In 1974, residents of the town of Paterson were confronted by an unexpected question: Was one of their neighbors, a prolific Communist-hunter, one of Hitler's former henchmen?
This post has been adapted from Eric Lichtblau's forthcoming book, The Nazis Next Door.
The old man sounded panicked. He was normally so cocksure and crafty, but now, as he related the strange events of the last few weeks, there was the squall of desperation in a voice left raspy by too many Marlboros. He was in trouble, Tom Soobzokov was telling his long-ago friend John Grunz on the other end of the phone. Exactly why was still not clear. The words were tumbling out so furiously in Soobzokov’s thick Slavic accent that Grunz could scarcely follow his helter-skelter story.
Crazy refugees from the old country were out to destroy him, the old man was saying. There was something about libelous stories in the newspaper, too. A hell-bent congresswoman was somehow involved. And did Grunz hear his old friend Tom right: did he just say something about Nazi war crimes?
Slow down, slow down, Grunz urged. Whatever’s going on, he said, we can deal with it. The assurances did nothing to calm Soobzokov.
You don’t understand. My life is in danger.
The words were tumbling out so furiously on the phone in Soobzokov’s thick, raspy Slavic accent that Grunz could scarcely follow his helter-skelter story.Typical Soobzokov. He inevitably seemed to cloak himself in some bit of drama or other; there was always that element of intrigue. He was, as his secret psychological work-ups had concluded years earlier, a bold and impassioned man, “a leader type who can get things done,” but volatile and scheming, too; “a skillful manipulator of people.’’ His outsize, fill-up-the-room personality had defined him for as long as Grunz had known him. But had his old friend, still rambling on the phone about Nazis and government probes, now turned delusional, too?
The two men, their lives once so tightly intertwined, had lost touch in recent years. Then came the cryptic message that an intermediary had passed along to Grunz just a few days earlier: someone named Soobzokov was looking for him. He wanted him to call as soon as possible. And it sounded urgent.
Tom Soobzokov? Looking for him? It had been many years—fifteen, maybe twenty—since they had last spoken. What could he want after all this time?
Soobzokov, nothing if not resourceful, had gotten a friend in Congress to find Grunz’s unlisted line and get the message to him. That wasn’t as simple as it sounded, since Grunz had a way of making himself hard to find. He was, after all, a CIA spy.
Soobzokov knew a bit about spying himself. That was how he knew Grunz. Soobzokov had once been spy himself for the CIA—not a particularly good one, but a spy nonetheless. Grunz had been his handler in the Middle East as they chased intelligence on the Soviets in the crazy Cold War days of the 1950s, two decades earlier. Soobzokov’s main mission was to recruit ex-Russians and ardent anti-Communists—people like him—who might be willing to spy on their former homeland for America. He was always on the verge of turning the next big Russian agent, or so he claimed. It was in the Middle East that Soobzokov had picked up his CIA code name: Nostril, an unflattering allusion to his prominent hooked nose. If he minded the moniker, he never let on. He loved the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of the spy business. He also liked to brandish his agency credentials to friends and acquaintances with a reckless bravado; not a good quality in a spy. As his handler, Grunz sometimes had to clean up the mess left by Nostril’s indiscretions in far-flung places.
Whatever was going on, Grunz figured it couldn’t be good.
He picked up the phone and dialed a 201 area code: northern New Jersey, where Soobzokov had settled when he immigrated from Europe after World War II among a mass of war-torn refugees.
Nostril was his code name in agency files. But his accusers knew him by yet another name: the Fuhrer of the North Caucasus.Pleasantries were few, despite their long estrangement. Soobzokov needed help, and he needed it now, he told Grunz. His life—the American life he had cultivated so assiduously for himself, his wife, and his five children in the hardscrabble town of Paterson in northern New Jersey—was collapsing around him. Amid the flurry of wild-sounding events, Grunz was finally able to parse out enough of the details to fully appreciate his panic.
Maybe he wasn’t so delusional after all.
It had started with the whispers. For years, a bunch of Soobzokov’s fellow immigrants in New Jersey who, like him, hailed from Russia’s rugged western borderland in the North Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, had been spreading malicious talk about him, he said. He practically spat the words. They were obviously jealous of him--jealous of the political connections he’d built among New Jersey Democrats; jealous of the plum county job he’d landed; jealous of the reputation he’d earned as a leader and “fixer” among local immigrants, a man who could make problems go away. When he walked in a room, people stood up out of respect. He was a man of stature, a man of influence, and his rivals in New Jersey obviously resented him for it.
