On the Case: On Simon Wiesenthal

On the Case: On Simon Wiesenthal

As Tom Segev’s biography makes clear, in the entire pantheon of Jewish superheroes there is no more unlikely figure than Simon Wiesenthal.


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.

But is Segev a biographer? After graduating from Hebrew University he earned a doctorate in history from Boston University. His dissertation, “The Commanders of Nazi Concentration Camps,” used the once-fashionable techniques of psychohistory to try to understand the perpetrators’ mentality. That was in 1977, though, and since then Segev has become a formidable documents man. In trying to untangle Simon Wiesenthal’s life from his legend—much of it self-generated—Segev, fluent in German, Hebrew and English, trolled through archives in Austria, Germany, Poland, Britain, the United States and Israel. He was also given unconditional access to Wiesenthal’s voluminous personal papers, held in his Documentation Center in Vienna. If the resulting portrait of Wiesenthal isn’t always in sharp focus, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the task.

* * *

Had the Nazis not come to power, Simon Wiesenthal and Tom Segev’s father might have been colleagues. Born in Buczacz, a small town in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, on New Year’s Eve, 1908, Wiesenthal became a Polish citizen after World War I, when much of Galicia passed under Polish rule. The majority of Buczacz’s inhabitants were Jews; the town had even had a Jewish mayor and a Jewish chief of police. In contrast to many other Galitzianer settlements where Hasidism thrived, most Buczacz Jews were maskilim—followers of the Jewish Enlightenment. According to the Israeli writer (and Nobel laureate) S.Y. Agnon, who was born in Buczacz, the Poles were “harsh rulers,” but unlike in Russia there were no official quotas barring Galician Jews from the high schools or universities (though an unofficial numerus clausus was often applied). At 15 Simon was sent to the local “gymnasium,” attending classes on Saturdays and adding Polish, the language of instruction, to the German his parents used in public and the Yiddish the family spoke at home. By the time he entered technical college in Prague, he was engaged to Cyla Müller, a distant relative of Sigmund Freud, whose grandfather Schlomo Freud also came from Buczacz.

From Prague Wiesenthal moved to Lvov, where he qualified as an architect and dabbled in Zionist politics, initially as a follower of the charismatic right-wing leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and then as part of a more mainstream group. When the Red Army occupied Lvov in September 1939, the Wiesenthals were denounced as capitalists. Simon’s stepfather, a manufacturer, was eventually arrested, and Wiesenthal was sent to work in a bedspring factory in Odessa; his wife was not permitted to accompany him. But after he was appointed chief engineer at another firm in Lvov, Cyla joined him there. On June 22, 1941, the Germans arrived. At the time more than 160,000 Jews lived in Lvov; when the Soviets retook the city three years later, there were only 3,400 left.

After the war Wiesenthal and his wife calculated that they had lost eighty-nine family members to the Holocaust. Their own survival was mostly a matter of luck, though Wiesenthal’s skills as a draftsman and an engineer meant he was permitted a little more freedom of movement than most inhabitants of the labor camps. They also brought him to the attention of employers who made an effort to keep their Jews alive. At the end of September 1943, aided by his German boss, Wiesenthal and his wife escaped. But Wiesenthal was arrested after hiding for seven months. He was sent to the Janowska camp, and as the Russians advanced he was transferred to Plaszów, Gross-Rosen and finally Mauthausen. When American troops arrived at the camp in May 1945, Wiesenthal, who’d had his big toe amputated after a rock fell on it, ran to greet his liberators. “But I was so weak that I couldn’t walk back. I crawled back, on all fours.”

Twenty days later Wiesenthal handed the Americans an eight-page document with the names of nearly 150 Nazi war criminals. Attaching himself to American intelligence officers, Wiesenthal also acted as a representative of the Jewish prisoners, and then, after the war, of Jewish refugees. He had cards printed identifying himself as “Chairman of the International Union of Former Political Prisoners in Austria (American Zone).” He also discovered that Cyla, who’d been posing as a non-Jewish Pole, was still alive. In 1946 Wiesenthal submitted a memo to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry saying that 99 percent of the Jewish refugees had expressed an interest in moving to Palestine. Yet Wiesenthal, who had an uncle willing to sponsor him in the United States, and who as late as May 1951 would write to a friend saying he was planning to immigrate to Israel, decided to remain in Austria. “The reason I don’t live in Israel,” he once explained, “is that there are no Nazis or anti-Semites there.”

