ODESSA – A NAZI ESCAPE ROUTE

In Nuremberg at that time something was taking place that I personally considered a disgrace and an unfortunate lesson for the future of humanity. I became certain that the Argentine people also considered the Nuremberg process a disgrace, unworthy of the victors, who behaved as if they hadn’t been victorious. Now we realize that they [the Allies] deserved to lose the war. During my government I often delivered speeches against Nuremberg, which is an outrage history will not forgive.

From the private tapes of JUAN DOMINGO PERÓN, President of Argentina, 1946–55

At the end of World War II and for decades afterwards, historians and researchers debated the existence of a secret society formed primarily for the rescue of Nazi war criminals. Stories abounded of crates packed with Nazi gold either being smuggled out of Germany and deposited in numbered Swiss bank accounts, or arriving on the shores of Patagonia where they were driven off to secret locations. Other stories revolved around Hitler living out his last days in southern Argentina surrounded by loyal followers. Films were made (notably The Night Porter in 1973, starring Dirk Bogarde), documentaries shown, articles written together with many books (including Frederick Forsyth’s hugely popular novel, The Odessa File and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil), all pointing to the fact that such an organization did indeed exist. The name Odessa (which stands for Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen – Organization of Former Members of the SS) consequently passed into popular consciousness. But was such a society ever formed and if so by whom and with what aims?

The famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal stated that he only heard about Odessa during the Nuremberg trials, yet ever after was convinced of its reality, while other scholars have remained more sceptical. Few have done more to raise public awareness of the Odessa legend than the aforementioned novelist, Frederick Forsyth. His book, which was first published in 1972, tells the story of a group of former SS officers banding together to form an escape route out of Germany for high-ranking Nazis, with the aim of rebuilding their organization and thereafter establishing a Fourth Reich in order to fulfill Hitler’s unrealized dreams. But for all that Forsyth’s book is an engrossing read, and that the plot involves some genuine historical facts, ultimately the novel is only fiction. The truth, on the other hand, now that so many top-secret documents have been declassified and so many scholars have pored over the details, is probably stranger even than Forsyth’s fiction. The real story involves an intimate collaboration of organizations as varied as the Catholic Church, the Argentine government (under president Juan Domingo Perón) and the Allied intelligence services.

As World War II began to draw to a close, it swiftly became apparent that large numbers of Nazi SS (who, due to the nature and magnitude of their war crimes, knew that surrender was not an option), together with those who were sympathetic to their cause, were fleeing Germany for sanctuary abroad in Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. The SS was the army within an army, devised by Adolf Hitler and commanded by Heinrich Himmler, which was charged with ‘special tasks’ during the Nazi rule in Germany between 1933 to 1945. These ‘tasks’ supposedly revolved around the promotion and protection of the Third Reich, but in reality were far more concerned with achieving Hitler’s ultimate ambition, to rid first Germany and afterwards the rest of Europe of elements he considered undesirable. As a result, the SS executed in the region of fourteen million people – among them approximately six million Jews, five million Russians, two million Poles and a mix of gypsies, the mentally unstable, infirm and physically handicapped.

No wonder, then, that as the war drew to a close and Germany anticipated defeat, the men who had perpetrated or supported such inhuman acts knew that the civilized world would want retribution for their evil acts. They had no choice but to flee their homeland if they wanted to escape with their lives. For this they needed not only a support network made up of men and women sympathetic to their plight, but substantial amounts of money. To this end it is believed that on August 10, 1944 a secret meeting of top German industrialists (including steel magnate Fritz Thyssen, who bankrolled Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s) convened at the Maison Rouge hotel in Strasbourg. What they discussed has always remained secret, but the main outcome of the meeting was the establishment of a support network to aid and abet the escape of as many high-ranking Nazi officials as possible. Eminent figures such as Adolf Eichmann (head of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo), who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children, felt the Allied net tightening and the need for escape paramount. Nor were his fears unfounded for, in the Soviet Union, war-crimes trials involving German officers responsible for the deaths of Jewish citizens had already begun. Taking the Russians’ lead, the Western Allied forces also announced their intention of punishing all those involved in war crimes.

