Was a Nazi war criminal living in St. James forced to hang himself by a Jewish “avenger” in 1960?

Alexander Laak (supplied)/Soviet file photo

By BERNIE BELLAN The story of an alleged Nazi war criminal by the name of Alexander Laak, who was found hanging in his St. James garage in 1960, is one that has been revisited in this newspaper several times.

 

In October 1987, the late Gene Telpner first broached the story in our pages in one of his columns, when he wrote the following:

Quite a few columns ago I wrote about a book called “Forged in Fury”, which detailed the hanging in Winnipeg of an alleged war criminal by one or more Israeli “agents”.
They apparently had flown here, carried out the execution, and then caught a plane out of the city the same day.
At the time, the Free Press story reported the man’s death as a suicide, and the name given in the item was not his real one. His real name was Alexander Laak, and the wartime actions in which he allegedly participated took place in Estonia, near Tallin.
At one time, Laak worked at the RCAF base in Winnipeg. When he came to Canada from Europe he had received “clearance” from the British and Americans, but apparently the Russians wanted him back for further investigation.

Arthur Drache

Now all of this original story was in 1960, and not until 1970, when the book Forged in Fury was published, did the details emerge. Those details came as a shock to Arthur Drache, son of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Drache of this city, for several reasons.
For one, Arthur was a Free Press reporter when the “suicide” was printed and covered the story. Asked about it, Drache said, “We wrote a couple of stories “which received page one play, but did not give his name because of libel laws.”
But when Drache, who is now Arthur Drache Q.C. with the law firm of Drache Rotenberg in Ottawa, read “Forged in Fury”, he got full details for the first time. He wrote to the Free Press to tell them about the book’s revelations, but says he never got a response from the newspaper.
One of the saddest parts of the story to Drache is the fact that he and Laak’s son were classmates at Gordon Bell, and played on the school football team.
Laak was never publicly identified in Winnipeg while he was alive. It is believed that there had been accusations from some sources, but he protested his innocence.
Arthur Drache explained, “Only his ‘suicide’ allowed fuller disclosures and until I read “Forged in Fury” I was quite at a loss to explain his actions.”

Subsequently, in a February 20, 1991 issue of The Jewish Post & News, Myron Love had this story:
Manitoba RCMP looking into 30-year-old suicide of alleged Nazi
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have re-opened an investigation into the apparent suicide 30 years ago of an alleged Estonian Nazi living in Winnipeg. The new investigation was requested by the provincial Attorney-General’s Department, following an article on the case last winter in the Winnipeg Free Press, and a subsequent letter by a member of the public to the attorney-general, asking that this possible murder be investigated, in light of the war crimes prosecutions taking place in the country.
Alexander Laak was found hanging in his garage on September 6, 1960, according to Sargent Wes Border of the RCMP’s General Investigation Section. The section is looking into the matter, after a series of newspaper reports from the Soviet Union, alleging Laak was a Nazi collaborator. The Winnipeg police investigated his death at the time.
A coroner’s inquest, headed by Dr. I.O. Fryer, then the province’s chief medical officer, ruled the death an apparent suicide, and the case was closed.
In the early 1970s, an author named Michael Elkin published a book called “Forged in Fury”, in which he described how an Israeli agent named Arnie Berg came to Winnipeg from South America, and gave Laak the choice of committing suicide or having him and his wife killed by Berg.
Last February, Winnipeg Free Press reporter Dave Roberts wrote a story on the case, with reference to Elkins’ report. (Roberts is unavailable for comment. He is currently in the Middle East.) The article also led to the attack on retired journalist Keith Rutherford by a couple of Skinheads in Alberta last year. The Skinheads claimed they were paying him back for exposing Laak. One claimed to be Laak’s son, but there is no record of any family. (Ed. note: Gene Telpner’s story does disclose that Laak had a son – also someone whom Arthur Drache knew, so the notion that Laak’s son may have been part of a group that attacked Rutherford is certainly plausible.)
Sgt. Border isn’t optimistic the GIS investigation will turn up anything. “Thirty years is a long time,” he says. “People are dead. Reports are no longer available to us.”
He reports contacts have been made with the war crimes investigation unit in Ottawa to check their information on Estonian war crimes, and with Israel to find out if Elkin’s book was fact or fiction. “We’re waiting to hear back to see if we should look into this more seriously,” he says. “With everything going on in the Middle East, and considering this is 30 years old, I don’t expect this matter will be pushed to the forefront. It’s a case that will not be easy to investigate.”
We’re playing catch-up.”

