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.

Unlike his mother and grandmother, who had kept many of the details from him, Rüdiger was learning the specifics of his father’s alleged crimes for the first time. His grandmother told him: “Your father swore on his children that he had not done anything.”

In the family’s correspondence, the code name for Aribert Heim was Gretl, the little girl who got lost in the woods with her brother Hansel. When Rüdiger sat down to inform his father about what was happening, he spun his own fairytale modeled on the Brothers Grimm.

When Gretl awoke one morning it had just turned the fifth week of the New Year and she was not feeling particularly well. She decided to buy herself a Spiegel. The old one was already too old and one couldn’t recognize anything in it anymore. But no sooner had she bought the new Spiegel then she went home and looked inside. It shocked her terribly for what was inside did not please her at all. Her entire misery was mirrored in her face once more. She suddenly had a vision that came out of this Spiegel. If one day, all of a sudden, the poor girl could no longer receive bread and if water was no longer brought up to her room, well then she would inevitably starve and die of thirst or else she would have to go out into the forest to provide for herself. But the forest was teeming with wolves and they would most certainly tear her to pieces. There was still Rainer, however, and he could certainly help her. She simply had to make contact with him and he would give her counsel. Oh that would all be terrible, thought Gretl, and sat down to try to recover from the scare.

In plain language, Rüdiger wanted his father to acquire a copy of Der Spiegel. He had to talk to his attorney, Fritz Steinacker, “Rainer” in code. His livelihood, and possibly his life, depended on it.

***

When Rüdiger Heim returned to Egypt to visit his father again, the ever-practical Heim asked only for razorblades and Faber-Castell pencils. Rüdiger brought exactly what he was told. He was not, however, fully prepared for what awaited him upon their reunion. The two men could no longer avoid the topic of his father’s wartime service and fugitive status as they had during his first visit.

For hours each day, Rüdiger had to relive his father’s months at the Mauthausen concentration camp and try to maintain belief in his innocence. Heim defined the terms of the discussion. They did not talk about the condition of the inmates brought to the infirmary from the stone quarry. They did not discuss how the patients were treated. Heim tried to reinforce the point that he would sooner not have been working at Mauthausen. “That was something he expressed to me unequivocally: That he did everything he could to get out of this concentration camp as quickly as possible,” Rüdiger said. Each day, the son dutifully walked from the Scarabee Hotel downtown to listen to hours of lectures on the crimes his father was accused of committing.

The visit was much more of a shock than his previous trip to Cairo and not just because of the civil case against his father. The city was busier, more crowded. Downtown had fallen into disrepair. The country had become more religious and the girls in miniskirts were gone. Women in modest clothes and headscarves had replaced them. The religious revival was in part due to the rising tide of migrants from more observant villages. But many young people had simply fled their stagnant economy and found jobs thanks to the oil boom in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. When they returned with petro-dollars in their pockets, they often practiced a stricter, sometimes Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Rüdiger realized that along with changing his name to Tarek Hussein Farid, his father had also converted to Islam. But this was a subject they did not discuss.

Heim talked a great deal about when he was actually at Mauthausen. Witnesses described him working at the camp in 1942 when in reality he left in 1941. Spiegel magazine said he had committed his crimes between a special room for shooting prisoners in the neck and the gas chamber, when neither existed in 1941.

He spoke very specifically about the charge that he had murdered an older inmate. Heim explained that the patient wanted an operation for his hernia but the doctor determined once he began that the man had not only a hernia but also cancer. That was the reason he had taken the intestines out of the abdomen. “If someone comes in at that point, who has never seen an operation, he would say, ‘Look, he’s tearing out all his intestines,’” he told his son. Rüdiger asked him why he was even there in the first place. His father explained how in order for him to finish his studies, it was necessary for him to enlist in the Waffen-SS. He did not realize that would mean service at concentration camps.

Heim (center) at the University of Vienna, where he completed his medical degree in 1940 at the age of 25, a few months after World War II broke out. He was drafted into the SS upon graduation. (Heim family)

Eventually Rüdiger could not take it anymore. “The subject isn’t pretty, and naturally your head is smoking after two, three hours.” His father suggested he spend a week on the Red Sea to recuperate. Rüdiger traveled to Hurghada, where he stayed in a small bungalow on stilts at the edge of the water. When he was not going for walks or swimming, he was reading about Egypt, which he had not done on his first visit. He enjoyed looking out across the water at the Sinai Peninsula.

