Who Helped Them Escape?
With the recent opening of secret Vatican archives from the Holocaust period, researchers hope to learn more about how thousands of Nazis slipped out of the grasp of Allied forces following Germany’s surrender in 1945. Dozens escaped from prisons and thousands more avoided arrest for war crimes by fleeing to South America.
In July 1950, a German “technician” whose forged papers identified him as “Ricardo Klement” arrived in Argentina. Authorities saw through the deception but played along. They were well aware that Klement was actually senior Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann who had masterminded the deportations of millions of Jews to death camps, and had made certain they were carried out at peak efficiency.
Eichmann was by no means the only high-ranking Nazi to find a safe haven in South America after fleeing capture in Europe.
Fellow mass-murderers Franz Stengl, co-commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps; Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz physician who used prisoners as guinea pigs in deadly medical experiments; and Gestapo chief Walter Rauff, who invented and oversaw the use of gas vans that killed 90,000 Jews, also found sanctuary in South America.
Joining this community of barbaric war criminals were Gustav Wagner, the “Beast” who supervised the murder of an estimated million people collectively at Sobibor and Treblinka; Josef Schwammberger, SS commandant over three slave labor camps where he organized mass executions and Klaus Barbie, the sadistic “butcher of Lyons.”
The notorious Ante Pavelic, head of the mass-murdering Croatian Ustasha regime and Erich Priebke, Gestapo second in command who organized massacres of Italian civilians, also found refuge in South America.
With Hitler’s defeat, these heinous criminals found an escape route to a new life in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia or other parts of South America. In this huge continent of thirteen countries, almost twice the size of Europe, thousands of rank and file Nazis and collaborators from Nazi-occupied lands found passage to a new life.
How did men with the blood of millions on their hands, while being hunted by Allied forces, succeed in slipping across multiple borders and disappearing? They had to forge new identities, passports and travel permits before smuggling themselves into foreign countries. They needed hideouts and money. Where did this aid come from?
Historians have documented how some of Hitler’s top henchmen found safe havens with the help of the International Red Cross and officials of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, who together organized what was called the “ratline.” These were escape routes that ran straight through the Vatican in Rome to refuge in Catholic South America, in North Africa or the Middle East.
Gerald Steinacher, an Austrian research fellow at Harvard University and author of Nazis on the Run, was given access to thousands of internal documents in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). He came across a trove of evidence showing that at least 120,000 travel permits had been issued by the Red Cross to refugees, with over a thousand going to ex-Nazis.
“Although the International Red Cross, citing post-war chaos, has publicly apologized for facilitating the escape of “some war criminals,” its aid to ex-Nazis went well beyond helping just a few of them,” said Steinacher.
According to a 2012 article in the Daily Mail, German prosecutors who examined secret files from Brazil and Chile discovered that as many as 9,000 Nazi officers and collaborators from other countries found safe havens through the ratline.
In addition to those who were helped with valid Red Cross documents, many Nazis entered the continent with forged passports that were not closely scrutinized by authorities. Brazil took in between 1,500 and 2,000 Nazi war criminals, while between 500 and 1,000 settled in Chile.
North Africa and the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Syria, also proved to be popular destinations for ex-Nazis, particularly after the fall of Peron’s regime in 1955, when Argentina as a host country became far less welcoming.
During the war, the Nazis had established links with influential Muslim leaders, including Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin, who actively supported the German crusade against the Jews. After the war, these connections continued.
Welcoming Nazis to Argentina
There is no mystery about why so many Nazis—about 5,000 in total—ended up in Argentina. They were explicitly invited by Argentine president Juan Peron, an admirer of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
With hundreds of thousands of German immigrants already living in the country since before the war’s outbreak, Argentina had maintained close ties with Germany while officially remaining neutral for much of World War II. Peron’s sympathy for fascist ideology translated into an eagerness to be of assistance to Nazis even after Hitler and Mussolini were both dead.
Argentina thus became the safest haven for Nazis on the run. In 1946, Peron secretly ordered his intelligence department to establish “ratlines” through ports in Spain and Italy to spirit Nazi war criminals into Argentina. Peron’s actions were also self-serving. He was eager for German scientists, jet-plane designers and nuclear experts to head his arms industry.
What he got for the most part, ironically, were people with few talents beyond mass murder. On his immigration papers, Eichmann stated his profession as “technician.” Mengele claimed to be a “mechanic.”
The Priests Who Rescued Nazis
Peron did not act alone in mapping out escape routes for Nazi fugitives. Historians have long established that individual Nazi sympathizers within the clergy, such as Argentine cardinal Antonio Caggiano, Bishop Alois Hudal in Rome and the Archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Siri, actively supported the flight of Nazi war criminals.
