the Iron Cross for bravery in World War I, who’d believed that they’d be saved until almost the very end, had been murdered at Auschwitz and the “model” camp of Theresienstadt. Despite his outward calm, when Mio heard the Nazi’s name, he said, “I felt my heart and my adrenaline level skyrocket suddenly.”
Yariv looked at Mio. “I propose that you . . . go to Brazil disguised as an Austrian businessman under the name of Anton Kuenzle.”
“We are not dealing here with a desk murderer like Eichmann,” Yariv went on. “[Cukurs] is personally responsible for the annihilation of at least 30,000 Jews in Riga.” And unlike more famous men like Dr. Josef Mengele, whom Mossad had been unable to find despite two decades of searching, Cukurs’ whereabouts had been confirmed. He was living in a small house in São Paulo surrounded by guard dogs and a barbed wire fence. Yariv looked at Mio. “I propose that you . . . go to Brazil disguised as an Austrian businessman under the name of Anton Kuenzle.” Under this light cover, he would find the Nazi, befriend him, infiltrate his circle, and arrange his death. The execution would then be announced to the world, and (Mossad hoped) the news stories about the savage killer, his grateful victims, and his faceless assassins—forced to act as the authorities in Berlin and other European capitals dawdled—might just convince the Germans that going ahead with the amnesty was an impossibility. “I’m well aware that this is no simple task,” Yariv said. “You will face a criminal who is, according to our reports, cunning, mistrustful, ruthless and dangerous, and is always prepared for the worst.”
Michael began leafing through the file that sat on the table. “Will Mio actually operate alone,” he said, “or will we send a small stalking and protection unit with him?”
For the first time that morning, Mio spoke up. “I prefer to work alone,” he said. “Me against the target.”
Yariv nodded, then gestured to the file, a handful of pages in a manila folder that barely rose above the lacquered surface of the table. The slimness of the file was significant for reasons that only those intimate with the history of the Latvian Shoah would understand. It was so thin because so few Jews had been left alive to speak about Herbert Cukurs. Inside the folder were perhaps half a dozen testimonies—the exact number isn’t known—that traced Cukurs’ actions during the war, painstakingly collected from eyewitnesses living in several countries during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some of the accounts were barbaric, others oddly moving. In one story, Cukurs speaks to a young girl in Yiddish; they have a short, pleasant conversation before the Latvian, for no apparent reason, pulls out his Russian handgun and executes her in cold blood. In another, he saves a woman he knew to be Jewish, at considerable risk to his own life. The collection, in fact, added up to a curiously fractal, incomplete portrait of Herbert Cukurs, whose life had been larger and stranger than Mio could imagine at that moment; it would take many years and the survival of one obsessed young Jewish woman to tell it in full. “Overall, I must say he is a fascinating historical figure,” one survivor later wrote, “full of tremendous contradictions.” Though they could not have known it that morning in Paris, the Israelis had chosen for elimination a symbol of the Shoah whose life would speak to the motivations of those accomplices in eastern Europe who had carried it out.
With the preliminary details settled, Mio and Michael began sorting through the pages; they each picked up a selection and began to read. The white china cups, the husky September light streaming through the window, a blurred car horn from the street below, the loveliness of a fall afternoon in the Sixteenth Arrondissement faded from their thoughts as the testimonies inside ushered them to the city of Riga in the black year of 1939.
Excerpted from The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia, by Stephan Talty. Available April 14, 2020 from Houghton Mifflin. Copyright © 2020 Stephan Talty. All rights reserved.