The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia

by Stephan Talty

The untold story of an Israeli spy’s epic journey to bring the notorious Butcher of Latvia to justice—a case that altered the fates of all ex-Nazis.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9781328613080
  • ISBN-10: 1328613089
  • Pages: 320
  • Publication Date: 04/21/2020
  • Carton Quantity: 12

About the book

Inspiration for the hit new podcast "Hunting the Butcher" 


The untold story of an Israeli spy’s epic journey to bring the notorious Butcher of Latvia to justice—a case that altered the fates of all ex-Nazis. 


Before World War II, Herbert Cukurs was a famous figure in his small Latvian city, the “Charles Lindbergh of his country.” But by 1945, he was the Butcher of Latvia, a man who murdered some thirty thousand Latvian Jews. Somehow, he dodged the Nuremberg trials, fleeing to South America after war’s end. 


By 1965, as a statute of limitations on all Nazi war crimes threatened to expire, Germany sought to welcome previous concentration camp commanders, pogrom leaders, and executioners, as citizens. The global pursuit of Nazi criminals escalated to beat the looming deadline, and Mossad, the Israeli national intelligence agency, joined the cause. Yaakov Meidad, the brilliant Mossad agent who had kidnapped Adolf Eichmann three years earlier, led the mission to assassinate Cukurs in a desperate bid to block the amnesty. In a thrilling undercover operation unrivaled by even the most ambitious spy novels, Meidad traveled to Brazil in an elaborate disguise, befriended Cukurs and earned his trust, while negotiations over the Nazi pardon neared a boiling point. 


The Good Assassin uncovers this little-known chapter of Holocaust history and the pulse-pounding undercover operation that brought Cukurs to justice.

About the author
Stephan Talty

STEPHAN TALTY is the award-winning author of Agent Garbo,Empire of Blue Water, and other best-selling works of narrative nonfiction. His books have been made into two films, the Oscar-winning Captain Phillips and Only the Brave. He is also the author of two psychological thrillers, including the New York Times bestseller Black Irish, set in his hometown of Buffalo. He has written for the New York Times Magazine,GQ, and many other publications. Talty now lives outside New York City with his family.


Prologue: The Apartment on the Avenue de Versailles

MIO WALKED INTO THE LOBBY of the building on the Avenue de Versailles and called out “Bonjour!” to the concierge through her tiny window. Not waiting for a response, he went quickly up the marble stairs. Puffing by now—he was a bit out of shape—he reached the wooden door of Yariv’s apartment and pressed the bell. He was confident he hadn’t been followed; he’d stopped in front of the gigantic Radio France building a few blocks away to check for tails. It would have been unfortunate to bring one to a meeting with Yariv, who was touchy about such things. 

     The door opened and Yosef Yariv, the head of Caesarea, the special operations arm of Mossad, nodded at Mio. With his honking beak of a nose and thick pelt of unruly hair, the forty-year-old Yariv resembled a predatory desert bird. Now his piercing blue-gray eyes studied his friend. 

     “I’m glad you made it,” he said. 

     Mio said nothing, only nodded and walked past. Yariv locked the door, then turned. “From this moment onwards,” he said, “your name is Anton Kuenzle. You’d better start getting used to it.” Mio showed no reaction; he was an introvert, raised in Germany as a Jew in the early thirties, which encouraged, if not required, certain kinds of masks to be worn. And besides, it was Mio’s stock-in-trade to become different people, sometimes for a few days, other times for much longer. Inside Mossad, where he was one of the great, perhaps the greatest, undercover operatives, he was known as “the man with the hundred identities.” Back home in Israel, his family lived in a house that sat behind a steel gate, through which the agency sent a car every time he was leaving on an assignment. His son would later say that when the car drove off if you woke Mio in the middle of the night, he would immediately begin speaking in the language of his false persona. On those days when he was driven to the airport, he never looked back to wave to his children because, in his mind, he had no children. 

     The two walked ahead into a small guest room. Another operative—Mio called him Michael, though that wasn’t his real name—sat at a small table with cups and saucers and a pot filled with coffee. A “fairly thin” file sat next to the cups. Mio nodded at Michael and took one of the empty chairs. Yariv followed suit. He looked at the other two, his eyes cool. 

     “You must be wondering why I summoned you here,” he said. 

     The two men said nothing. 

     “Well, it all begins with the final confirmation we received about a Nazi war criminal who lives in one of the South American countries.” 

     Michael looked at Mio, who glanced back, remaining silent. Yariv explained that in eight months, on May 8, 1965, the world would mark the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. German politicians and ordinary citizens were calling for an end to the hunt for Nazi war criminals and for a statute of limitations to be applied to their crimes. Mio didn’t react, but, as someone who avidly read the newspapers, he must have seen the headlines. Germany was preparing to enforce an 1871 law that mandated a twenty-year limit on murder prosecutions. Two other amnesties, for assault and for manslaughter, had gone into effect in 1955 and 1960 with little protest around the world. Charging any Nazi officer or soldier with those crimes was now forbidden inside Germany. But soon the killers themselves, the very worst of the worst, the men and women who’d physically pulled the triggers on the machine guns and the rifles and the pistols and smashed in the heads and strangled and bludgeoned their portion of the six million, could emerge from their hiding places and walk free in the sun. It seemed utterly fantastic, but there it was. 

