Tag Archives: egypt

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

The Journey Back

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juliana-maioLittle did I know what I was getting myself into when one day I decided to delve back into my Jewish Egyptian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my family during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but ended up immigrating to the United States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaotic to journey back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife crisis. It was not the passage of time nor the meaning of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nagging need to discover the truth about my people’s roots. Who were those Jews living in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anecdotes. I wanted hard facts.

Soon I started hitting the history books, and while I knew that Jews had been living in Egypt since biblical times, I learned that the largest wave of immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when the country underwent a massive modernization and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediterranean basin, and that’s when my family came. I was so proud to discover the integral part Jews played in the building of the country. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, legislators, athletes, and movie stars. They built the greatest department stores and hospitals. They helped draft the Egyptian Constitution and were advisors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egyptian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving.

But the Jews were not thriving in a vacuum, they co-existed famously with the many other foreign minorities that had also come to settle in Egypt—Italians, French, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and of course the English, who had colonized the country. My research grew exponentially as I became fascinated by this unique, cosmopolitan Levantine society, who built a city that mirrored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boulevards and exquisite gardens.

My research grew wider when the next natural step was to understand how the Egyptian people reacted to that onslaught of foreigners. I was delighted to learn how tolerant and accepting they had been—that is until World War II, when the English held the country with a tight grip for fear of losing the vitally strategic Suez Canal. Factions of all kinds began to seriously challenge the Brits, and it was with extraordinary interest that I learned about young, rebellious army officers like Sadat and Nasser, the emerging Muslim Brotherhood (which also started attacking Jews and spreading anti-Semitism), the young dashing King of Egypt, and all the various political groups of the day.

Factions are usually based on ideologies and soon I found myself immersed in researching huge, topics that are as relevant today as they were then: colonialism, Arab nationalism, fundamentalism, and Zionism. It was all new and fascinating to me, and I remember when I first read about Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, jumping out of my desk chair and proclaiming, “I’m a Zionist!” And then the next day, taking it back, “Maybe not.” But the following day, I wavered again.

Learning about Egypt during the war led me to investigating what was happening in Palestine, in Iraq, in Syria. It was all connected, and it was all so profoundly interesting. I had discovered a secret treasure that had been buried for decades, and it’s no wonder I decided to write about it.

After 10 years of researching and writing, my midlife crisis is over. My hunger for the truth has been satiated—at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!

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 April 7, 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