The Many Lives, and the Just Death, of the “Butcher of Riga”

August 10, 2020 | Robert Philpot
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Known as “the Latvian Lindbergh,” Herberts Cukurs was, in the 1930s, a hero in the young country of Latvia for his daring aeronautical exploits, at least one of which suggested that he did not share the original Lindbergh’s attitude towards Jews. Robert Philpot writes:

[I]n December 1939, [Cukurs] returned from . . . a 2,900-mile flight to Palestine, to enthrall Riga’s Jewish Club with a talk, complete with photographs, describing the sights, sounds, and smells of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Petaḥ Tikva, and Rishon Letzion. . . . This was not the only indication that, his fierce nationalism and occasional anti-Semitic remarks aside, Cukurs was, as one Latvian Jew later put it, “not really considered a Jew-hater.” He was, for instance, often seen with Jewish intellectuals in Riga’s cafes.

Yet his activities following the Nazi conquest of Latvia in 1941 belied this picture:

Cukurs . . . became second-in-command of the notorious Arājs Kommando, a 300-strong Latvian paramilitary group which enthusiastically participated in the murder of the country’s Jews. . . . Max Tukacier, a young Jew who had known Cukurs for over a decade, . . . saw the aviator “beat to death ten to fifteen people.” And Cukurs was recorded giving orders to his commandos at the scenes of the Judenaktionen. . . on November 30 and December 8, 1941, when roughly 25,000 Jews were murdered in or near the Rumbula forest.

After participating in the bloodletting of Riga’s killing fields, Cukurs and his men traveled around Latvia’s villages, towns, and small cities, helping round up and murder Jews. Within five months, 60,000 Latvian Jews had perished.

But the most extraordinary—perhaps unique—aspect of Cukurs’s story was what happened next. Like many other war criminals, the Latvian . . . escaped to South America after the war. But, unlike his fellow killers, Cukurs arrived in Brazil under his own name—and then almost immediately began seeking out members of the country’s Jewish community. Cukurs portrayed himself as both a political exile who had been targeted by the Communists and a man who had rescued Jews during the Shoah.

Several survivors in Israel knew the truth however, leading the Mossad—in an episode Philpot describes as worthy of the best of spy thrillers—to track down and kill Cukurs in 1965.

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