Herberts Cukurs in pre-World War II Latvian uniform.
17 May 1900|
Liepāja, Courland Governorate, Russian Empire
23 February 1965 (aged 64)|
|Known for||Pioneer aviator. Alleged involvement in killing of Latvian Jews during the Holocaust|
Herberts Cukurs (17 May 1900 in Liepāja, Russian Empire – 23 February 1965 in Shangrilá, Uruguay) was a Latvian aviator and a war criminal. He was a member of the Arajs Kommando, which was involved in the mass murder of Latvian Jews as part of the Holocaust. He never stood trial, though there are eyewitness accounts linking Cukurs to war crimes. He was assassinated by operatives of the Israeli intelligence service (Mossad) in 1965. The Mossad agent "Künzle", who killed Cukurs, and the journalist Gad Shimron wrote a book, The Execution of the Hangman of Riga in which they called Cukurs the "Butcher of Riga", and the term was later picked up by several sources.
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As a pioneering long-distance pilot, he won national acclaim for his international solo flights in the 1930s (Latvia-Gambia and Riga-Tokyo). He was awarded the Harmon Trophy for Latvia in 1933, and was considered a national hero, comparable to Charles Lindbergh.
Cukurs built at least three aircraft of his own design. In 1937 he made a 45,000-kilometre (24,000 nmi; 28,000 mi) tour visiting Japan, China, Indochina, India and the Soviet Union, flying the C 6 wooden monoplane "Trīs zvaigznes" (registration YL-ABA) of his own creation. The aircraft was powered by a de Havilland Gipsy engine.
Participation in the Holocaust
During the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany in the summer of 1941, Cukurs became a member of the notorious Arajs Kommando, which was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity under the direction of the SD, the Nazi security and intelligence service.
In his book The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1945, Latvian historian Andrew Ezergailis writes that Cukurs played a leading role in the atrocities that were committed in the Riga ghetto in conjunction with the Rumbula massacre on 30 November 1941. After the war, surviving witnesses reported that Cukurs had been present during the ghetto clearance and fired into the mass of Jewish civilians.
According to eyewitness sources, Cukurs was the most recognizable Latvian SD man at the scene of the Rumbula massacre. Ezergailis states that "although Arājs' men were not the only ones on the ghetto end of the operation, to the degree they participated in the atrocities there, the chief responsibility rests on Herberts Cukurs' shoulders." Cukurs was described as follows:
The Latvian murderer Cukurs got out of a car wearing a pistol (Nagant) in a leather holster at his side. He went to the Latvian guards to give them various instructions. He had certainly been informed in detail about the great catastrophe that awaited us.
Later, Ezergailis retracted these interpretations, saying that in light of new documents, it would be wrong to claim that Cukurs had participated in the Rumbula shooting or the burning of the Riga synagogue. During interviews with the press, Ezergailis stated that there is no evidence that Cukurs had been at the pits at Rumbula, and that it has not been proven that Cukurs was "the most eager shooter of Jews in Latvia".
According to another account, Cukurs also participated in the Burning of the Riga synagogues. According to Bernard Press in his book The Murder of the Jews in Latvia, Cukurs burned the synagogue on Stabu Street, but only after dragging Jews out of the neighboring houses and locking them inside
Eyewitnesses heard the people who were locked inside screaming for help and saw them breaking the synagogue's windows from inside and trying, like living torches, to get outside. Cukurs shot them with his revolver.
Time magazine reported at the time of his death in 1965 that his crimes included the Riga synagogue fire, the drowning of 1,200 Jews in a lake; and his participation in the 30 November 1941 murder of 10,600 people in a forest near Riga.
Postwar flight and assassination
Cukurs retreated to Germany with German forces. After the war, Cukurs emigrated to Brazil via France. The Brazilian Consulate in Marseilles issued the visa for permanent residency on 18 December 1945. The visa did not list his wife's name, but it identified three minor children, Gunars, Antinea and Herberts.
He is now known to have been assassinated by Mossad agents, who persuaded him to travel to Uruguay under the pretense of starting an aviation business, after it was found out that he would not stand trial for his participation in the Holocaust. An acquaintance named "Anton Künzle” in reality the disguised Mossad agent Yaakov Meidad (he), cabled Cukurs from Montevideo. He was invited to a house in a remote suburb of the city that had just been rented by a man from Vienna. He was shot in the head twice with a suppressed automatic pistol after a short but violent struggle that was not heard by neighbours. His body, found in a trunk on 6 March, had several gunshot wounds elsewhere, and his skull was shattered. Next to his body, several documents were left pertaining to his involvement in the murder of Jews in the Riga Ghetto.
Media outlets in South America and Germany received a note stating:
Taking into consideration the gravity of the charge leveled against the accused, namely that he personally supervised the killing of more than 30,000 men, women and children, and considering the extreme display of cruelty which the subject showed when carrying out his tasks, the accused Herberts Cukurs is hereby sentenced to death. Accused was executed by those who can never forget, on the 23rd of February, 1965. His body can be found at Casa Cubertini Calle Colombia, Séptima Sección del Departamento de Canelones, Montevideo, Uruguay.
The note was initially dismissed as a prank, but then police were notified and the body was discovered.
Attempts at rehabilitation
American-born Israeli historian and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff pointed out that the fact that Cukurs wasn't prosecuted has allowed for what he believes are "attempts by right-wing nationalists and his family to totally exonerate Cukurs and by other Latvians to question or diminish his individual culpability" and " to restore him to hero status in Latvia and whitewash his massive guilt".
