For the remaining survivors of the Holocaust the term “statute of limitations” is meaningless, they still want justice. No one knows how many of Hitler’s murderers remain alive or where they might be, but for the few their culpability in the Nazi death machine should merit capture, trial, and punishment no matter their age or medical condition. As in the recent novel ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Batson, the obsession on the part of a few to bring these criminals to justice dominates the story line as does Joseph Kanon’s latest novel, THE ACCOMPLICE. Kanon, a prolific novelist whose books include THE GOOD GERMAN, LOS ALAMOS, ALIBI, and his most recent novel LEAVING BERLIN has once again written a thriller based on what appears to be actual events exhibiting a superb command of history and the characters that have driven it.
Kanon’s current effort begins in 1962 in a Hamburg restaurant where a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter named Max Weill is having dinner with his nephew Aaron. Max’s brother who happens to be Aaron’s father and his son Daniel and wife Ruth perished in the Nazi death camps and Max wants justice as he cannot forget the atrocities he witnessed as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Max tries to convince his nephew who is an American CIA agent to track down Dr. Otto Schramm, a camp doctor wo assisted Joseph Mengele with his deadly experiments that led to the death of Max’s family. Aaron is reluctant but after Max has a heart attack he agrees to try and find this doctor. The problem is that at the end of the war there was a “ratline” for Nazis to escape Europe and travel to South America, in Schramm’s case Argentina under the dictatorship of Juan Peron.
Kanon has set the stage for a fascinating story as following the capture of Adolph Eichmann and his trial in Israel in 1961 interest in capturing these “desk murderers” is at its height. It seems while Max was having a heart attack in the restaurant, he spotted Dr. Otto Schramm walking in the street, the same Schramm who conducted sterilization experiments and made selections for the gas chambers. The same Schramm that sent Max’s son and wife to their deaths. The same Schramm that Max, a physician was forced to work with in Auschwitz. Kanon will eventually center his story in Buenos Aires as Aaron’s life is about to change due to many conflicting and complicating factors.
Many historical currents emerge in Kanon’s story. The role of Mossad in capturing Eichmann is in the background throughout reflected in the character of Nathan who is part of the Israeli embassy in Argentina. The role played by the ratline after the war is reflected in Monsignor Luis Rosas. What life was like in Buenos Aires for former Nazis and the Peron regime and the successor government took care of them. Flashbacks to the concentration camps and their victims constantly appear. Importantly, Kanon delves into the role the United States played in coopting former Nazis into the service of the CIA as a tool against the Soviet Union during the burgeoning Cold War. Not a very ethical move on the part of Washington policymakers but the fear of the communist menace allowed the United States to make a number of “problematic” decisions.
Other characters that Kanon effectively develops include Fritz Gruber, who was Max’s partner in hunting Nazis. Goldfarb, a sewing machine factory owner in Buenos Aires who assisted Aaron and the Mossad. Dr. Markus Bildner, a Nazi who had been in charge of Schramms sterilization experiments under Mengele and assisted Schramm in his desire to leave Argentina. Jamie Campbell a CIA operative in Buenos Aires assists Aaron at first in his quest for justice. But once higherups in Washington have other ideas for Schramm it becomes a battle to keep the Nazi doctor away from the CIA as well as the Israelis who want to kill him. Aaron goal is to send him to Germany for trial which becomes very difficult once governments become involved. The most important character is Hannah Crane who turns out to be Schramm’s daughter. The give and take between her and Aaron is fascinating as they do the love dance, or perhaps she is just a means to getting her father. Their relationship has a touch of realism as Aaron begins to fall for her, but the memory of his promise to Max clouds his judgement.
The story moves along at a fast pace, but Aaron and his cohorts find themselves in a dangerous web and Kanon carries this process to the end of the novel. One might think they know what the ending of the plot will result in – but they will be quite surprised. Kanon has once again delivered an interesting story, tinged with historical accuracy, and the result is that the reader may not be able to put it down.