It’s July 7th, 1941 in the Polish countryside.
In her house in the small village of Podhorodse, eleven-year-old Karolina Semelak listens to the town’s church bells. As they chime, Karolina grows confused though. The bells never toll this late in the day, and they never go on for this long.
Karolina walks to a window and peers out. On the street outside, she spots flocks of villagers, all moving in the same direction. But they aren’t headed toward the town’s church. As Karolina tries to figure out what's going on, her mother bursts into the bedroom with a look of panic on her face.
Before Karolina can ask any questions, her mother grabs her hand and whisks her out the front door. As they join the crowd of villagers outside, Karolina’s mother tells her that the Nazis are here. The bells are a call for the villagers to assemble.
Alongside the rest of the town’s residents, Karolina is pushed toward the large garden of a residential estate. There, a group of Nazi soldiers is waiting for them. But one soldier, in particular, catches the villagers’ eyes.
Murmurs ripple through the crowd as Karolina and her neighbors recognize a familiar face in a German uniform, a middle-aged Dutchman named Pieter Menten.
Until World War II started, Pieter lived in their town. He was well-known and well-liked. And at the sight of the Dutchman, Karolina and her fellow villagers breathe a sigh of relief. They trust their old neighbor. They assume he’ll keep them safe.
But Karolina’s heart sinks as Pieter begins rounding up the Jewish villagers and leading them to a large freshly-dug ditch. Karolina shudders as she spots the plank running across the hole and recognizes the pit for what it is.
A hush falls over the crowd as Pieter orders the first villager to walk the plank. And as the man gets halfway across, Pieter orders him to stop. Then, he motions for the other Nazi soldiers to aim their rifles.
As they raise their weapons, a woman in the crowd screams in protest. She begs Pieter to spare her husband. But the Dutchman refuses. He orders the German soldiers to fire. Two shots ring out. Karolina’s eyes widen as the villager and his wife each fall to the ground, dead.
Pieter Menten was once a well-respected resident of the Polish village he later slaughtered. But by the time World War II broke out, a business dispute with one of the town’s prominent Jewish families had left Pieter with a lasting grudge and a thirst for revenge. Eventually, Pieter moved back to Holland and there, joined the Nazis. When he returns to his old residence in Poland, it’s as a bloodthirsty member of Hitler’s SS.
At the end of World War II, Pieter will spend a brief stint in prison for his role as a translator for the Nazis, but the Dutchman will evade convictions for his mass murders. For decades, he will live lavishly as a wealthy art collector. But, one day, Pieter’s past will catch up to him when he attracts the attention of two dogged journalists, leading to a new investigation into his crimes and to Pieter’s final arrest on December 6th, 1976.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 6th, 1976:The Arrest of Nazi War Criminal Pieter Menten.
Act One: The Betrayal
It’s October 1935 in the Polish village of Podhorodse, six years before Pieter Menten will conduct a massacre in the town.
Twenty-two-year-old Bibi Krumholz strolls along a country lane. Walking next to him is Pieter Menten. Or, as Bibi calls him, “Uncle Pieter.”
Bibi has known Pieter most of his life. Twelve years ago, the Dutchman moved to their village. A wealthy businessman and timber trader, Pieter quickly acquainted himself with the area’s predominantly Jewish landowners and merchants. And soon, he went into business with Bibi’s uncle, Isaac Pistiner.
Isaac owns much of the village’s forestland and is an important business partner for Pieter. But the men’s relationship extends far beyond work. Pieter has become like one of their own to Isaac’s entire family, including Bibi. Over the years, Bibi and Pieter have gone hunting together, bonded over their shared love of soccer, given each other language lessons, and often joined each other on afternoon strolls like today.
As Pieter and Bibi head toward Pieter’s estate, they pass by a group of local children who turn to look at them. Bibi smiles as they gaze wide-eyed at Pieter - a common reaction to the Dutchman.
Pieter is nothing like the rest of the village's adults - he smokes Egyptian cigarettes, carries a silver-topped walking stick, and seems to epitomize modern Western culture.
But perhaps no one idolizes Pieter more than Bibi. The Dutchman is his hero. He’s proud to have his family associated with someone so worldly and sophisticated. And he’s sad that today is one of his final moments with Pieter; because in just a matter of days, Bibi is moving to Palestine to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and start a career as a journalist.
So as the pair approach the edge of Pieter’s estate, Bibi begins to feel a lump form in his throat. With a heavy heart, he turns to face Pieter and tells the Dutchman he’ll miss him. Pieter smiles and asks Bibi to send him a postcard from the Holy Land. And then, the two exchange their final farewells.
