Three of the books I have read in the Gabriel Allon series, Daniel Silva tells us in the end notes of A Death in Vienna, are thematically related. They each are “dealing with the unfinished business of the Holocaust.” In The English AssassinSilva looks at “art looting” and the “collaboration of Swiss banks”. In The Confessorhe looks at the “role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and the silence of Pope Pius XII. In A Death in Viennahe looks into Aktion 1005 which was “the real code name of the Nazi program to conceal and destroy the remains of millions of Jewish dead” and the activities of Bishop Aloïs Hudal “rector of the Pontificio Santa Maria dell’Anima, who helped hundreds of Nazi war criminals flee Europe.” He tells us that the Vatican still maintains the Bishop acted without the knowledge of the pope. It is unusual for a thriller to have an Israeli subtext, and it takes skill on the part of the author to expose real wrongs while his novel still unfolds as an exciting puzzle for a spy, or spy organization, to solve.
This tale begins with a bomb at the Wartime Claims and Inquiry Office. Eli Lavon, who runs this office is critically injured. His employees, Reveka and Sarah are killed. Eli Lavon is an Israeli but he has a closer connection to the Israeli Secret Service known as the Office. In the early 70’s he worked for them and the skills he possesses are legendary. Gabriel, art restorer and Israeli spy, leaves another Bellini in another Venetian Cathedral to find out why the Wartime Claims and Inquiry Office was bombed and why his friend Eli Lavon is lying unconscious in a hospital in Vienna.
Clues lead Allon to a Nazi hiding under a new name in Vienna. At least he seems to be this certain Nazi, but research is necessary to confirm it, even involving travel to South America. This hidden Nazi basically worked for the Germans as an eraser. Mass graves full of dead bodies were beginning to show signs of what had been hidden under too little earth. It was this man’s job to uncover these putrefying mass graves full of Jewish people who had been gassed or executed and to sanitize them by burning the remains and scattering the ashes. Of course this would also erase any evidence of what the German’s had been doing. This particular Nazi had value because he had devised a way to make a fire that was hot enough to do the sad job. He used Jewish prisoners to do the macabre work and the ashes and bones were moved to local rivers and streams. He never got to erase all of the evidence because the German’s ran out of time and lost the war.
This eraser man, like many Nazi’s saw himself as culturally sensitive because he loved great art and music. Since he did not actually get his hands dirty he apparently did not feel that the inhumanity of what he did compromised his elitism. He accompanied Gabriel’s mother on the Death March out of the “camps”. He killed survivors on the way out if they gave the wrong answer to the question “What will you tell the world and your children?” He once spent on day on a railroad platform forcing a Jewish man to play a classical piece of music over and over again. This Nazi on the rise asked arriving prisoners if they knew the name of the music. If they didn’t know he shot them.
Does such a man deserve to be stalked and taken off to prison in Israel? Almost any human being would say yes. But for Gabriel this one is very personal.