* * *

Early in 1953 Wiesenthal made the discovery that secured his reputation. Operating out of his home in Linz, his one-man Documentation Center mailed letters to every survivor he could think of, asking for the names and descriptions of Nazis implicated in war crimes. He combed through the Austrian and German press for articles that might reveal a location or a detail, and badgered authorities in Vienna, Bonn, Washington and Israel for assistance. For the most part his appeals went nowhere, though Israeli intelligence officials, who had used Wiesenthal in the network coordinating illegal immigration to Palestine after the war, maintained close relations with their former agent, and likely arranged for him to be issued an Israeli press card. But years of patience and cultivating sources paid off when he learned that Veronika Liebl-Eichmann had taken her children out of school in the Austrian alpine village of Aultaussee and had apparently immigrated to South America.

Wiesenthal’s hunt for Adolf Eichmann had already netted Franz Murer, the Austrian SS officer whose murderous rule in Lithuania caused him to be known as “the butcher of Vilna.” Wiesenthal had also, according to Segev, fabricated information that Eichmann was hiding in Cairo in order “to lump the Arabs together with a suitable ally.” But his report to the Israeli consul that Eichmann was in Argentina was “the biggest scoop of his life, the first authentic piece of information on Eichmann’s hiding place.” It would take another seven years for the Israelis to act.

That delay left Isser Harel, chief of the Mossad and leader of the operation that eventually kidnapped Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem, with a lot of explaining to do. Segev blames simple incompetence, bureaucratic inertia and the fact that apart from Wiesenthal and a few other survivors, no one else cared very much. Dismissing conspiracy theories claiming Eichmann was protected by the CIA, Segev says that “like the Israelis,” the Americans “had other priorities.” But he also convincingly discredits Harel’s obsessive campaign to portray Wiesenthal as a bungling egotist whose amateurism tipped off Eichmann—and who may himself have had shady dealings with the Gestapo.

Not that Segev glosses over Wiesenthal’s failings. “The decision to force life in [Austria] on his wife and daughter,” who was born in 1946, “was cruel,” he writes. “In the wake of the Holocaust, there was something perverse about it.” Although Wiesenthal was “addicted to uncovering the tiniest of details,” his reports “were often inaccurate. Sometimes he clouded them intentionally and sometimes he came out with things that quite simply had never happened, as in his articles repeating the claim that Nazis had used the bodies of Jews to manufacture soap.” Wiesenthal was apparently the first to claim that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, visited Auschwitz and Majdanek “to study the efficiency of the functioning of the crematoria.” There is “no reliable evidence” to support that claim, Segev writes. He also reveals Wiesenthal’s brief affair with a married American woman, and highlights the many contradictions in Wiesenthal’s various autobiographies.

That Wiesenthal was vain, insecure and vulnerable to flattery is beyond dispute. So too his tendency “to get involved in petty squabbles and to fight them ardently, as if the fate of the world depended on their outcome.” The Jewish community in Austria was tiny, but Wiesenthal jealously guarded his prominence as its spokesman and symbol. When in 1970 his fellow Austrians chose another Jew, Bruno Kreisky, as chancellor, the two men launched a feud that lasted twenty years, to the end of Kreisky’s life. Part of their disagreement was political—Wiesenthal was a partisan of the center-right in Austrian politics, while Kreisky was a man of the left and an ardent anti-Zionist. But Segev suggests there was a personal element as well, with the secular, urbane Kreisky embarrassed by the crude Ostjude who spoke German with a Yiddish accent. A similar mix of factors lay behind Wiesenthal’s battles with Elie Wiesel, as the two famous survivors alternately collaborated and sniped at each other, seemingly destined to share the Nobel Peace Prize—until Wiesenthal’s infamous refusal to condemn Kurt Waldheim allowed Wiesel to claim both the prize and the moral high ground.

* * *

Every German, Heinrich Himmler once observed, has his one “decent Jew. Of course, the others are vermin, but this one is an A-1 Jew.” Kurt Waldheim was Simon Wiesenthal’s A-1 Nazi. Asked by the Anti-Defamation League in 1971 what the UN’s new secretary general had done during the war, Wiesenthal replied that “nothing prejudicial about him” had been found, adding, “I myself know Mr. Kurt Waldheim very well. I personally had only the best impression of Mr. Waldheim during my contacts with him.” Both of these statements were true, but as Segev writes, “Wiesenthal, who had checked the pasts of so many politicians from other camps, had accepted Waldheim’s story at face value. There had been nothing to stop him doing then what he did a few years later: obtaining a copy of Waldheim’s personal army service file.” Instead he chose to believe him, and when Waldheim’s past eventually did come to light, and it was revealed that after being wounded in 1941 he hadn’t left active duty, as he’d always claimed, but had served with a Wehrmacht unit that committed war crimes in Greece and Yugoslavia, the World Jewish Congress launched a campaign to keep Waldheim from being elected president of Austria.

