In his massive, highly informative and nuanced book, The Life and Times of Simon Wiesenthal (Doubleday), the Israeli journalist Tom Segev is critical of his subject, claiming the late Nazi hunter indulged in “flights of imagination” and revelled in “historical drama rather than sticking to pure fact.”
Yet Segev looks up to Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna and never flagged in his steely determination to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.
He describes Wiesenthal – who viewed Holocaust commemoration through a broad and humanistic prism – as a “tireless warrior” and a “central figure in the struggle for human rights.”
Instead of memorializing the Holocaust as a Jewish event per se, he considered the murder of European Jews as a universal crime, linking the Shoah to Nazi atrocities against the Roma, the disabled and homosexuals. He also rejected the concept of collective guilt, saying that individuals should be judged on the basis of their deeds rather than their nationality
Despite his approach, Wiesenthal – whom I had the privilege of interviewing as the Waldheim affair exploded beyond the borders of Austria – focused his efforts on ferreting out Nazis who had been implicated in the killing of Jews. In particular, he played a role in the apprehension of Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl, Franz Murer and Karl Silberbauer.
He may have exaggerated his involvement in these seminal cases, but Wiesenthal’s dedication in pursuing Nazis with blood on their hands is beyond doubt.
Born in Galicia in 1908, Wiesenthal was an engineer and architect who endured the horrors of a succession of concentration camps and three times tried to commit suicide. Liberated by the U.S. army in Mauthausen, he developed a life-long identity with the United States. And while he chose to live in Austria, his cultural and political homeland, he viewed Israel as his second home.
He and his wife, Cyla, intended to settle in Israel in 1951 after shelving a plan to move to the United States. Wiesenthal went to great lengths to prepare himself for aliyah, but Israel’s unsettled state deterred him. “The reason I don’t live in Israel,” he wisecracked,”is that there are no Nazis or antisemites there.”
There was an element of truth in his comment. Shortly after he settled down in Linz, Adolf Hitler’s favourite Austrian city, he compiled a list of some 150 Nazi war criminals. Having established his raison d’être, Wiesenthal would become the bane of their existence, working closely with the Mossad to track down these loathsome creatures.
Wiesenthal scored a thundering coup in tracing Eichmann to Argentina. According to Segev, he embellished his feat in “a cloud of mystery and fantasy.” Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad, was more scathing, claiming that Wiesenthal made no contribution to Eichmann’s capture. True or not, Wiesenthal helped the Israeli police and prosecution prepare their case before Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.
As Segev suggests, Wiesenthal fought an uphill battle in his quest to indict Nazi war criminals. Austria and West Germany opened 250,000 files against such suspects, but only 10 per cent hardened into indictments and less than half of these resulted in convictions.
Wiesenthal, too, was bitterly disappointed by the Allies’ attitude. U.S., British and French courts imposed death sentences on several hundred Nazi war criminals, but stopped their activities shortly after the war.
In addition, he targeted Jews who had collaborated with the Nazis, sending the files of 31 “Jewish criminals” to Yad Vashem. He believed that more Jews would have survived had Jewish councils declined to co-operate with the Nazis.
Wiesenthal established his documentation centre in 1961 with three objectives in mind: to combat antisemitism, gather evidence on the Holocaust and find and prosecute Nazi criminals. He was flooded with letters from survivors and antisemites, some of which prompted him to break into tears.
As a rule, Wiesenthal passed on incriminating documents and located witnesses rather than personally pursuing Nazi war criminals. Thanks to his initiative, six Nazi war criminals were soon arrested and an arrest warrant was issued against Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian SS officer who freed the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini in a daring raid.
Rightly so, Segev credits Wiesenthal with having waged a successful campaign to repeal statutes of limitations in Austria and West Germany. These edicts imposed a 20-year limit to prosecute Nazi criminals. Wiesenthal argued they compromised efforts to draw a line between the present and the past.
In fighting this battle, he enlisted the support of of a panoply of eminent Germans, including Nobel Prize laureate Werner Heisenberg and an up-and-coming priest named Joseph Alois Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Wiesenthal’s success in overturning the statutes was a turning point.
As Segev puts it, “From now on he was no longer seen as an amateur sleuth or as a pest running from one official to another, or from one courtroom to another, but as a personage to whom many doors were open…”
Segev explores Wiesenthal’s conflict with Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s Jewish chancellor in the 1970s, at length.
When Kreisky appointed several former Nazi party members to his cabinet, Wiesenthal objected. Kreisky, defending the right of former Nazis to serve in public positions if they had not been convicted of any crime, called Wiesenthal a “Jewish fascist.” The feud turned nastier as Wiesenthal sued Kreisky for libel.
Segev shines light on Wiesenthal’s testy relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. From almost the moment of its inauguration, Wiesenthal fired off complaints. At first, he complained it was drawing donations away from his own centre. Once that problem was resolved, he claimed he was not being consulted.
Segev delves deeply into Wiesenthal’s feud with the World Jewish Congress. In 1986, Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary general of the United Nations and a former officer in the German army, won Austria’s presidential election. Some critics accused Waldheim of covering up his wartime record. Still others charged he was a war criminal. Wiesenthal, a conservative who had known Waldheim for years, rushed to his defence.
The World Jewish Congress was not amused. One of its top officials, Eli Rosenbaum, claimed that Wiesenthal was “a spreader of false information, a tragic figure.” Wiesenthal may have succumbed to naiveté in the Waldheim affair, but his sterling record as a dogged pursuer of Nazi war criminals remains fully intact.