|Died||23 February 1965 (aged 64)|
|Known for||War criminal. Pioneer aviator. Involvement in killing of Latvian Jews during the Holocaust|
|Spouse(s)||Milda Cukura (née Bērzupe)|
|Children||Gunārs, Antinea Dolores, Herberts|
Herberts Cukurs (17 May 1900 – 23 February 1965) was a Latvian aviator. He was a member of the Arajs Kommando, which was involved in the mass murder of Latvian Jews as part of the Holocaust. Cukurs never stood trial, though there are multiple eyewitness accounts linking him to war crimes. He was assassinated by operatives of the Israeli intelligence service (Mossad) in 1965. The Mossad agent "Künzle", who killed Cukurs, and the journalist Gad Shimron wrote a book, The Execution of the Hangman of Riga in which they called Cukurs the "Butcher of Riga", and the term was later picked up by several sources.
As a pioneering long-distance pilot, Cukurs won national acclaim for his international solo flights in the 1930s (Latvia-Gambia and Riga-Tokyo). He was awarded the Harmon Trophy for Latvia in 1933, and was considered a national hero, in analogous fashion to Charles Lindbergh.
Cukurs built at least three aircraft of his own design. In 1937 he made a 45,000-kilometre (24,000 nmi; 28,000 mi) tour visiting Japan, China, Indochina and India, flying the C 6 wooden monoplane "Trīs zvaigznes" (registration YL-ABA) of his own creation. The aircraft was powered by a De Havilland Gipsy engine.
Cukurs also designed the Cukurs C-6bis prototype dive bomber in 1940.
During the occupation of Latvia by Nazi Germany in the summer of 1941, Cukurs became a member of the notorious Arajs Kommando, which was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity under the direction of the SD, the Nazi security and intelligence service.
In his book The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1945, Latvian historian Andrew Ezergailis writes that Cukurs played a leading role in the atrocities that were committed in the Riga ghetto in conjunction with the Rumbula massacre on 30 November 1941. After the war, surviving witnesses reported that Cukurs had been present during the ghetto clearance and fired into the mass of Jewish civilians.
According to eyewitness sources, Cukurs was the most recognizable Latvian SD man at the scene of the Rumbula massacre. Ezergailis states that "although Arājs' men were not the only ones on the ghetto end of the operation, to the degree they participated in the atrocities there, the chief responsibility rests on Herberts Cukurs' shoulders." Cukurs was described as follows:
The Latvian murderer Cukurs got out of a car wearing a pistol (Nagant) in a leather holster at his side. He went to the Latvian guards to give them various instructions. He had certainly been informed in detail about the great catastrophe that awaited us.
Later, Ezergailis retracted these interpretations, saying that in light of new documents, it would be wrong to claim that Cukurs had participated in the Rumbula shooting or the burning of the Riga synagogue. During interviews with the press, Ezergailis stated that there is no evidence that Cukurs had been at the pits at Rumbula, and that it has not been proven that Cukurs was "the most eager shooter of Jews in Latvia".
According to another account, Cukurs also participated in the Burning of the Riga synagogues. According to Bernard Press in his book The Murder of the Jews in Latvia, Cukurs burned the synagogue on Stabu Street, but only after dragging Jews out of the neighboring houses and locking them inside:
Eyewitnesses heard the people who were locked inside screaming for help and saw them breaking the synagogue's windows from inside and trying, like living torches, to get outside. Cukurs shot them with his revolver.
Time magazine reported at the time of Cukurs' death in 1965 that his crimes included the Riga synagogue fire, the drowning of 1,200 Jews in a lake; and his participation in the 30 November 1941 murder of 10,600 people in a forest near Riga.
Cukurs retreated to Germany with German forces. After the war, Cukurs emigrated to Brazil via the ratlines. The Brazilian Consulate in Marseille issued the visa for permanent residency on 18 December 1945. The visa did not list his wife's name, but it identified three minor children: Gunārs, Antinea and Herberts.