In Palestine, one of Bibi’s first postcards to Poland is to Pieter. And for several years, he stays in regular contact with his family, and with Pieter. But communication stalls in 1939. From Palestine, Bibi listens in horror to reports of Russia and then the Soviet Union invading Poland. As World War II takes hold in Europe, Bibi worries about the fate of his family. But the atrocities Bibi imagines barely come close to reality, and they come from an unexpected perpetrator.
Unbeknownst to Bibi, relations between Pieter Menten and his uncle broke down soon after his emigration to Palestine. Quarrels over a property dispute led the two business partners into a bitter legal fight that never resolved itself. And when the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland, Pieter Menten fled to his native Netherlands with a lasting grudge against Bibi’s uncle.
Back in Holland, Pieter begins a terrifying metamorphosis into a Nazi collaborator. Soon, he becomes one of the Third Reich’s roving art collectors, seizing precious works and artifacts from citizens and museums on behalf of the Nazi Party. And after two years, Pieter returns to Poland not as a friendly local, but as a member of Hitler’s SS, and with a personal vendetta.
Quickly, Pieter leads a group of Nazi soldiers back to his old hometown, intent on killing his ex-business partner. But Isaac Pistiner is nowhere to be found. Pieter is too late - Germans already moved Bibi’s uncle to a ghetto months prior where Isaac will soon die of typhus.
But Pieter doesn’t end his quest for revenge. After failing to find Isaac Pistiner, Pieter decides to kill as many Jews as he can. So he orders the villagers to assemble in the Pistiners’ garden. And there, he oversees the mass executions of the same people he once lived next to, including all remaining relatives of the Pistiner family.
Pieter commands many of the executions from an armchair, motioning troops to fire with a wave of his hand. But villagers witness Pieter shoot people himself too. And among those said to have been killed personally by Pieter are Bibi’s parents.
After the slaughter, Pieter heads back to Holland in a private train with several carloads of art stolen from the village’s wealthy residents. But as the tide of war turns against Nazi Germany, Pieter tries his best to maintain a low profile. He settles into a new life as an art dealer, but it's just about this time that Bibi finally learns of his Uncle Pieter’s betrayal.
Throughout the war, Bibi held out hope that Pieter and his family had somehow found safety. But in 1944, Bibi runs into an old hometown acquaintance in Tel Aviv. Bibi listens in shock as the Polish refugee tells him that his entire family and most of the village’s Jews were murdered en mass by none other than his Uncle Pieter.
The revelation shakes Bibi to his core. As the war in Europe finally ends, Bibi grows determined to make sure Pieter Menten answers for his crimes. But justice will prove elusive. After World War II, Pieter will manage to evade punishment for his crimes. And for decades, he will live an untroubled life of luxury in a mansion outside of Amsterdam. But Bibi will never stray from his path for justice and, eventually, Uncle Pieter’s past will catch up with him.
Act Two: The Investigation
It’s May 1976 at the headquarters of an Israeli newspaper in Tel Aviv, 34 years after Pieter Menten’s mass executions in Poland.
Inside, Bibi Krumholz, now known by his Hebrew name, Haviv Kanaan, rushes to his desk with a letter in his hand. Haviv sits down and rips open the envelope sent to him by one of the paper’s correspondents in the Netherlands. From it, he pulls out a news clipping. It’s a full-page article from a Dutch newspaper, profiling Pieter Menten.
Over the last three decades, Haviv has built a career as a star reporter at one of Israel’s most prestigious papers. But despite his professional success, the betrayal of Pieter Menten and the loss of his family left Haviv with a pain that never faded. And, today, the injury feels as fresh as ever.
Haviv shakes his head in frustration as he reads the news clipping. The article is not an investigative exploration of Pieter’s war crimes or any kind of exposé. If anything, it’s a puff piece, extolling Pieter’s humanitarianism and his love of art as it advertises an auction of 425 pieces from Pieter’s art collection. Haviv scoffs as he imagines how much of this artwork was stolen, to begin with - one of the many crimes that Pieter never answered for.
It is true that after World War II, Pieter was tried as a Nazi collaborator. But Pieter had friends in high places. His attorney was the President of the Dutch House of Representatives, and the proceedings formed the longest trial in Dutch history at that point. In the end, the prosecution was unable to prove most of the allegations against Pieter. In 1949, the controversial trial ended with Pieter serving only an 8-month prison term for working as a Nazi interpreter.
Afterward, Pieter went on to resume his career as a successful art collector and businessman, becoming one of the richest men in Holland. For the next 25 years, Pieter and his wife lived a life of luxury in a mansion 20 miles outside Amsterdam. And eventually, Pieter’s trial faded from the public’s memory. But Haviv never forgot Pieter’s betrayal.
