Being the Son of a Nazi

In 1975, Rüdiger Heim landed in Egypt with one question on his mind: Was his father a Nazi? Over the next two decades, he found out.
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Aribert Heim with his son Rüdiger in Germany, where Heim practiced as a gynecologist after the war. (Heim family)

Rüdiger Heim arrived in Egypt in December 1975 to meet his father for the first time since he was six years old. He had traveled from Florence, where he had recently moved to study Italian, first heading to Rome to catch his flight and then transferring through Athens. On the airplane Rüdiger felt nervous and excited wondering whether he was being followed.

He did not have his father’s exact address or telephone number. He sent a letter general delivery to the central post office addressed to Camvaro Company, a firm that did not exist. In the letter, he told his father that he would look for him each afternoon between 11 o’clock in the morning and 3 o’clock in the afternoon at the outdoor café at the Nile Hilton in Cairo.

Rüdiger wandered back and forth among the vacationing families and businessmen. With his shaggy hair, T-shirt and blue jeans, he stood out at the luxury hotel, all the more because he was six-foot-four, with the same broad shoulders and athletic build as his father. At least that was what Heim looked like in family photographs. Rüdiger did not know how much the doctor had changed but when he finally spotted him, wearing a striped shirt and carrying a briefcase, Rüdiger had no doubt the man was his father. They did not call out or embrace for fear of being recognized.

At the age of 61, Aribert Heim was still a vital presence. Rüdiger was taken aback by his father’s barrage of questions. Heim wanted to know not just about his ex-wife and elder son, but his sister and his niece, his friends and business associates from home. He also wanted to hear all about Rüdiger’s future medical studies. Across from him, his son was having difficulty absorbing everything. Although the 19-year-old had no doubt the man was his father, his first impression was of “foreignness.” Rüdiger had the feeling, too, that he, a long-haired young man who idolized Bob Dylan, was not quite the son his father, who had left a much more conservative, traditional Germany in the early ’60s, had been expecting.

Aribert Heim enjoying Germany’s postwar prosperity.
(Heim family)

Another issue loomed over their reunion—the reason Aribert Heim was in Egypt. Was his father a Nazi? It was not a question Rüdiger knew how to ask so he did not. Instead he buried his reservations in rote answers and let his father show him his adopted country, fascinated but never quite able to quell the fear that they would be discovered.

Aribert Heim lived at the Karnak Hotel, of which he was a partial owner. He had a small room with a view of Midan Ataba, the square where the twisting lanes of Islamic Cairo met the orderly grid of the European quarter. It was one of several property investments he had made in Egypt. The purchases were complicated by ownership rules that forbade foreigners to buy property, but with the help of local partners he owned a share of the post-war building in Cairo, an apartment in Alexandria, and a plot of land he was trying to develop in the coastal resort of Agamy Beach. He intended to show them all to his son. He had many plans—and even more opinions.

The boy wanted to ask about his father’s sudden departure from Germany in 1962 and the reasons behind it, but he never found the right moment. Questions about Heim’s military service and possible war crimes were never broached. Instead Rüdiger studied his father, asking himself, “Is this how a Nazi behaves? Was he one?” Rüdiger’s notion of Nazis was based on Hollywood films, which presented those Germans as racists who felt justified in exterminating those to whom they felt superior. They were people who killed without being troubled by the act.

***

Oblivious to the fact that police had intensified their search for his father, Rüdiger returned to Florence in January 1976, where he worked on his application for medical school. Now that he had made contact with Heim he kept in close touch. He wrote a letter telling his father he was glad he made the trip and that he “had reassured me of many things I was in doubt of.” He was also brutally honest in a way that children rarely are with their parents. He was comfortable writing about masturbation and satisfying his sexual needs “to a certain point,” with a girlfriend. His father became his sounding board, and Rüdiger had much to discuss. His writings reveal a young man of artistic temperament, out of step with the people around him, searching for authenticity and honesty. “Some days I feel terribly miserable because I could walk for miles in the streets of the city without being paid attention to,” he wrote. “From time to time I want to explode, hit someone’s bloody face, kick someone or whatever because this ‘indifference’ around me is hard to bear. But what is the most terrifying thing is I can’t even explode. I’m too fucking afraid to do so.” In the very next paragraph, however, he said he often feels “free and a part of this world.” He described trips to an art gallery and his rising nervousness as they discussed the photographs he’d taken. “I’m trying to learn as much as possible … but again all kinds of walls are building up in front of me.”

Aribert’s side of the correspondence showed that although he missed his family, he expected more support from them than he felt he was receiving. He relied on his sister for more than money and expected her to help curb his loneliness through regular visits. His own letters often complained that he had not heard from her sooner or more often. As much as he had integrated into Cairo society, life there was not easy for him. The country’s infrastructure had deteriorated significantly under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Blackouts were common. Telephone lines were overloaded at peak hours making calls impossible. Buses were so overcrowded people would hang dangerously on the outsides. The population of the Cairo metropolitan area had roughly doubled to 9 million over the previous decade. Some 200,000 newcomers were arriving every year. It could be a hard city to call home.

***

The February 5, 1979 issue of Der Spiegel featured a black-and-white photograph of train tracks dusted with snow leading into Auschwitz, an image of hopelessness and desolation. Inmate number 290, a survivor who had become a film director, shared his experiences at the death camp with the magazine. Another article speculated whether the Bundestag would overturn the statute of limitations for Nazi murders. Under the title “NS Crimes: Out the Back” was the story of a Nazi doctor who had escaped and was still living in hiding. The three-page article took what up to that point had been a quiet police investigation and laid it out for the world to see. Aribert Heim had been designated as the new face of Nazi impunity.

Heim’s signature on the Mauthausen concentration camp's
operation book. All 11 of the Jewish inmates he operated on
were listed as having died within a few weeks.
(BMI/Fotoarchiv der KZ-Gedenkstatte Mauthausen)

The black-and-white photograph accompanying the article showed Heim unsmiling with his hair slicked back. It listed his SS membership number as 367,744 and his Nazi Party membership number as 6,116,098. “For 17 years the former KZ-physician Dr. Aribert Heim has lived underground,” read the bold text, “provided for financially by a Berlin apartment house, legally advised by a Frankfurt attorney.” With so much support, the magazine concluded, “The investigators are powerless.” The terrible crimes were described in detail, starting with the deadly injection of chemicals directly into the hearts of the victims. The suspect had killed “because he was bored at his job,” taking skulls for “personal uses,” including that of a young inmate with a perfect bite. He forced patients to undergo unnecessary operations, removing their organs and killing them in the process.

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Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet

Nicholas Kulish was the Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times from 2007 to 2013. He now reports from East Africa for the Times. Souad Mekhennet reports for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, and ZDF German television, and previously worked for The New York Times. She is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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