The ODESSA File – Frederick Forsyth

After the emotional involvement in the seven-book Honor Bound Series, I wanted to go for something smaller and preferably unrelated, but I saw The ODESSA File in my library and I just had to pick it next. Though not related to each other, not even written by the same author, The ODESSA File segues into the Honor Bound narrative quite naturally. While Griffin’s series talks about the machinations of the Nazis to create escape routes and safe havens after the war is lost, Forsyth’s brilliant thriller takes you to a world where they have succeeded in their venture and have clandestinely infiltrated the corridors of legal and political power in 1960s West Germany.

The book begins with the assassination of JFK in 1963. Peter Miller, an investigative journalist in Hamburg, hears the news on his car radio and halts at the side of the road to listen better and as a result, notices an ambulance rushing through the rains. Instinctively following it to a shabby suburban area he arrives at the site of a suicide; an old man by the name of Salomon Tauber. The detective in charge, a friend of Peter’s, tells him Tauber was a survivor of the concentration camps. Peter dismisses it as a non-newsworthy story, thinking nothing of it until the next day, when the detective hands him Tauber’s diary, an account of his survival in the camps. The contents of the diary have shaken the tough detective, and he thinks there might be a story in it for Peter. Peter agrees to read it but doesn’t think anything will come out of it.

The news of the pro-Israel JFK’s death is celebrated by the Nazis in hiding, who even now are aiding countries like Egypt with technical and military know-how against the Jews. One of them, the head of the SS division in charge of elimination of the Jews and now leader of ODESSA – the organization that set up ratlines and helped Nazis escape – flies into Madrid from Argentina to confer with his man in Germany; a prominent lawyer who goes by the codename of Werwolf. He tells him of ODESSA’s secret arrangement with the Egyptian government where they are helping the latter develop long range rockets to attack Israel with.

He charges Werwolf with a mission – the teleguidance system for the rockets is being developed in Germany itself, by scientists who think they are working undercover for the West German government. The work is being carried out in a reputed transistor manufacturing firm, the owner of which is a former SS officer, now codenamed Vulcan. The task is at a critical juncture and Vulcan is the key to the whole operation. Should anyone ask questions about the owner, Werwolf is authorized to eliminate them.

Peter begins reading Tauber’s diary. It is a harrowing tale, talking of his life as an architect in pre-war Germany, then being rounded up in 1942 and sent to the concentration camp in Riga, Latvia with other German and Austrian Jews. He talks of the camp commandant, SS Captain Eduard Roschmann, nicknamed “The Butcher of Riga”, a sadist who delighted in torturing people, breaking them down before killing them. The diary mentions two prominent events during Tauber’s incarceration which gave him the resolve to survive and create the diary, but at the same time left him a hollow husk, a man without a soul whose only purpose now was vengeance.

Tauber talks of the terrified SS destroying the camp and using the remaining prisoners as a human shield to get back to Germany when the Russians began advancing. On the way, Roschmann murders a Wehrmacht Captain to seize an army ship for his own purposes. When they finally reach the outskirts of Berlin, the survivors are left to fend for themselves while the SS discard their uniforms, disappear into the ranks of the regular army and ultimately to their freedom. The diary ends with Tauber’s declaration that he will never see Roschmann brought to justice, and the actions he has performed in order to survive now leave him no choice but to take his own life.

Something in the story prompts Peter to take up the hunt for Roschmann, though he is advised against it both by a prominent magazine owner as well as his mother. His mother wants him to leave the past alone and not go looking for trouble, while the magazine owner warns him of people investigating into the lives of ex-Nazis suddenly finding themselves in financial or other quandaries. Undeterred, he pushes on and determines that Roschmann is still alive and in Germany itself with a different name; Tauber had seen him a few months ago and narrated the incident to an acquaintance who Peter tracks down.

