A remarkable 92 year-old man died quietly in Tel Aviv last month. Few people even in his home country of Israel knew his name, let alone were aware of his daring exploits and heroism. A legend to whom the world owes a great debt, his obituary was missing from North American newspapers.
Yaakov Meidad was a secret agent with the intelligence agency Mossad, the Israeli counterpart of the American CIA. A real-life James Bond, who operated in over 60 countries during his career, he was a master of disguise and undercover operations. Short and chubby, Meidad would never be mistaken for Sean Connery. Instead of having movie star looks, he was resourceful and brilliant; occasionally, when asked what his secret weapon was, he would smile and tap his (balding) head.
Yaakov’s parents were German and his father distinguished himself by winning the Iron Cross fighting for the Germans in World War I. After Hitler came to power, his parents sent young Yaakov to Palestine before they were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps.
When Israel became a state after World War II, Meidad joined Mossad, becoming a top operative. He travelled internationally, carrying several passports at all times, was fluent in many languages, and seamlessly transformed himself into different identities. The Mossad legend was that if you woke him up in the middle of the night, he would curse at you in the language of the country he was working in.
After the War, Mossad generally stayed out of the hunt for escaped Nazi war criminals. Two notable exceptions, special cases, involved Meidad. In 1960, he was part of the team assigned to capture escaped war criminal Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi officer and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. The notorious Eichmann had fled Germany after the war and lived with his family in Argentina. When attempts at extradition failed, the Israeli team, using Meidad as logistics expert, engineered his capture. Disguised as an El Al flight attendant, the drugged Eichmann was secreted out of Argentina to Israel, where he received a public trial. He was convicted and executed in 1962.
Although Eichmann’s capture received international attention (and touched off anti-Semitic attacks across Argentina), Meidad’s role in a more low-key operation was his most remarkable achievement. In 1964, Herbert Cukurs, the reputed “Hangman of Riga”, was living peacefully in Brazil. Overwhelming evidence indicated during World War II Cukurs was deputy commander of a Latvian murder squad directly responsible for the murder of 30,000 Jews and complicity in the murder of thousands more by the Nazis. Cukurs retreated with German forces and posed as an innocent refugee fleeing Communism, finally settling in Sao Paolo.
The Soviet government attempted Cukurs’ extradition but Brazil would only extradite him to the country where he had committed his crimes. It was a charade - Latvia was no longer a country because of Soviet occupation, so Cukurs was in no danger of extradition. Moreover, West Germany was reportedly considering granting a 20-year statute of limitations for the crime of murder, which would have prevented prosecution of war criminals and Holocaust perpetrators, many of whom were still at large. This was the backdrop for Israel’s decision to target the “Hangman of Riga”.
They turned to the Mossad, who turned to Meidad. A kidnapping similar to that of Eichmann was impossible. Meidad realized Cukurs would have to be lured out of Brazil so he posed as an Austrian businessman and former Wehrmacht officer offering a lucrative business deal to Cukurs. Meidad had to win Cukurs’ trust and, using an alias and pretending to be a former Nazi, he spent months courting Cukurs when exposure in Brazil would mean certain death. The wary Cukurs continually tried to crack Meidad’s story, taking a home movie of him and challenging him to a shooting contest, where Meidad gained trust by besting the Latvian officer.
In 1965, Meidad finally persuaded Cukurs to fly to Uruguay to inspect some real estate. In an elaborate plan, he lured Cukurs to a safe house in Montevideo, where Mossad agents waited. After a fierce struggle, they killed Cukurs and pinned a note to his body detailing his heinous crimes. The agents took no credit in the note claiming it was the work of private Nazi hunters. They called themselves “Those Who Can Never Forget.”
Several weeks later, they notified police, who found Cukurs’ body. Cukurs had told his wife if anything happened to him she should circulate his home movie pictures of Meidad. Meidad’s picture was transmitted all over the world. Now a wanted man, by then he was safely back in Israel. The Austrian Wehrmacht officer simply ceased to exist.
Interviewed by the History Channel late in life, Meidad detailed the Cukurs operation. Even then, his interviewers knew him only by his alias. Many of his exploits still remain unknown outside Mossad.
It is easy to forget. Even today, as the world watches the Olympics, the Olympic Committee has refused to acknowledge the eleven Israeli athletes killed in Munich 40 years ago. A collective amnesia engulfs the world as the crimes of Eichmann and Cukurs recede further into history. That’s why it is important to take note of the heroic deeds and life of Yaakov Meidad, one of “Those Who Can Never Forget”.
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