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News of Nazi's Secret Life Sheds Light on Egypt's Sensitive Past

Nazi hunters urged Egypt on Friday to come clean about how much it knew about a fugitive dubbed "Dr. Death," who reportedly lived here for decades until he died in 1992. But Egypt has long kept a strict silence about former Nazis reported to have taken refuge on its soil.

The discovery of Aribert Heim's secret life throws light on how the Arab world took in members of the Nazi regime after World War II, said Efraim Zuroff, head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The region's role as a haven has gone little examined while researchers focused on the larger, better known influx of Nazis to Latin America.

A number of Nazis are believed to have been welcomed in the 1950s by the Egyptian regime of then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was locked in an intense rivalry with Israel that erupted into wars in 1956 and 1967. Nasser enlisted some Nazis to train Egypt's military or produce anti-Israel propaganda — and Israel feared they were involved in building a rocket program.

So far there is no indication that the Austrian-born Heim, a former concentration camp doctor accused of carrying out gruesome, deadly experiments on Jewish prisoners, played any role with the Egyptian government.

Instead, it appears he lived a quiet life in downtown Cairo since the early 1960s. A later convert to Islam, he bought sweets for friends from a famed confectionary and was known for playing pingpong and taking long walks for exercise, said Egyptians who knew him.

The only hint of his past — besides a constant refusal to be photographed — was the personal "research" that he wrote purporting to prove that the Jews of Israel are not true Semites, according to the son of Heim's Egyptian dentist, who saw the paper.

The Egyptian government has been silent since Heim's presence in Egypt was first reported by The New York Times and Germany's ZPF television Thursday. Government officials and several former Nasser-era officials approached by The Associated Press refused to comment on any aspect of the reports.

One current security official would say only that if Heim was in Egypt, he was let in under a previous government. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Egypt would look into the reports.

The silence reflects a reluctance to acknowledge an era that is potentially embarrassing now, three decades after Egypt's peace accords with Israel.

German investigators say they want to search in Egypt for definitive proof of Heim's death and are preparing a request to Egypt for permission.

It remains unknown whether the Egyptian government knew who Heim was when he first entered the country in 1963 and, if not, whether it subsequently found out. He entered using his real last name and middle name, Ferdinand Heim, which appear on a 1964 residency permit found in a satchel of Heim's documents in a Cairo hotel where he lived his last years.

Zuroff said Heim's name was on a 1967 list of 26 former Nazis believed to be hiding in Egypt at that time, drawn up by Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who became the most prominent Nazi hunter.

Zuroff said he didn't know why the lead on Heim was never pursued. It appears to have been forgotten: Most reports on Heim over the past decade speculated he was living in Latin America.

Also on the list was Alois Brunner, long one of the most wanted Nazi fugitives as commander of a camp that processed Jews for deportation from occupied France. Brunner is believed to have later moved to Damascus and worked for the Syrian government. He is widely thought to have died in Syria in the 1990s, though the Damascus regime has never confirmed he was there.

Of the 26 on Wiesenthal's list, Zuroff said, "I don't think any of them are alive — or are in Egypt, for that matter — because they have either left the country or died in Egypt." He said no pressure was ever put "on Egypt in any way to cooperate in investigation and prosecution of Nazi war crimes."

Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, said Cairo should start accounting for Nazis it harbored.

"In the 1950s, Egypt opened its doors wide to fugitive Nazi war criminals," he said in an e-mail interview with the AP. "The time has come for Egypt to give a full accounting of its policy of sheltering Nazi war criminals — and if any of those Nazis are still alive, they should be surrendered for prosecution."

The total number of Third Reich figures who fled to Egypt is not known, and the Egyptian government has never acknowledged any were present.

Egypt would not be the only state to try to draw on the expertise of former Nazis — the United States took in a number of German rocket scientists to work in its space program, particularly Wernher von Braun, who headed NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

The prospect of Egypt using Nazis to develop a rocket program "was a major concern for Israel," Zuroff said. In the early 1960s, Israel sent a spy posing as a former Nazi, Wolfgang Lotz, who reported back on German scientists working in Egyptian armaments programs, according to Lotz's 1972 memoir.

But most Nazis taken in by Nasser's regime appear to have been involved in training the Egyptian military and police or in producing propaganda to foment anti-Israeli attitudes.

Among those whom researchers have placed in Egypt were Johann von Leers, a Nazi propagandist, who allegedly worked in Egypt's Information Ministry, converted to Islam and died in Cairo in 1965. Leopold Gleim, a Gestapo colonel in Poland, is believed to have worked with Egypt's secret police.

Nasser touted himself as the leader of the Arab world against Israel, and his regime fought the Jewish state in two wars, suffering a devastating defeat in 1967.

"In the Arab world, there was a great sympathy to Nazis," said Emad Gad, an expert on Egyptian relations with Israel at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

But the welcome began to chill during the 1960s, when Egypt came to rely more on Soviet aid and training for its military. The atmosphere for former Nazis further soured when Nasser's successor — Anwar Sadat — began the peace process with Israel in the mid-1970s, signing a peace accord in 1979.

Gad said Heim's story may give hints on how the Egyptian government became less willing to protect hidden Nazis.

Heim's documents suggest he likely converted to Islam in the late 1970s, since the first one bearing his Muslim name, Tarek Hussein Farid, is dated 1981.

Gad speculated Heim converted after "he was advised that there will be no political cover anymore and that he has to search for other means."

"So he choose to convert and dissolve in the community," Gad said.