The attitude of the German people towards the Nazis, their actions and their capture ranges from fear to anger to shame to apathy throughout the book. One of the people Peter meets calls it the successful dissemination of a feeling of “collective guilt” by the surviving SS seeking to shift the blame from themselves to the entire populace. He forges on nonetheless; his journey takes him from the unhelpful and unfriendly Attorney General’s office in Hamburg to the unable to help but friendly Z Commission’s office in Ludwigsburg. The Z Commission, short for Central Federal Agency for the Elucidation of Crimes of Violence Committed during the Nazi Era, is the only organization in the country that hunts Nazis on a nation-wide and global level, but even their efforts are bogged down by the combination of the attitude Peter faces and the infiltration of ex-Nazis into police and judicial forces.

Despite these odds, the Z Commission is more successful than the Attorney General’s office in their persecution of escaped Nazis, so when given their phone and address, Peter agrees to share any workable intel he might obtain. His search from there takes him almost all over the country and even beyond, from Berlin to Bonn to London to Vienna and finally to Munich. At Berlin, he is noticed by an SS officer hiding in plain sight with a new identity, who immediately informs Werwolf about the inquiries being made about Roschmann. This is what Werwolf has been warned about, for Roschmann is Vulcan.

Werwolf, after gathering information on Peter, has the ex-officer approach him to warn him off his investigation. The interaction has the opposite effect; it confirms to Peter Tauber’s recent sighting of Roschmann and galvanizes him into action. The interaction is duly reported to Werwolf, who has no choice but to eliminate him. Summoning another ex-Nazi who now works as an assassin for ODESSA, he gives him Peter’s details and directs him to his last known location. He also contacts Roschmann to let him know of the situation, and that there is no cause for worry as it is being handled.

At Bonn, an interaction with a senior war correspondent gives Peter information that between 1945 to 1947 the SS Captain was in a POW camp, disguised as a regular army soldier. Released in 1947, he went to meet his wife, where he was identified by another survivor of Riga and arrested, but nothing beyond that. On his recommendation, Peter travels to London to meet a retired Legal Counsel who covered the Nuremberg trials for the British. The Counsel, recalling Roschmann, tells him the SS officer escaped from a moving train before he could be brought to trial. As the crestfallen Peter ponders his next move, the Counsel refers him to Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of several concentration camps and one of the most prolific and successful Nazi hunters in Vienna.

Wiesenthal, after verifying Peter’s story, is most forthcoming about details on Roschmann after his escape from the train. He narrates how Roschmann had contacted ODESSA while awaiting trial, and after jumping from the train, he hid in a monastery in Italy with several other escapees while false papers could be procured with the help of the Catholic Church. Then, with papers in the name of Fritz Wegener, Roschmann traveled to Argentina and using ODESSA funds established himself as an importer of Austrian meats. He also married his secretary there, despite being married; this proved to be his undoing. When he returned to Germany in 1955, thinking himself safe as Wegener, he was betrayed to the police by his scorned first wife. His cover blown, he disappeared, which was the last anyone knew of him.

Wiesenthal surmises that ODESSA once again would have helped him get a false passport on the fly, which would then have enabled him to build up a whole new identity. A chance remark in Tauber’s diary directs Peter to Munich, where he inquires at the city’s Jewish Community Center on the whereabouts of any survivors from Riga in the city. His questions are overheard by another person in the Center who introduces himself as Motti and tells the reporter he knows people who could help him with information on Roschmann. Peter agrees and is led blindfolded to a secret location, during which time he wonders if he has been captured by ODESSA agents, but after his blindfold is removed he is met by a group of Jewish survivors.

Led by a fanatical man by the name of Leon, the group has elected to stay back in Germany to hunt down and kill any escaped Nazis still about; Roschmann is high on that list. Peter tells Leon of his journey, ending with the disappearance of Roschmann in 1955 and his belief that if one were to locate the ODESSA forger, they would be able to uncover his current identity. Leon offers him a chance to infiltrate the ODESSA by posing as an SS man on the run. Peter agrees and is sent by Leon to a member of his group who is ex-SS. This man, genuinely remorseful about the Holocaust, passed information to Leon from within ODESSA, and escaping after his cover was blown now helps in other ways.

