Simon Wiesenthal & Survivors
Simon Wiesenthal, who died in 2003 aged 93, was credited with bringing hundreds of Nazi war criminals to justice. He was also lauded as the world’s conscience. When no one else cared, he fought to keep cases open and memories alive. He became lionised in America because he sought justice not revenge and offered redemptive lessons from a terrible past. Yet his life was dogged by controversy. Tom Segev’s candid biography gives Wiesenthal the benefit of the doubt but still does no favours to his subject’s wilting reputation.
Wiesenthal was an architect, living with his wife in Lwów, when the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in 1939. Although he fared reasonably well under the new dispensation, the experience generated a hatred for socialism that later clouded his judgement. After the Germans invaded the USSR he was subjected to forced labour. But again he was able to escape the worst thanks to the skills he could offer the new occupiers. Eventually his luck ran out. He was sent to a series of camps, each grimmer than the last, culminating in Mauthausen. When he was liberated he was half dead.
By sheer willpower Wiesenthal conveyed to US army intelligence officers the names of SS men he had encountered. Soon he was working with them and with Palestinian Jews who had been dispatched to hunt down Nazi criminals. However, when they moved on Wiesenthal stayed put in Austria and established a centre to collect evidence for prosecutions. It was thankless work; by the late 1950s he had given up. Then, in 1960, the capture of Adolf Eichmann transformed him into a celebrity. Paradoxically, Wiesenthal had nothing to do with the operation mounted by the Israeli secret service. His contribution had been made years earlier when he prevented Eichmann’s wife from registering her husband as dead and, later, when he got a tip-off that Eichmann was in Argentina. But the Israelis could not claim credit for a covert mission and Wiesenthal obliged the world’s media by filling the vacuum.
Subsequently his methods were mythologised in books such as The Odessa File and films like The Boys from Brazil. In fact, as Segev shows in painful detail, Wiesenthal was a ‘bumbling detective’. Most leads were given to him by informants of one kind or another. Worse, Segev proves that Wiesenthal worked with Mossad and the CIA when they employed ex-Nazis. He was not above turning a blind eye. Most notoriously he refrained from exposing the lies of Kurt Waldheim, secretary general of the UN. Waldheim had been an ally in Austrian politics and Wiesenthal considered Waldheim’s socialist opponents to be worse. When his whitewash job was exposed in the 1980s, Wiesenthal’s standing took a hit from which it never recovered.
This is shocking stuff. Despite digressions and some padding, Segev’s narrative is always engrossing. He goes to great lengths to explain the inconsistencies in Wiesenthal’s recollections, suggesting that sometimes he was concealing his sources while at others he could not bear the truth about himself. Perhaps. He also claims that Wiesenthal helped to create the ‘culture of memory’ when, arguably, he was actually its beneficiary. The great ‘Nazi hunter’ emerges as a shrunken figure who filled the public imagination for lack of anything else and did work that others, better equipped, should have done.
Wiesenthal survived partly thanks to two ‘good Germans’ who employed him, while his wife was hidden by sympathetic Poles. Such stories of gentile aid and Jewish self-help fill Bob Moore’s seminal study, but he states at the outset that opportunities for either were so rare in Eastern Europe that he concentrates on the West. Even here there were huge regional variations. Where refugee aid organisations already existed or where resistance networks developed early, Jews often found the partners essential for evasion and concealment. In the Netherlands where Jews and non-Jews baulked at illegality only a small fraction were saved. Most Jews who went into hiding, like Anne Frank’s family, acted on their own initiative with the help of people they already knew and trusted.
This is micro history at its finest. Moore’s reluctance to generalise can be frustrating, but when he does he has solid grounds. The severity of the German occupation was critical, but there was usually scope for collective action. Motives varied enormously, from hatred of the Boche to anti-antisemitism. Catholics and Protestants found inspiration in their faith but frequently also wanted to convert the Jews they succoured. A few Nazis protected Jews, while a few Jews betrayed them to the Nazis. Everyone felt compassion for Jewish children, so much so that many foster parents refused to give them up after the war. What emerges is the complexity of lived experience in a ghastly time, dilemmas that Moore lays bare with sensitivity and exactitude.
David Cesarani is the author of Major Farran's Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain's War Against Jewish Terrorism 1945-48 (Vintage, 2010).