By April 1945, with the Red Army advancing on Berlin, many SS officers began creating the sort of fake documents they would need to flee the country under assumed identities. Neutral Spain was the initial destination of choice. French, Belgian and German Nazis or Nazi sympathizers turned up there in their droves, including Charles Lesca who would later become a key figure in the secretive Odessa organization.

Lesca had been born in Argentina, but had lived the greater part of his life in Europe, mixing with various key Nazis including the German Ambassador to Paris, Otto Abetz, as well as high-ranking Vichy officials. When he eventually fled Berlin for Madrid he settled at 4 Victor Hugo Street from where, after the electoral victory of Perón in 1946, it is believed Lesca began the systematic transportation of ‘all possible German intelligence officers to Argentina.’1 But the first person to use Lesca’s escape route was not a high-ranking Nazi official; instead, Carlos Reuter was a middle-aged banker who had recruited agents for the German intelligence service in occupied Paris. His journey began in late January 1946, taking him from Bilbao to Buenos Aires. The escape route was deemed a success and opened the gateway for many more fugitives, yet none of these ‘escapes’ could have been possible without Argentina’s backing or the full approval of President Juan Domingo Perón.

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This Argentine immigration document from 1949, bears the name ‘Helmut Greger,’ the alias adopted by the ‘Angel of Death’ Dr. Joseph Mengele when Odessa helped him to flee from war-crimes trials in Europe.

Perón, as an ultra right-wing politician, had long been a supporter of Hitler and of the Nazi regime. With the aid of his military chiefs he had sought and established a secret alliance with Hitler in 1943, one that guaranteed mutual benefits. On Perón’s side, Hitler allowed the Argentine military full access to the Nazi intelligence service’s powerful communications network, thus enabling Argentina to spy on her neighbors. This was no small gift, but Perón also gave generously in return. He guaranteed Hitler indefinite freedom from arrest for all Nazi officials in Argentina. The deal was struck and a lifelong bond sealed, despite the fact that in January 1944 the Allies persuaded Argentina to break off all diplomatic ties with Germany. All was not, however, as it seemed, for even though Argentina went as far as to declare war on Germany one month before Hitler’s suicide in Berlin in April 1945, the reality of the situation was that Perón only struck this pose to distract the Allies from the fact that he had begun setting up escape routes for Nazi fugitives. As he himself said:

[ …] if Argentina becomes a belligerent country, it has the right to enter Germany when the end arrives; this means that our planes and ships would be in a position to render a great service. At that point we had the commercial planes of the FAMA line [Argentine Merchant Air Fleet] and the ships we had bought from Italy during the war. This is how a great number of people were able to come to Argentina.2

Another route by which ‘a great number of people were able’ to escape to Argentina was via Perón’s newly established DAIE (Delegation for Argentine Immigration in Europe) which he set up in Italy, with its main offices split between Rome and Genoa. Ostensibly, the organization was there to facilitate the emigration of Italians and other Europeans to Argentina, but covertly it was processing all the false documentation that was required by fleeing Nazis before they left Europe for South America. Although the DAIE was extremely efficient, prior to approaching it any prospective émigré also had to obtain a landing permit from the Argentine Immigration Office as well as a travel permit from the Red Cross. Acquiring a Red Cross permit using a false name was not as difficult as it might at first seem because the Red Cross documents were intended for refugees who had lost all other forms of identification. Armed with all of the above it was relatively straightforward for the unscrupulous Nazi fugitive to gain entry into his newly-adopted country. Without the offices of, among others, the Catholic Church both in Europe and in Argentina, however, Perón’s plans would never have reached fruition.

