In the whole pantheon of Jewish super-heroes, from Samson with his hair and little David with his harp and sling to Siegel and Shuster’s Superman with his cape or any of the Marvelous mutants created by Stan Lee (né Lieber), there is no more unlikely figure than the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. If this stoop-shouldered, balding old man with a thick Yiddish accent and comic opera mustache hadn’t existed, no one would have made him up. Yet Wiesenthal was real, and, at least to my generation of Jews, born after World War II but coming of age just when the Holocaust became a topic of fascination rather than shame and repression, he was very much a heroic figure.
As Peter Novick persuasively argues in The Holocaust in American Life (1999), from the 1940s through the ’60s hardly anyone wanted to hear about the destruction of European Jewry. The survivors were traumatized, and in some cases ashamed. American Jews, who as a group emerged from the war in greater numbers and living in greater comfort than Jews anywhere in modern history, were also reluctant to raise such a potentially disturbing subject. One factor may have been the fear of seeming parochial, the same reluctance that led the American Jewish Committee, in a 1942 memorandum, to say, “It should always be pointed out that Nazi tyranny does not discriminate between Jew and Pole.” But some of the reticence doubtless stemmed from guilt at not having made more of a fuss when it might have saved lives. “Many survivors,” Tom Segev writes in his brilliant, tenacious and compassionate biography of Wiesenthal, “felt that American Jews and their leaders had abandoned them during the war, and had not done everything possible to save at least some of the victims. To a large degree, they were right.”
In Israel, the fate of Europe’s assimilated diaspora was seen as a vindication of Zionism, but a discussion of Jewish victimization was not thought conducive to the building of the Jewish state. As Segev notes, in Israel, too, the survivors brought with them “difficult questions about what the Zionist leadership had and had not done to rescue them.” While in the United States it was mostly the left that initially defied the Holocaust taboo—mourners at the funeral of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sang the “Song of the Warsaw Ghetto”—in Israel it was the right-wing opposition to the Labour government that made an issue of Zionism’s failure to rescue European Jewry. Meanwhile, in Austria, where Wiesenthal had settled after the war, the one thing left and right could agree on was the undesirability of remembering that country’s role as an eager accomplice in the crimes of the Third Reich. Despite this universal lack of encouragement, Wiesenthal refused to forget, refused to leave Austria and refused to keep silent.
Segev has been over much of this ground before, most notably in The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (1991). Segev’s parents belonged to the German Communist Party and fled their homeland when the Nazis came to power. His father, a Bauhaus-trained architect, was killed in Israel’s war of independence; his mother, also a Bauhaus graduate, made a career as a photographer in Jerusalem, but as Segev told an interviewer, “like many of the first Israelis, she never learned to read Hebrew.” A longtime columnist for the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, Segev, a native of Jerusalem, is one of the leading proponents of the iconoclastic “new history,” which uses recently declassified state records to overturn many of the myths surrounding Israeli society. In particular Segev’s work, along with that of Avi Shlaim, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé, demonstrates that Israel bears a far greater share of responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy than has previously been acknowledged.