A complicated man, obsessed by his search for justice
Driven by memory
Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends. By Tom Segev. Doubleday; 482 pages; $35. Jonathan Cape; £25.
AMONG the 300,000 pieces of paper in Simon Wiesenthal’s private archive is a letter from a Holocaust survivor explaining why he had ceased to believe in God. In Tom Segev’s description: “God had allowed SS troops to snatch a baby from his mother and then use it as a football. When it was a torn lump of flesh they tossed it to their dogs. The mother was forced to watch. Then they ripped off her blouse and made her use it to clean the blood off their boots.”
What made a man who survived three concentration camps cancel plans after the war to move first to America, then Israel, and instead devote his life in Vienna to amassing and immersing himself in memories that most survivors spent the rest of their days trying to forget? The famed “Nazi hunter” tended to guard his emotions by wrapping them in anecdotes for public consumption: he would talk of a girl he had seen being marched towards a mass grave whose desperate look seemed to say “Don’t forget us”. In his need to protect sources and conceal his work with government agencies, including Israel’s Mossad, such anecdotes spun out of control, multiplying into many different versions in his books and interviews.
Mr Segev, justly celebrated for his histories of formative moments of the state of Israel, is as careful a biographer as he is an historian, and he excels at teasing apart these conflicting tales. The picture that emerges is often unflattering. Wiesenthal comes across as a self-important busybody, obsessed with titles and recognition, squabbling with rivals. “Contrary to the myth he spun around himself”, Mr Segev writes, “he never operated a worldwide dragnet” but ran a virtually one-man show out of a cramped office.
Yet Mr Segev also comes to his subject’s defence when warranted. In the bitterly contested matter of the capture of Adolf Eichmann, for instance, he finds that Wiesenthal does deserve much credit for bringing the Nazi war criminal’s hideout in Argentina to the attention of the Israeli, German and American authorities, who took years to act—though he also describes Wiesenthal’s subtle manoeuvres to increase his share of the glory afterwards. As to Wiesenthal’s defence of Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian president who turned out to have lied about his war record—a controversy that cost Wiesenthal the Nobel peace prize—Mr Segev dissects his behaviour and finds it explicable, if not excusable.
The ultimate judgment is a compassionate one. Wiesenthal was driven, Mr Segev concludes, by guilt at not only having survived, but having had an easier time than most European Jews during much of the war. His mythomania may have been a way to burnish his image. But it also served in his pursuit of justice. His reputation, as well as a superb memory and a knack for networking, made him a magnet for countless scraps of information about suspected war criminals which he passed on to the authorities, badgering them relentlessly to make arrests. He battled official indifference, anti-Semitic attacks and, for many years, a chronic lack of funds.
How many Nazis he really helped to jail is impossible to say. More important was what he did to bring the Holocaust’s victims and their horrendous memories to worldwide attention. Gripping yet sober, this meticulous portrait of a complicated man is unlikely to be bettered.
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