Tuesday, March 10, 2009
How I Was Introduced to Reinhard Heydrich
I first learned about the importance of Reinhard Heydrich from Count Otto von Skorzeny. The following is the tale of this meeting, and my recollections of our conversation.
I scrutinized the invitation. It was elaborately handwritten in sepia gold with a goose quill pen. A tall, good looking Berber clad in a red military uniform from the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid had politely insisted to Felix, our majordomo, “Tengo el deber de entregar este sobre en las manos de la Señora Condesa de Vacani. It is my duty to deliver this envelope to the Countess Vacani in person.”
The invitation was in French. I read it aloud in Castilian to the assembled members of my family that had gathered around the chestnut paneled library, enjoying churros and hot, thick chocolate for breakfast.
“His Excellency, Jacobo Bendahan, Minister and Privy Councilor to His Majesty King Hassan ll of the Royal Kingdom of Morocco, respectfully requests the pleasure of the company of Her Excellency Señora Condesa Isabel de Vacani to a dinner at Casa Tangiers, Puerta de Hierro, on the 27th day of May 1968. In honor of Her Royal Highness, Princess Lalla Aisha. Attire: Formal. Time: Eleven o’clock in the evening. R.S.V.P.”
“A dinner party at Jacobo Bendahan’s villa. He’s so fascinating. I’m bowled over!” I remarked, turning towards my mother Camilla and placing the invitation in her outstretched hand.
“Hmmm. He’s the famous Francoist financier. He is a cosmopolitan and a sophisticated man of the world,” observed Mother, passing the thick card to Uncle Matthias, her eldest brother.
“Jacobo is one of Madrid’s most important social arbiters as well,” he said, giving the card to Aunt Allegra.
“Ha! This has Nini’s fingerprints all over it,” she declared emphatically
Aunt Dahlia took the card and studied it carefully. “You all know he’s a Sephardic Jew. That means he and Jaime Pardo de Tavera are very close. Which means they both sent pots of money to Israel, especially during and after the Six Day War of 1966 ‘’
“Jacobo and Jaime are adept at navigating the tempests of Life and those of War,” opined Uncle Matthias taking a large sip of chocolate slowly.
Trust Aunt Dahlia to provoke people, thought I.
“Some say he’s a libertine,” added Aunt Allegra.
“That settles it, I’m going to accept the invitation. I’ll meet the most divine and dangerous individuals there. Ay! Por Dios! Do you realize I only have two weeks to think about the may-I-die-in-it gown I am going to wear?” I exclaimed, unable to contain my excitement.
“Just a minute, cariño. You’re eighteen years old. This invitation sounds like most of the guests will be at least twice your age,” declared my mother.
“That’s perfect. At the moment, I’m bored with people my own age. When the boys are not silly and sophomoric, they are dirty and revolutionary,” I retorted.
“She’s right, Camilla. I wouldn’t worry if I were you. It isn’t as if she can’t handle the likes of Jacobo or his guests. I’d consider it from another angle.”
All eyes were now on Uncle Matthias as he chuckled. “Do you think Jacobo and his guests can handle our Maribel?”
I prevailed. Aunt Nini (who was considered an adventuress by my family) had power and influence in Franco’s Spain. Her friendship with Generalissimo Francisco Franco dated back to the savage Civil War, which ravaged Spain from 1936 to 1939. Two million corpses haunted the land. They claimed that Nini had spied for the Nationalists while her sister Sissy opted to assist the Reds (the Communists) just to insure the survival of the family come what may.
“I am an old confidante of Jacobo, I have indeed maneuvered the invitation for you. We are living in very ambiguous times. I think you should immerse yourself in it as much as you can. This will restrain you from making rash judgments and pronouncements,” said Nini
“I am ever so grateful for this opportunity,” I murmured.
“There will be many more,” she announced.
An imperious Aunt Nini, in a black silk taffeta gown coutured by the Maestro Cristobal Balenciaga walked beside me. Ruby pendants three inches in length hang from her slender neck. I towered over her in spite of her spike heels but Nini had self-confidence to sell at any auction. We entered the foyer of Jacobo Bendahan’s mansion, “Casa Tangiers.”
