BY VICTOR SHARPE, RENEW AMERICA—
In the North African desert during the summer of 1942, a pivotal battle of the Second World War took place between the German Afrika Corps under Erwin Rommel and the British and Commonwealth troops under Bernard Montgomery. The site of the battle was an oasis called El Alamein, which lay some 140 miles west of Cairo, Egypt.
The outcome of the battle determined whether the victorious push by Hitler’s vaunted Afrika Corps westwards towards the strategic Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Middle East would succeed or not. If the Afrika Corps won the battle, Britain and the Allies would be dealt a crushing blow from which they would likely not survive and the Third Reich would emerge triumphant. If they were stopped at El Alamein and forced to withdraw westwards, the Hitlerian Empire would begin to unravel.
And so it was that Rommel, starved of supplies, was defeated in late 1942 and forced to begin a long retreat. But before the two armies met on that fateful battlefield, the German High Command was faced with a desperate need to infiltrate British intelligence and learn as much as possible of the military disposition and tactical plans of the Allies.
The German Nazi espionage organization, the Abwehr, thus hatched an incredible and most unlikely plan.
1941 was another catastrophic year for the Jews of German occupied Europe. Death camps, roving killing squads, the einsatzgruppen, gas chambers, ghettos, and every horror invented by mankind was being employed by the Germans and their European allies against the hapless and abandoned Jews. Millions had already been done to death by the German Nazi juggernaut of death.
Death camps dotted the European continent and were the sites where endless transports of Jewish men, women, children and babies daily arrived by cattle trains from all over the European hell. Many of these camps, such as Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz lay outside of villages and towns in which the civilian populations went about their daily lives, while thousands of hapless Jews were being systematically slaughtered.
One of these camps lay outside the pretty Bavarian village of Dachau and it is to this hell on earth that one Paul Ernst Fackenheim was brought to be worked to death or arbitrarily murdered by any one of the German guards who infested those places of unparalleled horror.
Michael Bar-Zohar’s book about Fackenheim titled, ARROWS OF THE ALMIGHTY — The Most Extraordinary True Spy Story of World War II, included this following and chilling account of the living hell that was the German Nazi death camp of Dachau:
“It is a morning in April 1941. In Dachau 500 prisoners in blue-striped uniforms — the inmates of the ”Jewish block” of Camp Number Three — tensely await the new day’s horrors. Some will be beaten to death, some shot.
“Others will be taken to the Bunker (”the sinister cave used for solitary confinement, where the tortures inflicted . . . were so cruel that they were kept secret even from the regular SS guards”) or sent to a torture table called the Bock (on which one would be bound and then struck with a bullwhip that had been soaked in water).
“The crematorium will receive its share. Groups of others will listlessly head off to do the camp’s soul-destroying, physically punishing work, in the stone quarry or the swamp.”
Fackenheim, like so many other German Jewish men, had been a highly decorated officer who had fought valiantly for the Fatherland in World War One. But his patriotism was to no avail in the insanity that now gripped Germany under its leader; Corporal Adolf Hitler.
But Fackenheim was to be saved by the Abwehr , the German military intelligence service, over the strenuous objections of the Gestapo and SS. What was the reason for his salvation and escape from certain death?
The German High Command’s great fear was what the outcome of the North African campaign would be. Having already launched Operation Barbarossa by invading Russia, the now desperate need by Nazi Germany to succeed in the drive to Egypt and beyond was paramount.
If a giant pincer movement could be achieved, with German forces driving south from Russia and meeting up with Axis forces driving east into the Middle East, the war would be over and Germany would truly be Deutschland über alles. It was imperative therefore that German intelligence discover Britain’s operational strengths and plans. That is where Paul Ernst Fackenheim arrives, front and center, into this incredible story.
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was the head of the Abwehr at the time and tasked with the need to recruit an agent who would discover Britain’s plans in the Middle East.
Canaris was a complicated personality. Appointed head of the Abwehr in January, 1935, he was promoted shortly after to the rank of Rear Admiral, rising inexorably in the ranks to become a full admiral. Canaris also rose steadily within the Nazi hierarchy, even becoming one of Hitler’s confidants so much so that he uncovered Hitler’s plans to annex the Sudetenland.
This flagrant violation of the terms of the treaty, that obtained after Germany’s defeat in World War 1, outraged him, as it did some other officers: But it was not until Canaris was present during one of the appalling outbursts of rage, that so characterized the Fuhrer and cowed so many German officers, that he finally understood what manner of crazed individual Germany was now led by.
Canaris feigned friendship with his arch-rival, Reinhard Heydrich, who led the Nazi security service, the Sicherheitsdienst. There are indications that Canaris helped Jews — even saving several hundred from extermination. But at the same time he failed to curb the activities of his own Secret Field Police who behaved with the same ruthlessness in Eastern Europe as the Einsatzgruppen and the Gestapo.