As the ex-SS man trains Peter in the mannerisms, lore and structure of the SS, literary serendipity gives them an opportunity in the form of the death of a real SS soldier, whose papers they fabricate to show him alive and on the run after being recognized. Leon also informs the Mossad of his plan, who send an observer to monitor events and relay intel. The observer also asks Peter to share any information on German scientists working on missile teleguidance systems for the Nazis, not knowing then that both avenues lead to the same man.

At the same time, the ODESSA assassin tracks Peter down to Munich where he hits a dead end and is advised by Werwolf to stay there and keep himself in readiness. Peter, now masquerading as SS Sergeant Rolf Kolb, is given the name and address of a lawyer in Nuremberg who Leon knows is part of ODESSA and is ordered to present himself to him and seek asylum. He is also advised to take the train instead of his own car, a very conspicuous Jaguar XK 150s, but loath to part with his prized possession, Peter drives to Nuremberg by justifying that it would provide a quick means of getting away should he need it.

Reaching the lawyer’s house, Peter as Kolb is interrogated for the greater part of the day until the former is satisfied he is who he says he is. Accepting Kolb’s request for false papers, he sends him to Stuttgart, where another ODESSA man by the name of Bayer will create a new identity for him. Peter, once again defying instructions, drives to Stuttgart, and though he parks far away from Bayer’s house, he is noticed by a middle-aged woman. Bayer takes Kolb out to dinner, and when the lawyer calls his place to confirm Kolb’s arrival, it is the middle-aged woman who answers; she is Bayer’s wife.

As she describes Kolb’s car, the lawyer, who is Werwolf, realizes he has been duped, and immediately orders his assassin to drive to Stuttgart and kill Peter. Tailing the duo to Peter’s hotel, the killer mounts a watch from the opposite building with his rifle ready. Peter, meanwhile, having failed to get the forger’s name and location from Bayer, decides on more extreme measures. He blindsides the former SS man, ties him up and tortures him for the information, leaving him tied up in his room and departing through the hotel’s back door. After hours of struggling, Bayer frees himself, and as he opens the window is promptly shot by the assassin mistaking him for Peter.

Realizing the error, he returns to Peter’s car, but it is already gone. The enraged Werwolf receives his report, and deducing that Peter is after the forger, calls him and tells him to leave town for a while; Peter misses him by an hour. He also orders the assassin to follow Peter and rig his car with explosives, as that is the one thing he keeps coming back to. Peter, frustrated by his inability to catch the forger, discovers that he keeps a secret file with details of all the SS men he has helped with false papers. With the assistance of a safecracker he helped in the past, Peter breaks into the forger’s house and steals the file. The man he is seeking is on the file, with his new identity; Peter recognizes him as the owner of the transistor factory. Enquiring as to his current whereabouts, he is told that the man is at his holiday home in the Bavarian Alps.

He heads there in his car, unaware of the bomb set to blow up when he passes over a bump. What the killer hasn’t accounted for, though, is Peter working on his car to make it more road-worthy. As a result, the bomb terminals come within millimeters of touching each other throughout the journey, but they don’t connect, and Peter arrives safely at his destination. He asks his girlfriend to get his gun and handcuffs and meet him at a local hotel, to confront Roschmann in the morning. He explains the plan to her and gives her the number Leon has given him, instructing her to call him if he doesn’t return by a set time. He also mails the file he has gotten from the forger to the Z Commission.

The next morning, Peter drives to Roschmann’s private estate, noting a downed tree on the path that he slowly goes over, once again just about preventing the bomb from going off. Roschmann answers the door himself, and after ascertaining he is alone is ordered into the study at gunpoint. Peter makes him read a specific portion from Tauber’s diary and his motives for tracking down the Butcher of Riga are made clear; the Wehrmacht Captain he killed during his escape from the Eastern Front is Peter’s father. Peter merely knew the date and the general location of his father’s death but cross-referencing that and the facts in Tauber’s diary allows him to positively identify the killer.