“It could easily pass for a palace!” I remarked to Nini, as my eyes swept the Moorish inspired architecture, the fountains, arches and indoor courtyards.
’’Queridita, where do you think the Arabs or Moors who conquered Spain come from?”
‘’They came from Morocco,” she told me before I could open my mouth to reply. “You are to address me as Nini in all the High Society soirees. We’re supposed to be cousins,” she reminded me hastily.
I suppose calling her Auntie ages her in some way. "So be it,” I sighed softly and nodded in her direction.
“Hola! Nini. Que Tal?” Hola, guapa!” exclaimed Jacobo all in one breath.
He strode towards us, elegantly clad in a silk caftan embroidered in gold. His arms enfolded Nini. They kissed each other the Arab way. Right cheek, left cheek, then again on the right cheek. The number three was sacred to both Moroccan Arabs and Sephardic Jews. It appeared frequently in Cabalist and Sufi writings.
“Hola,” I replied, giving him my right hand to kiss. There is an art to this ritual. A man’s lips must never touch an unmarried woman’s skin. A gentleman accorded harlots this act of chivalry as well.
Jabobo was a spellbinding personality. Magnetism flowed out of his five foot four frame. He spoke in a resonant and soft voice. You had to concentrate on nothing and no one to hear what he had to say. He positioned himself between us and lightly guided us into the inner courtyard of Casa Tangiers where the guests were reclining on low divans or large and plump silk cushions.
A giant, well-muscled yet graceful man rose from the soft, yellow cushions and was alongside us in one stride. He clicked his heels softly, bowed ever so slightly at Aunt Nini as he kissed her hand.
That was smooth, I thought. I’ve seen many men emerge with a soft, red indentation on their right cheek after executing the besa mano. Aunt Nini was never parted from her 37-carat diamond, which had been a gift from Eva Peron. In the presence of strangers, she never referred to her as Evita.
“It is a desecration,” she claimed.
I almost didn’t catch the giant’s name because I was struck by the panache with which he carried a faint, long dueling scar on his left cheek.
“Count something von Skorzeny,” Jacobo had said. Then it struck me. THE Count von Skorzeny. ’That’s him!’ The colonel in the SS who had masterminded the daring rescue of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini from the perilous Mount Sasso and had flown the plane to Germany. On D-Day and its aftermath, General Dwight Eisenhower had called him “the most dangerous man in Europe.”
Every detail was still fresh in my mind. A few weeks ago, I had finished reading William Shirer’s powerful book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
“I can’t believe a beautiful, coquettish eighteen year old would let the world pass her by and stay up night after night reading heavy stuff like that,” my mother declared despairingly.
“You don’t understand. It’s like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ. Parties and beaus can wait. If they don’t, tant pis,” I had replied irritably because I had been forced to take my eyes off Shirer’s book.
“After twenty years that book will be so outdated, you’ll ever wonder how you could have placed it in the same breath as Tolstoy and the like,” chuckled my mother.
“Should I give him my hand to kiss?” I hesitated but only for a second. Jacobo had invited von Skorzeny. That made the circumstances mysterious and puzzling. Jacobo and his rich collection of nephews and nieces were cultured Sephardic conversant with the Torah, Quran and the Bible. Some served in the Israeli Army and others in the Moroccan Armed Forces.
I thought of Uncle Matthias’s remark, “Jacobo is adept at navigating in perilous waters.’’
Skorzeny bent towards my hand wordlessly. Wavy, brown hair with no grey stragglers. Dark blue eyes, full lips. Rugged good looks. Middle-aged with nary a wrinkle and exuding sex appeal from every pore. His movements were natural, his smile disarming.
I decided to let myself be swept by the flow. ’’En boca cerrada, no entran moscas ‘’ goes a popular Spanish aphorism meaning; Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. So, think rather than speak.