For years, he tried to persuade the Dutch Department of Justice to take further action. In the early 1950s, Poland even tried to have Pieter extradited for war crimes, but the Dutch government brushed aside its requests, allowing Pieter to escape any further time behind bars. Now, Haviv can’t believe Pieter’s audacity to profit from his crimes once again by selling stolen art.
Furiously, Haviv begins writing his own article about Pieter, detailing the various accusations of murder and genocide against the Dutchman. He titles it “The Two Faces of Pieter Menten.”
And in the Netherlands, Haviv’s article catches the attention of Hans Knoop, a Jewish editor of a weekly Dutch newspaper. Soon, the two journalists join forces, spending hours on the phone together building evidence to support a government investigation into Pieter’s activities during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Eventually, Hans journeys to Poland himself. And with Haviv’s help, he tracks down townspeople who witnessed Pieter’s executions and publishes their accounts.
Throughout the summer, their stories attract national attention back in the Netherlands. As these tales of Pieter Menten’s dark past spread through the media, more witnesses begin to step forward with their own stories of Pieter’s wartime atrocities. Many accuse Pieter of being responsible for the deaths of several hundred Polish Jews.
Before long, the public starts to clamor for government action. And eventually, the outcry grows so loud that the Netherlands launches a full-scale investigation into Pieter Menten’s crimes. By the fall, enough evidence comes to light to warrant a new trial. In November, Dutch officials finally decide to arrest Pieter. But they delay his seizure too long. By the time police arrive at his mansion, Pieter and his wife are nowhere to be found.
This fumble will cause a scandal and spark an international manhunt for Pieter Menten. But for weeks, Dutch authorities will come up empty-handed, unable to locate Pieter. But, eventually, Hans Knoop will receive a tip from a Swiss journalist who spots Pieter near Zurich. Quickly, Dutch law enforcement will fly to Switzerland where they will team up with the Swiss police determined to correct their mistake and apprehend Pieter Menten.
Act Three: The Capture
It’s December 6th, 1976 in a small town near Zurich, Switzerland.
Inside a motel room, Pieter Menten peers nervously out the window at the street outside. He scans the road, searching for any people or cars approaching. He finds none. So he stands back and closes the blinds. Then, he turns around and joins his wife in bed, trying to ignore his nerves.
After fleeing Amsterdam several weeks ago, Pieter and his wife have managed to evade authorities and make it to Switzerland. Here, Pieter hopes they can begin to let their guard down.
Swiss extradition law has a 20-year statute of limitations in war crime cases. At this point, Pieter’s crimes are already 35 years behind him. Even if he’s caught, his chances of being extradited seem slim. And, if all goes to plan, Pieter and his wife will be out of Europe altogether soon enough. They’ve already booked flights to New York. In just a matter of days, Pieter hopes to make a clean escape and start a new life in America.
But, soon, a banging at the door shatters Pieter’s visions of freedom. As Pieter jolts upright, the door bursts open. And before he can even move, a flood of police officers stream inside the room and arrest Pieter.
For a while, Pieter will try to fight the extradition proceedings, citing Switzerland’s statute of limitations. For two weeks, the Swiss Cabinet will hesitate to extradite him. But, eventually, by identifying him as a foreign security threat, the Cabinet will bypass the statute and hand Pieter over to the Dutch government.
Back in Holland, Pieter’s trial will begin. Witnesses will tell chilling stories of Pieter’s brutality in Poland. A former Nazi military officer will place Pieter at the scene of the Podhorodse massacre. Mass graves in and near the village will be exhumed, revealing the dead bodies of dozens of residents, including children.
For lack of evidence, Pieter will be acquitted of some of the atrocities alleged by witnesses, but he will be found guilty in the mass murdering of Podhorodse. In 1980, at 81 years old, Pieter will be sentenced to 10 years in prison. But, within six years, he will be released on good behavior. Two years later, Pieter will die in a Dutch nursing home at the age of 88.
In the wake of Pieter Menten’s capture, Hans Knoop and Haviv Kanaan will be hailed as heroes. And for his role in the investigation into Pieter’s crimes, Haviv will receive the highest award issued by the Union of Journalists in Israel. But a prize and a six-year prison sentence will hardly compensate for the pain and suffering Pieter Menten inflicted upon Haviv and others. Still, Pieter’s retrial will represent at least some modicum of justice, a consolation achieved thanks to the determination and investigative efforts of Haviv Kanaan and Hans Knoop that culminated in Pieter Menten’s final arrest on December 6th, 1976.
Next on History Daily. December 7th, 1941. The Imperial Japanese Navy launches its attack on Pearl Harbor.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.