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On a mission to find a monster

City professor once recruited to capture infamous Angel of Death

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 Dr. Ethan Rubinstein was part of a team put together to hunt down notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.


Dr. Ethan Rubinstein was part of a team put together to hunt down notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Photo Store

The gently spoken medical professor sits in his tiny share of academia and quietly recalls hunting one of the most evil creatures to walk the planet.

Dr. Ethan Rubinstein is in his 70s now. He's head of infectious diseases at Health Sciences Centre and a University of Manitoba professor, but there was a time when he was -- to quote Liam Neeson -- one of a group of five people with a particular set of skills.

They were recruited in Israel 40 years ago to go into the Paraguayan jungle to snatch Dr. Josef Mengele from under the noses of his armed protectors and spirit him away to face justice in Israel.

Yes, you've undoubtedly seen movies and read books about people like Rubinstein -- though he may not look the way you pictured such heroes.

"My decision years ago was not to talk about it, because it was not successful; nothing came of it," said Rubinstein, who moved to Winnipeg nine years ago.

He's only talking now because a man named Zev Liron wrote a book about the clandestine operation -- back in the day, Liron was a former Israeli air force pilot whose job it was to fly the team and Mengele out of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Mengele was the Angel of Death, who as a young Nazi doctor performed unspeakable genetics experiments on living concentration-camp prisoners. Mengele escaped after the war and lived in hiding in South America until he drowned off the coast of Brazil in 1979.

Rubinstein was born in British-controlled Palestine in 1941, growing up witnessing the birth of Israel, the arrival of concentration-camp survivors and the hunt to bring the absolute worst of the worst Nazis to trial.

"Our biggest heroes were the people who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto and other places," he remembered.

As a young man, Rubinstein went with his class one day to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, returning with friends three more times to see justice meted out to the unrepentant Nazi prisoner in a protective glass cage. Eichmann was one of the senior Nazis who planned the logistics of transporting millions of people from all over Europe to the death camps, the construction and operation of which Eichmann similarly planned. The Israelis hanged Eichmann in 1962.

At the Eichmann trial, said Rubinstein, "The name Mengele came up several times. He did experiments on twins.

"Two twins testified about the horrors. The name Mengele was alive to me; it wasn't someone on the moon."

Forward to the early 1970s.

"I was just finishing my residency in medicine in Israel," explained Rubinstein, when he was approached by a man he knew named Peter Malkhin.

"He participated in kidnapping Eichmann" from his refuge in Argentina, said Rubinstein. "He was an extremely smart and resourceful person, with unbelievable intuition."

Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, was no longer hunting Nazis by the 1970s, said Rubinstein, but a shady Paraguayan lawyer he came to know only as Carlos had come forward with a hefty asking price to share his information about Mengele.

Four times, Malkhin went into the Paraguayan jungle along the border with Brazil, eventually concluding Mengele was living in sparsely populated cattle country under the tacit approval and overt armed protection of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

Malkhin "raised privately something like $2 million. We needed money to bribe this Carlos, who was a double agent."

And money for aircraft, for travel, for all the life-or-death details that go into grabbing a well-protected monster living in a jungle sanctuary half a world away. "It was like the Wild West," said Rubinstein.

So, Malkhin would hardly just call Rubinstein and three other people out of the blue.

Rubinstein knows exactly why Malkhin called him, but says, "I cannot talk about it."

He has not been on such an operation since, said Rubinstein: "No, not since."

He'd already been a soldier and served in three wars as an officer in the medical corps.

He was considered "muscle" on the operation, said Rubinstein. "I was a very strong, young guy," already married with a child.

"We relied on each other. It was a good team," he said.

Their real-life Mission Impossible team would be on its own in the jungle, disavowed most certainly by Israel, which had no part in the operation, and by its mysterious financial backers. However moral their cause, they were committing serious criminal acts in Paraguay and Brazil.

"There were attempts to get him before. One lady was killed, a Mossad agent," he said.

The story from Carlos was that Mengele was an avid outdoorsman and Carlos would invite him to go hunting in the jungle. The Israeli team would grab Mengele and fly him out of a small airstrip to Sao Paulo, where they had chartered an airliner to fly to Europe and then to Israel.

"My job was to keep him quiet during the flight; if he resisted, to anesthetize him," Rubinstein said.

"The idea was to build a concealed cell (on the plane) where I would keep him quiet," and which, hopefully, the Brazilian airport and customs officials wouldn't notice.

As a physician who spoke German, Rubinstein would interrogate Mengele during the overseas flight: "What he'd done, who'd given him his orders, his experiments."

The five flew separately to Sao Paulo before meeting up; they stashed their passports and removed any personal identification.

And there it ended.

"Peter told us he felt it was a trap," Rubinstein said. Malkhin told them: "I have a strong gut feeling they will kill us there and take the money."

The team found documents in Carlos's room that corroborated Malkhin's bad feelings Carlos wasn't on the level.

"The operation was aborted at that minute. Each went to his home. I went back to my home, to my (medical) training.

"That was the end of the story," Rubinstein said.

Maybe not quite.

"Carlos went once to Paris and never came back -- he was never seen again. I wouldn't have expected Peter Malkhin to let it pass.

"Killing was not foreign to him."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2014 A8

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