Peter handcuffs Roschmann to the fireplace grill and tries to telephone the authorities, but the lines are down because of the felled tree. As he heads towards the door to drive back into town, his attempt is thwarted by the appearance of Roschmann’s bodyguard who had gone into town to complain about the lines. He attacks Peter, knocking him unconscious. When they cannot find the handcuff keys with him, the bodyguard is ordered to go back to town and contact Werwolf, appraising him of the situation. He decides to take Peter’s car as that would be faster, and in his haste speeds over the fallen tree, triggering the bomb and killing himself.

Roschmann hears the explosion and realizes he needs to free himself from the handcuffs. It takes hours and just as he is through, the ODESSA assassin arrives on the scene; hearing no reports of exploding vehicles, he decides to follow Peter to finish the job and tails him here. Roschmann tells him of Peter mailing the file to the Z Commission and orders him to kill him while he escapes to Argentina once more. The diligent killer repairs the telephone line and makes a report to Werwolf, who is also on the file. The horrified lawyer orders him to lay low, while he too makes a run for it.

About to shoot Peter, he is interrupted by another man claiming to be from ODESSA. The assassin, though suspicious, is a little slow to respond before he is shot and killed by the second man who is the observer from Mossad. Receiving Peter’s message to Leon, he has ridden as fast as he can, arriving in time to save his life. He brings the unconscious Peter to a hospital and after he regains consciousness tells him the consequences of his actions. The SS are panicking and escaping to other countries because of the contents of the forger’s file, while Roschmann’s departure has ensured that the secret division in his factory has disbanded.

He also advises Peter not to write about anything that happened, as he has no proof after handing the file over and it would only attract the attention of the SS. The book ends with a brief account of all the primary characters. Peter has married his girlfriend, Roschmann, Werwolf and some of the others have managed to escape once again, a lot of the Nazis on the forger’s file have been arrested by the Z Commission. Simon Wiesenthal continues with his work as a Nazi hunter, Leon’s group has dispersed after his death, and Israel has won the 1967 war with Egypt since the rockets never flew.

Frederick Forsyth’s books have always been a visual delight. His background as a journalist means he approaches research for his books with the same meticulousness and thorough attention to detail as he did with his articles. It is evident when he narrates the creation of the ratlines and everyone associated with it, the description of the various agencies creates for the persecution of Nazis, and the portrayal of 1960s Germany. Also, there was no real-life ODESSA, an all-encompassing organization of ex-SS officers dedicated to the survival of erstwhile Nazis; more accurately there were several smaller, independent groups that were in existence but never at the scale mentioned here. But such was the success of this book that ODESSA became a household name despite historians’ claims to the contrary.

The ODESSA File is Forsyth’s second book, and even here we get to see his consummate skill in weaving real world incidents into a tale that makes you think it could have happened. Eduard Roschmann, the Butcher of Riga, is very much real, as is his post war escape to Argentina. Though the Wehrmacht Captain (Peter’s father) murdered by him is fictional, the tale of his flight from Riga using the remaining prisoners is true too. Also real is Simon Wiesenthal, who lived till 2005 and continued hunting Nazis until his death. So is the Z Commission and the description of the general attitude of the German people towards their sordid past in the 1960s. The infiltration of the Nazis into modern day government can either be attributed to literary license, or to one of those unsaid truths that everyone knows but no one acknowledges; as the reader, you are invited to choose what you believe.

Forsyth’s talent lies in his masterful employment of two very powerful literary devices. One is the Butterfly Effect – how a seemingly inconsequential act of a reporter stopping to hear news of JFK’s assassination leads to him following an ambulance that, through the involvement of a lot of real and fictional characters, leads to Israel’s victory over Egypt in the 1967 War. The other is the concealment of a personal motive – Peter’s reason for chasing Roschmann being his murder of Peter’s father – until the very climax of the story, thereby building up the adage “all business is personal”. Through the blend of this and his fast-paced style of writing interspersed with interesting tidbits of history, The ODESSA file makes for one nail-biting, seat-of-the-pants ride for the reader.

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