Herbert Cukurs invited "Anton Kuenzle" to visit him at his home, not knowing, of course, "Kuenzle" is the spy Mio, undercover. So the spy prepares for the meeting. He doesn't know what Cukurs wants, which was the real question. Most spies use a handful of motives to get people to do what they want: money, sex, patriotism. But Cukurs was an odd fish. He seemed to want to be a hero again, to be beloved. The spy couldn’t offer him that - so what could he dangle in front of the Butcher?
CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains descriptions of violence. Listener discretion is advised.
The spy decides on his approach. He will dangle a chance at redemption in front of the Butcher: a last shot at riches and fame. That was the bait.
Cukurs suggests the two of them take a trip inland — he owned two plantations there. The long trip gives Cukurs a chance to see if they're being tailed. If the spy had people following him, they would be exposed on the deserted roads. The Butcher was hunting the spy as much as the spy was hunting him.
“Good Assassins: Hunting the Butcher” is written and hosted by Stephan Talty. Produced and directed by Scott Waxman and Jacob Bronstein. Executive Producers: Scott Waxman and Mark Francis. Story editing by Jacob Bronstein with editorial direction from Scott Waxman and Mangesh Hattikudur. Editing, mixing, and sound design by Mark Francis. With the voices of: Nick Afka Thomas, Omri Anghel, Andrew Polk, Mindy Escobar-Leanse, Steve Routman, and Stefan Rudnicki. Theme music by Tyler Cash. Archival research by Adam Shapiro. Thanks to Oren Rosenbaum at UTA.
Special thanks to Kevin Anderson and the Anderson family for permission to use the Jack Anderson recording, Leah Richardson and the Special Collections Research Center at George Washington University Library, and Ron Saah.
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The spy surveils his target and finally meets Herbert Cukurs — The Butcher of Latvia — in person. Mio had known people like the Butcher earlier in his life. He’d grown up in Germany during the rise of Hitler. Now he was getting to know a Nazi again, being friendly, even drinking with him. Mio kept his parents in his mind constantly. He actually dreamt about them during the mission — bad dreams. So for Mio it was something he could not forget and he could not forgive. Mio said when he was given the mission in September 1964 to assassinate Herbert Cukurs, it was like reopening a book; the unfinished story of his parents and their fate during the war. He felt there was a final chapter to be written.
CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains descriptions of graphic violence. Listener discretion is advised.
As Mio was making contact with Cukurs in Brazil, on the other side of the Atlantic a man named Tuviah Friedman was headed to the German capital for a meeting with the Justice Minister. He had a presentation to give, and if he succeeded with it, it would make Mio’s mission pointless. Tuviah Friedman was a Nazi hunter. In fact, Friedman was considered one of the two leading Nazi-hunters in the world, second only to the more famous activist Simon Wiesenthal.
Friedman had grown up in Poland. He and his family had watched the Nazis arrive. The Germans soon put them in a ghetto. Friedman saw Jews being murdered around him; his father starved himself to death so that his children would have more to eat. Friedman’s younger brother, Herschel, and his sister Itka were taken away to concentration camps, and Friedman himself was transported to a sub-camp of Auschwitz.
Tuviah Friedman survived the Holocaust by the sheer ferocity of his will. But his family didn’t survive. In the chaos of the post-war period, Friedman hunted down German killers. His specialty was Gestapo officers and SS men; if he saw one of their black uniforms, he would be filled with a rage that sometimes drove him to extremes. He would beat them and sometimes kill them. He was a Jewish avenger, the real thing. Other Nazi hunters never physically put their hands on their enemies. Friedman did.
At the same time, there was another Nazi-hunting mission going on. Mossad had sent another agent to Damascus, Syria. His name was Eli Cohen. Cohen’s main mission was to find out what Syria was up to: war with Israel? building up their forces? But dozens of Nazis had fled to Syria after World War II and Eli Cohen was also hoping to eliminate them.
This episode contains interviews with Colonel Chris Costa, former U.S. Army Intelligence officer, Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council and currently the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum.
“Good Assassins: Hunting the Butcher” is written and hosted by Stephan Talty. Produced and directed by Scott Waxman and Jacob Bronstein. Executive Producers: Scott Waxman and Mark Francis. Story editing by Jacob Bronstein with editorial direction from Scott Waxman and Mangesh Hattikudur. Editing, mixing, and sound design by Mark Francis. With the voices of: Nick Afka Thomas, Omri Anghel, Andrew Polk, Mindy Escobar-Leanse, Steve Routman, and Stefan Rudnicki. Theme music by Tyler Cash. Archival research by Adam Shapiro. Special thanks to Oren Rosenbaum at UTA.
