Hunting Simon Wiesenthal

Israel first attempted to capture Adolf Eichmann in December 1948 * For years, Simon Wiesenthal received a salary from the Mossad, where his code name was 'Theocrat' * In 1988, former Mossad chief Isser Harel wrote a book aimed at discrediting Wiesenthal * Spy services in Eastern Europe tried to prove that Wiesenthal collaborated with the Nazis * The Polish intelligence service tried for years to recruit him * These are some of the revelations in Tom Segev's newly published biography of the world's most famous Nazi hunter.

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The scoop - that the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was on the payroll of the Israeli Mossad for years - did not drop into Tom Segev's hands like a ripe fruit from a tree. He had to pore through stacks of yellowing papers, hundreds of cardboard files and thousands of documents in Wiesenthal's office in Vienna to get it.

Simon Wiesenthal in his office in Vienna in 1983, with a map showing the concentration camps and extermination camps in Europe in the background.

"I was taken by surprise by the document of the [Israeli] Foreign Ministry stating that the Mossad not only paid Wiesenthal a monthly salary and financed the establishment of his office in Vienna, but also wanted Wiesenthal to win in the Jewish community elections of 1963," Segev says. "Wiesenthal was always thought of as someone who did everything alone. But this turns out not to be so: he had the Mossad behind him."

Wiesenthal's code name was "Theocrat" and his salary was $300 a month in cash, for which he signed receipts. His initial contacts with the Israeli secret services were forged immediately after the Second World War, when he took part in the "Bricha" (Escape ) operation in which Jewish refugees were smuggled to Mediterranean ports in order to board ships for Palestine. After Israel's establishment he continued to work with the Political Department of the Foreign Ministry, the forerunner of the Mossad. Wiesenthal, himself a Jewish refugee and a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, received an Israeli laissez-passer, the equivalent of a passport, which enabled him to remain in Austria. It was probably also his handlers who furnished him with a journalist's card - which Segev also found in an aging file - from the Israeli newspapers Davar (in Hebrew ) and Yedioth Hayom (in German ), and who took out life insurance for him with the Migdal company.

These formal relations were severed in 1952, but Wiesenthal fought to keep his Israeli passport until he obtained Austrian citizenship in December 1953. He was recruited to the Mossad around 1960. His mission: to track down Nazi criminals and provide information about the activity of the German scientists who created Egypt's missile system and their ties with other Nazis or neo-Nazi organizations.

A few days after Wiesenthal's death at the age of 96, on September 20, 2005, Deborah Harris, Segev's literary agent, suggested he write a biography of Wiesenthal. As a correspondent for Haaretz, Segev had interviewed Wiesenthal twice, but these were brief meetings. "Maybe," Segev told Harris, but there were conditions: he would write the biography only if documents and materials existed beyond those Wiesenthal had published in his two autobiographies, "The Murderers Among Us" and "Justice Not Vengeance," in 10 other books and in the thousands of interviews he gave during his 60 years of activity.

Segev added that if his research should turn out not to verify the title of "Nazi hunter" and show that Wiesenthal had been a fake, he would forgo writing the book. Segev began his quest in Vienna, where he went first to Wiesenthal's office, the "Documentation Center," as Wiesenthal called it, located in a small apartment on the third floor of a building in the Salztorgasse (Gate of Salt Lane ). The first thing that caught his eye were stacks of old newspapers alongside yellowing cardboard files. The hundreds of concentration and annihilation camps were highlighted on a large map that hung on a wall of the office. Also scattered around were municipal population registries and telephone books of various cities, which Wiesenthal used to locate Nazi criminals. But what interested Segev most was the treasure: hundreds of folders arranged in perfect chronological order on the shelves, just as Wiesenthal left them at his death. The files contained some 300,000 pages of documents and letters Wiesenthal received and copies of letters he sent in his years of activity. The experience of his first day in Wiesenthal's office was an unforgettable one for Segev. Awaiting his perusal were files that no one had seen before. Pulling a file from 1945 at random, he riffled through it and found Wiesenthal's medical documents from the period of his liberation, when he was a walking skeleton of 44 kilograms, injured and suffering from pains throughout his body. In his testimony to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institute in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal described the events of May 5, 1945, when the U.S. Army liberated Mauthausen. Masses of prisoners, their strength almost spent, saw the approaching American tanks. "I also ran. But I was so weak that I couldn't walk back. I crawled back, on all fours," Wiesenthal stated. Segev took another step and a half and pulled out a second file. It was from the 1980s and contained a note in the handwriting of Elizabeth Taylor: "Darling Simon, Take good care of yourself and stay happy. I love you and we all need you." Segev: "It was high drama. A shelf about 10 meters long holding files attesting to the place this man succeeded in reaching. From a human skeleton he became a culture hero and a figure of worldwide admiration. At that moment I realized how powerful the drama of this man's life had been, of a man who aspired to crack the secret of the Nazi evil and devoted his life to that pursuit."

