By Keshar Patel
In a World Policy political salon on Thursday, Souad Mekhennet lead an interactive discussion on The Eternal Nazi, her new book co-authored with Nicholas Kulish. The salon explored how a former Nazi doctor escaped from international manhunt, as well as how Mekhennet uncovered information about the long-lost war criminal. In attendance were journalists, professors, and political actors from institutions including Brooklyn College, The Azara Group, and Royal Bank of Canada.
Souad Mekhennet is a German journalist of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is currently an associate at Weatherhead Center at Harvard University, as well as at the School for Advanced and International Studied at Johns Hopkins University. Mekhennet is a well established journalist who covers radical Islamic movements and has been published in various publications; The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast to name a few.
The event followed a discussion and question and answer format. Moderating the event was Michele Wucker, president of the World Policy Institute, asking an array of questions pertaining to the book and Mekhennet’s research. Mekhennet’s conversation detailed the story of a doctor’s labyrinth-like escape to Cairo, living among Muslims in a working-class neighborhood during post WWII chaos.
The salon started off with a brief trailer highlighting the actual footage from Mekhennet’s investigation in Cairo. She discussed how she went around the city, showing residents a photograph of Dr. Heim’s portrait, asking if they recognized him. She finally found a man who was shown the picture, and immediately started crying. He used to work at the hotel where Dr. Heim lived. They learned of the doctor’s alias, Tarek Hussein Farid, and his conversion to Islam. Dr. Heim initially fled to West Germany, France, Spain, Morrocco, and finally landed in Cairo.
Her first-hand research delved into how Dr. Aribert Heim evaded capture by Nazi hunters after WWII. Sharing some of the darker details of Heim’s Nazi career, Mekhennet shared information from his work at Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where he cut off prisoners’ heads and injected gasoline into the hearts of Jews, among other atrocities.
Mekhennet’s conversation sparked interesting conversation on the Nuremberg trials. Many Nazi war criminals and Nazi doctors who were never persecuted escaped through Latin American jungles and various regions of the world, including Egypt. A contributor from the audience pointed out that Nuremberg was meant for top Nazi officials, and while German courts handled Nazi convictions as well, death sentences were not legal, thereby allowing Nazi’s to walk out six to seven years after prison.
Attendees engaged in conversation as they questioned each other on matters of transitional justice, and why Dr. Heim’s relatives were never persecuted alongside him. Mekhennet explained how she managed to interview Heim’s neice, who shed light on the fact that her mother was always in denial of her brother’s wrongdoings and believed him innocent. Dr. Heim’s youngest son also denied his father’s crimes.
Michele Wucker steered the conversation towards whether or not Nazi hunters, witnesses, camp survivors, and Germans, gained closure in knowing Dr. Heim’s hiding place after so many years of hunting. Many people, Souad says, are still adamant about the fact that he should’ve been tried and convicted in court. However, Mekhennet’s personal opinion suggests that even though he was never tried and sentenced, he lived in a broader and far worse prison in Cairo. He lived away from his family, died alone of cancer, always tried to prove his innocence, and continuously looked over his shoulder.
Mekhennet also explained how she and Kulish found themselves in a dangerous situation when they traveled to Cairo. In the midst of their time there, protests were beginning to take place in Tahrir Square. This halted their investigation into the doctor. They were asked to help cover the story of the so-called Arab Spring, but were captured by the secret police and thrown in jail for one night. After this interruption, Mekhennet and Kulish went onto interview Dr. Heim’s youngest son, wife, neice, and lawyer; and also smuggled his briefcase out of Cairo.
The salon was engaging and brought about interesting perspectives on Nazi hunters, Nuremberg trials, and Nazi war criminals and their lives after the war. Mekhennet presented us with a play-by-play of how she uncovered a case of the most sought after, last hunted Nazi war criminal. The event ended with time to allow attendees to converse with one another and to buy a signed copy of the book.
Keshar Patel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Harvard.edu]
This discussion is part of the World Policy Salon series, which are made possible through the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America. World Policy Salons promote dialogue among the next generation of leaders in business, policy, and the media, regularly convening midcareer professionals to discuss a range of foreign policy issues and global affairs.