Learn more about “Good Assassins: Hunting the Butcher” at DiversionPodcasts.com
The spy transforms into his cover identity. He will travel to Brazil, where his assassination target is living, and attempt to lure him into a trap. If his cover fails, Herbert Cukurs — The Butcher of Latvia — may kill him. But before Cukurs could be placed on a kill list, and before Mossad could begin to track him down, Cukurs’ pursuers had to be sure he was the right guy. Was this really the Butcher of Latvia?
CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains descriptions of graphic violence. Listener discretion is advised.
An organization called the World Jewish Congress announced that the Butcher of Latvia had been found and was living in Brazil. And, despite the growing international indifference toward the hunt for Nazis, it had an effect. There were headlines in Brazilian newspapers. Cukurs’ business was ruined. He had to move several times to avoid angry protestors.
Eventually Cukurs moves to São Paolo, running another small boat rental business. This was not what Cukurs had imagined for himself. His dreams of building a glorious new life in Brazil had been shattered. The Jews had seen to that. He was bitter, paranoid and lonely. Cukurs hoped for a grand third act to his life. He believed in himself. He just had to convince the world that he’d been misunderstood in order to get his fame and the money back.
The Israeli government kept a list of important Nazi criminals who’d escaped justice. We don’t know how many people were on it, but we do know a few of the more famous names: Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Mossad captured him in 1960, put him on trial, and executed him. Dr. Josef Mengele, known as “The Angel of Death,” who’d murdered Jewish children at Auschwitz and had conducted ghastly experiments on Jewish prisoners, was high on the list. Herbert Cukurs had made the list too.
In the early 1960s, the Israelis became concerned about a possible amnesty for Nazis. The German government was considering giving a free pass to Nazi murderers who hadn’t been indicted yet. The Israelis wanted to stop this from happening and they had decided to go after a Nazi. A few months later, our Mossad agent, Mio, was getting ready to assume the role of a lifetime. He had his target. Now he had to prepare to meet him.
He faced a confident, tough-minded man. One who wouldn’t go quietly. Mio had to plan the mission without explicit directions from headquarters. For that, Mio had to get inside the Butcher’s head, find out what he wanted, discover his weak points. Mio booked a flight to Brazil for September 11th, 1964. He was ready to meet the Butcher.
This episode contains interviews with Dr. Sarah Valente, visiting assisstant professor at The Ackerman Center at The University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Valente studies the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust in Brazil.
This episode contains excerpts from tapes contained in the papers of Jack Anderson, the legendary investigative reporter. Anderson’s papers reside at George Washington University's GW Libraries.
“Good Assassins: Hunting the Butcher” is written and hosted by Stephan Talty. Produced and directed by Scott Waxman and Jacob Bronstein. Executive Producers: Scott Waxman and Mark Francis. Story editing by Jacob Bronstein with editorial direction from Scott Waxman and Mangesh Hattikudur. Editing, mixing, and sound design by Mark Francis. With the voices of: Nick Afka Thomas, Omri Anghel, Andrew Polk, Mindy Escobar-Leanse, Steve Routman, and Stefan Rudnicki. Theme music by Tyler Cash. Archival research by Adam Shapiro. Thanks to Kevin Anderson & the Anderson family for permission to use the Jack Anderson recordings, Leah Richardson and the Special Collections Research Center at George Washington University Library, and Ron Saah.
Who was the Butcher of Latvia? Before World War II Herbert Cukurs was a a national hero. He put Latvia on the map. If you’re looking for an American equivalent, think Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh. Cukurs was a big deal. But after the Nazis occupied Latvia, Cukurs became a monster, participating in the murder of 30,000 men, women, and even children. How did this decorated and ingenious aviator betray friends and neighbors and became a savage criminal with the blood of thousands on his hands?
In July 1941, the Germans invaded Latvia. The Nazis fought their way into the capital, Riga, and soon sent the Soviet soldiers, who had occupied Lativa for the previous year, running to the east. Another kind of horror emerged, one now directed at Jews.