“A very good evening to you, Herr Graf von Skorzeny,” I murmured in the best Hoch Deutsch I could muster. Did I detect an amused twinkle in his eyes? A flash of attraction towards my youthful good looks and poise? I could not ponder it further because Jacobo steered my elbow towards a dusky youth in a golden caftan. I liked him instantly. We locked eyes
“Marhaba, Je suis Moulay Ali,” I am Moulay Ali. he declared in a low, seductive whisper.
Ah! King Hassan’s youngest brother. An unselfish hearted youth, I decided. Time and tragic events years later would prove me right.
“That was thoughtful and cunning of Jacobo to invite a group of young people,” I told myself.
The larger than life figure of Skorzeny kept intruding on my thoughts. William Shirer’s book had made me feel horror, revulsion, fascination and curiosity. Shirer’s book was a best selling book. Yet his persona was dwarfed by the larger than life swashbuckling figure of the SS pilot/spy/financier.
Something Jacobo had said to Baron Robert de Boisseson, Ambassador of France, caught my attention.
“You are aware, I’m sure, that we Sephardic are totally different from our Eastern European brethren. We came from Judea. When the Roman Emperor Titus ordered the Diaspora, we settled in Morocco, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, eventually traveling to Spain with the invading Arabs as administrators and officers in their army. We are Semites. We would not put our hands in the fire for the Ashkenazim. They, according to legend, are of Turkic Mongol origin and came from Central Asia.”
I glanced quickly at von Skorzeny who was sitting across Jacobo at the long, low, oak banquet table. He was listening in rapt attention and made no attempt to dissimulate
I think it was my questioning mind that first drew me to Otto von Skorzeny. Why was Spanish aristocracy courting him? The Franco regime was his host. He lived in splendor in Puerta de Hierro, the ghetto of the super rich. Doris Duke, Barbara Hutton, Bobo Rockefeller, Perle Mesta, Doris Fondren, American heiresses all, swimming in millions and millions of money, vied for Skerzany’s attention and financial contributions to their favorite charities and balls in New York and Washington D.C.
In Paris, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor feted Skorszeny at their gay parties. Pauline Rothschild and Baron Philippe de Rothschild were frequent guests. That puzzled me. Philippe’s first wife had perished in a concentration camp. Dachau, I thought.
Then there was the attention Aristotle Onassis showered on Skorzeny. He had married Jacqueline Kennedy a few months earlier, so I thought his attention now was very intriguing. I asked Aunt Nini for clarification.
“Men who possess that kind of wealth don’t bother to have political convictions, scruples or ideologies. Lucre is their god. Onassis has always done business with Nazis, Fascists, Jews and Arabs, He has no prejudices and he is right in that attitude of business is business. The ancient Romans used to say that money has no odor,” she explained patiently.
“The rules are that there are no rules,” Onassis often remarked.
”I reflected that this reasoning applied to Otto von Skorzeny as well, and to society in general.
I decided to cultivate Skorzeny. I soon discovered we belonged to the same fencing academy. Would I be a good enough fencer to engage him in a match? Probably not. I was a fresh, new presence in society. Young, intelligent, talented and full of curiosity. I was well read for someone my age, spoke and wrote articles in English and Castilian.’ ’People and Places. News and Notes” was my byline in the Spanish Daily News, an English language newspaper, widely read by the international community throughout Spain. It was entirely financed by the C.I.A. but I would not be apprised of this until I became Head of Gucci Public Relations, in Rome and New York a few years later.
Quite a few men said I was intellectually brilliant. There was also a financial disinterest Skorzeny would appreciate. No begging bowls would be passed to donate money to my favorite charities. At least not yet. At that age I was narcissistic enough to believe that I should be the recipient of gifts and largesse from men. That was another point in my favor. My extreme youth and the history of my clan gave me a great deal of face. They were unabashedly friendly with Madame Chiang Kai Shek, General MacArthur, Ryoichi Sasakawa, a Japanese war criminal, Lady Chichibu of the Japanese Imperial family, the Baron Okura, who was Chief of the Kempeitai, the Japanese Imperial Secret Service, during the war in the Pacific, the Kadourie clan (Iraqi Jews in Hong Kong), the Pardo de Taveras, Masonic and Sephardic Jews in Manila, Marrakech and Madrid.
