Inside the Hunt for the Most-Wanted Nazi

The protagonists sound like the leads in a Hollywood thriller. There's the world's most-wanted Nazi war criminal, a bloodthirsty concentration-camp doctor whose whereabouts have been unknown since he vanished 46 years ago. And there's the Brooklyn-bred Jew who has dedicated his life to the global quest for World War II-era mass murderers. The Nazi-hunter, now Jerusalem based, believes that Dr. Death is hunkered down near his illegitimate daughter's home in the remote South American region of Patagonia, so he journeys halfway across the planet to southern Chile and Argentina with a $493,000 (315,000 euros) reward in pursuit of his quarry.

But this is a real-life drama. The suspect is Dr. Aribert Heim, a onetime professional hockey player from Austria who joined the Nazi Party in 1935 and was assigned to three concentration camps during the war. Heim--who kept records of the slayings he committed in a logbook recovered from the Mauthausen camp in Austria--personally murdered hundreds of camp inmates, often by injecting gasoline into their hearts. His office paperweight was the skull of a young Jewish victim with a perfect set of teeth.

The investigator is Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based human-rights organization that promotes tolerance and works against anti-Semitism and terrorism. Zuroff has made dozens of trips to foreign countries during the 24 years he has invested in tracking down some of Adolf Hitler's most zealous henchmen. This mission is code-named Operation Last Chance--and with good reason: if he's still alive, Heim would be 94 years old, and time is running out on the crusade to bring him to justice. I flew down to the Chilean capital of Santiago last week to join Zuroff and his Argentine colleague Sergio Widder to get an insider's look at their search for Aribert Heim. What we found:

Wednesday, July 9
Our first destination inside Chile is Puerto Montt, a city of 200,000 that is the epicenter of the country's booming salmon-export industry. It is also home to a sizable number of Chileans of German descent, and two monuments in the heart of the lakeside city's downtown pay tribute to the first group of immigrants who landed on these shores in 1852. Heim's love-child daughter, Waltraud Böser, moved to Puerto Montt in the 1980s after marrying a pilot, Ivan Diharce, from the nearby island of Chiloé. And if her father is indeed living in or near the town, then the Nazi doctor seems to have chosen a fairly congenial environment to hide in. A number of storefront windows bear the words MAN SPRICHT DEUTSCH, and several restaurants specialize in German cuisine. Among these is Rhenania, where a black-and-white photo covering a wall near the entrance is a real eye-opener: it shows the founder of the café, Heinz Rödenbeek, posing in a Wehrmacht officer's dress uniform with a small swastika over the right breast. His primly coiffed wife, Hedwig Otten, is gazing into the distance. Joseph Goebbels would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more Aryan poster couple than Herr Rödenbeek and his frau.

That still doesn't prepare me for the reception awaiting the Wiesenthal Center delegation in Puerto Montt. As the yarmulke-wearing Zuroff mounts the steps of the hotel, a bearded man in a windbreaker adorned with the postwar German flag starts shouting "Get out of my country, there are no Nazis here" in English and Spanish. Zuroff has a brief but heated exchange with the man, David Mardones, a prominent member of a regional political party, who accuses the Israeli government of committing genocide against the Palestinians. The episode leaves Zuroff a bit rattled. Speaking later on his cell phone in the hotel, he informs a caller that he is "in southern Chile, Nazi country, there are many Germans here," and he later describes the confrontation with Mardones as "an appetizer" of what may lie in store for him and Widder in the coming days.

If the shadowy Dr. Heim is lurking somewhere in Puerto Montt and environs, he would have had ample opportunity to flee the area before Zuroff's arrival. A press conference held in Santiago on Tuesday to announce the launch of the investigation is the top story in this morning's issue of the local tabloid, and a color photo of Zuroff is splashed across its front page.

The only real detective work of the day occurs in his hotel room that afternoon when he sits down with a disgruntled ex-employee of Heim's putative son-in-law, Ivan Diharce. The informant once worked as a truck driver for Diharce's Puerto Montt construction firm, and he tells Zuroff that his former boss owns a house on Chiloé Island that is sometimes visited by a young woman of German descent. The informant relates a friend's account that Diharce has a "very old" relation for whom he buys large quantities of groceries during trips to the island, suggesting that the young woman might work as a caregiver for the missing nonagenarian. Zuroff thanks the man for his time and trouble but comes away from the meeting feeling "a little" underwhelmed. "[The information] is a five, not an eight," he says. "There's no hard evidence that anyone has been living in that house in the last few years, and the young woman is obviously not Heim."

Thursday, July 10
Aribert Heim has been on Zuroff's radar screen since at least 1986. In that year, the legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal personally asked the center that bears his name to put the Butcher of Mauthausen in fourth place on its list of 10 most-wanted war criminals. And though Heim is at the top of that list 22 years later, he is the only suspect in that living rogues' gallery whose address remains unknown. "This is probably the most difficult investigation we've ever dealt with," admits Zuroff, a 59-year-old father of four with thinning gray hair, a jowly chin and piercing blue eyes. "Unfortunately the Heim family is very wealthy, and money buys security."