     The statute, Yariv said, was popular in West Germany. Every poll showed solid majorities in favor of it, and the governing party, the Christian Democratic Union, had thrown its weight behind the law. Only the Bundestag, the feisty German parliament, could delay the amnesty by passing a bill that would push the deadline a few years into the future, allowing the remaining unindicted National Socialist murderers to be found and prosecuted for at least a short time longer. But Yariv told Mio and Michael that Israeli leaders were increasingly pessimistic about this possibility. “The chances of accepting this proposal are small . . . There is no guarantee that the politicians are prepared to extend the Statute of Limitations, not by four years, not by ten years, and, for that matter, most probably not at all.” 

     Mio noticed his friend’s voice starting to rise in the quiet room, though his face showed no change in expression. “It is absolutely inconceivable,” Yariv said, “that tens of thousands of Nazi war criminals, who never paid for their heinous crimes, should now be able to crawl out of their hiding holes and spend the rest of their lives in peace and tranquility . . . It’s been only twenty years since the release of the survivors of the death camps, and we owe it to them, and to the six million who did not survive and are unable to avenge themselves—we must thwart this shameful process.” 

     Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol and his intelligence chiefs had secretly decided on a mission. A killing was required, a certain kind of killing that would reveal the Nazi monsters who’d escaped punishment and publicize the nature of their crimes. Unlike Mossad’s kidnapping and subsequent execution of Adolf Eichmann four years earlier, there would be no trial, no lawyers or judges, no legal niceties, no essays by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker. And the operation had to be completed before the vote in the German parliament, currently scheduled for sometime in the spring. 

     “The Nazi whose turn has come,” Yariv said, “is Herbert Cukurs.” 

     It was a Latvian name; Yariv pronounced the “C” in “Cukurs” correctly, like “Ts,” TSOO-krz. (It means “sugar.”) At a conference of Israeli intelligence chiefs in January, the names of potential assassination targets had been read out. When the speaker came to Cukurs, one of the men in the room collapsed. It was Major General Aharon Yariv—no relation to Yosef Yariv—head of the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Cukurs had murdered several of Yariv’s loved ones and friends during the war; his reaction was one reason why the Latvian’s name had been chosen. 

     Mio had never heard of Cukurs, and he showed no emotion at the idea of ending his life. “Outwardly,” he said, “I kept a poker face.” If he was chilly in his personal life—and he was, to his children’s eternal regret—he was even more clinical when working. A quickening of the breath, a raised eyebrow, would for him have been a breach of professional ethics. But inside, he was deeply stirred. His mother and father, a German patriot and a recipient of the Iron Cross for bravery in World War I, who’d believed that they’d be saved until almost the very end, had been murdered at...


“What a wonderful book. Stephan Talty’s fast-paced account of how Herbert Cukurs, the Latvian aviator turned Nazi war criminal, was eventually brought to justice by Mossad operatives is as gripping as any novel. Hard as it is read the details of Cukurs’ horrific crimes, the outcome is both moving and uplifting, with the Latvian’s demise helping to bring other perpetrators of genocide to justice. Talty is at the top of his game.” —Saul David, author of Operation Thunderbolt and The Force 


“Part Holocaust history, part detective case, part spy operation, The Good Assassin is an enthralling book. Stephan Talty paints vivid, often chilling, portraits of its vengeful hero, Mossad agent Jacob Medad, and the war criminal Herbert Cukurs he pursued to the bitter end. It’s a stunning, you-are-there kind of read.”—Neal Bascomb, New York Times bestselling author of Hunting Eichmann and Faster 


“Stephan Talty's The Good Assassin is a gripping chronicle of one of the most brilliant operations launched against an escaped Nazi war criminal, and a fitting memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Latvia and to the brave Israelis who travelled half way around the world to punish one of the key perpetrators of those crimes. At a time when Latvian ultranationalists are trying to rehabilitate Cukurs as a national hero, Talty explains why such a step would be a grave miscarriage of justice.” —Dr. Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal Center 


“Stephan Talty masterfully recounts how the Holocaust engulfed the Jews of Latvia and how the architect of that genocide was hunted to his death by Israeli spies. It's a page-turning account of a little-known episode of the Shoah and how justice was brought to one of its key perpetrators.” —Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden and Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos 


“Stephan Talty has crafted a fast-paced account of an overlooked part of the Holocaust -- and its broader impact on the postwar hunt for its perpetrators.” —Bill Geroux, author of The Ghost Ships of Archangel and The Mathews Men 


"Talty efficiently mines archival records for vivid details and tracks the complexities of Medad’s undercover mission with flair. The result is a captivating and gruesome real-life spy thriller."Publishers Weekly 


"Compelling . . . Talty remains true to his technique, delivering thoroughly researched, engrossing nonfiction in a thrillerlike narrative style . . . As anti-Semitism surges once again, this page-turning history reminds us of the sanguinary consequences of unchecked hatred."Kirkus Reviews 


"Thrilling . . . A fast-paced, recommended work that enthralls, edifies, and reveals the disturbing extent to which Latvians and others participated in genocide."Library Journal 


"The author brings his usual attention to detail, excellent research, terrific storytelling, passion, and dedication to this suspenseful recounting of a shadowy facet of the Holocaust, which continues to haunt the world."Booklist