One church official, Bishop Alois Hudal, wrote to President Perón on August 31, 1948 expressing the wish to obtain 5,000 visas for German and Austrian men, who were not refugees as such, but fighters who had made great sacrifices to save their country. Hudal was named by the Vatican as its special envoy to visit the German internees at the numerous ‘civilian’ camps dotted all over Italy, camps in which hundreds, if not thousands of Nazi officers were hiding among real refugees. Indeed, Hudal was later praised by several leading Nazi officers for his help during these years, including the Luftwaffe hero Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who wrote:

Rome became a sanctuary and salvation for many victims of persecution after the ‘liberation’. More than a few of our comrades found the path to freedom through Rome, because Rome is full of men of good will.

Nor was Hudal reticent about documenting his post-war efforts, for in his book Roman Diary he noted:

I felt duty bound after 1945 to devote my whole charitable work mainly to former National Socialists and Fascists, especially the so called ‘war criminals’.

Joining him in these efforts were numerous other dignitaries of the Catholic Church, including Archbishop Giuseppe Siri of Genoa (one of the main points of departure from Italy to Argentina), who founded the National Committee for Emigration to Argentina. But perhaps the most shocking of all the Catholic Church’s officials to help the Nazis was the Pope himself – Pius XII. For many years the Catholic Church denied any involvement of Pius in supporting Germany’s war criminals, let alone his sanctioning of the Church’s efforts to help them escape Italy. What cannot be ignored, however, is that between 1946 and 1952 Pius sent several pleas to those presiding over the Nuremberg war trials to commute the death sentences hanging over key Nazi officials.

Among the death sentences the Pope wished to see commuted were those of Arthur Greiser, convicted for the murder of 100,000 Jews in Poland; Otto Ohlendorf, who had murdered some 90,000 people as commander of the mobile killing squad Einsatzgruppe D; and Oswald Pohl, head of WHVA, the vast SS agency that ran the Nazi concentration camps, overseeing a slave force of 500,000 prisoners and supervising the conversion of victims’ jewelry, hair and clothes to hard currency.3

Sadly, the Pope and the Catholic Church weren’t the only ones aiding and abetting the escape of Nazi officers. In his book on the subject, Uki Goni explains how the Swiss Federal Archives still hold records revealing that several prominent Swiss officials permitted 300 Nazi Germans to travel through Switzerland, no questions asked, on their way to Argentina.

Naturally, Perón also had his own agents in place, both in Europe and in Argentina. Two such were former SS Captain Carlos Fuldner and Rodolfo Freude, chief of the Perón government’s secret service. Fuldner was born in Argentina in 1910 to German immigrant parents who, when Fuldner was eleven years old, returned to Germany with their children and set up home in Kassel. By the age of twenty-one, Fuldner had been admitted into Hitler’s SS, where he was quickly promoted to the rank of captain. All was not as it seemed, however, for Fuldner had a penchant for high living, generally paid for with other people’s money. According to several accounts from that period, he swindled not only a shipping company out of a sizable sum of money, but also the SS, as a consequence of which he decided to flee Germany and return to his homeland. His escape was not successful and having been captured, he was expelled from the SS and spent some months in jail. Despite this, Fuldner’s career was not yet at an end, for at some point between being released from jail and the end of World War II, Fuldner’s star rose once more when Heinrich Himmler employed him on a ‘special mission’ to help set up a German/Argentine ratline to smuggle people such as Adolf Eichmann and the ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele, out of Germany. In this new role, Fuldner traveled extensively throughout Europe, often skipping between Spain, Italy and Germany within the space of a few days. Fuldner also played a key role running Perón’s DAIE office in Genoa.

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Although the existence of the Odessa network has been disputed, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (above) was convinced the secret organization had helped senior Nazis to escape justice from the moment he first heard mention of it at the Nuremberg Trials.

The second key member of Perón’s team, Rodolfo Freude, was also of mixed German/Argentine origin although his father, Ludwig, far outranked Fuldner’s father, being a close personal friend of Perón’s as well as having proven Nazi credentials. With this background it is not surprising that Rodolfo Freude, as soon as he was of age, went to work for Perón. Nor is it surprising that when Perón was first elected president, Rudi (as he was known) became his spy chief.

