Author Archives: Nicholas Kulish

Nicholas Kulish

About Nicholas Kulish

Nicholas Kulish is an author and correspondent for The New York Times. His most recent book, The Eternal Nazi, co-authored with Souad Mekhennet, is the story of Nazi physician Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled postwar justice and hid in Egypt from Nazi hunters. He is also the author of a novel, Last One In.

A Jew in a Plexiglas Box

nicholas-kulishA Jew on display in a Plexiglas box, in Germany of all places, stands as a flagrant provocation. But there he was, surrounded by curious onlookers and a considerable contingent of reporters, photographers and camera crews. Bill Glucroft sat on the white bench with the hot pink cushion in a clear enclosure fielding questions, a living exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

It was one of many controversies that I covered in my six years as Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. There was the effort to ban circumcision, beaten back by the German Parliament after a similar uproar. Günter Grass wrote his controversial poem attacking Israel and then there was the Jew in a Box.

The display was always meant to be provocative, as were advertisements for the show that played off of anti-Semitic rants, one with a picture of a pothole and the words, “The Jews are to blame for everything.” The motivation by the Jewish curators was obvious: Their exhibition about the everyday lives of Jews, about kosher food and skullcaps, was not the kind of Holocaust-related exhibitions that packed museums.

But it was of the moment and significant in its own way. During my time in Berlin the vibrancy of new Jewish life in Central Europe was surprising and encouraging. When I was researching my book on the concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim at Simon Wiesenthal’s old office in Vienna I stayed in the old Second District, which was filled with Orthodox Jewish families, kosher stores and restaurants. Berlin’s tech scene and electronic dance music clubs lured young American Jews and Israelis to the city. In Poland university students were rediscovering Jewish roots buried during the decades of Communist rule.

I had the chance to cover the opening of a new Jewish museum in Warsaw, part of a broader-based movement there to restore the important role that Jews had played in Polish history and the large role that Poland’s enormous population played in Jewish culture writ large. Museums are moving further from static commemoration toward promoting active dialogue and understanding. Such a move is not without risks in a world still filled with hate.

That’s what makes the fatal shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month so chilling. Police have arrested a man who they believe fought with radical Islamists in Syria. The shooter killed an Israeli couple, a Frenchwoman who worked at the museum, and a 24-year-old who was a receptionist at the museum. But he was also aiming at something larger: The notion that Jews can live openly and without fear as part of the larger community in Europe.

In Hungary I watched the rapid rise of the extreme right party known as Jobbik up close. The recent European Parliament election only added to the sense of anxiety, to the fear that we could be sliding back toward an uglier, more dangerous period. It was encouraging, at least, to see that Germany, where the most effort has been made at education and reconciliation, the voices of extremism were barely heeded.

Writers like Yascha Mounk have spoken eloquently about growing up “German, Jewish and Neither,” experiencing a strange blend of anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism and plain old ignorance. Leeor Engländer, a journalist who spent an afternoon in the Berlin Jewish Museum’s Plexiglas box said that the exhibit turned the figurative into the literal. “As a Jew in Germany you live like an animal at the zoo,” he wrote in his article about the experience.

Mr. Glucroft chose to handle the issue with humor and cheer. Encouraged, the museumgoers began asking more and more questions. The foreignness seemed to dissipate, and with it some of the otherness. Provocative, maybe even inappropriate, but the longer I stood in that museum, the more I realized that it was effective. I hope that the next generation of young Jews born in Europe will find no contradiction between their religion and their nationality.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What’s a Nazi?

eternal-nazi“What’s a Nazis?” It was a question I had never heard before or even considered possible but there the man stood, asking me in total seriousness what Nazis were.

In retrospect it made perfect sense. I was in one of the most isolated places on earth, deep in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. There was no electricity and no running water. In the rainy season, which was just beginning, the roads were flooded and the dirt landing strips often too muddy for even small airplanes to land. Other than the occasional United Nations helicopter the people here were completely cut off.

I was six years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its Nazi villains, made everyone I knew want to be an archaeologist with a bullwhip. We read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in junior high. Schindler’s List came out my freshman year of college and I went to see it with my parents when I was home on winter break, while Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were prominently featured on the syllabus.

Studying German, the Holocaust was ever present. One of the first lines of poetry you learn is Paul Celan’s “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland,” death is a master from Germany. Unfortunately for the people of South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the master’s disciples still roam the earth.