Segev spent three months, seven days a week, in Wiesenthal's office. "I sat at his desk and read. For much of the time I photocopied documents. At 2 P.M. the employees who were organizing the archive went home. Afterward I was given a key and came also on Saturdays and Sundays. I sat there, in that tranquil quiet, surrounded by files of Nazis, with the sounds of bells and the clicking of hooves of the horses pulling carriages on the stone tiles outside penetrating the room. It was a somewhat odd research atmosphere. I sometimes had the feeling that Eichmann was about to leap down at me from one of the shelves. Cut off from the world, I was immersed deeply in Wiesenthal's life." Although Wiesenthal was a Zionist from his adolescence, he chose to live in Austria after the war. His life mission, Segev says, was to hunt down Nazi murderers in order to bring them to trial; he was "a private detective with six million clients." His activity also infuriated many people. Wiesenthal set aside an entire room in the apartment office for the hundreds of files that contain threatening letters filled with curses and anti-Semitic rants. He called them "M Files" - for meshugennes, crazies. One letter, Segev writes, was addressed to "The Jewish Pig, Austria." The postman inferred that the letter was for Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal called the Austrian minister of postal services to ask what made the postman decide that he was the addressee.

Simon Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Buczacz, Galicia (now in Ukraine, also the birthplace of S.Y. Agnon ), the first child of Rosa and Henschel Wiesenthal. His father was an agent for a sugar manufacturing company, and the boy, who years later would study architecture, liked to build towers out of sugar cubes. German was spoken at home, but Simon, who attended a cheder, a traditional Jewish elementary school, spoke Yiddish on an everyday basis. Yiddish, Segev writes, later dominated his accent in every language he spoke and became one of his trademarks.

In the First World War his father was killed while serving in the Austro-Hungarian army. The family fled to Vienna, returning to Buczacz after the war. Wiesenthal used to tell the story of how, when he was 12, horsemen of the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura attacked the town and one of them stuck his sword into Wiesenthal's knee as he was walking on the street. In 1922, Wiesenthal attended a secular secondary school, but his skies darkened when his beloved grandmother died and his younger brother, Hillel, was seriously injured and the doctors could not save him. Segev writes that in the interviews he gave, Wiesenthal surrounded himself with a kind of protective wall and was disinclined to talk about his childhood moments of crisis.

It was in the Buczacz secondary school that he met the love of his life, Cyla Mueller. His mother remarried and left Buczacz, which hurt Wiesenthal, but his stepfather paid for him to study architecture in Prague. The Prague years were good. Wiesenthal, who liked to tell jokes, occasionally performed in the Jewish students' cabaret. Politically, he was drawn to the ideology of Ze'ev Jabotinsky. "Wiesenthal was thus a political person and a Zionist before the Holocaust; he remained on the right of the political spectrum for the rest of his life," Segev notes in the book.

Wiesenthal completed his architectural studies and worked in his profession, designing several residential buildings. He and Cyla were married in 1936. The couple lived in Lvov, which was then in Poland. After the German invasion of Poland from the west in September 1939, the Soviet army, by agreement with the Nazis, occupied eastern Poland. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested by the Soviets as a "capitalist" and died in a Soviet prison. Wiesenthal managed to get along under the new regime and was sent to Odessa to work as a factory technician. However, at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, the Wiesenthals were again in Lvov.

They were employed as forced laborers in a German factory. When the ghetto was established in Lvov, they moved there along with his aged mother, and continued to work in the plant. Wiesenthal's mother managed to evade several mass arrests in which those who were rounded up were shot. In March 1942, the Nazis started to transport the Jews they arrested to the Belzec death camp. One day a few months later, the Wiesenthals returned from work and discovered that Simon's mother had disappeared. He started to look for ways to save Cyla and himself.