The Nazis began passing anti-Semitic laws. They encouraged Latvians to direct their hatred at their Jewish neighbors. They declared that Jews had helped the Soviets to occupy Latvia and carry out atrocities. They said Jews had betrayed their country, and they needed to pay for it. It was a lie of course, but it worked. Round-ups began almost immediately. What added to the terror was that it was often their fellow Latvians who took the lead in the violence
BUt why did the Butcher kill some of his neighbors and spare others? Maybe he did it for the money? But there’s no record of him asking for any. Maybe he only saved young women? No, he actually spared at least one Jewish man, a doctor he’d known before the war. So what was it?
The testimonies of witnesses answer one question clearly: Cukurs was guilty. So why did he still have defenders? I found half a dozen eyewitnesses to his actions, and later I came across statements from fellow Latvians in his commando unit. They confirmed he’d been part of the massacres.
So why did he transform from hero to mass murderer? I went through other possibilities. Maybe he’d always been an anti-Semite and just hid it until the Nazis came. Maybe the Germans had forced him to kill. That was the explanation of many non-Germans who murdered Jews during the war. Maybe that was part of the answer. But then, I’d read a testimony talking about how the Butcher seemed to enjoy killing. There was more than one testiony. It just didn’t fit the idea that he was forced to do anything.
So I had no answers. Even the survivors in their testimonies couldn’t give a reason. Most of them were as baffled as I was. Maybe there were others who fit this pattern. Friendly towards Jews before the war and then joined in the massacres, but saved the occasional victim. Maybe there were historians who’d found killers like this, and that would help give some insight into Cukurs. I started making some calls. It was a start, a way to try to get inside Herbert Cukurs' mind.
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A spy named Mio is called to a secret meeting in Paris. The Israeli government — and its spy agency, Mossad — has decided that Herbert Cukurs, "The Butcher of Latvia", one of the most savage and prolific Nazi killers, must be tracked down and assassinated in South America, where's he's now living. Mio must assume a secret identity, fly to Brazil, hunt down The Butcher and gain his trust, maybe even befriend him. The German government is considering an amnesty law for all the murderers of the Holocaust and Mio must complete his mission and send a message to the world before it's too late.
This is a story about a spy and a murderer. In the history of espionage, this case of the undercover agent and the man known as The Butcher of Latvia is unique. It has many of the things that can fascinate us about spies: the tradecraft, letters in invisible ink, intrigue in places around the world - in this case, Paris, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Montevideo, Uruguay, and Rio de Janeiro. There are recon missions, disguises, fake passports, shooting contests, a kill team trained in a special martial arts called Krav Maga. There's a body in a trunk. And a drug called Librium that one agent takes so he doesn’t sweat and appear nervous. There’s a psychiatrist who tries to psychoanalyze Nazis. Hitler even makes an appearance.
When we think of assassinations, we tend to think of some awful moments in history. We think about Lee Harvey Oswald and Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy lying in a pool of blood. We think about James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. And the start of World War One, when an assassin killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
But this is something different. This is the story of a spy tries to kill someone for a good reason: to prevent crimes against humanity and to close a chapter on something that happened in the spy’s own life. This mission was personal, at least to the agent who was the lead operative. His name was Mio.
This is unique. Spy missions are never personal. They’re supposed to be clinical, unemotional. This operation was like that for some of its architects, but it wasn’t like that at all for Mio.
It also had a target who, at first read, seems completely evil. A Nazi killer. His name was Herbert Cukurs and he’d betrayed people who’d once been his friends and neighbors. He’d led them to their deaths — at gunpoint — and sometimes killed them, point blank. He had on his hands the blood of literally thousands of innocent victims. Some of these people had really admired Herbert Cukurs and even thought of him as a hero. Which, oddly enough, he’d once been.
All of this is wrapped up in World War II and the Holocaust and genocide law. The effects of the mission are still with us today. It’s had this secret effect on our lives that nobody really knows about.
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A spy story. A detective case. The mission was simple: to arrange the death of one man. The goal was to send a message to all Nazi fugitives around the world: "we can find you and we can kill you." This is the true story of an undercover mission to hunt down a savage Nazi murderer who helped Hitler’s forces kill 30,000 men, women, and children. The survivors gave him a name after the Holocaust: The Butcher of Latvia. The spies would travel halfway around the world to carry out the sentence. The mission wasn’t for one life. It was for 6 million. Listen to “Good Assassins: Hunting the Butcher” for free. Join the hunt. April 2nd.