A dusty briefcase forgotten in a Cairo hotel solves the mystery of a Nazi concentration camp monster
Friends and acquaintances in Egypt remembered him as an avid amateur photographer who almost always wore a camera around his neck, but never allowed himself to be photographed. And with good reason: Uncle Tarek was born Aribert Ferdinand Heim, was a member of the Waffen-SS and medical doctor at the Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen concentration camps.
It was behind the grey stone walls of Mauthausen, in his native Austria, that Heim committed the atrocities against hundreds of Jews and others that earned him the nickname Dr Death and his status as the most wanted Nazi war criminal still thought to be at large by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
Heim was accused of performing operations on prisoners without anaesthesia; removing organs from healthy inmates, then leaving them to die on the operating table; injecting poison, including petrol, into the hearts of others; and taking the skull of at least one victim as a souvenir.
After living below the radar of Nazi-hunters for more than a decade following the Second World War – much of it in the German spa town of Baden-Baden where he had a wife, two sons and a medical practice as a gynaecologist – he escaped capture just as investigators closed in on him in 1962. His hiding place, as well as his death in 1992, have remained unknown until now.
Investigators in Israel and Germany have repeatedly said they believed Heim was alive and hiding in Latin America. But a dusty briefcase with rusted buckles, sitting nearly forgotten in storage in Cairo, hid the truth.
Obtained by the New York Times and the German television station ZDF from the Doma family, the proprietors of the hotel where Heim lived, the files in the briefcase tell the story of his life, and death, in Egypt.
THE briefcase contains an archive of yellowed pages, some still in sealed envelopes, of Heim's letters and medical test results, his financial records and an underlined, annotated article from a German magazine about his own manhunt and trial in absentia, plus even drawings of soldiers and trains by the children he left behind in Germany.
Some documents are in the name Heim, others Farid, but many of the latter, such as an application for Egyptian residency under the name Tarek Hussein Farid, have the same birthday, 28 June, 1914, as Heim and the same place of birth, Radkersburg, Austria.
Although none of the ten friends and acquaintances in Cairo who identified a photograph of Heim knew his real identity, they described signs that he might have been on the run.
"My idea, which I've taken from my father at that time, is that he was in dispute with maybe the Jews, but he took refuge in Cairo at that time," said Tarek Abdelmoneim el Rifai, the son of Heim's 88-year-old dentist in Cairo, who was a close friend.
A certified copy of a death certificate obtained from Egyptian authorities confirmed witness accounts that the man called Tarek Hussein Farid died in 1992.
"Tarek Hussein Farid is the name my father took when he converted to Islam," said his son, Ruediger Heim. In an interview in the family's villa in Baden-Baden, Mr Heim, 53, admitted publicly for the first time that he was with his father in Egypt at the time of his death from rectal cancer.
"It was during the Olympics. There was a television in the room, and he was watching the Olympics. It distracted him. He must have been suffering from serious pain," said Mr Heim.
Dr Aribert Heim died the day after the Games ended, on 10 August, 1992, according to his son and the death certificate. Ruediger Heim said he learned of his father's whereabouts through his aunt, who has since died.
Despite the newly uncovered evidence of Heim's time in Egypt, it is impossible definitively to close his case, with the location of his burial site still a mystery.
His death would mark a significant milestone in the winding-up of the controversial hunt for Nazis which led to the trial and execution of the Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann but never managed to catch Josef Mengele, the most infamous Nazi doctor, who died in Brazil in 1979.
Nazis were welcomed in Egypt in the years after the Second World War. Ruediger Heim said that his father told him he knew other Nazis there, but tried to steer clear of them. Even so, how Heim was able to elude his pursuers for so long, while receiving money from Europe, most notably from his late sister, Herta Barth, and corresponding with friends and family, is unclear.
"The Arab world was an even better, safer haven than South America," said Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who had been searching for Heim and travelled to Chile last July to raise awareness about the case.
The search for Heim began shortly after the war. A US war crimes investigating team took testimony about his crimes from Josef Kohl, a former inmate at Mauthausen, on 18 January, 1946, less than a year after the German surrender.
MR KOHL said: "Dr Heim had a habit of looking into the inmates' mouths to determine whether their teeth were in impeccable condition. If this were the case, he would kill the prisoner with an injection, cut his head off, leave it to cook in the crematorium for hours, until all the flesh was stripped from the naked skull, and prepare the skull for himself and his friends as a decoration for their desks."
According to his son, Heim had left Germany and driven through France and Spain, before crossing into Morocco and eventually settling in Egypt.
"It was only sheer coincidence that the police could not arrest me, because I was not at home at the time," Heim wrote in a letter to the German magazine Spiegel, after it published a report about his war crimes case in 1979. It is unclear whether he ever sent the letter, which was found in his files.
He formed close bonds with his neighbours, including the Doma family, who ran the Kasr el Madina hotel, where Heim lived the last decade before his death. Mahmoud Doma, whose father owned the hotel, said that Heim spoke Arabic, English and French, in addition to German.
Mr Doma, 38, became emotional when talking about the man he knew as Uncle Tarek, describing how he gave him books and encouraged him to study. "He was like a father. He loved me and I loved him."
After his death, Ruediger Heim insisted they follow his father's wishes and donate the body to science, not an easy task in a Muslim country where the rules dictate a swift burial and dissection is opposed. Mr Doma opposed the plan.
The two men rode in a van with the body of Heim, which had been washed and wrapped in a white sheet in accordance with Muslim tradition.
Mr Doma said they bribed a hospital worker to take the body, but Egyptian authorities found out, and Heim was instead interred in a common grave, anonymously.
Time will never diminish the desire to capture those guilty of torture and death
THE hunt for Nazi war criminals responsible for the torture and death of Jews will never be called off, Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter and director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre said last night.
"We don't think the passage of time diminishes the guilt. These Nazis don't deserve a medal for reaching old age or because they are rich enough or sharp enough to try to get themselves off the hook.
"It is morally outrageous that old age should make a difference. We believe that we owe it to every victim to never give up."
Regarding the latest claims about Aribert Heim "Dr Death", and his alleged death in Egypt, Mr Zuroff said: "We don't think the evidence is good enough and quite frankly raises numerous questions. I know for a fact that Heim did live in Egypt. In 1967 Mr Wiesenthal had him on a list of Nazi war criminals living in Egypt."
Mr Zuroff said information about the centre's search for Nazis could be obtained from the website for Operation: Last Chance.
This is a joint project of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the Targum Shlishi Foundation of Miami, Florida, to assist governments in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.
It offers rewards of up to 9,000 for information, which will help with the prosecution and punishment of Holocaust perpetrators, and has already been launched in Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Latest figures issued in July 2008 show that Operation: Last Chance has resulted in 99 submissions to prosecutors and 503 reports of suspects being received. The highest number for both categories was in Lithuania – 46 submissions to prosecutors and 199 reports of suspects.