In the summer of 2014 I had written about a book titled “The Avengers”, which was about a group of Holocaust survivors led by Abba Kovner (who went on to become a famous Israeli poet). Subsequent to that book review I was reminded of the story of Alexander Laak, and I decided to try to find out whether there was anything more I could find out about the story - which apparently had reached a dead end.
I decided to attempt to contact Arthur Drache who, Gene Telpner had written, had actually covered the story of Alexander Laak’s “suicide” in 1960. Arthur Drache has been one of Canada’s best known tax attorneys for many years, has been the recipient of many awards. Several years ago Gerry Posner profiled Arthur Drache in an article for our paper titled , which can be found on our website at .
I called Arthur Drache in 2014 – and was surprised when he answered his phone himself. In any event, I recall that Mr. Drache was quite obliging – and had vivid memories of his own personal involvement in the Alexander Laak story. Here is what I wrote in August 2014:
As Gene Telpner mentions in his story, in 1960 Drache was working as a reporter for the Free Press. Drache told me, during a phone conversation, that he was a student at Brandeis University at the time.
Drache says that his assignment editor had received a tip that Laak was living in Winnipeg. According to Drache, it came from a Russian source. The Estonian community in Winnipeg was quite small at the time, Drache said, and it was an easy matter for him to track Laak down.
He told me that he and another reporter went to Laak’s house in St. James and spent some time speaking with him. According to Drache, Laak downplayed the role he had played in the Jägala camp in Estonia, describing his duties as akin to being “the warden of Stony Mountain”, in Drache’s words.
As Telpner noted in his story, Drache went on to write about Laak, but without revealing his true name. Drache said to me that he found the notion that a Mossad agent tracking Laak down and forcing him to commit suicide highly implausible.
But, I suggested to him, the same information that had been given to the Free Press, presumably by Russian authorities, might also have been given to the Israelis.
Drache did concede that point. He went on to say that immediately after he wrote his story about Laak, which was in late August, 1960, he recalled, he drove to Boston to resume his studies at Brandeis. On the way he happened to pick up a copy of the New York Times, which published a major story about the suicide of Alexander Laak but, as was the case with the Free Press story about the suicide, the NY Times story did not reveal his true name.
Drache also mentioned his personal connection to Alexander Laak – through Laak’s son. As Gene Telpner had written, they had both attended Gordon Bell High School, were classmates in fact and even played on the high school football team together. It was the fact that he knew Laak’s son that led his assignment editor at the Free Press to ask Drache to go to Laak’s house to interview him.
When the book “Forged in Fury” was published in 1970, Drache says he was shocked at the allegations made in that book about Laak.
Drache told me, “We wrote a couple of stories which received page one play, but did not give his (Laak’s) name because of libel laws.”
But when Drache read “Forged in Fury”, he was made aware of the full details surrounding Alexander Laak’s alleged background as a Nazi war criminal for the first time. He wrote to the Free Press to tell them about the book’s revelations, but says he never got a response from the newspaper.
Laak was never publicly identified in Winnipeg while he was alive. It is believed that there had been accusations from some sources, but he protested his innocence.
Arthur Drache explained, “Only his ‘suicide’ allowed fuller disclosures and until I read ‘Forged in Fury’ I was quite at a loss to explain his actions.”

One final footnote to this story: In attempting to find out more about Alexander Laak, I came across this information on a white supremacist website:
Alexander Laak , former commandant of the Jägala camp in Estonia where a large number of Jews were supposedly massacred, is alleged to have committed suicide by hanging in his garage in Winnipeg , Canada. A number of Laak’s subordinates had at the time been given harsh sentences at a Soviet show trial. According to an article in Der Tagespiegel September 8, 1960, Laak had declared the Soviet allegations against him to be “99% lies and Communist propaganda.” In Michael Elkin’s book Forged in Fury (1971) it is claimed that a Jewish “avenger” named Arnie Berg travelled to Winnipeg to kill Laak, and that Laak hanged himself under Berg’s supervision in order to not have his wife shot by Berg.
This entire story was brought to mind again when I started to watch a ridiculous TV show called “Hunters” which, although it has a stellar cast, is really nothing more than a comic book fantasy about Jewish avengers pursuing Nazis in America. Still, the story surrounding Alexander Laak’s suicide could make an interesting movie. Maybe Jonas Chernick would be interested?