Wilhelm Canaris was finally to lose his battle with Heydrich and after the July 1944 Bomb Plot to assassinate Hitler, in which he was not involved, a forced confession by a conspirator led to his arrest.
The hidden records of an earlier 1938 coup came to light, as did his diaries, in which he expressed his horror at the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. He was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually hanged at Flossenbürg in April 1945.
But in 1941, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was the secure head of the Abwehr. His advisers believed that a Jewish German inmate who
spoke Hebrew as well as other languages, and who had a military background, should be found and parachuted into British Mandatory Palestine.
The reason would be that in return for saving his life, such a man would work on behalf of German intelligence while merging into the Jewish population of British occupied Mandatory Palestine. Canaris was happy to agree. Accordingly, an Abwehr officer was dispatched to the Dachau death camp.
Fackenheim was taken out from the brutal work detail and escorted to an office inside the camp where he was treated with utmost politeness by a
German officer who even addressed him as Herr Fackenheim. Outside the office, fellow Jews were being worked to death. It was in this surrealistic nightmare that Paul Ernst Fackenheim was to begin his strange odyssey.
Apparently Fackenheim impressed the Abwehr officer as the right man for the job and he was whisked away from Dachau, now wearing instead of his filthy prison garb, a suit, shirt, tie and new shoes. Subsequently he was flown to Berlin and then on to Athens where he was coached in intelligence gathering methods by one Hans Muller, an Abwehr officer.
Paul Ernst Fackenheim learned how to operate a suitcase radio transmitter, write in invisible ink, identify British armored vehicles and tanks, and instructed in parachute jumping. Eventually he was given the code name Paul “Koch.”
All this time, the Gestapo and SS trailed him in the hope of arresting the unlikely spy before he could be sent on whatever mission the Abwehr had planned for him. They even tried, but failed, to arrest him in an Athens restaurant.
The Gestapo and SS were ever suspicious of the increasingly independently operated Abwehr and there was no love lost between the organizations. In fact, the intelligence arm of the SS, whose black uniformed army served under the severe and ruthless command of Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, was now deeply involved in sabotaging the Abwehr operation.
The Abwehr plan, as mentioned above, was to parachute Fackenheim, alias Paul Koch, into British Mandatory Palestine near Haifa. But an officer loyal to Himmler was instructed to tip off the British of the planned parachute landing; even providing false information that the mysterious parachutist would be a German SS General by the name of Erich Koch whose mission was to instigate a major Arab revolt against
the British Mandatory forces Himmler wanted to discredit Admiral Canaris by forcing the Abwehr mission to fail. This, Himmler hoped, would
discredit Canaris and the Abwehr in the eyes of Hitler and the SS intelligence service — the SD — would thus become the sole spy agency under
On October 10, 1941 a Heinkel circled over a target drop zone near Haifa and Paul Fackenheim slipped from the plane, landing safely
in an orange grove belonging to a nearby kibbutz. But all was not well.
Fackenheim heard and saw numerous troops in the immediate area and lights from several vehicles converging on the grove. Using his own talents, learned during his battle experiences from World War One, he managed to skillfully elude the searching troops. The following morning he joined a line of Jewish civilians and boarded a bus to Haifa.
The British soldiers searched in vain for what they believed to be a dangerous German officer and agent provocateur. But Fackenheim decided early to give himself up to the British authorities and seek their sympathy and understanding for his impressive but unlikely story. In this he was to be disappointed.
Entering a British camp he surrendered to an officer telling him that, like so many other Jewish refugees from the Nazi hell, he had landed on the beach the night before. The story sounded plausible until the officer in command saw Fackenheim’s forged identity papers with the name Paul Koch. He was immediately arrested and suspected of being none other than Obergruppenfuhrer, Erich Koch; the German agent they were looking for.
Paul Ernst Fackenheim’s saga was not over yet. He was flown to Cairo and grilled by British intelligence. His story of being a prisoner in Dachau and only agreeing to undertake the Abwehr spy mission to save his life carried some weight with a few of the officers, but many others were convinced he was indeed the notorious Erich Koch, Obergruppenfuhrer and agent provocateur.
Fackenheim was put on trial and it seemed certain that he would be shot by firing squad as a spy, especially as he turned himself in wearing not a German uniform but civilian clothes. But by good luck he was strenuously defended in court by an Irish lawyer who was able to find a local Jewish woman who had known Fackenheim in Germany during pre-war days and who identified him to the satisfaction of the presiding judges.
Paul Ernst Fackenheim’s saga finally came to an end. He survived the war after spending its duration in a British internment camp. What became of him in later life is little known as he slipped into obscurity.
But his improbable release and survival from the hell of Dachau was a unique and unprecedented event, one which can justifiably be known as the strange tale of Paul Ernst Fackenheim.