At the factory he forged ties with the German managers, who were decent people. He took advantage of the relative freedom he had at the plant to make a little money on the side, bought a pistol and managed to arrange shelter for his wife with a Polish family in Lublin. When she was forced to leave, he found her a haven in Warsaw, but some time later they lost contact.

Finally, he too escaped. For a few months he hid with other Jews in an apartment until the Germans discovered them in June 1944. He was sent to prison, where he tried twice to kill himself. The Soviet army was by now approaching Lvov; a group of inmates, including Wiesenthal, was loaded onto one of the last German trains that left the city. The S.S. officer in charge did not want to be sent to the front and hid his prisoners' Jewish identity. For a time they were made to build fortifications and then again withdrew westward with their guards. Ironically, Wiesenthal was comparatively safe under the aegis of the S.S. and, like the other prisoners, received sufficient food. But the scheme was exposed in September. The Germans were sent to the front and the prisoners to the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow. There they were made to remove the dead from mass graves and burn the bodies. When the Soviets drew close, the inmates were moved quickly to Gross-Rosen, another camp. Wiesenthal was put to work in a quarry, where a rock fell on his foot. A physician amputated the affected toe without anesthesia. In January 1945, when the inmates were evacuated in a death march, Wiesenthal set out from the clinic hobbling along with the aid of a broomstick. After four days of trudging through the snow they reached the city of Chemnitz in eastern Germany and were transported to Buchenwald. They then continued southward to Mauthausen.

It was February 1945. Wiesenthal was on his last legs, on the brink of death. The Americans arrived in May. Segev writes that 20 days after the liberation of the camp, Wiesenthal had already produced an eight-page document containing the names of 150 Nazi criminals.

Wiesenthal always believed that the Nazi criminals must be brought to justice and punished. He was not in favor of revenge killings. Trials, he held, were an educational tool for the generations to come, to prevent more crimes against humanity. In Mauthausen the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps set about bringing Germans from the camp's staff to trial. Wiesenthal, who had moved to Linz, Hitler's beloved city, wanted to help make the arrests. The Americans turned down the request because of his physical condition, but he kept up the pressure and finally was assigned to be the interpreter of an American officer who did not speak German. Wiesenthal joined the U.S. Military Police in arresting suspects. Afterward he worked as a paid adviser to the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. Army's espionage unit, until it was disbanded at the end of 1945. Thanks to his ties with the Americans, he established an information center for Jewish refugees in Linz. Most of the refugees were looking for information about their relatives, but already then Wiesenthal meticulously collected every scrap of information from camp survivors. This was the foundation of his card index of Nazi criminals, which would eventually contain thousands of names of suspects. He did everything by himself, Segev writes, carefully filing every note and every document in exemplary order - a practice from which he never deviated. He also had a business card printed up, giving his title as "Chairman of the international association of former political prisoners in the concentration camps in Austria." The office's address was his home address in Linz. Wiesenthal was certain his wife, Cyla, had perished in Warsaw, but she survived as a forced laborer in Germany. He was able to locate her, and they were reunited in Linz. On September 5, 1946, their only child, Pauline, was born. The couple considered immigration to the United States. Wiesenthal's uncle sent the necessary papers from America and paid the fare, but Wiesenthal abandoned the idea and immersed himself in Zionist activity aimed at persuading the international community that the thousands of Jewish DPs in Europe wanted to go to Palestine. For a time, Wiesenthal himself considered doing the same. He signed an agreement with two partners and invested about $1,000. In mid-1951 he still believed that he and his family would live in a house with a garden in Haifa or Ramat Gan. In the end, he remained in Austria and, as Segev writes, "He built his new life in the country of Hitler and Eichmann." In 1953, Wiesenthal discovered that Adolf Eichmann was hiding in Argentina. Years later, Isser Harel, who was in charge of Israel's security services at the time, wrote that he himself began to think about Eichmann in 1957 - four years later. Eichmann was eventually snatched from Argentina in 1960 and tried in Jerusalem. In the book, Segev provides a coherent account of the ugly dispute this episode generated, focusing on the question of who first discovered where Eichmann was hiding and who can rightfully take credit for his capture.