Everything was now in place for one of the greatest multiple-escape stories of all time to unfold. Fuldner, along with many other Nazi agents, had established his network in Europe and Freude, along with his boss Perón, was ready and willing to accept all Nazi fugitives into Argentina. Among these was SS officer Erich Priebke.

Priebke joined the SS in 1936, but due to his flair for languages (in particular Italian and English) he was transferred to the Gestapo, where he was set to work liaising with international police departments, as well as forming part of Mussolini’s personal guard when the Italian dictator visited Germany during 1937. Lieutenant Priebke also traveled with Hitler as his personal translator when the Führer visited Rome and worked alongside Reinhard Heydrich, who is best known as one of the perpetrators of Hitler’s Final Solution. Perhaps Priebke’s most important role during the war, however, was as the main go-between between the Vatican and the Nazi Party. This made him an extremely important cog in a very large machine, but when Mussolini was finally ousted from office by the Italian Fascist Council in 1943, Priebke’s position immediately became most perilous.

Furious at what he saw as Italy’s ungratefulness towards Germany, Hitler sent his troops into Rome and swiftly captured the city, after which Priebke’s official duties changed to include the arrest, torture and, more often than not, execution of Italian Communists and partisans. More gruesome even than this, Priebke is also believed not only to have overseen the deportation of over 2,000 Roman Jews to their deaths in the concentration camps, but also to have taken a leading role in the Ardeatine Caves massacre, one of the most notorious of all Nazi war crimes in Italy.

On March 23, 1944, Communist partisans attacked a company of German soldiers marching through Rome, killing thirty-three men. Outraged by the slaughter, Hitler immediately ordered that for every German soldier that had died, ten Italians were to be executed. Priebke immediately set about searching his files for 330 convicted prisoners to fulfil Hitler’s order but, according to his later testimony, there weren’t enough victims to make up the number. Finally, he ordered that seventy-three Jews and fifty ordinary prisoners be taken from the city’s jails. On the following day, all the detainees were driven out to the mouth of the Ardeatine Caves where they were shot. Priebke later recalled:

All were tied with rope with their hands behind their backs, and when their names were called they walked into the cave in groups of five. I went in with the second or third party and killed a man with an Italian machine pistol. The executions finished when it was getting dark in the evening. During the evening some German officers came to the cave and after the shooting the caves were blown in.4

Not long after this massacre, on June 4, 1944, the Allies entered Rome and Priebke, fearing for his life, fled to Verona. From there he returned to Berlin but afterwards traveled back to Italy where, on May 13, 1945, he was eventually arrested. Despite being formally named as one of the participants in the Ardeatine massacre, Priebke was not held in a high-security facility. Instead, he was detained in a British-run camp in Rimini from where he managed to escape by cutting through some barbed wire while his guards were drunkenly celebrating the New Year.

Five of us managed to escape: three non-commissioned officers, another officer and myself. We went to the bishop’s palace and that’s where our flight really began.5

For two years Priebke, along with his wife and children, who had traveled from Germany, lived a peaceful life in the Alto Adige, until he decided it was no longer safe to stay in Europe – war tribunals were still taking place and Nazi officers were still being sentenced to death. Priebke applied for and was granted an application under the assumed name Otto Pape (probably through Fuldner at the DAIE office in Genoa) to emigrate to Argentina. Bishop Alois Hudal also gave Priebke a blank passport bearing the Red Cross insignia, thus granting him the smoothest of passages to his new home. On October 23, 1948, Otto Pape and his family boarded the San Giorgio in Genoa and three weeks later disembarked in Buenos Aires.