Once in Brazil, Cukurs established a business in São Paulo, flying Republic RC-7 Seabees on scenic flights. While living in South America, he neither hid nor tried to conceal his identity.
Cukurs is now known to have been assassinated by Mossad agents, who persuaded him to travel to Uruguay under the pretense of starting an aviation business, after it was learned that he would not stand trial for his participation in the Holocaust. An acquaintance named "Anton Künzle”, in reality the disguised Mossad agent Yaakov Meidad who had taken part in the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, cabled Cukurs from Montevideo. He was invited to a house in a remote suburb of the city that had just been rented by a man from Vienna. Cukurs was shot in the head twice with a suppressed automatic pistol after a short but violent struggle that was not heard by neighbours. His body, found in a trunk on 6 March, had several gunshot wounds elsewhere, and his skull was shattered. Next to his body, several documents were left pertaining to his involvement in the murder of Jews in the Riga Ghetto.
Media outlets in South America and Germany received a note stating:
Taking into consideration the gravity of the charge leveled against the accused, namely that he personally supervised the killing of more than 30,000 men, women and children, and considering the extreme display of cruelty which the subject showed when carrying out his tasks, the accused Herberts Cukurs is hereby sentenced to death. Accused was executed by those who can never forget, on the 23rd of February, 1965. His body can be found at Casa Cubertini Calle Colombia, Séptima Sección del Departamento de Canelones, Montevideo, Uruguay.
The note was initially dismissed as a prank, but then police were notified and the body was discovered.
American-born Israeli historian and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff has pointed out that the fact that Cukurs wasn't prosecuted has allowed for what he believes are "attempts by right-wing nationalists and his family to totally exonerate Cukurs and by other Latvians to question or diminish his individual culpability" and "to restore him to hero status in Latvia and whitewash his massive guilt".
In 2004 postal envelopes with the image of Cukurs were issued and distributed by National Power Unity, a far-right nationalist political party in Latvia. The act was condemned by Yad Vashem, as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia Artis Pabriks in a statement saying that "those who produced such envelopes in Latvia evidently do not understand the tragic history of World War II in Latvia or in Europe". The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Cukurs was "guilty of war crimes", and that he "took part in the activities of the notorious Arajs Kommando, which participated in the Holocaust and was responsible for the killing of innocent civilians. The General Prosecutor's Office of Latvia has twice rejected the exoneration of Herberts Cukurs".
In summer of 2005 an exhibition titled "Herberts Cukurs: The Presumption of Innocence" was organized in Liepāja by K@2, a culture and art NGO run by Swedish documentary director Carl Biorsmark. One of the exhibition rooms featured testimonies and witness accounts both accusing and exonerating Cukurs, while another showed portrait of Cukurs, his supposed killer Anton Künzle and a photo of Cukurs' corpse. Biorsmark commented on the exhibition saying, "This is what artists have to do – stay in the middle and raise question marks," The exhibition faced heavy criticism from various pundits, as well as the Latvian Jewish community who called it an attempt to rehabilitate a war criminal.
Episode 1 of National Geographic's 2009 series Nazi Hunters recreated Mossad's assassination operation of Cukurs.
On 11 October 2014, a musical Cukurs. Herberts Cukurs, produced by Juris Millers, premiered in Liepāja. "We are not Herbert Cukurs' advocates and we are not his judges,” Millers said at the premier, “I hope this performance will make you think." Another performance initially scheduled for 17 March, the day after the Remembrance day of the Latvian legionnaires, was postponed in fear of "serious provocations". The musical was criticised by Zuroff tweeting he was "utterly disgusted" by it, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the musical a "vivid example" of open manifestations of neo-Nazism that he alleged had become "routine" in Latvia and other Baltic countries. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs said the production “is not in good taste” and "cannot, in any way, be supported", but defended the producer's right to free speech.
In 2020 Stephan Talty published an account of the Mossad's hunt for Cukurs, titled The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia.