Dov Freedman is sitting in a car parked in a tree-lined suburban street when he is convinced he spots Dr Death.
From the safety of the vehicle, he sees a tall old man hobble into a large house. He is sure the man is Aribert Heim, one of the world’s most wanted Nazis war criminals, aka Dr Death.
Heim is believed to own the house — in the German spa town of Baden-Baden — and the old man entering it is with a woman Freedman identifies as Heim’s ex-wife. She is known to live at the property. Not only that, the old man fits the description of the sadistic mass murderer, who would now be 95.
This sighting was the most dramatic moment experienced by Freedman, a Leeds-born director, when filming the year-long attempt by Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, to hunt down Heim.
Dr Death, a former SS officer, whose crimes included injecting poison directly into the hearts of his patients and amputating limbs without reason, was the veteran Nazi-hunter’s number-one target in Operation Last Chance, a mission to catch the last Nazis to have escaped prosecution before they die.
“The most chilling part was the moment when we saw the old man,” recalls the 33-year-old Freedman, who travelled across the world during 18 months of filming for a series called The Last Nazis, currently being aired on BBC2. “Zuroff wasn’t with us at the time because he stuck out quite a lot, being 6ft 2in and wearing a kippah. We wanted to get some discreet shots of the house. My director of photography said: ‘I’m not being funny but there’s a very old man walking into the house.’ We saw him and the woman with him and we knew that she was Heim’s ex-wife. There were five to 10 minutes when we thought it was plausible it was him.”
Unfortunately, the sighting turned out to be one of the many dead ends encountered by the Operation Last Chance team during a hunt which took them to Argentina, Germany, Israel and Austria. The old man was quickly identified as the current husband of Heim’s ex wife.
“We showed Zuroff the footage and he didn’t think it was Heim,” says Freedman. “No one’s seen a photo of him for 40 years.”
The team got no nearer when their search led them to a remote part of Chile called Puerto Montt where Heim’s illegitimate daughter Waltruid and her husband live.
“The first thing I felt when I was in Chile was that this was a very good hiding place,” says Freedman. “Not only is it completely separate from Europe and the horrors of the Second World War, but it is separated by the mountain range of the Andes.”
Frustratingly, Waltruid was not at home (or not answering the door) in Puerto Montt, but later she did contact Zuroff to say she would be prepared to meet in Austria. At the meeting, at which she refused to be filmed, she said she had never met her father and had no idea of his whereabouts.
The pursuit of Heim ended in failure, which has prompted Freedman to doubt whether he is even still alive. The main evidence for his continued survival is that there is a substantial amount of money — £1.7 million — in his bank account, which can only be withdrawn by his children after his death.
“There were moments in the 12-month period when I thought we may actually find this guy. But you do get a bit carried away when you’re that close to it,” Freedman admits.
At one moment during the hunt, Heim’s son, Rudiger, called Zuroff supposedly to set the story straight. According to Rudiger, his father had moved to Egypt, took on the name of Tarek Farid Hussein and died there in 1992 of cancer.
“It’s a murky story,” says Freedman. “There are so many uncertainties. Rudiger claimed Heim had converted to Islam and was living in Cairo.
“It was almost just too perfect as there’s no-one to confirm the story. Egypt is notorious for being a difficult place to penetrate. We tried to go to Cairo to confirm the story but we had our visas denied.
“I think there’s more to the story that we don’t yet know. Whether that means he’s alive, I don’t know, but his son Rudiger knows more than he let on. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know.”