Searching for Simon Wiesenthal

Tom Segev’s new biography is engaging but fails to capture the essence of the Nazi hunter.

Simon Wiesenthal 311 (photo credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center/Bloomberg)
Simon Wiesenthal 311
(photo credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center/Bloomberg)
‘May your enemies write your history.’ This is a curse. It is one that, were it to come true, would not have left Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter, in a good light. But celebrated Israeli writer and journalist Tom Segev’s attempt to provide a sympathetic full-length biography goes a long way toward clearing the man’s reputation and setting the record straight regarding his foibles and conquests.
Literary and popular accounts don’t require the same type of acknowledgments that academic ones do, so Segev might be forgiven for not stating up front that his biography stands on the shoulders of others. But it is an exaggeration to write that “he has never been the subject of a fully documented biography before.” Alan Levy’s Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File (2002) and Hella Pick’s Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice (1996) both largely cover similar intrigues. What Segev has brought to the table is access to Wiesenthal’s private papers and searches in 16 archives.
And more than that, Segev brings his unique style of a master storyteller to this biography.
The author’s point of departure is that despite the controversies that circled around Wiesenthal, his life story and his message is of great importance: “In contrast to the memorializing of only the Nazis’ Jewish victims fostered in Israel and... the US, Wiesenthal tended to view the murder of Jews as a crime against the whole of humanity... the Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but a human one... more than anything else [he] deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life.”
Most of the book, which is a more or less chronological account, is tied up with examining the different Wiesenthals. On the one hand, he was “a lone Jew, he had taken upon himself to make sure that even the last of the Nazis would not die free, or at least free of anxiety, because he, the Jew Wiesenthal, would hunt him down.” But he was out for Justice, Not Vengeance, the title of his 1989 book.
He was also a media man, a sort of political animal, a man of letters, a collector and a solitary individual. He was a spinner of yarns; he told so many different accounts of his survival during the Holocaust that his exaggerated, embellished, crafted or mistaken memories were used against him. He was a teller of dirty jokes and a sort of dark star that gained its energy from professional feuds with almost everyone he came into contact with, from the directors of his Simon Wiesenthal Center in LA to fellow Nazi hunter Tuvia Friedman and the chancellor of Austria Bruno Kreisky.
Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Buczacz, Galicia, a melting pot in Central Europe that was also the home town of famed Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon. He was raised in a traditional Jewish household. His father was killed in World War I. He studied architecture, married and moved to Lvov in what was then Poland. He initially suffered under the Soviet occupation and then under the Nazis.
Through a variety of miracles he survived the Holocaust, although he was interned in a number of concentration camps.
The aftermath of the war found him in Austria and he ingratiated himself with the Americans and made himself a sort of center of information, eventually working for the JDC, ORT and running a documentation center on Nazi crimes. He had an uncanny ability to make his own destiny – already in June 1949 he had come to Israel, bearing what he claimed were the ashes of 200,000 Jews from the Holocaust. He knew his life was meant for some greater contribution to the Jewish people and the history of the Holocaust.
Wiesenthal dedicated his life to a number of causes. He wanted to be a source of information for those looking for Nazi criminals.
He wanted to pressure governments to expand the statute of limitations on crimes committed during the war. And he wanted to be famous, publishing books, becoming friendly with kings and queens, Hollywood stars and everyone else who would listen. He was also an amateur historian, dedicating himself to strange “mysteries,” such as hidden Nazi gold, the existence of a secretive Nazi network called Odessa and consuming himself with the question of whether Columbus was a Jew.
Wiesenthal was a great self-promoter: “He prepared precise statistics, according to which the information he had collected in his early years of work had led to the investigation and arrest of almost 800 war criminals.”
But it was the capture of the most famous criminal, Adolf Eichmann, that not only consumed him but served as a hinge in propelling him to fame. Segev concludes that Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, did play a role, not only in the Eichmann capture, but in locating many others. He also tries to understand Wiesenthal’s relationship with the Mossad, and to tease out why his numerous memoirs seem to disagree on key points about his experience during the war and after.
Life and Legends is a well-written biography, one that is hard to put down and can be consumed quickly. However, the reader is left puzzled. Who was Simon Wiesenthal, what made him tick, why was he so dedicated to uncovering some Nazis, but worked tirelessly to defend the actions of others, such as Austrian president Kurt Waldheim? In the end he remains a mystery. What can be said of him is that he was a self-made man, a survivor and a tireless campaigner on behalf of justice and other causes.