My grandmother Esperanza, who was in Sagaro, with her wealthy Catalan cousins in the Costa Brava, never cared much for the opinion of so called society. She cultivated friendships with men and women on the basis of realpolitik and heart, with equal blends of both.
“I’m thinking of writing someday when I’m much older and I have lived... about... a spectacular figure of Nazism,” I told Skorzeny, accosting him at the arched entrance of La Academia Real de la Esgrima.
He broke his steps. With clenched jaws, he studied my face. I did not play the blushing maiden or the cute coquette. I observed his face as well. A slight grin appeared. It was plain to him I must have made inquiries about his schedule, and that I had planned this with care.
“My partner has the grippe (influenza). If you concur, why don’t we practice some thrusts and feints?”
Was I adroit enough to duel with him? I reflected. I was much younger and swifter. He was older and more experienced. He was an accomplished SS.officer, close to the final chapters of his book of life. I was just opening mine.
“Perhaps I’ll be good enough to interest you to teach me the mechanics of some thrusts,” I ventured to comment, injecting some humility into my voice
Then he threw his head back and roared with laughter. “The cheekiness of youth,” he said.
“Is that a yes, Herr Graf von Skorzeny?”
He was still smiling when he chuckled, “Let’s get ready Condesa de Vacani. I try never to keep ladies waiting, especially when they are young.”
The liveried server padded quickly and gently towards us. The irony was too stark. Outside the salon, the clash of foils, sabers and rapiers was electrifying. Count von Skorzeny and I were drinking Lapsang Suchong black tea, the Austro-Hungarian way, out of small glasses with gold handles.
“Firstly,” he said, with a level expression and tone, “the word Nazi is incorrect. It is Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei . The English diplomats used National Socialist Deutsche Arbeit Partei, that’s close enough. We never used that word - Nazi. We referred to ourselves as National Socialists, or NSDAP. The English media for reasons of practicality probably coined the word. Nazi takes up less space in the headlines. Mind you, I am giving them the benefit of the doubt. It was psychological as well. By shortening our name NSDAP to Nazi, it was a form of degradation.”
“Thank you for the clarification. It is gracious of you to spend time explaining some portentous events in the early twentieth century,” I replied.
“It is difficult to write about events historical or personal while you are living it. You can’t really see the panorama. Time is the best and the worst comrade of history. Too much disappears yet many things also come to light as time goes by. The victors always write the books. Their opinions are those that prevail. Let there be no equivocation. They take the spoils and define the memories. It has ever been thus.”
He emptied his glass of tea. I had been so intrigued that I had ignored mine and it was cold. He ordered two more glasses. I resolved to enjoy the Lapsang Suchong and drink it this time around.
“Time is not kind to the victors. I am not referring to twenty or even fifty years. Any serious observer of history will tell you that,” he gazed at me and scrutinized my face. “Have you considered which figure in the Germany of the Reich of the twentieth century you find the most compelling?”
“I’m not sure. I can tell you which ones I will not tackle. Hitler... Himmler...Goering...Rosenberg...Goebbels, Perhaps even the grey Borman,” I declared.
“Ach! That’s smart. Everyone will write about the Fuhrer and,” he paused as he waited for the server to bring the tea on a gilded tray covered with a linen doily over to us. When he was out of earshot, von Skorzeny said, “The others don’t matter. They were appointed to their posts because they were the Fuhrer’s cronies. You must not underestimate them and think that they were stupid, only that they were unsuited for their jobs Hitler was not unique, Most leaders stuff their cabinets with their cronies and friends.”
There was a long pause. I sat still, thinking, The scent of the tea is sensuous. I must not let it get cold again. That would be a sin. I lifted the glass with the gold handles and took several sips slowly.
He kept studying me even as he lifted his glass towards me, drank the tea and put it down. The muscles of his face were soft but there was a hard glint in his eyes.
“You are going to need cojones for what I’m about to tell you. Most men and women think they have it, but it’s not true.”
