Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Art Winslow on Tom Segev’s “Simon Wiesenthal”


Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Art Winslow discusses biography finalist Tom Segev's Simon Wiesenthal The Life and Legends, translated by Ronnie Hope (Doubleday).

Simon Wiesenthal, who at his death in 2005 had spent better than a half-century chasing down the whereabouts of former Nazis and sparring with all comers, was “a quixotic romantic with a James Bond image and a soaring ego, a tendency to fantasize, and a penchant for crude jokes in Yiddish,” writes his biographer Tom Segev. He was also “a brave man who launched some breathtaking ventures” and a “central figure in the struggle for human rights,” working virtually on his own after the war, sometimes out of a small apartment, poring over newspaper clips and telephone books, making notes on stacks of index cards, a man on a self-invented mission.

Segev, a columnist for the daily Ha’aretz and author of several works of Middle East history, has written an account that in its gritty grappling with the facts remains psychologically generous: Wiesenthal bent the truth when relating his own wartime experiences (he was indeed interned in several labor/death camps, although not Auschwitz, as he maintained to one biographer) and in the amount of credit he sought to claim in the capture and prosecution of high-ranking SS figures. Nevertheless, he assisted in the conviction of dozens of Nazi criminals and the locating of hundreds, most famously Adolf Eichmann, in efforts that Segev terms “remarkable.”

Wiesenthal’s project was among several that helped advance the unfolding of Holocaust awareness to the public. He was a prisoner at Plaszow, a concentration camp in Krakow in southern Poland, the very one that is the setting of the film Schindler’s List; there, he was among those tasked with exhuming bodies from a mass grave and burning them, as the Germans sought to hide evidence of mass murder from the approaching Russian Army.  Wiesenthal was moved to successive  camps as the Germans retreated before the Russians, and he ended up at Mauthausen, in Austria, which was liberated by American troops in May 1945.

Within a space of three weeks after liberation, Wiesenthal had submitted a list of close to 150 Nazi war criminals to the U.S. commander who occupied Mauthausen. “He clearly began working on the list within a day or two after the liberation,” Segev writes, “It seems that he already had most of the names arrayed in his mind even before he saw the American tanks at the camp’s gates.” The information was neither extremely detailed nor accurate in all its particulars, but it “reflected a faith in the basic value of a just society: criminals must be brought to justice and receive their due punishment.”

Wiesenthal’s was a quest for justice rather than vengeance, a motivational difference that Segev points up at several points in Wiesenthal’s long career. In the immediate postwar period, he was persistent in asking to work with the Americans, and was hired as a German interpreter attached to one of the officers in charge of carrying out arrests, in Linz, Austria.

While his intent was not to remain in Linz — work with the Americans lasted only two years formally— he stayed there a decade and a half, working with refugees, “every one of whom he saw as a potential agent in the search for Nazi criminals.” He distributed business cards identifying himself as “President of the Organization of Jewish Concentration Camp Prisoners in Austria” and established a documentation center. The effort to track war criminals was at first an outgrowth of the process of identifying and chronicling what had happened to their victims.

As a Zionist, Wiesenthal “could have espoused the position that Jews should not be living in Austria at all,” Segev notes, but “he wanted to purge Austria of its racism.” Nothing better illustrates his feeling of belonging to Austrian society than his decision to raise his daughter, Paulinka, there — she reported that he spoke Yiddish with her until she was six, after which they spoke German. Unable to answer what her father did when she was asked, Paulinka told her schoolmates he was “a journalist.”

Segev credits Wiesenthal with developing a broad and humanistic concept of Holocaust commemoration: Contrasting Wiesenthal’s views with those prevalent in Israel and the United States, he writes that even early on, “Wiesenthal tended to view the murder of the Jews as a crime against the whole of humanity,” and tied it to the murder of invalids, the Romany, homosexuals and other groups.

The capture of Eichmann in 1960 in Argentina by agents of the Mossad, who drugged him and took him to Israel aboard an El Al passenger jet, forms a hinge point in the book. Wiesenthal had been after him for years, and had informed Israeli consul Ayre Eshel in a letter as early as 1953 that Eichman was living near Buenos Aires. As late as 1958, “the professional forces of neither Israel, the United States, nor Germany seem to have invested their best efforts in the pursuit of Eichmann,” Segev concludes, and yet “the trial and execution of Eichmann ignited a process that turned the Holocaust into a central component of Israeli identity.”

Along with the chronicle of Wiesenthal’s activities, then — he was paid as an operative by the Mossad (code name, “Theocrat”), moved to establish a new documentation center in Vienna, fought with fellow Nazi hunters Tuvia Friedman and Beate Klarsfeld — we witness shifting public perception about the Holocaust.

The fact that Eichmann could have been located much earlier (as evidence suggests), “reflects the marginality of the Holocaust in the consciousness of the world in the 1950s,” in Segev’s view. Through Wiesenthal’s decade-and-a-half  bitter contention with Austrian (and Jewish) Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, though, Segev reveals how “the war of verbal abuse between two Viennese Jews erupted out of the local political puddle to become the center of a great historical-philosophical debate about nationality and racism, nationalism and patriotism, Zionism and Judaism.”

Along the way, Wiesenthal is spied on by the Poles and eavesdropped on by the Austrians; written up in C.I.A. reports; lends himself to the establishment of a Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (only to later scrap with its creator); gets bruised in the controversy over former U.N. Secretary General (and Austrian presidential candidate) Kurt Waldheim’s wartime past; has a bomb left on his doorstep and becomes a target of Holocaust deniers. All that while he helps turn up people from the policeman who arrested Anne Frank to Franz Stangl, who set up the Sobibor death camp and later commanded Treblinka.

Wiesenthal watched a Nobel Peace Prize he had expected to receive, or to share, awarded to Elie Wiesel in 1986; people in his office sobbed at the news. Segev essentially proposes survivor guilt as dominant among factors motivating Wiesenthal, for “he always found it difficult to live with the fact that he had suffered less than others and that he owed his life to the decency of some Germans.”

To read an excerpt from Simon Wiesenthal, click here.