Now their envy had turned truly vile. The outrageous things they were saying about him! That back in the old country, he had become the Germans’ henchman in his village after Hitler's 1942 invasion. That he had turned on his own Circassian people. That he had worn the reviled Waffen SS uniform. That he had led roaming Third Reich “execution squads” that gunned down Jews and Communists.
Tall and lanky, with a bushy mustache, a ruddy complexion, and a handsome face that suggested any number of ethnicities, Soobzokov had gone by many names and identities since the war: his given name of Tscherim Soobzokov, or “Tom,” as the New Jersey politicos he had befriended called him; Sergei Zarevich, Kerim Lafsoka, or Abdel Karim Showabzoga, as some of his official papers identified him; the more American-sounding “Kenneth Desnew” on overseas spy trips for the CIA; and, of course, Nostril, his code name in agency files.
His accusers from the old country knew him by yet another name: the Fuhrer of the North Caucasus, some called him.
It was slander of the worst kind, the old man insisted. At first, he had tried to write it off as the just the vicious gossip of the Circassian immigrants in New Jersey. Hadn’t there been similar smears and talks of Nazi ties spread by the Communists against dozens of other good Americans since the end of the war? Good men, respected men, men like him. These were solid citizens who, like him, served their new country well but were accused of Nazi ties nonetheless: German rocket scientists in Alabama, doctors in San Antonio, a successful businessmen in Northern California, an Olympic coach in San Diego, an architect in Philadelphia, even a prominent bishop in Michigan.
All innocent, like him; all victims of lies, Soobzokov told anyone who would listen.
The public was oblivious to it all. For that, at least, Soobzokov was grateful. Even the powerful people who heard the whispers—the FBI, the INS, the occasional congressman—seemed blissfully uninterested for the most part. It was a brutal time, those war years, and whatever had happened was so long ago. No one cared, thank God.
Hadn’t there been similar smears spread by the Communists? Good men who served their new country but were accused of Nazi ties nonetheless.Yet somehow, three decades after the war, his past was now becoming quite public. The talk had gone from rumor to news, with his tiny hometown paper in Paterson, New Jersey, printing a few stories on the Nazi claims against him. TV newscasters had picked up on the innuendo, too. Soobzokov figured his ethnic rival—that scoundrel Dr. Jawad Idriss, a good-for-nothing fabricator who thought he was the real leader of the local immigrants in New Jersey—must have gone shooting his mouth off again with his outrageous Nazi accusations. Grist for a lawsuit, perhaps.
That was bad enough. Then, just a few days earlier, Soobzokov was named in a story in The New York Times with a list of more than three dozen suspected Nazis living comfortably and quietly in America, divorced from their hidden pasts. The good name of Tom Soobzokov in The New York Times! Calling him a Nazi! Immigration officials, under pressure for failing to do anything about supposed war criminals living in the United States, had grudgingly turned over the list to a pesky New York congresswoman, Elizabeth Holtzman. A Jew, of course. Soobzokov didn’t trust Jews. He had confided as much years earlier to the CIA; Soobzokov “would be ashamed to work for a Jew,” a note in his file read. Now this Holtzman woman was demanding action and making his life miserable. He was seething as he told his old friend Grunz about all the accusations that were being slung at him.
There'd been threats to his life, Soobzokov told Grunz. I’m a loyal American citizen. I did nothing wrong, he said to quell doubts.There was talk of trying to take away his citizenship and send him back to Russia—back to the loathsome Communists who had taken away his father’s land. What could be worse? And now the Jewish militants were planning pickets at his house, his friends inside the local police department were telling him. His political bosses in Passaic County, wary of all the publicity, were already threatening to suspend him from his county purchasing job. They were afraid of the political embarrassment. Cowards, all of them. And ungrateful, too, after all the votes he’d brought them from the local immigrants.
There’d been threats to his life, he told Grunz. I’m a loyal American citizen. I did nothing wrong. I fought the Communists. I served my country. I served you—and the CIA. As if to quell any doubts about his spy service, Soobzokov spoke ominously of the secret dossier he’d kept on his years of faithful undercover work for the CIA. There were documents, he promised; lots of them.