It is a rather complicated business, not least because Wiesenthal always had several versions for every story. According to one of them, in 1953, thanks to his stamp-collecting hobby, which he took up at the advice of his doctor in order to relax, he met with a German baron, Heinrich Mast, who offered to sell him a collection of stamps. Mast was a German intelligence officer who worked in the service of the Americans after the war. He showed Wiesenthal a letter he had received from an acquaintance in Buenos Aires. The writer noted that he had twice encountered Eichmann, who was living near the Argentine capital and working for a water company.

On March 24, 1953, Wiesenthal sent a letter to the Israeli consul general in Vienna, Aryeh Eshel, and not long afterward also wrote to the president of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, informing them that Eichmann was living in Argentina. But for some reason the letter was filed away and no action was taken. Segev notes that the young state found it difficult to cope with the Holocaust and had not yet begun looking seriously for ranking Nazi criminals.

Isser Harel doesn't come out well in your book.

"The head of the Office of Special Investigations in the U.S. Justice Department showed me the manuscript of a book that was never published. It was written in English by Isser Harel in 1988 and its 278 pages were intended to prove one thing: that Wiesenthal contributed nothing to Eichmann's capture. In the manuscript, which was backbiting and petty, I discovered that Harel refers to a bit of nonsense that Wiesenthal supposedly disseminated in his writings, to the effect that an Israeli intelligence agent had spoiled his chance to capture Eichmann in 1949. I went to the veterans of the Mossad and it finally emerged that there is a grain of truth in Wiesenthal's account. It is a tremendous discovery that the fledgling State of Israel, in the midst of the War of Independence, tried to capture Eichmann." In fact, Wiesenthal had looked for information about Eichmann as early as 1947. In his 1960 book "I Hunted Eichmann" he says that in December 1949 he had a visit from a senior officer of the Austrian police, who told him that Eichmann was going to celebrate New Year's Eve with his family in the village of Altaussee, in Austria, and that he intended to arrest him. The officer invited Wiesenthal to take part in the operation. Wiesenthal passed on the secret to the Israeli representative in Salzburg, Kurt Levin. A few days before the operation, a guest from Israel arrived in Wiesenthal's office and persuaded him to allow him to join the mission. This young man, Wiesenthal writes, ruined everything by violating the order to stay in the hotel and getting drunk in a local bar, where he bragged loudly about his exploits in the War of Independence. Word about the Israeli's presence got around, Eichmann did not show up and Wiesenthal sank into a deep depression, unable to forgive himself for letting the Israeli agent join the operation.

Segev found proof that Wiesenthal's story is not entirely fiction. In the biography, he reveals that the first operation to abduct Eichmann was conducted in December 1948, at the initiative of the Foreign Ministry's Political Department. Three agents were dispatched to carry out the mission, led by an Israeli army officer, Michael Bloch. Born in Germany, Bloch arrived in Palestine in 1934, went to Switzerland to study medicine and returned to Palestine ahead of the War of Independence, becoming an intelligence officer. Asher Ben Natan, who was then a senior official in the Political Department, and Gideon Yarden, the former first secretary of the Israeli embassy in Vienna and the twin brother of the late Michael Bloch, confirmed this account to Segev. Eichmann, who had escaped from an American detention camp, was going to spend New Year's Eve 1949 in his wife's home. The Israeli agents, accompanied by Wiesenthal, set an ambush for Eichmann in the village of Altaussee, in coordination with the Austrian police, but he did not show up. Segev: "The operation was considered one of the first blunders of the Israeli secret services."

Segev was able to find a detailed report about the operation, written by Michael Bloch on January 3, 1949, which he got permission to publish. It was not an easy task. "I spoke with Bloch's sons, who insisted that their father never talked about his intelligence work and left no documents," Segev relates. "I asked them to search again - maybe he left a birth certificate or a marriage license. And then - surprise - the report that was sent to the head of the IDF intelligence service was found. It stated that Bloch was assigned to the mission by Asher Ben Natan. In Austria he was assisted by Dr. Kurt Levin, who arranged with the Linz district detective force for Eichmann to be turned over to Israel for $5,000, with Israel to pay the costs of the operation." Segev adds that although it is not clear who ruined things for whom, Bloch told his brother and sons that Wiesenthal was fooling around with girls while he himself was shivering from cold in a cabin adjacent to the house in which Eichmann's wife was living. Why, then, did Wiesenthal move up the date of the operation in his account? Segev replies that everything Wiesenthal wrote has to be taken very cautiously. He often preferred the drama of an event over the historical truth. "Wiesenthal wrote that the botched attempt to capture Eichmann occurred a few months after he returned from Israel, where in an official ceremony in June 1949 he buried the ashes of tens of thousands of Holocaust victims. He thought that as an author he had the right to move the story forward by a year." After all the stories and articles about the operation to capture Eichmann, you write that Eichmann was actually caught thanks only to the dedication of four Jewish Holocaust survivors. "Eichmann was the senior officer with whom the Israelis were familiar, maybe because he had spoken with representatives of Jewish communities. They identified the Holocaust with him. Ben-Gurion kept track of him in his diary. The Jewish Agency placed him on the list of Nazi criminals. But in the end, the pursuit was amateurish and did not head the list of priorities - not of Israel, not of Germany and not of the United States. There were a few Jews who were passionate about capturing him. One was Fritz Bauer, a Jew who returned to Germany after the war and was the general prosecutor of the State of Hesse. Without Bauer, an amazing man who also worked for the Mossad and discovered Eichmann's hiding place and pressured Israel to capture him, Eichmann would have died a free man.