In 2004 postal envelopes with the image of Cukurs were issued and distributed by National Power Unity, a far-right nationalist political party in Latvia. The act was condemned by Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks in a statement saying that "those who produced such envelopes in Latvia evidently do not understand the tragic history of World War II in Latvia or in Europe". The foreign ministry stated that Cukurs was "guilty of war crimes", and that he "took part in the activities of the notorious Arajs Kommando, which participated in the Holocaust and was responsible for the killing of innocent civilians. The General Prosecutor's Office of Latvia has twice rejected the exoneration of Herberts Cukurs".
In summer of 2005 a controversial exhibition titled "Herberts Cukurs: The Presumption of Innocence" was organized in Liepāja by K@2, a culture and art NGO run by Swedish documentary director Carl Biorsmark. One of the exhibition rooms featured testimonies and witness accounts both accusing and exonerating Cukurs, while another showed portrait of Cukurs, his supposed killer Anton Künzle and a photo of Cukurs' corpse, beaten beyond recognition. Biosmark commented on the exhibition saying, "This is what artists have to do – stay in the middle and raise question marks," Nonetheless, the exhibition faced heavy criticism from various pundits, as well as the Latvian Jewish community who called it an attempt to rehabilitate a war criminal.
- MONTERO, MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ. "Medio siglo de dos historias de sangre que conmovieron al país". El País. El País. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
- Kaufmann, The Destruction of the Latvian Jews, at 81
- Aderet, Ofer (1 July 2012). "Mossad agent who helped abduct Eichmann dies at 93". Haaretz. Retrieved 2 December 2012. (registration required)
- Press, The Murder of the Jews of Latvia, at pages 69 to 70.
- Künzle and Shimron, The Execution of the Hangman of Riga, at page 127.
- Lumans, Latvia in World War II, at page 240.
- Eksteins, Walking Since Daybreak, at page 150.
- Michelson, Max, City of Life, City of Death, at 103.
- Operation Last Chance: One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, by Efraim Zuroff, Macmillan, Nov 10, 2009 p. 117
- "Cukurs C-6bis". Airwar.ru. Retrieved 2012-04-28.
- Ezergailis, Andrievs (1999). Holokausts vācu okupētajā Latvijā 1941–1944 (in Latvian). Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds. pp. 222, 230. ISBN 978-9984-601-02-1. OCLC 44502624. Also available in English as: Andrew Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941–1944: The Missing Center (1996), ISBN 9984-9054-3-8.
- Ezergailis, The Holocaust in Latvia, at pages 192 and 267, n.55
- Andrievs Ezergails (2014-10-17). "Jāmeklē patiesība par Herbertu Cukuru". Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
- Jerusalem Post: The Mass Murderer As Hero
- The Murder of the Jews in Latvia, at page 46
- "Uruguay: Man in the Icebox". Time. March 19, 1965. Retrieved 3 December 2010. (subscription required)
- Visa number 42575 issued by Brazilian Consulate in Marseilles France on 18 December 1945.
- Kuenzle, Anton; Shimron, Gad (2004). The Execution of the Hangman of Riga: The Only Execution of a Nazi War Criminal by the Mossad. London: Vallentine Mitchell. ISBN 978-0-85303-525-1. OCLC 53389986. Retrieved 2016-03-18.
- "Herberts Cukurs: Certainly Guilty". Simon Wiesenthal Center. June 7, 2005. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
- "Latvia's Minister of Foreign Affairs condemns the issuance of postal envelopes dedicated to Herberts Cukurs". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia: [CL] Nr. 576, 28 September - 5 October 2004. 2004. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
- Aaron Eglitis (2005-06-15). "Artistic quest ignites historic fire". The Baltic Times. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
- Angrick, Angrej, and Klein, Peter, The "Final Solution" in Riga: Exploitation and Annihilation, 1941-1944, Berghahn Books, 2009 ISBN 978-1-84545-608-5; originally published as (in German) Die „Endlösung“ in Riga., Darmstadt 2006, ISBN 3-534-19149-8
- Ezergailis, Andrew, The Holocaust in Latvia 1941-1944—The Missing Center, Historical Institute of Latvia (in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) Riga 1996 ISBN 9984-9054-3-8
- Goñi, Uki. The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón's Argentina, Granta, New York 2002 ISBN 1-86207-581-6
- Kaufmann, Max, Die Vernichtung des Judens Lettlands (The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia), Munich, 1947, English translation by Laimdota Mazzarins available on-line as Churbn Lettland -- The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia (all references in this article are to page numbers in the on-line edition)
- Künzle, Anton, Shimron, Gad, and Massad, Uriel, The Execution of the Hangman of Riga: the Only Execution of a Nazi War by the Mossad, Mitchell, Valentine & Co., 2004 ISBN 0-85303-525-3
- Michelson, Max, City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga, University Press of Colorado (2001) ISBN 978-0-87081-642-0
- Press, Bernard, The Murder of the Jews in Latvia, Northwestern University Press, 2000 ISBN 0-8101-1729-0
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Holocaust in Latvia.|
- Herbert Cukurs' flight to Gambia, 1933-1934, historical information and images.
- Herbert Cukurs' flight to Tokyo, 1936-1937, historical information and images.
- Herberts Cukurs and his airplanes in Brazil
- Collection of photos related to Herberts Cukurs
- Kidon. Los Verdugos del Mossad related to killing of Herberts Cukurs
- Nazi Hunters