A Travelogue in Five Parts By Nicholas Kulish
Nicholas Kulish spent more than half a decade tracing the path of Aribert Heim, a Nazi concentration camp doctor who fled postwar justice in Germany. The research for his book on Heim, The Eternal Nazi, co-authored with Souad Mekhennet, led him to Denmark, Austria, Egypt, Morocco, and across Germany. This week on the Logger we’ll be posting five entries from his travels. Catch up with Part I. Part II.
III. Bad Radkersburg, Austria
Few American visitors to Austria ever venture as far as Bad Radkersburg on the Slovenian border. There are no ski resorts, no famous opera houses. The history books I had read about Aribert Heim’s birthplace always described it as a frontier town, which made no sense in my concept of Austria or even Europe. But as my train left the spectacular mountain-rimmed alpine valleys and entered a wide flat plain it made far more sense.
The hometown was a necessary stop in writing what was in many ways a biography. My first day in the town museum, which doubles as the archive, I learned that the mysterious SS doctor I was writing about had a twin brother who died at birth. The sense that I was a performer in the frame story of a late night, straight-to-cable movie was strong. It was spooky but I persevered.
I had wanted to visit from the first time I laid eyes on a photograph of Heim’s father, a gendarmerie commander in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. With his long curling mustache and uniform studded with stars, buttons and medals he looked as though he had climbed off the pages of Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March. Therefore, by my logic, I could only dine at the Kaiser von Österreich hotel the night I arrived.
The food was pretty good but what I remembered most were the gun barrels pointed at me. The townspeople had finally summoned up the courage to move the Soviet World War II monument that the Red Army had forced them to erect in the central town square. Now it stood at Grazertorplatz by the Kaiser von Österreich, hammer and sickle in the center, CCCP 1945 written below, two of the three soldiers posed on top pointed their automatic rifles at me as I wolfed down my schnitzel. A grander Soviet monument stands in Berlin, but the fact that the Russians went around forcing people to build them statues in towns as small as Radkersburg, population of 2000 at the start of the war, said a lot about their the town was so small, but the European history felt particularly intense there. I had known from the beginning of our research that Heim’s hometown had been split along the Mur River after World War I, half going to Yugoslavia and half staying with Austria. Since reading Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919, I have been obsessed with the treaties that ended World War I and invited World War II.
Heim’s father had retreated at the end of the war with the town colors or the key to the city or some other powerful symbol that by Habsburg logic could not fall into enemy hands, leaving his wife and young children behind as rival soldiers rampaged through the city, executing opponents. Some of Aribert Heim’s earliest memories (he was four at the time) may well have come from that chaotic, dangerous period. His older brother Josef would have felt it even more keenly. He went on to fight in the failed Nazi putsch of 1934 and serve in Hitler’s Austrian Legion as an exile from his own country. Both brothers became doctors in the SS.
By the time I was there it had been nearly a hundred years since the southern part of the city became Yugoslav Gornja Radgona. The open borders of the European Union meant that you could stroll back and forth between the two countries without pause or hitch. But as I crossed the barren boundary between the two nations I found sister cities that sat as if back to back, facing away from each other, the waterfront dark and uninviting. There was reunion without reconciliation in a place that was still living its history.