Damascus, 1988. Plainclothes security personnel hover constantly around the main entrance of an elegant residential building. There are whispers that an “important” German fugitive lives on the second floor. As teenagers back then, whenever we got too close to that building, the security officers would order us to disperse, warning that only residents were allowed on the sidewalk.
The shutters were always closed, but occasionally, the occupant of that sunless flat would come out for a walk, passing a popular shawarma restaurant that faced his building. He would then walk up to Arnous Square and pass the Retired Officers Club, also known as al-Muharibeen al-Qudamaa (Old Fighters). Many of the older former officers seated in that club, sipping strong Arabic coffee, playing cards and smoking their shishas, knew exactly who the tall and humorless man was, but nobody ever said a word. They just pretended not to have seen him. Many had served in World War II when Syria was under French occupation. Some were cadets at the Homs Military Academy; others were soldiers in the French-run Army of the Levant. During the war, this man was their enemy. They fought on opposite sides of the battlefield; they with France and the Allies, he with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The man of whom I speak was Alois Brunner.
All we knew of this mysterious stranger was that he never smiled. When we saw him, he ran. One time he cussed at a group of boys whose soccer ball had accidentally hit him. We eventually learned that he was “Hitler’s man” and that he was “good, not bad,” having “killed the Jews during World War II.” One of our friends, trying to be funny, raised the Nazi salute at a distance and barked: “Heil Hitler.” The man didn’t see him and neither did the security service personnel who were standing nearby. This came as a relief to me at the time, not because admiring Hitler in Syria was a crime. It wasn’t. But because we knew the secret identity of a man that the regime was protecting. [Continue reading…]