As Segev points out, the World Jewish Congress’s efforts to intervene in Austrian politics backfired—just as Wiesenthal had feared. The same is not true of former WJC investigator Eli Rosenbaum’s depiction of Wiesenthal as an unprincipled fantasist, which has had a very long shelf life. (Rosenbaum, who as a student at Harvard Law School had sent Wiesenthal an admiring letter, titled his account of his Austrian adventures Betrayal, describing how his boyhood idol’s behavior created “a fury that frightened even me.”) Late last year the British writer Guy Walters, whose debunking account of Wiesenthal in his book Hunting Evil relies heavily on Rosenbaum’s supposed revelations, accused Segev of perpetrating a “whitewash” of “one of the biggest con-men of the 20th century.”

That seems way off target. The Simon Wiesenthal who emerges in Segev’s pages is a badly damaged, flawed human being. Time and again the biographer shows that some of Wiesenthal’s most treasured anecdotes—from the story of his miraculously being put on the wrong train at Auschwitz to the deathbed confession of a Nazi officer at the center of his bestselling memoir The Sunflower—simply did not happen. He reports that when Wiesenthal—in retaliation for attacks on Israel in the East German press—issued a list of thirty-nine former Nazis working as journalists in East Germany, he included several who had joined the Communist opposition before the end of the war, among them two who had been sentenced to death by the Nazis. At the same time, Segev writes that Wiesenthal “restrained himself from exposing former Nazis in senior positions in West Germany.” One of those he shielded was Hans Globke, chief legal adviser at Eichmann’s Office of Jewish Affairs, who, as a top aide to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, helped negotiate Germany’s diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel.

Apart from Wiesenthal’s implacability as a Nazi hunter, one of his most appealing aspects was his conviction that the Holocaust is not exclusively Jewish property. Wiesenthal not only insisted on remembering that the Gypsies were also the victims of Nazi genocide; he wrote countless letters and cables—to the mayors of German cities, to the Austrian cardinal Franz König and to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands—protesting the continuing persecution of people he considered “our brethren in suffering.” After publishing a book claiming Christopher Columbus was Jewish—Segev’s verdict: Wiesenthal was “no historian”—he became interested in the plight of Native Americans. He even wrote to the president of Malawi asking him to stop the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying members of the sect had also been victims of the Nazis. “Given the profusion of topics that concerned Wiesenthal over the years,” Segev writes, “his silence in the face of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights was conspicuous.”

* * *

If Segev’s response to Wiesenthal is ultimately a sympathetic one, it isn’t because the biographer has suppressed evidence. Rather, he never places his subject on a pedestal; he tries to understand Wiesenthal—not always successfully. Struggling to make sense of Wiesenthal’s bizarre late friendship with Hitler’s armaments minister, Albert Speer, Segev writes, “Its roots were in the special treatment he received from his overseers at the Eastern Railway repair works in Lvov. After the war, he had felt a need to help them. His willingness to do so gave him a feeling of fairness; his ability to do so, a feeling of power. Reconciliation offered hope, a commodity that Wiesenthal needed.” Maybe, or perhaps Speer, a master of self-deception, simply played on the vanity of a lonely old man.

Wiesenthal’s vulnerability becomes all too clear in his dealings with Marvin Hier, the empire-building rabbi behind the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (with offices in New York, Miami, Toronto, Jerusalem, Paris and Buenos Aires). In 1984, after Wiesenthal found out that Hier was giving a medal to French President François Mitterrand, a Vichy collaborator who shielded René Bousquet, the police chief responsible for deporting thousands of French Jews, he protested: “The relationship between the Center and me is so as if I would be dead and the center is only using my name.” (Ten years later Mitterrand returned the favor, making Hier a Chevalier in the Ordre National du Mérite.) The center paid its namesake a monthly stipend of $5,000—later raised to $7,500. Meanwhile Hier, his wife and his son received combined salaries amounting to millions of dollars. With Wiesenthal’s life burdened with more than its share of irony, it would be an awful shame if his posterity rested in the hands of those whose exploitation he so bitterly—if unsuccessfully—struggled to resist.

How should Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, be remembered? “He was a tragic hero,” writes Segev, “always cloaked in the mysteries of his life; it is no easy task to decipher his secrets.” A man addicted to tobacco, candy and crude jokes, he kept a .38 Smith & Wesson in his desk drawer and slept with a revolver under his pillow. The guns were no affectation. In June 1982 a bomb exploded outside his front door. Wiesenthal may have embellished his record, but he did catch Franz Murer; Fritz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor; and Karl Silberbauer, the SS officer who arrested Anne Frank. Not bad for a one-man operation. Whether Wiesenthal can rightly claim credit for bringing thousands of Nazis to justice or merely dozens surely matters less than the fact that as long as he was on the case, the perpetrators knew that their crimes, and their victims, hadn’t been forgotten.

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