As he lifted his glass, I followed suit. This time he clinked it against mine.
“Concentrate on Heydrich: my Chief,” he declared almost as ‘an aside except that his voice suddenly went wobbly. ‘’Heydrich.’’ He repeated for emphasis, ’Reinhard Heydrich.’ That is the way he introduced himself. Always.”
“He was a sort of Renaissance man, was he not? Gifted with every conceivable talent by the Gods,” I observed.
“He was that indeed. There was a man who never depended on cronies. He always sought out the best and the brightest. He even had Jews in the SS and in the SD, personally handpicked by him. That is a great quality in any man who is born to lead.”
“We are talking about Heydrich, the young head of the SS and the SD? I thought Himmler was the Chief. That’s what Shirer’s book says.”
“Himmler was an old crony of Hitler. He headed the SS in name only. Heydrich ran it. Heydrich ran everything. After his death in 1942, Himmler had to really take over and he botched it. Hitler appointed four men to take over Heydrich’s duties after he died. That gives you an idea just how valuable and tireless Heydrich was,” affirmed Skorzeny.
“I saw several photographs of Heydrich in William Shirer’s book when he was Head of the Eastern European provinces. He seemed so young,” I said.
“He was young, in his early thirties. By the way, the correct term is Reichsprotektor of Bohemia-Moravia. Remember, the vanquished are often ashamed, and stunned in defeat. Especially if their country lies in ruins as far as their eyes can see and there is famine everywhere. The people are broken in spirit. That’s another important component in war. They allow distortions and falsehoods to spread, much as they themselves once did. That’s the nature of men and of war.”
“Did you ever get to know Heydrich?’’
“He frequently visited the SS Academy to talk to us and sound us out on different topics. Almost all the cadets had a large photograph of the Chief in their rooms. That was taken when he won the Pentathlon for the SS.”
“Did you love him”?
“Heydrich never allowed anyone to get close enough to love or like him. We all admired and respected him. That’s what it was all about – Admiration and Respect. He did not want to be liked. Respect was what he sought. Believe me, he got it, even from Hitler.”
“Shirer refers to him as The Butcher of Prague. Is he mouthing propaganda?” I asked boldly.
Skorzeny smiled, took a last sip of tea and told me. “You are a beautiful debutante, Wait about thirty years. Live a constructive life. Study human beings. Learn to read them like books. Ask questions about everything. Don’t take the word of any government, writer or journalist. Think, and then decide. Heydrich did wonders in Bohemia/Moravia now called Czechoslovakia. His political success was spectacular. That’s why he had to be assassinated. Prague will not remain Communist forever. I give those Bolsheviks twenty to twenty five years at the most. I will not be alive. But please remember me and my statement.”
Then Skorzeny abruptly changed the subject. “What is your opinion of Oriana Fallaci’s interview of Ava Gardner?”
“She savaged and brutalized her. It’s almost as if she resented the beautiful, independent spirit of Ava Gardner and had to attempt to crush her. Only a woman could do that to another woman,” I declared angrily.
“Perhaps. It is not easy for any woman journalist to interview someone as beautiful as Ava Gardner. I think a man might have been worse. It is still a man’s world after all. If you want good journalism and reporting read Martha Gelhorn. She is brave, bright and beautiful. She knew Heydrich. If you ever meet her, ask her for her opinion.”
I hesitated’’ How did she and Heydrich come to meet? I was an enthusiastic admirer of Martha Gelhorn even if she claimed to dislike Germans. I wondered why Hollywood did not do a movie about her life.
“Martha Gelhorn used to be married to Ernest Hemingway, but I’m sure you are aware of that. She knows Spain much more profoundly than he.’’
“No”, I lied. Choosing not to show all I knew.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor had dealings with Heydrich. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh are more conversant, certainly more intelligent than either of those party loving aristocrats. Your aunt Nini might have met the Chief, perhaps during the Civil War in the thirties. She knew Himmler surely. He was often entertained by Grandees of Spain at Horchers Restaurant or the Jockey Club, both still very elegant, with exquisite food,” declared Skorzeny.