Lay low, Grunz implored. Don’t say anything to anyone; that would make things worse. And don’t mention anything about your work with the CIA. It will all blow over.
Yet in his own mind, he wasn’t so certain.
Now working at CIA headquarters outside Washington, Grunz knew he would have to inform higher-ups about the unnerving conversation with his ex-spy. They would no doubt want to sniff out senior officials at the Justice Department to see whether the CIA would be dragged into the muck by the accusations. Maybe they could get the INS to back off; this was a national security matter, after all.
Twice more in the new few days, Grunz spoke with Soobzokov. There’d just been a second Nazi story in The New York Times naming him, Soobzokov told him, and he was growing more unwound with each bit of notoriety.
Grunz sat down to warn his bosses.
The CIA was facing a “significant flap,” he wrote. “Soobzokov has assumed a posture of outraged innocence (a posture he adopts quite convincingly) and has made numerous attempts to smoke out the nature and source of the various allegations,” he wrote.
The good news was that, so far at least, Soobzokov was only looking for “advice;” nothing more. But to protect himself, Grunz warned, the ex-spy might well “begin to cash in what he considers to be certain ‘chips’ that he holds: namely, his record of clandestine cooperation with this or other agencies of the United States government.”
Besides the CIA, those ‘’other agencies’’ meant one in particular: the G-men at the FBI. Soobzokov had worked not only for the CIA, but for the FBI as well. As a confidential FBI informant, Soobzokov had thrown its investigators countless leads about suspected Communists over the years, essentially infiltrating his brethren in the immigrant community in New Jersey. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had personally referred him for the job. Soobzokov was a Communist hunter, and a passionate one at that. If there were Soviet sympathizers in New Jersey, he worked to find them. Anyone was fair game. Soobzokov reported to his FBI handler one day a few years earlier, in 1971, that a 12-year-old Circassian boy in the neighborhood had voiced a vague interest in someday seeing the family’s old country in Russia; he suspected the boy might be vulnerable to Communist exploitation, and the FBI should keep an eye on the boy. The FBI eagerly opened a file on him.
Now, with his own name in the news, Soobzokov seemed ready to tell everything he knew. To protect himself from the curse of the Nazi label, he might fight back by blackmailing Washington’s whole intelligence apparatus.
Soobzokov was a passionate Communist hunter. If there were Soviet sympathizers in New Jersey, he would find them.Grunz was worried. He could only imagine the headlines: CIA Tied to Nazi Henchman. The spy agency didn’t need that kind of scrutiny, not with all the stories already bubbling up over the last few months about its ugly involvement in foreign assassinations, illegal spying on Vietnam protesters, and President Nixon’s dirty tricks in Watergate. Now it might be in in bed with a Nazi, too? Wonderful.
Grunz laid out the unattractive possibilities for the CIA if Soobzokov were to go public with his story. “If in defending himself,” Grunz wrote his superiors, “he were to surface the fact that he had once worked for CIA, and given the present climate of intense media interest in anything having to do with CIA, it would seem likely that both the vote-hungry Congresswoman from New York and the Pulitzer-hungry journalist would very quickly zero in on the story and milk it for all it’s worth.”
How exposed was the CIA? He couldn’t be certain. Soobzokov’s secret agency file from the 1950's had mysteriously gone missing, Grunz discovered after making a few calls.. Even Nostril’s colorful code name had somehow been changed. It was all very odd.
One thing was clear: the CIA wanted nothing to do with Soobzokov. Four days after his initial phone calls, Grunz got his marching orders from the CIA general counsel’s office: Soobzokov could get a private lawyer or “pursue whatever course of action he may think desirable,” but the CIA wouldn’t help him; Nostril was on his own.
So was Soobzokov actually the Nazi war criminal that his neighbors were making him out to be? Grunz provided his higher-ups at the CIA no answer to that central question. Whatever insight the CIA’s own files might provide—whatever America’s foremost intelligence agency had turned up in all those years of background checks and lie-detector tests and psychological reports on its Communist-chasing spy—remained hidden away, or destroyed. But whether Soobzokov was a monster or a martyr mattered little at the moment to Grunz. What mattered right now was shutting this thing down.
This could get messy, Grunz realized; very messy.