Following reports of the arrest of a Nazi war criminal in Hungary, Laszlo Csatary, in tandem with continuing developments in Syria, one is reminded of someone who is linked to both unrelated items – Alois Brunner, the Nazi fugitive who found a haven in Syria after the Second World War.
Brunner, who would be 100 years old if he’s still alive, is still one of the most wanted Nazis who escaped capture, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Closely linked to Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust who was himself caught and executed by the Israelis in 1962, the Austrian Brunner was last seen alive in Syria in 2001, when he would have been almost 90 years old.
While in charge of the Drancy internment camp outside Paris during World War II as well as similar ceters in Slovakia and elsewhere, Brunner oversaw the deportation of at least 140,000 Jews to the death camps in present-day Poland. He held the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) and was regarded as a particularly virulent anti-Semite.
French authorities convicted him to death in absentia in 1954.
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How exactly Brunner escaped the continent and ended up in Syria has never been fully explained, although it appears that Israeli intelligence were well aware of his whereabouts, at least until the 1980s. Indeed, the Mossad sent him letter bombs over the years which resulted in Brunner losing an eye and several fingers.
The Syrian regime repeatedly thwarted efforts by Israel and European governments (including Germany, France and Austria) to extradite Brunner for decades, sometimes even denying he was in the country.
In 1985, while living openly in Syria, Brunner claimed in an interview with Germany’s Bunte magazine that he was able to flee the allies through the good luck of a mix up -- another SS official with a similar name, Anton Brunner, was arrested and executed for his crimes, allowing Alois to escape justice.
Alois Brunner somehow avoided detection while incarcerated in a prison camp. Brunner also alleged that U.S. authorities helped him escape the camp by providing him with false documents.
The Jewish Virtual Library indicated that Brunner may have been employed by the U.S. CIA after the war for a number of years.
Brunner claimed he lived in Germany until 1954, when he moved to Italy, then to Egypt and finally to Syria, where he reportedly advised the government on torture and interrogation techniques, long before Hafez Assad took over the country.
He apparently lived under the name of Doctor George Fischer in Damascus.
Der Spiegel, the Germany newspaper, reported that Brunner may also have worked for German intelligence, BND, while living in Syria.
As an avowed enemy of Israel, Syria would have welcomed Brunner with open arms.
Brunner was also an unrepentant Nazi -- in 1987, he told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper that he wished he had killed even more Jews.
However, details of his life in Syria remain unconfirmed and mysterious. Reports emerged that he had died in Damascus in 1996 and given a proper burial. But German journalists visiting Syria claimed to have seen him alive in the Meridian Hotel in Damascus as late as 2001.
Brunner clearly was regarded as a very valuable asset to Syria, having survived the frequent regime changes in that country, even finding a home with the Assad dynasty.