In the 1950s and ‘60s one of the tasks of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, was to track down high-level Nazis and Nazi collaborators who had eluded justice. The Mossad’s best-known success, of course, was the capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, in Argentina in 1960 and whisking him back to Israel, where he stood trial.
Less well known is the case of Herberts Cukurs, a noted Latvian who gained fame in the 1930 for his aviation skills, but who went on to aid the Germans in the efforts to rid the Baltic region of Jews and earned the nickname the Butcher of Riga.
Fifty years ago, Cukurs was killed outside of Montevideo, Uruguay, by Mossad agents for his role in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.
Cukurs, born in 1900, was the Latvian equivalent of Charles Lindbergh. He was acclaimed for long-distance solo flights, flying from Latvia to Gambia and Latvia to Japan during the 1930s.
He also constructed at least three aircraft of his own design, one of which he took on a 24,000-mile tour that included visits to Japan, China, India and Russia.
However, Cukurs had a much darker side that came out with the advent of World War II.
Just before war erupted in 1939, the Germans and Soviets had secretly divided up Europe. The Baltic states were to fall under Soviet hegemony.
When the Nazis turned on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Cukurs and many other Latvians saw an opportunity to throw off the Soviet yoke and were only too eager to work with Germans, no matter what the task.
The Germans quickly invaded and occupied Latvia, and Cukurs became a member of the notorious Arajs Kommando, or the Latvian Auxiliary Police, which answered to the intelligence arm of the Nazi SS. The Arajs Kommando was one of the more notorious killing units during the Holocaust and was responsible for many war crimes in Latvia.
Cukurs volunteered to serve as deputy commander of the Arajs Kommando, which actively participated in the murder of at least 30,000 Jews in Latvia and many thousands more in neighboring Belarus.
Cukurs is said to have participated in the Burning of the Riga synagogues in 1941. He was said to have dragged Jews out of the neighboring houses and locked them inside at least one synagogue before torching it.
According to the testimonies of numerous survivors taken shortly after the war, Cukurs personally tortured and murdered many Jews. His crimes are said to include the drowning of 1,200 Jews in a lake and participation in the Nov. 30, 1941, murder of 10,600 people in a forest near Riga at Rumbula.
Like many Nazis and their collaborators, Cukurs escaped justice initially, fleeing to Germany with retreating troops.
After the war, he emigrated to Brazil where he set up an operation offering scenic flying tours. He never hid his identity, and the Soviets attempted to extradite him to face trial for his actions.
Brazil, though, refused, claiming he could be returned only to Latvia. However, Latvia no longer existed as an independent state, having been subsumed into the Soviet Union.
Under these circumstances and facing an impending statute of limitations on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Germany, which would have eliminated another possibility for his prosecution, a team of Mossad agents swung into action. A Mossad agent persuaded Cukurs to travel to Uruguay under the guise of starting an aviation business.
Cukurs was invited to a house in a remote suburb of the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, where he was shot twice in the head on Feb. 23, 1965.
The Mossad sent the following dispatch to media outlets in South America and Germany:
“Taking into consideration the gravity of the charge leveled against the accused, namely that he personally supervised the killing of more than 30,000 men, women and children, and considering the extreme display of cruelty which the subject showed when carrying out his tasks, the accused Herberts Cukurs is hereby sentenced to death. Accused was executed by those who can never forget on the 23rd of February, 1965. … ”
Initially dismissed as a joke, the police were notified and Cukurs body was discovered.
Sadly, many Latvians still see Cukurs as a resistance hero who fought against Soviet occupation, rather than as a war criminal.
A musical about his life premiered in Latvia last year, drawing the ire of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The Latvian government criticized but did not ban the privately produced work, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Cukurs’s death marks the only known assassination of a Nazi war criminal by the Mossad.
(Top: Jews being led from ghetto in Riga, Latvia in November 1941 by members of Arajs Kommando to nearby forest, where more than 10,000 would be executed.)