In 1954 Priebke moved with his family to the Andean retreat of Bariloche in southern Patagonia, where he lived a peaceful, prosperous existence, frequently traveling back to Italy and Germany. But in 1994 Priebke’s luck ran out when an ABC television crew door-stepped him at home and asked him straight out whether he had participated in the Ardeatine Caves murders. Without a hint of shame, Priebke replied that he had indeed taken part. His answer sealed his fate. In May 1995 an Italian extradition order arrived in Argentina and by November of the same year Priebke was behind bars back in Italy where he was later sentenced to life imprisonment. But if Erich Priebke’s escape with the aid of the Odessa organization was finally foiled, sadly the same cannot be said for another, far more notorious Nazi war criminal, the ‘Angel of Death,’ Doctor Josef Mengele.

Mengele had been in charge of the women’s camp at Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex) from 1943 and became known as ‘the chief provider for the gas and chamber ovens’ because, when it came to choosing women disembarking from the trains, he more than any other SS officer would select the largest number without a flicker of conscience. Even worse, Mengele, who was a trained doctor, was said to move-up and down the lines of Jewish men, women and children searching for twins upon whom he could carry out brutal experiments. Some of these included injecting dye into the eyes of brown-eyed children to see if he could turn them Aryan blue. After the experiments the children would be sent to the gas chambers. But all this was to change in January 1945, when Mengele could see that his days were numbered. On January 17, he packed his bags, collected his medical data and, adopting the disguise of a regular army doctor, joined a retreating military unit.

When the concentration camps were liberated and statements taken, Mengele’s name was mentioned on many occasions in relation to the terrible acts he had committed, and in May 1945 the United Nations War Crimes Commission issued a warrant for his arrest on the grounds of ‘mass murder and other crimes.’ Yet despite the warrant, when he was finally captured by American troops in June of the same year, they failed to identify him correctly and he was later released. Now traveling under the name Fritz Hollmann, Mengele escaped to Bavaria where he worked on a small farm for three years. Although his name was frequently mentioned at the Nuremberg trials, no trace was found of the man himself. Mengele bided his time and it wasn’t until the spring of 1948 that he made the first move towards escaping to Argentina.

With Carlos Fuldner’s help, Mengele obtained new identity papers under the name of Helmut Gregor and applied for an Argentine landing permit. Most historians believe the applications were routed through Fuldner’s DAIE office in Genoa to the Buenos Aires Immigration Office. In fact, the author Uki Goñi points out that at the time of Mengele’s application a whole flurry of similar applications were being made by key members of the SS, including Erich Priebke, Josef Schwammberger, Erich Müller, and last but not least Adolf Eichmann. This made mid-1948 one of the busiest periods for Odessa.

On September 7, 1948, news arrived (if it was ever in any doubt) that Helmut Gregor’s landing permit had been approved by Argentina after which, save for a brief few months while Mengele tried to persuade his wife to join him in South America, he left Germany for ever, traveling first to Austria and then to Italy. Naturally, his flight involved several border crossings, all of which called for the bribery of officials and the need for yet more forged documents. Once in Italy, Mengele initially stayed in Vipiteno, but after about a month moved to the town of Bolzano where he made contact with a secret agent known only as ‘Kurt’, who arranged for him to travel to Argentina on a ship called the North King.

On May 25, 1949, Mengele set sail for South America. The crossing lasted four weeks before the ship docked in Buenos Aires. At first Mengele stayed in a downtown hotel, but after a brief period he was invited to stay at the home of Gerard Malbranc, a high-profile Nazi sympathizer who soon introduced his new guest to the cream of Argentine/Nazi society. From then on Mengele’s life in Argentina became more comfortable and prosperous. He became a successful businessman, enjoying all the benefits that this brought, but when President Perón was finally ousted from power in 1959, Mengele realized that the support he had formerly received from Perón’s government could no longer be relied upon. He moved swiftly to Paraguay and then later to Brazil. The move did not come a moment too soon because shortly afterwards, not only did Germany request his extradition from Argentina to face trial back in Europe, but in 1960 Mengele’s one-time colleague Adolf Eichmann was abducted from Argentina by an Israeli commando kidnap squad and spirited away.

