The Champagne Spy

For 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.

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