"There was also Tuviah Friedman, who is still with us, and at the time worked in Yad Vashem. Friedman was a refugee from the city of Radom, Poland. After the war he opened a documentation institute. Asher Ben Natan, from the Foreign Ministry, helped him with funding and instructed him to locate information about Eichmann urgently. There was also Simon Wiesenthal and Lothar Hermann, a near-blind German Jew who had been incarcerated in Dachau and found a haven in Buenos Aires. Hermann noticed that his daughter was friendly with a young man named Klaus Eichmann. He was the first to inform Bauer, in 1957, that Eichmann was in Argentina. Bauer transmitted the information to Israel and Isser Harel sent an agent to check the address. But he did not discover that Eichmann then called himself Klement, and in March 1958 returned to Israel empty-handed.

Then what did Harel fight for so determinedly?

"There is something infuriating about the fact that the powerful head of the Israeli security services is attacking Wiesenthal and Lothar Hermann for not being able to provide Eichmann's exact address. Excuse me, but did you do more? Two completely solitary Jews do the bulk of the work and you, the arrogant Israeli who has all the services at your disposal, might at least say thank you. But no. He wrote a whole book to discredit Wiesenthal.

"Already in 1953 Wiesenthal wrote to Nahum Goldmann and no one lifted a finger," Segev continues. "There is no doubt that Wiesenthal was the first to supply factual material about Eichmann. Harel took the glory for himself in the wake of the operation, which as far as he was concerned became the main thing, as though it wasn't the professional task of his men to ambush Eichmann and bundle him into the car. Harel insisted that he was the one who brought Eichmann. It was a battle for historical glory. Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote a book about the Mossad, said not long ago in an interview that Isser lost his mind. That does not appear in any of his earlier books about the Mossad." Segev discovered in Wiesenthal's estate documents that revealed for the first time that he was against Eichmann's execution. He wanted to keep him alive so that his testimony might help convict other Nazi criminals.

Wiesenthal's two handlers, who were senior Mossad operatives, agreed to be interviewed for Segev's book. One chose to retain his alias; the other, Rafi Meidan, told Segev that at the beginning of the 1960s the Mossad wanted to employ the former S.S. officer Otto Skorzeny. Wiesenthal tied him to the pogroms of 1938 in Germany, known as Kristallnacht. Skorzeny demanded in return that Wiesenthal remove his name from his wanted list and try to get the arrest warrant for him revoked, to enable him to enter Austria. Meidan was sent to Wiesenthal in the name of the State of Israel, but Wiesenthal refused out of principle. Skorzeny agreed to work in the service of the Mossad despite the refusal.

A question that is always intriguing: How many Nazis did Wiesenthal actually succeed in capturing?

"I can't say, because there are hundreds of files of cases he dealt with in his office. He helped bring many to trial, but what we want to know is whether a particular person was convicted or not. The quantitative issue is less important than the conclusion that Wiesenthal was definitely not merely a bluffer, and that he accomplished a great deal. He organized the witnesses in many trials of Nazi war criminals. He had ties with Holocaust survivors all over the world. He sat in his small room with the newspapers and read about one trial or another and about a Nazi who appeared there and he filed everything in his card index. It was touching. He used his fame - he loved publicity, as we all do - functionally. Every appearance of his on television generated letters, some of them reviling him but others containing important information about another Nazi."