“I think I should also talk to Jews who might have had dealings with him,” I said.
“You must talk to as many people as you can, friends, enemies and detractors. Keep diaries, notes, make observations. Live your life to the fullest and wait. Regretfully, I don’t think I’ll be alive if and when you decide to write about my enigmatic chief: Heydrich. Time will truly give you many surprises about him. And not only about him,” he exclaimed.
That is an equivocal statement. What a mysterious man. He strikes me as one who loves his country. I wish I could plumb all his secrets. He’s telling me in between the lines that I must dig them out by myself.
All I could think of saying was “thank you, I’ll remember what you’ve said”.
“I travel frequently on business but whenever I am in Madrid, remember that I am at your disposal. You can leave a message with my wife if you call while I am away.”
He handed me a cream colored calling card embossed in brown letters. They contained his private telephone numbers.
“Auf Wiedersehen. I am sure we shall meet at Jacobo’s diffas and at other events,” I said trying to act with nonchalance.
A few months after the encounter at the Fencing Academy, Jacobo Bendahan invited me to a Grand Gala honoring Christian Dior. Baron Robert de Boisseson hosted it, the suave and worldly wise Ambassador of France. Jacobo and his party of 12 guests had ringside seats as the snooty models galloped down the runway. The movie star and legend Ava Gardner was also one of his guests. Her escort was none other than Count Otto von Skorzeny. It was now clear why he had asked me about Oriana Fallaci’s interview with her.
‘’But Jacobo’’ I asked, turning to look at him squarely in the face in his Rolls Royce, as his driver took the lane towards the Avenida de la Castellana, where I lived, ‘’I thought the S.S. exterminated millions of Jews and not only Jews.’’
‘’Hija, the truth is much more complicated and rarely as simple as others would have us believe’’ replied Jacobo. He then leaned back, closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them he asked his driver to turn on the radio. They were playing Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. It was clear Jacobo did not wish to elaborate on his sibylline statement. Good manners and prudence stopped me from probing any further.
London, May 27, 2001
I was gathering up my voluminous notes and books for my own book and screenplay “Checkmate” when one of my notebooks fell and accidentally hit the ‘’ON’’ button of the remote control. My husband and I watched the History and Biography channels frequently. Some of the documentaries shone by their impartiality. Others failed by the slant they chose to emphasize. Enough material fell between the cracks that it was useful if you knew how to distill what you heard, especially what you did not hear.
”Ooh, a program is just beginning’’ I cried out. It was on the Odessa File.
“The brains behind it was Colonel Otto von Skorzeny of the S.S.,” said the announcer.
“The news did not stun me. I looked at the Madrid diaries. The date of Jacobo’s Diffa in Marrakech had remained indelibly imprinted on my hippocampus.
The calm and confident manner he possessed, the affectionate way he had discussed Heydrich, his generosity regarding charitable events, his closeness with the Vatican Curia even with Pope Paul VI himself and his endless largess to the Red Cross as well as Unicef, it is to be expected that Skorzeny organized and ran the Odessa File.
I smiled at my husband with a conspiratorial air. He nodded. We sat down on the white leather sofa.
“Amore, don’t forget to tell me about Skorzeny after the documentary is over. You said you knew him in your dancing days in Madrid.”
Wordlessly, I showed Stevan the dates in my agenda
27 May 1942: Bomb attack on Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, Czech Republic.
27 May 1968: Diffa in Tangiers – Jacobo Bendahan’s villa Casa Tangiers, Madrid.
27 May 2001: In the morning, Documentary film on the Odessa File and Otto von Skorzeny. London.
27 May 2001: In the evening, I begun the first page of Checkmate: The Enigma of Reinhard Heydrich.
A quartet of mere coincidences? Yes and No.
I am now well past 800 pages, and can say I believe I fully understand and agree with Count Skorzeny when he told me he was the the most important man in the Third Reich.
Author's note: For more about Otto Von Skorzeny check out http://greyfalcon.us/Otto%20Skorzeny.htm