Declassified documents in Argentina, America and Europe show how Buenos Aires easily teamed up with these Vatican officials to rescue beleaguered Nazis and collaborators from post-war Europe.
Peron also tapped the services of Bishop Krunoslav Draganovic of Croatia, linked to the vicious pro-Nazi Ustashe. The Croatian priest was one of the key activists on the ratline, to the extent that the escape routes were dubbed the “Draganovic ratline.”
Bishops Hudal and Draganovic made no secret of their affinity for Nazis. Issuing false documents and paying smugglers to sneak Hitler’s henchmen to Italy and on to passenger ships departing from Genoa, were carried out by these clergymen with full awareness of the fugitives’ identities.
The Vatican has insisted that these clerics were misguided “black sheep” within an otherwise upright and honorable cadre of church leaders. But Steinacher in Nazis on the Run argues that church aid for Nazis was widespread and intentional.
Steinacher’s detailed reconstruction of the main escape route (which led from Innsbruck across the Alps to Genoa or Rome) reveals the heavy involvement of the Catholic clergy.
Along the way, numerous monasteries provided shelter for men on the run and 90 per cent of the Nazis who escaped used that route before they embarked on a passage to South America, notes Steinacher.
Church aid to Nazi fugitives was part of the Vatican’s broader effort to re-Christianize Europe, historians contend. All over Europe, communist regimes that were subservient to the Soviet Union were taking control, threatening the Church even more than Nazism had.
The church’s game plan was that repentant Nazis would embrace Catholicism, and help anchor and propagate the faith in a “godless” Europe dominated by communist regimes, writes historian Daniel Goldhagen in “A Moral Reckoning.”
Eichmann, who landed safely in Argentina, proved the validity of this view, “when he decided to inscribe himself in his newly minted passport as a Catholic even though he had formerly identified as a Protestant,” noted Goldhagen.
“I recall with deep gratitude the aid given to me by Catholic priests in my flight from Europe,” said Eichmann in his trial testimony, “and decided to honor the Catholic faith by becoming an honorary member.”
Vatican Links to ‘Nazi Gold’?
Some historians assert that the church had a monetary interest in aiding Nazi fugitives; that it was not only aware of the huge stashes of gold the Nazis stripped from the victims in Nazi-occupied lands, but actually warehoused some of this treasure in secret locations in the Vatican, and made use of it.
A 1946 Treasury Department document, cited by the Los Angeles Times in 1997, states that the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia, the Ustashe, smuggled about 350 million Swiss francs (about $300 million at today’s prices) out of Yugoslavia “where Jews and Serbs were plundered to support the Ustashe organization in exile,” during the Third Reich’s final months.
The document said that “approximately 200 million francs was originally held in the Vatican for safekeeping.” The reports cite rumors that much of this money was later funneled to Spain and Argentina through what it termed the “Vatican’s pipeline” to finance the lifestyles of fleeing Nazis.
A Vatican spokesman dismissed the report as “completely untrue” and “unreliable.”
Today, twenty-three years later, as historians begin to process the volumes of secret documents in the Vatican’s Holocaust archive, their findings are expected to shed light on many unresolved mysteries, among them the question of the Vatican’s role in the Nazi gold trade.
Never Brought to (Earthly) Justice
Fugitive Nazis, after settling in Argentina, Brazil or other parts of South America, or sailing to Canada, Australia and the United States, closed the door on their blood-soaked past and embarked on a peaceful, prosperous retirement. A good percentage were able to evade the long arm of the law for many years, even decades.
The post-war escape of SS colonel Walter Rauff highlights the transnational nature of Nazi escape routes: after the war, he was first hidden by Bishop Siri of Genoa, before fleeing to Damascus in 1947. In late 1949, he used Red Cross documentation to move to Ecuador, where he worked for Bayer pharmaceutical company. In the early 1960s, Rauff retired to Santiago de Chile, where he died in 1984.
Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga,” died in Paraguay in 1977. Gustav Wagner, a particularly sadistic SS officer known as the “Beast of Sobibor,” died in Brazil in 1980 after the country’s supreme federal court refused to extradite him to Germany.
Josef Mengele, perhaps the most notorious of the fugitives, known as the “Angel of Death,” fled to Argentina in 1949 before moving to Paraguay in 1959, and Brazil a year later. He lived there for almost thirty years, never answering for his crimes.
After drowning off the Brazilian coast in 1979, he was buried under an assumed name. His identity was confirmed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center only after forensic testing of his remains in 1985.