Adolf Eichmann was one of the last major war criminals to receive assistance from Perón’s Odessa group, escaping from Germany to Argentina in the early 1950s. As the organizer of the deportation of Jews from their homes to Reich concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka, Eichmann was one of the Allies’ main targets in their hunt for war criminals. Despite this and his arrest by an American patrol, Eichmann’s luck held good. Imprisoned at Oberdachstetten camp along with thousands of other Germans, Eichmann still managed to use his fake documents (under the name Otto Eckmann) to escape detection. Eichmann’s plan was to lie low until the Allies had finished their ‘witch hunt’ for ex-Nazi officers, but on January 3, 1946, a former colleague of Eichmann’s by the name of Dieter Wisliceny testified against him at Nuremberg, saying that his old friend had insisted he would commit suicide if Germany failed to win the war.

He said he would leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be, for him, a source of extraordinary satisfaction.6

Wisliceny’s testimony (along with those of defendants such as Herman Goering and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess) was subsequently printed worldwide, blackening Eichmann’s name to the extent that when word filtered back to him he knew he would never be safe in Europe again. Two days after Wisliceny’s testimony Eichmann escaped from the American-run camp and fled first to Prien in southern Germany and later to Eversen in the British-occupied northern sector, where he worked in various rural jobs, felling trees and rearing chickens. But if Eichmann thought that with the passing of time his crimes would be forgotten, he couldn’t have been more wrong. The Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal never let up in his search for the former SS officer, hunting down Eichmann’s parents, wife and even his ex-mistresses in pursuit of his prey, while the press constantly made reference to Eichmann’s crimes and supposed ‘disappearance’. It was during this period that Adolf Eichmann first made contact with Perón’s Odessa organization.

I heard of the existence of some organizations which had helped others leave Germany. In early 1950 I established contact with one of these organizations.’7

Soon Eichmann was making his way, with Odessa’s help, across the Alps into Italy, where he was handed a passport by a Franciscan monk, Father Edoardo Dömöter, made out in the name of Riccardo Klement, together with an Argentine visa. Indeed, by rooming in various Catholic monasteries and convents with the full cooperation of the Catholic clergy, Eichmann easily escaped detection. According to Simon Wiesenthal, one Franciscan monastery in particular, the Via Sicilia in Rome, was a virtual transit station for Nazis hoping to flee Europe and establish a new life abroad.

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Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who organized the transportation of Jews and other so-called untermenschen to the death camps, sits in a protective glass cage during his trial in Jerusalem. Although he escaped to Argentina via the Odessa network, he was later kidnapped by Israeli commandos to stand trial in Israel.

On July 14, 1950, the ship carrying Adolf Eichmann, the Giovanna C docked in Buenos Aires and for the next few years the fugitive lived a relatively quiet life in the northern province of Tucumán (approximately 600 miles from Buenos Aires), working for the water company CAPRI, whose payroll included numerous ex-Nazi officers and technicians. Eichmann also had his wife and children follow him out to Argentina, and later the whole family moved back to Buenos Aires. But, unlike so many other Nazis who had found lucrative employment in Argentina, once Eichmann returned to the capital he struggled to make ends meet, working (somewhat ironically, given his involvement at Auschwitz) for the Orbis gas-appliances company as well as for the Mercedes-Benz factory.

Although his new home afforded him relative safety, Eichmann was aware at all times that the Israelis were still seeeking him out and would not relent until he was caught. Finally, in 1957, the head of Mossad (the Israeli secret intelligence agency), Isser Harel, received the information for which he had been waiting; Eichmann was alive and living in Argentina. Harel wrote in his book recording how Mossad eventually captured Eichmann:

I didn’t know what sort of man Eichmann was. I didn’t know with what morbid zeal he pursued his murderous work or how he went into the fray to destroy one miserable Jew with the same ardor he devoted to the annihilation of an entire community. I didn’t know that he was capable of ordering the slaughter of babies – and depicting himself as a disciplined soldier; of directing outrages on women – and priding himself on his loyalty to an oath […] I knew that he was a past master in police methods, and that on the strength of his professional skill and in the light of his total lack of conscience, he would be an exceedingly dangerous quarry. I knew that when the war was over he had succeeded in blotting out all trace of himself with supreme expertise.8

