2. – 562.) Simon Wiesenthal by Tom Segev – The famed Nazi hunter had as dramatic a life as any person has ever lived.
Growing up in Buczacz, Galicia (part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a child and part of Poland as a young man) he trained to be an architect. He was also an accomplished artist. He said the Jewish community was well aware of the rise of the Nazis during the 1930’s but “during that period, we never took them seriously”.
When the Germans invaded he was rounded up with the other Jews of Lvov. Out of a community of 160,000 to 170,000 there were but 3,400 left alive when the Russians arrived.
Wiesenthal survived by being a useful worker for the Germans, by being be employed by a good “German”, by being lucky not to chosen for random execution, by being sheltered for a time after escaping, by being taken by an SS unit as the Russians closed in that needed prisoners for their retreat and by having a tough constitution and a will to live that kept him alive, but barely as he was 97 pounds, until the American army arrived at the Mauthausen concentration camp in May of 1945.
He always had hope. Viktor Frankl described hope as essential to survival in the camps.
Unlike most survivors Wiesenthal immediately took up an active life working to help fellow refugees and identify Nazi criminals.
His personal passion was finding Adolph Eichmann. He passed onto Israel in 1953 a reliable tip that Eichmann was in Argentina. The letter was buried in a file as finding Eichmann was a low priority in Israel for much of the 1950’s. Because Israel preferred to keep the details of Eichmann’s capture secret Wieshenthal received far more credit than he deserved. Wiesenthal accepted the acclaim and made little effort to correct the record.
Wiesenthal was a brilliant publicist, especially as a self-promoter. For a man devoted to the pursuit of Nazi criminals who needed accurate information he was often unreliable, sometimes deliberately deceptive, in describing events. Except when testifying in court or in interviews with Yad Vashem, he usually embellished his life. As a lawyer it is hard to find people credible for whom the truth is flexible. What is the core of truth when there are varying versions? That Wieshenthal’s sworn evidence was truthful makes it harder for me to understand why he was reckless in his statements outside court.
Wiesenthal had a driving relentlessness in the pursuit of war criminals that could not be deterred or deflected.
Segev recounts the story of Franz Stangl, a Linz policeman who became the Treblinka commandant. An apolitical young man gradually became a committed Nazi who did not see the concentration camp inmates as persons. The pivotal moment came when he accepted a position within the Nazi euthanasia program. It was the first acceptance that “some” lives have no value. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable that our society is drifting toward assisted suicide.
The finding of Stangl in Brazil is classic Wiesenthal. There is no doubt Wiesenthal found him but there are multiple conflicting versions on how he was discovered.
Wiesenthal wrote a bestseller The Sunflower about a fictional wartime meeting between himself and a young dying SS officer who sought forgiveness from Wieshenthal, as a Jew representing all Jews, for taking part in the brutal slaughter of Jews. Wiesenthal said he could not forgive a wrong that was not done to him. At Wiesenthal’s request many prominent people from around the world wrote to him on what they would have done. Most agreed with Wiesenthal. I think he could and should have forgiven if he felt the confession was genuine. He was asked, not personally but as the representative of the Jewish people. He represented 6 million clients when hunting Nazi war criminals. A Catholic priest forgives sins as the church’s representative of God. Judges every day dispense forgiveness on behalf of society with the sentences they impose on those who confess their crimes.
The conservative Wiesenthal had a brutal ongoing fight with the socialist Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, over Kreisky downplaying the hunt for Nazis and including them in his government. In a sad spectacle they battled in libel suits. Kreisky sought unsuccessfully to besmirch Wieshenthal’s reputation arguing he was a Gestapo collaborator. Despite searches by secret services, including Poland, the evidence clearly showed he was never a collaborator.
Wiesenthal specifically spoke up for other concentration camp victims – the Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses and homosexuals. In particular, he sought redress for the Gypsies. He saw the Holocaust as a crime against humanity. His efforts to include non-Jewish victims produced major conflicts with those Jews who did not include non-Jewish people. However, he claimed the Nazis executed 5,000,000 non-Jews. It was a fictitious number. There is no reliable number.
His exaggerations were used against him late in his life by American Jews when he opposed their efforts to prove Kurt Waldheim a war criminal. Waldheim lied about his army career but was not a war criminal.
It was clearly unfair that he was not jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Elie Wiesel. For perhaps the only time in his life he did not resort to self-promotion. As well the methods used in his lifetime pursuit of Nazi criminals and his views of the Holocaust had upset important people around the world.
Wiesenthal never fit within an institution. His Vienna Centre was always a one man controlled operation. When the Wiesenthal Center was opened in Los Angeles he gained income and glory but became disenchanted when it did not follow his dictates. It is impossible to see him managing and leading a large organization. Working for someone or sharing responsibility did not suit his personality.
In the end, he was a vivid example of the power of one. Without his 60 year pursuit of Nazi war criminals hundreds, if not thousands, would not have been brought to justice. I was reminded of the German lawyer, Hans Litten, who bravely sought to have Nazi criminals held accountable during their rise to power. Each man never wavered seeking justice through courts rather than bullets. (It was shocking, that despite Wiesenthal and other Nazi hunters less than 10% of the identified war criminals were actually convicted.)
It is a fine biography. There are an abundance of excellent stories illustrating Wiesenthal’s life. Excellent. (Jan. 8/11)