Holocaust / No Job for Innocents

Both Tom Segev and Guy Walters see Simon Wiesenthal as all-too-human - that is, as flawed - but whereas the latter judges the Nazi hunter with unusual harshness, Segev's biography is insightful and nuanced, as well as extremely thorough.

Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, by Tom Segev Doubleday, 457 pages, $35

Simon Wiesenthal Getty Images no date
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Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice, by Guy Walters Broadway Books, 518 pages, $27


Anyone dealing with the Holocaust is acutely aware of the passage of time. Soon, all too soon, the last survivor will be no longer. Soon too, though not soon enough, the last of the perpetrators will also be gone. The Angel of Death has outpaced the machinery of justice. The U.S. Justice Department has changed the mission of its Office of Special Investigations to include perpetrators of other genocides; it is not for naught that the last Israeli Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff, has termed his most recent efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice "Operation Last Chance." It is now or never.

Within the past few years, perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia have been brought to trial - seemingly good news, even if the light sentences that have been handed out are thoroughly disproportionate to the crimes, and, in the case of the latter, it took 30 years to bring a single perpetrator to justice.

It seems as if there are only two viable models for restoring the raw scaffolding of justice - though not justice itself, which cannot be restored - in the aftermath of massive crimes against humanity, murder and genocide: the South African quasi-religious model of "truth and reconciliation," and the "Nuremberg model," the judicial tribunal.

Ironically many Israelis now fear the latter model, as human rights activists and European leftists threaten Israeli leaders with arrest for alleged war crimes during the Second Lebanon War and last year's Gaza campaign. (At the same time, a petition by supporters of Israel is calling for the indictment of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide. )

It is in this context that most readers will view two recent books, Tom Segev's "Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends" and Guy Walters' "Hunting Evil." Wiesenthal's career and the quest for justice, however, must also be evaluated against a context that dates back 60 years.

The international press has focused its attention on one of the most peripheral pieces of information revealed in Segev's meticulously researched book: that Wiesenthal was in the employ of the Mossad for some time. It shouldn't be so surprising. It only made sense for him to work closely with the Mossad and to draw a retainer from them, especially in the early years after the war, when his funding was scarce, his pursuit of Nazi war criminals isolating and alienating, and Israel's own sources of information somewhat limited. Wiesenthal, who worked closely with several friendly, and even unfriendly, intelligence agencies around the world (though he was presumably not in their employ ), made no secret of his own deep ties to Israel, and his allegiance to the Jewish people was unquestioned even by his enemies.

English journalist Guy Walters sets out to slay a giant, to puncture the great balloon of Simon Wiesenthal's exalted reputation by pointing out inconsistencies, exaggerations, misrepresentations and outright falsifications by Wiesenthal himself of his record as a Nazi hunter, as he explores the killers who got away.

A word of warning to all who would write multiple autobiographies: Remember to stick to your story. Wiesenthal (1908-2005) composed several autobiographical works, and provided differing, sometimes even conflicting accounts of the same event. Words can come back to haunt you, and, in today's Internet world, one runs the risk of having discrepancies thrown back in one's face. For Walters, this virtually disqualifies Wiesenthal's accounts.

Walters tips his hand too early in the book. In the second paragraph he writes: "It was ... disturbing to discover that Simon Wiesenthal, for so long held as some sort of secular saint, fabricated not only his role in the Eichmann hunt but also countless other episodes of his life." And that may be the nicest thing he says about his subject for the first 400 pages of the book.

Walters' work has a methodological problem: He seems to accept the comments of Wiesenthal's critics at face value, as if their motives were unquestionably pure, their observations unfailingly accurate, while he debunks virtually all of Wiesenthal's accounts of his work and life, as if his agenda were nothing but self-aggrandizing. As a result, the reader is left unprepared for his conclusion: Five pages from the end of "Hunting Evil" (its notes and index constitute an additional 100 pages ), Walters writes:

"It is partly thanks to Wiesenthal that the Holocaust has been remembered and properly recorded, and this is perhaps his greatest legacy. In addition, and nothing should detract from the fact that Wiesenthal did bring some Nazis to justice, although in nothing like the quantity that is claimed and Adolf Eichmann was certainly not among them .... Whatever his failings, Wiesenthal was on the side of the angels, and no matter what he really did during the war, he did more than atone for any transgression than those he was trying to hunt."

Walters' judgment is sound, his conclusions proper. Yet nowhere in the first 406 pages of his book does he back up such a conclusion.

Before, during, after

Anyone who has read Tom Segev's earlier works knows he is a fine writer who can weave a story, and an assiduous researcher skilled at interviewing sources as well as combing through archives. He was granted complete access to Wiesenthal's personal archives and he probes them for insights into the man and his time.

Segev has read widely and wisely. When the Wiesenthal archives yielded little on his early life, Segev turned to S.Y. Agnon, the other world-famous native of Buczacz, in Galicia, for insights into the town and its environs. Unlike Walters, Segev goes to the trouble of accounting for the discrepancies in Wiesenthal's accounts, including understanding his use of the media to advance his agenda and his selective leaks of information, and misinformation, to pursue or confuse his targets.

Where Walters seems to challenge Wiesenthal's account of his wartime experience, Segev examines the evidence available from court records and the accounts of those who suffered with him. Naturally, he records discrepancies, but a general picture emerges that is not unfavorable to Wiesenthal. Unlike Walters, Segev gives readers enough information to judge the evidence on their own.