In the 1950s, Wiesenthal exploited his status to promote Israel's propaganda struggle, often disseminating false reports about senior Nazi criminals supposedly living in Arab states. He was also an anti-Communist. In 1962 he published a book of biting anti-Communist jokes. He had a sense of humor, Segev says, and he was stubborn and persistent. After the Six-Day War, he did much to tarnish the image of the Communist states after they severed their diplomatic ties with Israel. In September 1968 he issued a list of former Nazis who were working in East Germany as journalists and as university lecturers. He sent a protest letter to the justice minister of Yugoslavia for granting political asylum to a Nazi criminal. He demanded that the Soviet Union give him information about the activities of war criminals in its territory. He denounced senior officials in the Polish government who in his opinion were anti-Semites.

The Holocaust became part of the Cold War, Segev writes. The Communists considered Wiesenthal to be an imperialist agent and portrayed him as an Israeli, German and American spy. For 10 years the Polish secret service kept him under surveillance in "Operation Danube," with the aim of recruiting him as an agent. Segev extracts information and a bit of color from the report of a Polish agent who is identified only by a number (156 ). After visiting Wiesenthal in his home and at his office, the agent described his daily routine in detail as well as the downcast state of mind of his wife, Cyla, whose husband was addicted to only one subject, which consumed all his energy.

At the same time, Segev writes, the Poles made a considerable effort to find evidence that Wiesenthal had collaborated with the Nazis in the war. The East German secret service also sent agents to Warsaw in an attempt to find information that would prove such collaboration. But in vain.

In 1961, Wiesenthal moved his documentation center to Vienna. The Austrian capital was also the arena for his well-publicized confrontation with Bruno Kreisky, the first Jewish chancellor in the history of Austria. Kreisky, too, accused Wiesenthal of collusion with the Gestapo.

"Vienna was too small a city to hold two Jews with egos of this size, both of whom wished to be part of Austrian society," Segev says. "What bothered Kreisky was that Wiesenthal, the Galician Yiddish-speaking Jew (an Ostjude ), looked and sounded like the image of the Jew the anti-Semites pilloried and was also refusing to allow the Austrians to blur their past crimes. Kreisky felt as though Wiesenthal were forcing on him an identity he did not want, and as such, was endangering him. It became an obsession. I publish for the first time documents of the Israeli Foreign Ministry that describe Kreisky as a psychopath. ('We are dealing with an instable and unbalanced man a serious case of love hate bordering on a split personality,' Avigdor Dagan, ambassador to Austria at the time, wrote about Kreisky.) Wiesenthal became his mania."

During the confrontation, Segev writes, most Austrians took the side of Kreisky, who had never been more popular. "Wiesenthal was never more detested," Segev writes. He provides an extraordinary description of the 15-year feud between the two, from the moment Kreisky was elected chancellor in 1970 at the head of the Socialist Party and was forced to establish a minority government with the aid of the Liberal Party. Wiesenthal, who supported the right-wing parties, brought about exposure of the fact that former Nazis were serving in Kreisky's first government (the ministers of agriculture, housing, transportation and interior ). As a result, Wiesenthal was accused of operating a private police of informers. Later, Kreisky even branded him a Jewish fascist. In response, Wiesenthal gave an interview to The New York Times and a wave of cables in his support inundated the chancellor's office. According to Wiesenthal, Kreisky had been an Arab lover already during his stint as foreign minister (1959-66 ). The feud intensified. In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that Zionism is a form of racism. Austria voted against the resolution, but Kreisky agreed with its spirit. Segev and Ron Ben Yishai, then with Israel Television, came to interview Kreisky in his office. They were given 15 minutes. Segev describes how the chancellor would not let them leave. The evening before, he had prepared a talk, drawing on a stack of books in which pages were marked with strips of paper, to prove that there is no such thing as a Jewish people or a Jewish race: the Jews of Europe are actually the descendants of the Khazars, while the Jews of Ethiopia and of Yemen were indigenous natives who had been converted to Judaism. Kreisky harangued them for an hour and a half, showing why there was no connection between his grandfather, who was a schoolmaster in Bohemia, and a Jewish shoemaker in Yemen. His secretary entered from time to time and said that one ambassador was waiting for a meeting and another ambassador was on the phone, but Kreisky was intent on proving to the two Israelis that he was right.

Did these quarrels keep Wiesenthal alive?