After several weeks it was time to say goodbye. Rüdiger left still believing his father was innocent of most of the charges against him. Throughout their discussions his father had remained “factual and sober,” Rüdiger said, “not emotional.” Rüdiger remained uncertain about what had taken place at Mauthausen. He did not believe that his father was wholly blameless after working in a concentration camp. But he also could not believe that Aribert Heim was guilty of the atrocities he was alleged to have committed.

***

Rüdiger returned to Egypt in July 1992 for what he expected to be his last visit. Father and son spoke regularly, with Rüdiger calling from payphones so that their conversations could not be tapped. In the first few months after Rüdiger returned to Europe, his father, who had been diagnosed with rectal cancer, would say, “It would be nice if you came.” Finally, as his illness worsened, Heim had simply said, “It is time now for you to come.”

By that point Aribert Heim did not leave the Kasr el Madina hotel, in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo. A nurse visited each day to check on him and to change his colostomy bag. His room was next to that of Mahmoud Doma, the son of the hotel’s former proprietor and a 22-year-old engineering student, and if he needed something he would knock on the wall. Mahmoud was not yet 10 when Heim had moved into the establishment, and the Austrian—who gave him books to read, taught him languages, and played ping-pong with the Doma children on the roof—eventually became a father figure for him after his own father passed away. As Mahmoud understood it, the man he called Amu Tarek, or “Uncle Tarek,” had moved to Egypt because of a problem with his back, which healed in Egypt’s warm, dry climate. Mahmoud also knew his friend had a wife and two sons back home in Germany, but they did not come to visit.

Now a grown man with his own family, Mahmoud Doma recalled learning English and playing games as a child on the roof of his family’s hotel with the man he knew as Uncle Tarek. (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet)

As his life slipped away, however, Heim became more candid. His cover story with so many Egyptian friends—Alfred Buediger, the owner of a demolition company—was gone and he told Mahmoud that he had been a doctor who used to study women’s cancer. “He said he was very famous and a very good doctor,” Mahmoud said. Heim never told him anything about his military service.

Toward the end he asked his young friend, “Can I donate my body after I die, so that the university can use it for tests?’” Mahmoud said it was because his Uncle Tarek had an unusual illness, and hoped that before he was buried the students at the medical school could learn from his body. “I told him that our Islamic beliefs did not allow you to donate your body. It is a sin.”

“All right,” Heim said. “If that is so then it does not have to happen.’”

When Rüdiger entered his father’s room in the Kasr el Madina, the lights were off, and Heim was sitting in a wheelchair. Rüdiger greeted his father.

His father returned his greeting, then immediately turned to practical matters. “We have to decide now if I’m going to remain in this chair for my final days or if I’m going to lie in the bed.” He refused to discuss recovery, remission, or improvement. Rüdiger learned most of what he needed to know just by looking at the weakened state of his father’s once-powerful body. Moving from the wheelchair to the bed to sleep at night had become an excruciating ordeal. Heim finally said, “From now on I will be in the bed.”

The following day Rüdiger helped his father lie down. “He was a moribund, doomed person, slowly rotting from the inside,” Rüdiger said. His pain was compounded by a return bout with kidney stones. At one point the agony was so overpowering he demanded that Rüdiger give him all the pain-killing medication they had at once.

For nourishment, he took only warmed milk. “Milk has everything in it that the body needs, and I don’t need any more than that now,” Heim said.

Father and son spent much of the time watching the Barcelona Olympics. When the Olympics were not on they tuned to coverage of the war in Bosnia. On the matter of the criminal case he was now facing, the dying man expressed conflicting wishes. He said at one point that he wanted “the truth to come to light,” but at another he told his son, “Don’t worry about this nonsense anymore.”

At a certain juncture, his pain was so great that Heim could no longer roll over to urinate, and short of taking him to a hospital for a catheter to be inserted, Rüdiger had to help him pee every two or three hours. When Rüdiger made a mistake, the bed would be soaked in urine and it became a major production to move his father to change the sheets. Rüdiger had taken to massaging his father’s arms and legs because he noticed that it helped with the pain.

“I also caught myself thinking that the suffering actually had to end, that it was too much, that it was outrageous,” Rüdiger said. “And one discovers, too, in oneself, the weakness to hope that it stops, and it is actually a shameless thought, a terrible thought,” thinking ahead to his father’s death. At one point Rüdiger went to the bathroom and wept. He was sure that in Europe no one would have to die like that.