Zuroff is convinced that Heim is alive, and one of his most compelling reasons has to do with those family riches. A financial irregularity involving one of Heim's two sons in 2004 led German police to uncover a Berlin bank account in the physician's name with a balance of $1.9 million (1.2 million euros). Further probing revealed another $1.27 million worth of stocks and bonds belonging to the fugitive from German justice, and to collect those assets Heim's sons and daughter would only need to submit proof of his death to the appropriate authorities.

None of them has done so to date, and Zuroff has scheduled a midmorning foray to the Puerto Montt residence of Waltraud Böser and Ivan Diharce. We arrive at the modest, one-story house in a driving thunderstorm worthy of the Southern Hemisphere winter. Zuroff sits in a rented minivan outside the house mulling his options for a while, then asks me and a Reuters colleague to knock on the couple's front door and request an interview for our respective media outlets as well as him. A visibly nervous man in a white beard and green ski parka opens the door a crack, tells us that the couple has left for a town 20 minutes up the road from Puerto Montt and takes the business card I proffer. End of visit.

We go back to the hotel for a late-morning news conference with the local media, and once that has ended Zuroff's work in Puerto Montt is done. It becomes clear that this entire exercise has more to do with publicizing the hunt for Heim in general and the reward money in particular than with actual sleuthing. In explaining his modus operandi, Zuroff cites the role of financial incentives in producing vital information that led to the location of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps, in Brazil in 1967 as well as the sadistic forced-labor-camp chief Josef Schwammberger in Argentina in 1987. "We're getting the word out that the money is available because the person who may provide the missing link might not be necessarily a person of high moral character," he says. "We don't expect to find Heim tomorrow, but what we're trying to do here is put into place the tools needed to make that happen."

Friday, July 11
Zuroff and Widder set out early for the Argentine town of Bariloche with a BBC TV documentary crew in tow. I've decided to stay longer in Puerto Montt in hopes that a quiet, in-depth interview of the informant this afternoon might be worth a trip to Chiloé Island.

The informant has known Ivan Diharce since boyhood, when they were growing up together on the island, and he suggests I contact two of Ivan's siblings who live in the area. Speaking to me on background, the first sibling once worked at a Puerto Montt pharmacy that Heim's daughter opened in the early 1990s. But the Diharce family member has been estranged from both Waltraud and Ivan since 1994 and can shed little light on the Nazi fugitive's links to Waltraud. Only once did the topic of Waltraud's father ever come up, says the sibling, and the pharmacist claimed her dad was a Russian who abandoned her mother early on and refused to acknowledge his paternity when Waltraud tracked him down in her adulthood. (German police dispute this and assert that the 66-year-old Waltraud is Heim's daughter out of wedlock.)

Upon my return to Puerto Montt that evening, I ring Ivan's listed phone number to see if the couple has returned from their travels. The man who answers says he is Diharce, but when I identify myself he says he has no time to speak with me right now and hangs up.

Saturday, July 12
Sibling No. 2 is Ivan's older brother, Juan, who lives in Puerto Montt, and he agrees to see me in the afternoon. When I ring him at the appointed time, Juan says he has to attend a 3 p.m. funeral and will swing by my hotel later in the day. He never turns up.

Sunday, July 13
I board a bus bound for Bariloche in the morning and pull into the world-famous ski resort six and a half hours later. The picturesque town gained its own place in the annals of Nazi war criminals when investigators exposed Erich Priebke, a former German Army captain who resided in Bariloche for decades and is now serving a life sentence for his role in the 1944 massacre of more than 300 Italian civilians. Zuroff and Widder meet with members of Bariloche's small Jewish community and find time for a relaxing cruise on Lake Nahuel Huapi. "Even Nazi hunters need some recreation and leisure," a good-humored Zuroff later tells the town's mayor, Marcelo Cascón.

Monday, July 14
Another day, another press conference. This one draws the biggest turnout to date. A pleased Zuroff notes that Waltraud Böser has made about 50 trips to foreign countries in the past 20 years, and many of those excursions brought her to Bariloche. That bolsters his conviction that Heim is lying low somewhere in the corridor between the resort town and Puerto Montt. "We are in a better position today than we were before we left for Chile," declares Simon Wiesenthal's professional and spiritual heir. "We are close to possibly very important information that probably will lead to his capture, it might happen in September or October, and it will most likely be the result of something that happened on this trip."

Zuroff's comments leave me a tad nonplussed. In the past seven days, I have seen no smoking-gun evidence that Aribert Heim is living in Patagonia. Zuroff tells reporters at one point that Heim's lawyer in Germany has requested documents in the last six months that no attorney would need for a deceased client, but when I ask him to specify those documents, the Wiesenthal Center official demurs. Heim is believed to have used the pseudonym Gausmann at one point during his flight, but we have yet to see any evidence that he rented or purchased property in that name. I have no doubt that the Wiesenthal Center is privy to information it cannot release at this time. But I still find myself wondering if Zuroff will catch his quarry before the grim reaper takes Heim away to his final resting place--or whether the Nazi hunter will have to settle for just disrupting Heim's final years.