In Nazis on the Run, the author discusses the role of the CIA, against the backdrop of the Cold War, in shielding a number of Nazi war criminals from justice.
In addition to bringing over numerous Nazi scientists to lead the U.S. space program, the Americans recruited the notorious ex-Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, who presided over the murder of thousands of French Jews and members of the Resistance, as an anti-Communist agent. Barbie was smuggled to Bolivia, where he continued his spy work and instructed the military regime on the methods of torture in interrogating political prisoners.
In response to urgent requests from many Western governments, “The Butcher of Lyon” was finally extradited to Germany in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison after his conviction for crimes against humanity.
Similarly, after twenty years of freedom, Franz Stengl, was arrested in Brazil in 1967 and extradited to Germany where he stood trial. His post-war story below is illustrative of the relative ease with which vicious mass murderers masqueraded for years as innocent, ordinary citizens.
How A Nazi’s Post-War Paradise Collapsed
In 1948, Franz Stengl wearily trudged along the road to Rome. Just three years earlier he had been a very important man whose mere presence caused people to tremble; he was commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, one of three Nazi death factories that together murdered over a million Jews.
He also served for three months as chief administrator of the Sobibor death factory. Under his brief watch at this killing center, it is estimated that 900,000 people were systematically gassed and buried in mass graves.
Stengl, who had been a favorite of Heinrich Himmler, operated the camp between 1942 and 1943. When the boxcars crammed full of Jewish men, women and children arrived in Treblinka, Stengl had them swiftly disembark, strip and shave, for “a routine rest stop and showers.”
The traumatized victims were lured forward into gas chambers where they suffocated to death. They were buried in mass graves out of sight of the next arriving transport of doomed people.
This demonic system continued uninterrupted for 15 months. An average of 18,000 people were murdered every day—gassed, shot, hanged or clubbed to death.
For being so meticulous and thorough in his duties, Stengl received an Iron Cross from Berlin headquarters. When Treblinka and Sobibor were closed down, he was transferred to Milan, Italy to organize the deportation of the Jews there and the campaign against the anti-fascist partisans.
Living the Good Life
After Germany’s surrender, Stengl was captured by American troops in his native Austria and handed over to the Austrians for trial. He spent two years in detention before escaping. Using forged Red Cross papers, Stengl first went to Damascus, Syria, where he easily found work in a textile factory. He prospered and was able to send for his wife and daughters.
In 1951, the family moved to Brazil and settled in Sao Paulo where Stengl worked as a safety official at the Volkswagen auto mobile plant. Throughout his post-war travels, Stengl did little to hide his identity. He was so confident of his safety, he never used an alias and even registered with the Austrian embassy in Brazil.
By the early 1960s, however, he was becoming uneasy. Adolf Eichmann had been abducted off a Buenos Aires street and flown to Israel where he was tried, convicted and executed. Gerhard Bohne, another former Nazi officer hiding in Argentina was indicted in Germany, and 11 men who had worked for Stengl at Treblinka were tried and executed in the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, he was betrayed by his former son‐in‐law, who, for a bribe of $5,000, gave away his whereabouts to Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Austrian Nazi hunter and a Holocaust survivor. Stengl was arrested in Brazil, extradited and put on trial in Germany.
Ratting Out the Ratline Priest
The trial began in May 1970. The prosecution flew survivors of Sobibor halfway around the world to testify. Their accounts of the atrocities they witnessed recalled for a forgetful world the mind-numbing horrors of Nazi killing centers, where each day, thousands of Jews disembarked from a train in the morning, were gassed by noontime and incinerated by nightfall.
Stengl resorted to the same line prosecutors had been hearing since the Nuremberg Trials, that he was only “following orders.” Hundreds of thousands of human beings were “like cargo” to him, which he had been ordered to efficiently dispose of. He was simply fulfilling his duty. His conscience was clear.
Stengl’s callousness extended even to his supposed friends. During the trial, in an attempt to curry favor, he identified Catholic clerics who had illegally helped him to escape. And in a later interview, blurted out that fellow Nazi commandant Gustav Wagner was hiding in Brazil, information that led to the latter’s arrest.
The ex-Nazi commander testified that when he came to Rome after Germany’s defeat, he had been looking for Bishop Alois Hudal, rector of a German monastery, whose name was being whispered throughout the Nazi underground.
“The bishop came into the room where I was waiting and he held out both his hands and said, ‘You must be Franz Stengl, I was expecting you,’” Stengl testified. He then described for the court Hudal’s extensive smuggling network for fugitive Nazis that included church contacts in Rome, Damascus and Brazil.
