The Odessa File was a novel by Frederick Forsyth, a master storyteller of the mystery and action genre. Tracking former Nazis was of interest to various countries after World War II. Even before the war was over, Nazis were being smuggled out of Europe to safe havens overseas. We’ve heard stories that church and relief organizations participated in these networks to give former Nazis a new life. Many former Nazis did not leave, they stayed closes to home and even took up respected and successful roles in West German society, business and even government.
The Odessa File was a file put together by a small, but important cog, in the secret organization, based in West Germany, that provides support to former Nazis. The novel was a fictionalization of real life secret efforts that begun prior to the end of World War II to help Nazis and war criminals out of Germany and Europe, providing them with new names, safe passage and financial help in their new lives. Ironically, many former Nazis did in fact, find new identities and opportunities right at home.
Forsyth creates the character of free lance journalist Peter Miller based in Hamburg, West Germany, who stumbles onto a diary of an old Jewish man, who committed suicide. The diary details his time in the Riga ghetto in Latvia and of SS Officer Eduard Roschmann who ran the ghetto. Jews from several countries were transported to the Latvian ghetto during its several-year existence. Miller is fascinated by the diary and decides to find Roschmann.
Roschmann was a real person, a member of the SS in charge of ghetto and other prison camps. As he worked his way up the ladder, he gained more authority over Jews moving in and out of the camp and those who were murdered. Over two days in late 1941, 24,000 Jews were marched into a nearby forest and murdered. Roschmann assumed the top leadership position over the ghetto in 1943 , where he was known as “The Butcher of Riga.” He was later transferred to oversee another work camp. One of his final assignments, before he fled the country, was to oversee the use of prisoners to dig up mass graves and burn the bodies, in an effort to destroy evidence of their atrocities before the area was liberated. The prisoners who dug up the bodies were shot and replaced with a new team every few weeks.
The real Roschmann was actually living in Argentina when Forsyth published fictionalized story in 1972. Forsyth used another real person, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who helps reporter Miller with background information. In real life, Roschmann was able to flee Europe, after initially being arrested, with the help of the International Red Cross and a sympathetic Catholic bishop. He lived many years in Argentina, even after arrest warrants with issued. Ultimately, he fled to Paraguay, where he lived until his death in 1977, even though his identify was in doubt.
In 1974, Forsyth’s novel was adapted into a film, directed by Ronald Neame (Poseidon Adventure, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) starring Maximilian Schell as Roschmann, and Jon Voight as Miller
In both the novel and film, Miller decides to go undercover as a low-level SS soldier on the run. He is helped by Israeli agents operating in West Germany. They too, want to find the Odessa organization, and hopefully the whereabouts of Roschmann. Their interests go deeper. At the time, Roschmann was on the run, but Forsyth had him as the head of a technology company that was developing warheads for chemical missiles to be used by Egypt against Israel.
In both the novel and film, factions of the West German government and industry were seen as sympathetic, and even helpful to former Nazis. Cadres of former Nazis seemed to be right under the noses of the government. Miller attends a rally of former German officers, takes a photo and is beaten up by some of the former military offers there. Miller’s girlfriend doesn’t like what he’s doing, and even Miller’s mother tries to dissuade him, it upsets people, she says.
In the early 1970s, many people were trying to forget the horrors of the war, just trying to move on. Around this time, even West Germans were split on their views, hence the lack of support Miller received in many circles. The same year as The Odessa File was published, the Munich Olympic Massacre happened, where Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes. These weren’t former Nazis involved, but the politics were complicated as conflict in the Middle East had been underway for years, and the story of the chemical warhead for Egyptian missiles underscored this point. The Palestinian terrorists as part of their demands wanted Arab prisoners and two German terrorists released.
Now, back to our story.
Miller has aroused the wrong attention. He is pushed in front of a train, but he slides to safety. West German police, former members of the SS, are spying on Miller’s girlfriend, trying to get information on his whereabouts. They even put a policewoman with her, but in actuality, she is part of the Odessa network.
Going undercover, Miller must undergo rigorous training and instruction, so that he can assume the identity of another man, a former solider. Miller is interrogated as he begins to penetrate the web of Odessa, every detail of his life and his memory of war record are checked. As he moves forward undercover, his identity is discovered. At a printer’s workshop, where he is supposed to get new documents, he is nearly assassinated, but his suspicions save his life.
The book and film are set in 1963, just after Kennedy’s assassination. The politics of the time are a bit murky. Kennedy stood up to the Russians, staring them down as tensions between the East and West flared. As I alluded, many in West Germany would like to forget the War and ease off the spotlight on tracking former Nazis, particularly lower level army and government officials, many of whom went on to play large roles in the nation’s industrialization and recovery. However, Wiesenthal and Israel’s Mossad are deeply interested in Odessa.
This is off topic, sort of, but the story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann (above) is an incredible read. I highly recommend The Nazi Hunters: How A Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. The intelligence gather, intricate planning and top secret execution of Eichmann’s abduction, from a foreign country, reads like a thriller.
Once again, back to our story.
Part of Miller’s research involves the identification of a German officer Roschmann shot and killed. The German officer defied unloading wounded Germans to give a boat to Roschmann. The officer wore a distinguished metal, familiar to the one Miller’s father wore.
Roschmann with Miller’s father, and with Miller
In the film, Miller confronts Roschmann, who is defiant in his innocence, and dismisses the loss of Jews. Miller says he is there for his father. Roschmann’s ego gets the best of him and when shots are exchanged, Roschmann is dead. Miller had intended to hand Roschmann to authorities, which is what happens in the book. In the film, Roschmann’s death is less vengeance and made to seem like justice. To the end Roschmann is unapologetic, an opportunist and manipulator, seeing himself a victim.
The Odessa File is quite interesting in several ways. Based on an actual story, both the novel and film take you inside the culture of early 1960s West Germany. Outlawing nationalism didn’t cleanse itself of former Nazis who settled back into influential positions. When the old Jew commits suicide, only a handful of people care, and digging up the past is not popular. Finding and then building a legal case to get high level, former Nazis, arrested in foreign lands was extremely complex and lengthy. The apprehension of Roschmann closed the case of the murder of Miller’s father, but it had larger ripples that stopped the plan of chemical warheads for Egypt, and led to information about the Odessa network. The way Forsyth intertwined reality and fiction was something he did with several books. The best thrillers are the ones you fear could really happen. Sometimes, they do.