In fact, Eichmann’s whereabouts had initially been located, not by any intelligence agencies, but by an aging, blind refugee from Nazi persecution by the name of Lothar Hermann. Hermann, who had been imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp for his socialist politics, was now living with his wife and daughter in the Olivos area of Buenos Aires. There his daughter, Sylvia, had made friends with Eichmann’s eldest son, Klaus. The young boy often made anti-Semitic remarks and stated that his father had been proud to serve in the war, but it wasn’t until Sylvia’s father heard the name Adolf Eichmann in reference to a Nazi trial back in Germany, that he put two and two together and realized the true nature of Eichmann’s identity. From that moment on, Lothar Hermann made it his mission to alert the Israeli and German authorities and see to it that Eichmann did not escape justice for a second time. Mossad operatives flew into Argentina and, on May 11, 1960, kidnapped Eichmann as he returned from work, spiriting him away to a secret hiding place outside Buenos Aires.

For the following ten days Eichmann was kept prisoner, blindfolded and handcuffed to a bed, until Mossad was able to arrange to smuggle their captive out of the country without alerting the authorities. Argentina would not, after all, take kindly to Israeli forces operating within its borders, and would certainly block any attempts to extradite Eichmann through official channels. Meanwhile, back at the Eichmann house, pandemonium reigned as his sons contacted their father’s former SS friends in an attempt to find out what might have happened. In addition, a ‘Perónist youth group’ also approached the Eichmanns with an offer to help search for the missing man. They also offered to launch a campaign of terror against the Israelis by kidnapping the Israeli Ambassador to Argentina and torturing him until Eichmann was released, or even by blowing up the Israeli Embassy.

Finally, on May 21, 1960, Mossad managed to move Eichmann out of the country. He was heavily drugged and dressed in the uniform of an El Al flight attendant, his captors explaining that Eichmann was suffering some form of food poisoning, but that he would be taken care of by the rest of the flight staff until they reached Tel Aviv. The plan worked and on May 23 Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion announced: ‘Eichmann is already in this country under arrest and will shortly be brought to trial.’

Naturally, the Argentine government was incensed at the kidnapping of one of its ‘citizens’ and demanded that Israel return Eichmann to Buenos Aires. Argentina’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Mario Amadeo, even made a formal protest before the Security Council in New York, but to no avail. Other prominent figures also joined the fray, notably the Argentine Cardinal Antonio Caggiano, who had also been involved in Odessa’s escape network. Speaking to the press Caggiano said:

He [Eichmann] came to our fatherland seeking forgiveness and oblivion. It doesn’t matter what his name is, Riccardo Klement or Adolf Eichmann, our obligation as Christians is to forgive him for what he’s done.9

But all their outrage and pleading came to nothing. Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem where, in court, he was kept in a bullet-proof glass box to prevent him being assassinated by the surviving victims of his crimes, and having been found guilty of all the charges against him was put to death on May 31, 1962. His last words were, ‘Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.’

Sadly, Eichmann’s fellow Odessa escapee, Josef Mengele, was not to face the hangman’s noose, for although he never enjoyed a peaceful existence in Paraguay, nor later in Brazil, always fearing arrest, no Mossad team spirited him back to Israel to face trial for his terrible crimes. Instead, Mengele died by drowning while swimming off the beach at Betrioga, near Sao Paulo, Brazil on February 7, 1979.

Priebke, Mengele and Eichmann were Odessa’s most famous ‘members’, but it is thought thousands of Nazis escaped Europe using this secret network, engineered and aided by all the various groups and nations previously mentioned. Whether Odessa was a coordinated organization, conceived by the Nazis and made operational by Perón, is not quite so clear. Rather than being established as part of a grand plan to further the cause of the Nazis, it is far more likely that the whole Odessa escape network grew together piecemeal, according to necessity, as the last option for a group of frightened and desperate fugitives running for their lives.

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