"I don't think so. There is nothing more terrible than saying about Wiesenthal what Kreisky said; Wiesenthal, who devoted his life to purging his society - the Austrian society - of anti-Semitism and Nazism. It's one of the mysteries how Wiesenthal, who adopted Austria as a homeland, was capable of living with the curses and the threats. In June 1982, a bomb was placed at the entrance to his home. But to say that he, a Holocaust survivor, was a Nazi agent who worked with the S.S.? "During all his years in Austria he was kept under surveillance by the security service. The book contains the first publication of the documents on which Kreisky relied, and I prove that his accusations against Wiesenthal were unfounded. In the concluding chapter I write that on September 15, 1946, Wiesenthal wrote an account of his experiences in the war and noted twice that he held no official position during the whole period of his incarceration in the ghetto or in the concentration camps: Wiesenthal believed that Jewish collaborators should be denounced exactly like Nazi war criminals."

Segev describes the competition and envy among the various Nazi hunters - between Wiesenthal, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and Tuviah Friedman. "The competition was for the spot in The New York Times, for status and personal prestige, which bring respect and money and also generate influence. They fought for the title of 'high priest of the Holocaust.'"

And they paid a steep price. "Wiesenthal had a profession. He could have said, 'The Holocaust is behind me, I will immigrate somewhere, work as an architect and live my life.' But no. He felt an obligation to pay a constant price for having remained alive in the Holocaust. He felt guilty for having suffered less than others, for having been spared thanks to good Germans. A competition develops over suffering. There is something called the 'aristocracy of suffering.' Psychologists are familiar with it. We esteem those who suffered more, who emerged alive from Auschwitz."

He seems to have lived from one fiasco to the next.

"That's so. He does not leave you indifferent. Either you revere him or you despise him. At the end of the book I write that Wiesenthal found it easier to live with Germans than with Jews. For example, his bizarre relationship with Albert Speer, who was one of Hitler's closest friends and his minister of armaments. Speer expressed contrition after being released from prison and in 1975 wrote Wiesenthal that he wanted to visit him. The correspondence between the two is surprising in its warmth. On one occasion Wiesenthal wrote to Speer, 'We all made mistakes in our youth,' thus on the one hand clearing him and on the other writing as one transgressor to another. This was the quintessential tragedy of Wiesenthal's life: that he punished himself for a crime he did not commit. He never forgave himself for remaining alive." Then maybe Elie Wiesel was right in despising Wiesenthal? "I found quite a few angry letters that Wiesenthal exchanged with Wiesel. He objected to Wiesenthal's broad humanistic conception of the Holocaust. The dispute was at first substantive, but afterward became a personal feud. When I interviewed Wiesel I was taken aback at the intensity of his feelings. He burst out angrily and said Wiesenthal was envious of him.

"Wiesenthal was motivated primarily by the desire to bring Nazi criminals to justice and he was right, because he said that war crimes and murder had not ended with the Second World War. The proof is Cambodia and Rwanda. After all, war crimes are being perpetrated all the time, even now, and Wiesenthal understood that. He believed in the fraternity of all victims. In the 1970s, during the war in Cambodia, he cried out that the children in Cambodia who were dying of hunger reminded him of the children in the Warsaw ghetto. He fought for all the victims of the Nazis - the Gypsies, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the homosexuals. He also fought for the American Indians. Regrettably, only the distress of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 did not move him. It's strange that I actually like him, even though he was so right-wing."

The Kurt Waldheim affair is a good example of Wiesenthal's propensity to mingle fact, fiction and fabrication. In 1986, Waldheim, who was the United Nations secretary general from 1972 to 1981, ran for the Austrian presidency. During the campaign, information about his past came to light. In the Second World War he was an officer in the German army, knew about the crimes against the Jews and the partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece, and said nothing. Waldheim denied having known about the crimes. The World Jewish Congress tried to depict him as a Nazi criminal, but Wiesenthal, of all people, refused to take part in the anti-Waldheim campaign.

"A few years earlier, Wiesenthal found that Waldheim had not been a Nazi," Segev says. "When the new affair exploded, he was afraid that his credibility would suffer should it turn out that Waldheim had been involved in war crimes, after all."

You write that the more about Waldheim's past the WJC exposed, the greater became the enmity toward Wiesenthal, so much so that he was dubbed "Sleazenthal."