I arrived in Nairobi a year ago to work as the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times but I hadn’t quite finished working on The Eternal Nazi, a book that grew out of my work as the newspaper’s Berlin bureau chief. That was how I found myself sitting in a plastic chair, under a tree trying to rewrite the epilogue. The young South Sudanese man approached, wanting to know what I was doing on my MacBook.

“I’m working on a book,” I said.

“What’s it about?” he asked. His English was quite good because, as a refugee, he had gone to school in Kenya.

“Nazis,” I said, prompting the question that so disarmed me. “They were really bad and they killed lots of people.”

For the people of South Sudan, after decades of war with terrible atrocities against civilians committed by all sides, that described a lot of people.

“Like how many?” he asked skeptically. I thought about the six million killed in the Holocaust, the Soviet soldiers and civilians, the people buried in the London blitz or drowned in ships sunk by U-boats.

“Millions,” I said. “Tens of millions.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding, finding the number sufficient. “That really is a lot.” He paused then asked me, “What were they called again?”

“Nazis,” I said.

“I’ll remember that,” he said, then left me alone to write for as long as my battery lasted or until I could find a generator.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Champagne Spy

Wolfgang-LotzFor five long years Wolfgang Lotz, a horse breeder and bon vivant, lived the high life of an affluent former Nazi in Egypt. It was the 1960s and Hitler’s scientists were hard at work building rockets for the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, while veterans of the Wehrmacht trained his soldiers. Joseph Goebbels’ former propagandist Johann von Leers had changed his name to Omar Amin and was now one of several colleagues spreading anti-Semitic vitriol for the Egyptians.

At soirees at von Leers’ home it was possible to see Hans Eisele, who had been sentenced to death for experiments on concentration-camp inmates, singing the Nazi anthem known as “The Horst Wessel Song” with old Kameraden. Lotz, a regular at the country clubs as well as the stables, threw the biggest, most lavish and booze-soaked parties of them all, attended by powerful Egyptian generals as well as his fellow Germans. It was widely believed that the horse breeder had been a member of the SS but he never confirmed nor denied it, letting the rumor linger.

Lotz was indeed a veteran of World War II, but fighting for the Allies. He was German by birth but his mother was Jewish. When the Nazis came to power she fled with her son to what was then the British Mandate for Palestine. Lotz had joined the Haganah before he was 15, patrolling on horseback. He fought for the British in North Africa, smuggled arms for the Haganah and served in the I.D.F. before eventually joining the Mossad.

It was for the Mossad that Lotz had traveled to Egypt. He called espionage “the greatest game in the world,” but it was also a dangerous one. He got to know Egyptian generals and shared whatever secrets he could glean from them about the missile program but his luck ran out and he was arrested in 1965 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

I stumbled across Lotz’s story because I was writing a book about a Nazi war criminal, Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled to Egypt one step ahead of justice. This towering blond war criminal lived out his days as a convert to Islam in a working-class district of Cairo. His story opened an entire world to me that, frankly, I could not have imagined.

When writing a book you have to prepare yourself for those stranger-than-fiction moments. I could hardly believe it when I learned, in Austrian municipal records, that the elusive Heim had a twin brother who died at birth. It all started to feel like an improbable, pulpy paperback thriller I had found at a yard sale.

But you also have to be prepared for the amazing supporting characters that pass by the edges of your story, the Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns of history. Arthur A. Becker was an inmate at Mauthausen turned war crimes investigator for the Americans after the war. He was responsible for the first known record of Heim’s atrocities in an interview with a witness. What I did not know was that he was also a playwright.

Becker wrote a play called “The Road Into Life” about his experiences at Mauthausen, which was staged in Salzburg shortly after the war. I discovered a copy on a back shelf at the Mauthausen Archive in Vienna. The archivists had no idea it was there. As I began reading it I came across a menacing reference to a Nazi doctor named Heim. The strands of fiction and history had crossed before my eyes.

Wolfgang Lotz remained a source of endless fascination. I bought his book, The Champagne Spy, and probably wasted a few more precious research days than I should have on this heroic but at times louche character.

His story had a happy ending. After the 1967 war the Champagne Spy was released in a prisoner exchange. I never could find out if he met Dr. Aribert Heim while he was there, one missing thread in the larger tapestry of my book.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy