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.