Arnold H. Weiss, a Washington lawyer and former Nazi-hunter, is referred to as Albert Weiss in a headline in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance. The headline on this online version of the article has been corrected.
Giving Hitler Hell
This is the story of a man who has stared evil in the eye and held the fates of mass murderers in his hands. It begins at a company picnic, where children are cavorting as their parents dine on healthful salads and low-carb entrees. This is appropriate, in a roundabout way, because alongside the theme of hard, brutal justice, this story also concerns the American dream.
The setting is the Tarara Vineyard just outside Leesburg, and the date is summer 2002. The suburban winery has been transformed into a mini-amusement park for the occasion. Portable generators hum, powering all sorts of play stations, slides and rides. Overhead, a hot-air balloon rises and falls on its tether like a giant red yo-yo. Kids run in every direction, trailed by harried parents, the occasional nanny and a professional photographer hired to memorialize the corporate outing. A group of executives huddles near the outdoor buffet. They wear baseball caps em-blazoned with the logo of their employer, EMP, or Emerging Markets Partnerships, one of Washington's largest international investment firms. Some sip merlot, but in the presence of their bosses most of the assembled MBAs have opted for the safer soft-drink selections.
Arnold H. Weiss stands at the center of this pleasant bustle. He is a small, dapper man, slightly stooped, and he speaks so softly that those at the back of the pack must crane their necks to see and hear him. But everyone is listening intently, and not only because he is one of the firm's founders, and, at 78, its eldest statesmen. Weiss's tone is detached and measured, almost clinical, as if he were outlining exit strategies for an Indonesian telecom deal or plotting the purchase of a Brazilian railroad. But he is not talking shop. He is relating his experiences from the Holocaust.
Several of the senior partners have heard parts of the story before, and they drift in and out of the circle as Weiss recounts his years in an Orthodox Jewish orphanage near Nuremberg, where the Nazis first wrote their deadly race laws. A murmur of surprise rises from the younger employees when they discover that one of their board members was Weiss's classmate in Germany: Henry Kissinger. But silence descends again, as Weiss recalls running the gantlet through Hitler Youth gangs on his way to school every day, and the foot chases, the beatings in alleys and the scar he bears to this day from being strung up on a lamppost by teenage Nazi wannabes.
Every so often one of the executives in Weiss's audience is called away to deal with an unruly offspring or to soothe a toddler meltdown, and when that person returns, the narrative has moved forward. The Second World War has begun, and everyone in Weiss's orphanage has been sent to the extermination camp in Auschwitz. Young Arnie, however, is safely in the United States, having made it out of Germany in 1938 in one of the so-called Kindertransports that rescued thousands of Jewish children from the gas chamber. He is 13 when he arrives in this country, with only a cardboard suitcase and $5 to his name. He does not speak a word of English or know a single soul.
Now it is 1945, and the 21-year-old Weiss is back in Germany as a U.S. military intelligence officer trained by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. Hitler's armies are in retreat, and Weiss, a newly minted American, is sent behind enemy lines into Dachau, the German concentration camp, on a daring mission. By this juncture in the tale, the executives huddled around Weiss are riveted.
But Weiss seems anxious to wrap up his reminiscing just as the war ends and the real work of his Army intelligence unit begins: tracking down fugitive Nazis. He has grown visibly tired by the retelling, as if suddenly burdened by some great weight.
His employees can't conceal their disappointment. They clamor for more details. Weiss deflects the queries, summoning his half-century of experience as a Washington lawyer to carefully craft each response. The questions, however, keep coming.
"You must understand," he acknowledges after some time, "that I'm not ready to talk about what happened."
But why? someone asks.
For a moment Weiss stares silently through his large, gold-rimmed glasses. "Because," he finally says, "there is no statute of limitations on murder."
Since Arnold Weiss's signature adorns my wife's paycheck, I thought it prudent not to push too hard during that 2002 picnic. My curiosity, however, had been aroused, and I made it clear that if he ever wanted to tell the full story of what did happen in the weeks and months after Nazi Germany's capitulation, I would be an obliging listener.