It was Hudal who arranged “quarters in Rome where I was to stay until my papers came through. And he gave me more money—I had almost nothing left,” the Nazi officer disclosed.
The bishop also gave him a Red Cross Passport, an entrance visa to Syria, and a job in a textile mill in Damascus,” Stengl told the court. “He also gave me a ticket for the ship. I then traveled to Syria….”
None of these life-saving favors, which cost substantial sums, incurred Stengl’s loyalty to his benefactors.
The trial played out over six months as the ghastly secrets of Sobibor and Treblinka, and the sheer evil of the Nazi defendant, continued to spill out. Stengl was convicted in December 1970, of engineering the death of 900,000 people and sentenced to life in prison. About six months into his sentence, he died of a heart attack.
At The End of the Ratline
A streak of lightning flashed across the Argentine skies illuminating the features of Ricardo Klement, as he stepped off a bus on the evening of May 11, 1960.
Strolling down the street toward his small brick house in a middle-class Buenos Aires suburb, he passed by two men working under the open hood of a black limousine. “Un momentito, Senor,” one of them addressed him.
Klement turned in their direction. In that instant he was grabbed and thrown to the ground. The two men working on the limousine, assisted by three others, hurled him kicking and screaming into the back seat of the vehicle, which sped off into the night.
Klement’s real name was Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi SS colonel who masterminded the ghettoizing, plunder and deportation of millions of European Jews to death camps. For years he had evaded authorities, while living peacefully in Argentina. Now he was in the custody of the Mossad, Israel’s secret service.
To be continued…
The ‘Beast of Sobibor’
Gustav Wagner was the co-commandant of the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland, a killing center where more than a quarter million Jews were murdered over 15 months.
Sobibor was one of four locations chosen under “Operation Reinhardt” to accelerate the annihilation of Eastern European Jews. The other camps were Chlemno, Belzec and Treblinka. Their accessibility to the rail network while being remote from population centers made them ideal for their ghastly purpose.
Unlike Auschwitz, no work was done in these hellholes except the unloading of the cattle cars, and the removal and burial of the corpses by a handful of prisoners. Of the quarter million people who arrived at Sobibor, less than sixty survived to tell about it.
Esther Raab, one of the very few Sobibor survivors, recounted in her personal testimonial at the US Holocaust Museum that Wagner would come into the warehouse with his thumbs in his pockets, a sign that “he needed blood like a drunkard needs to drink,” she said. “He had to kill somebody, even two or three… He’d go around and pick his victims.”
Another survivor, describing how Wagner had beaten a father and son to death with an axe handle, said the Nazi chief “could not enjoy his lunch without first having killed two or three people.”
Yet another survivor, Moshe Bahir, quoted in the Washington Post and a BBC program on the arrest of Wagner, described him as someone who would kill Jews without reason or restraint.
“He was tall and blond…in civilian life probably a well-mannered man; at Sobibor he was a wild beast.” said Bahir. “His lust to kill knew no bounds… He would snatch babies from their mothers’ arms and tear them to pieces in his hands. I saw him beat two men to death with a rifle, because they did not carry out his instructions properly, since they did not understand German.”
Escape Down the Ratline
After World War II, Wagner fled Europe to avoid being captured. He teamed up with fellow Nazi commandant Franz Stengl who had escaped prison. The two of them made use of the ratline, and aided by Bishop Hudal in Rome, received passports and travel permits to leave Italy for Beirut.
In 1952, Wagner moved on to Brazil where he married and built a home in the wooded hills outside Sao Paulo. Years later, in 1978, his presence in Sao Paulo was discovered by Simon Wiesenthal, aided by Brazilian journalist Mario Chimanovitch.
Chaimovitch published a piece in Jornal do Brasil saying that Wiesenthal recognized Wagner from a photo where some people appeared to be celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday. “It was a ruse, but Wagner, 67 years old at the time, turned himself in, fearing getting captured by Mossad agents or other Nazi hunters,” wrote the Washington Post.
The case made news all over the world as the anguished memories and testimonials of survivors were carried by the media, driving home the horrors of Hitler’s genocide and the staggering depths of barbarity at Sobibor and Treblinka.
Several governments demanded that Brazil deport Wagner so that he could answer for his crimes. But Brazil rejected extradition requests from West Germany, Poland, Austria and Israel. After two years in solitary confinement awaiting trial, amid world denunciation, scorn and a flood of death threats, Wagner walked free.
Two years later, in October 1980, a blood-spattered Wagner was discovered with a knife in his chest in his home in Sao Paulo. According to his attorney, he had committed suicide. Rumor had it that he’d been killed.