Heim’s voice gave out several days before he passed away. Rüdiger blamed himself for dallying in Europe before coming to Egypt. He had lost his last chance to ask the lingering questions he had about his father’s past.

On August 9, 1992, Aribert and Rüdiger Heim watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Dr. Heim fell asleep at around 10 p.m. Instead of going back to the Scarabee to sleep, Rüdiger now had a thin mattress that he rolled out in front of the balcony. Around one o’clock in the morning, he noticed that his father’s breathing was slowing. Over the course of hours, his father had hinüber gedämmert, “faded across.”

“There was no exact time of death, but at some point he had stopped breathing,” Rüdiger said. He spoke to him, checked to make sure his father was not still alive and placed his hand over his father’s head. When it was clear he had died, Rüdiger took a piece of white cloth and ran it under his father’s chin, tying it at the top of his head. He had learned when his grandmother died that this was necessary, so that rigor mortis would not leave his mouth hanging open.

“One says goodbye in a very personal way,” Rüdiger said. He smoked a cigarette on the balcony, staring out into the Cairo streets. Then he went downstairs and notified the hotel’s night porter that his father was dead. The porter reached Mahmoud, who had been away in Alexandria. The young man arrived with his mother and one of his brothers within a few hours. The hotel also notified the authorities. A representative from the German embassy came to Heim’s deathbed, as well as the Egyptian official who filled out the death certificate.

Ever wary of the authorities Rüdiger gave them his Danish driver’s license as identification. He also put down a false birthday for his father, to further throw off anyone trying to find Aribert Heim. Rüdiger said Heim did not want investigators to bother his family and he did not want trouble for the Domas.

Heim on the roof of Cairo's Kasr el Madinain in 1990, two years before he is believed to have died. (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet)

Sometime after sunrise, two men came to bathe his father one final time. They took the body out into the hall where they had set up a table. They took off his clothes, removed the colostomy bag, and began to wash him according to the Islamic ritual known as kafan. Mahmoud didn’t want Rüdiger to watch but the Egyptian man cleaning his father said, “Come, look at this. This is your father.” When they were done with the washing, they wrapped him in long white winding sheets.

It is Muslim tradition to bury the body as quickly as possible, without embalming or autopsies. Mahmoud wanted to inter Uncle Tarek in the same tomb with his own father. Rüdiger wanted to honor Heim’s wish that his cadaver be used for medical research. Mahmoud tried to explain that it would be simplest if he were buried according to local custom, but the son refused. The man from the German embassy, an Arab who spoke German, finally told Mahmoud that as the son, Rüdiger had certain rights in deciding what would happen to the body. Mahmoud did not like it, but he remembered his Uncle Tarek’s request and reluctantly went along.

The body was carried downstairs to a waiting mortuary van where it was laid out on a wooden bier in the back. Mahmoud cried. “He was like a father. He loved me and I loved him. He was the same as my father.”

Mahmoud and Rüdiger, the son Mahmoud knew only as Roy, drove to several hospitals but none of them wanted to take the corpse. It was an unusual request with possible legal repercussions. The orderlies told them that they could not accept corpses for donation. After several hours, Rüdiger began to wonder if his father’s body was beginning to putrefy. Mahmoud said finally, “That’s enough. We can’t go on like this. Let’s first of all put him in a refrigerator. You’re more than welcome to keep looking, but I’m tired.”

They eventually found a man at one of the hospitals who was willing to take the body. The details were sketchy. He may have been bribed, or simply offered to do them a favor by keeping Heim’s body overnight. Either way the two men left his body there. Rüdiger believed that the body had been accepted according to his father’s last wishes. Mahmoud described the arrangement as more temporary.

When the two returned to the Kasr el Madina, they sorted through Heim’s belongings, packing his father’s papers into an old leather briefcase and a hard-shell Samsonite case. Once this was done, Rüdiger told Mahmoud to watch his father’s effects and said he would soon return for them. He did not give his address or any way to contact him. Mahmoud found it strange at the time but did not ask any questions. He may have had an ulterior motive in helping to speed Rüdiger’s departure. For once the son left, Mahmoud went back to try to claim Heim’s body so that he could be interred in his family tomb, as he had wanted to do in the first place. The hospital told him that he may have called the man uncle, but that did not make him a legal relative. Corpses were not just given out to anyone who wanted them.

In the end, Tarek Hussein Farid was buried in a common crypt like an Egyptian pauper.


This post is adapted from Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet's new book, The Eternal Nazi, to be published March 25 by Doubleday.
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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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