"The Waldheim case is an exception. Wiesenthal had a high standing and was held in great regard, then suddenly he did something wrong. The greatest anti-Nazi fighter is suddenly defending Waldheim. It's very tragic. I do not think it's a metaphor for his life. It's an anomaly that was due to political infighting between the parties in Vienna. Wiesenthal was not able to cope with the episode."

After five years of work, can you say that you truly know who he was?

"In the last chapter I decipher him. I like his internal contradictions and I am pleased at my ability to describe him as a three-dimensional figure. I identify with his universalist approach to the Holocaust, in the sense that no one has a monopoly on the lessons of the Holocaust. And that includes Israel. He wrote to Menachem Begin and was able to dissuade him from unifying Holocaust Day and Tisha b'Av. The Holocaust is not only a Jewish tragedy.

"He possessed a mischievousness that I like. I have no regard for many of his bluffs, but that aspect of him does not really make me so angry. I never admired him and he is not a hero who disappointed me as he disappointed Eli Rosenbaum [head of the Office of Special Investigations in the United States Justice Department]. At the height of his war against Wiesenthal, Rosenbaum wrote a book entitled 'Betrayal' about him and in 1996 was interviewed for an investigative report on 'Panorama,' which was broadcast by a German television network. The report, 'The End of a Legend,' depicted Wiesenthal as a liar, all of whose work since his liberation from Mauthausen consisted of falsification and fabrication - according to Rosenbaum.

"Wiesenthal engaged in bluffing many times in his life, beginning with the story, which he apparently invented, about a dying Nazi officer who asked for his forgiveness before he died, a story from which he produced his most famous book, 'The Sunflower.' Or the story that he was in Auschwitz, which he was not. The list of lies is long and is in the book. But he is not a liar. A liar is someone who reaps benefit from his lies. Wiesenthal believed that what he said was true. He adopts events and stories and insists that they are his.

"Immediately after the war," Segev continues, "he published a booklet of sketches he made about Mauthausen entitled 'I Accuse.' One of the drawings shows the execution of three men. It turned out that he copied the situation from photographs which appeared in Life magazine in June 1945. The three were Nazi spies who had been caught and executed, and not in Mauthausen. Possibly the Life photographs reminded him of executions by hanging in the camp, or possibly he never imagined that one day he would be famous and caught.

"In Yad Vashem there is a long account in which he relates what he underwent in the war. It contains no false tales. In his court appearances as a witness he was careful to say 'I might be wrong' and did not make up stories. Accordingly, what guided me in writing the book was that I wanted evidence and documentation for every testimony and every account. It's the hardest book I have written. On the one hand, I wanted to be faithful to the documents, and on the other to be faithful to Wiesenthal."

Tom Segev was born in Jerusalem in 1945. His parents, German-born and graduates of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, left their native land in 1933, when the Nazis came to power. His father, Heinz Schwerin, was an architect, and his mother, Ricarda Schwerin (nee Meltzer ) an artistic photographer. They were persecuted for being Communists. For two years they looked for a suitable place to settle, moving between Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Switzerland. They arrived in Palestine in 1935 and opened a workshop for making wooden toys in the spirit of the Bauhaus. In the War of Independence, when Tom was three, his father fell from a guard position on a roof and was killed. Tom and his sister were raised by their mother. Segev, whose first language was German, does not remember his father. He remembers that the family lived on Hanevi'im (Prophets ) Street in Jerusalem under difficult conditions, and that his grandfather took him to school on his first day in the first grade. From the middle of the 1950s, Ricarda Schwerin, whose artistic estate is housed in the Israel Museum, worked in the studio of the renowned photographer Alfred Bernheim (who specialized in portraits and architecture photography ) and was significantly involved in this capacity for about 20 years. After his death in 1974 she ran his studio until her retirement in 1982.

Segev obtained a B.A. in history and political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Boston and has been a visiting professor at Rutgers, the University of California at Berkeley and Northeastern. His journalistic career began on the now defunct newspaper Al Hamishmar, the organ of the left-wing Mapam party. Subsequently he was an editor and presenter on Israel Radio and the Bonn correspondent for the newspaper Ma'ariv. He has been writing for Haaretz since 1979. For four years, beginning in 1983, he co-edited the now defunct weekly newsmagazine Koteret Rashit.

All his books, which deal with the history of Israel and the Holocaust, are available in English: "1949: The First Israelis"; "Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps"; "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust"; "One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the Jewish Mandate"; "Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel"; and "1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East."