Holocaust survivors often divide their lives into three epochs: Before, During and After. In Wiesenthal's case, it is the After that is of primary concern. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Wiesenthal tried to make himself useful to U.S. intelligence agencies in the pursuit of Nazi war criminals. He continued this work long after others had tired of the effort, despaired of its effectiveness or turned their mind to other issues, such as building their own careers, making money, even creating the new state of Israel. By the mid-50s, Wiesenthal was broke. He had long ceased his work as either an architect or an engineer (the details of his professional training are mired in controversy ) and had burned bridges and feuded with leaders of the Austrian Jewish community. His Nazi-hunting career seemed at an end.

For further reading:

Hunting Simon Wiesenthal
Simon Wiesenthal, 'conscience of the Holocaust,' dies at 96
The controversy of the Museum of Tolerance

Although Wiesenthal indeed had nothing to do with Eichmann's capture, that event was nonetheless his lucky break. Fritz Bauer, a Jewish prosecutor in Germany who feared government leaks about where Eichmann was living, received the information about the hunted man's whereabouts from Lothar Herman, a blind German Jew who had immigrated to Argentina. Bauer informed Israel of Eichmann's whereabouts, but the Israelis were very slow to follow up on the information. Wiesenthal's most significant contribution to Eichmann's capture had been made more than a decade earlier, when he was instrumental in opposing Vera Eichmann's efforts to have her husband declared legally dead, something that would have brought the search for him to an end.

Segev understands that, at the time, Israel sought to deflect attention from the role the Mossad had played in Eichmann's capture and abduction, and from the scant attention that the capture of Eichmann had previously received from the Israel officials. Israel succeeded almost despite its limited efforts. The credit Wiesenthal mistakenly received came from a vacuum of information that was available from those actually responsible for his capture. It also solidified some important rivalries for Wiesenthal, such as that with Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad, whose position prevented him from speaking about the operation - or his impressive role in it - until many decades later. The aftermath of the Eichmann capture also sparked the resentment of Wiesenthal's fellow Nazi hunter, Israeli Tuvia Friedman, who felt that the attention given to Wiesenthal came at his expense. Rivalry for attention and false or exaggerated claims of success were not Wiesenthal's alone; success has many fathers.

Wiesenthal's reputation solidified in the 1960s; his sources of income became more reliable and he enjoyed the privileges and opportunities of prominence, if not quite fame. Segev offers the reader a glimpse into the conspiratorial life that is the lot of all Nazi hunters. It is no job for innocents, certainly not for the timid. Straight talk is not an asset in these pursuits. Segev understands that the media was a tool in the fight and that Wiesenthal's misinformation was goal-directed, not - or not necessarily - fabrication for its own sake.

The last quarter-century of Wiesenthal's life was a satisfying period but also a trying one. On the one hand, he was a celebrity, a prominent figure in the realm of Holocaust remembrance precisely at a time when the Holocaust itself was in vogue. The TV mini-series "Holocaust" aired in the late 1970s. Museums were being built, Holocaust institutions being established, including one that bore Wiesenthal's name; Holocaust books were being read, some of them by written by Wiesenthal who, though not the most gifted author, enjoyed some success in this field. Wiesenthal himself was even the subject of a full-length TV movie, "The Murderers among Us," based upon his memoir of the same name, in which he was portrayed by Ben Kingsley. With such prominence come opportunities and some degree of satisfaction, even for the modest - and Wiesenthal was by no means modest.


Yet it was also a time of controversies, something Segev seems to revel in probing. In Austria, his post-war home, Wiesenthal was at odds with the leadership of the tiny remaining Jewish community and virtually at war with the most prominent Jew in Austria, Bruno Kreisky, who served as chancellor from 1970 to 1983. During that period, it was said of Kreisky that he was the only man in Austria "who did not know" that the chancellor of Austria was a Jew.

Segev's portrayal of Kreisky's difficulties obsession with Wiesenthal and with his own Jewish origins are some of the most amusing parts of the work. Put simply, Kreisky took leave of his senses when dealing with either subject. Readers who lived through the trial of the Chicago 7 four decades ago will recall how defendant Abbie Hoffman could get under the skin of Judge Julius Hoffman throughout the proceedings. Ethnic Jews can do that to those who are trying to pass.

In a chapter entitled "Sleazenthal," Segev details a second controversy, one that derived from Wiesenthal's relationship with the single most prominent Austrian of his generation, Kurt Waldheim. A former UN secretary-general who in 1986 was running for the Austrian presidency, Waldheim suffered from what what has facetiously been dubbed "Waldheimer's disease," an inability to recall - actually merely to recount - where he had been between 1941 and 1945.

In contrast to the World Jewish Congress and its general counsel, Eli Rosenbaum, and even to the U.S. Department of Justice, which placed Waldheim on the "watch list" for Nazi war criminals who might try to enter the country, Wiesenthal contended that while Waldheim was a liar - he had misrepresented his wartime record of service - he was not a war criminal. Many Wehrmacht soldiers had served in the vicinity of areas where crimes had been committed and many had known of these crimes, but whether Waldheim committed such crimes was unproven. Wiesenthal had earlier "kashered" Waldheim for the Israeli government. And in fact, Waldheim became president of Austria and served a single term, until 1992.

Suddenly, Wiesenthal found himself on the outs with the younger leaders of the American Jewish community, with the tough guys - Rabbis Israel Singer, Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, as well as Rosenbaum, who had penned a powerful indictment of Waldheim. Had he gone soft in his 80s? He was portrayed by some as a weak European Jew who did not possess the self-confidence or assertiveness of the American or Israeli Jew. It was an odd and insulting position for Wiesenthal, who most certainly viewed himself as tough.

Segev does a good job of looking at Wiesenthal's critics. Rather than accepting at face value the account of the Waldheim controversy he received from Eli Rosenbaum, who is today the director of the Office of Special Investigations., Segev examines Rosenbaum's agenda and the interests of the World Jewish Congress in hyping the Waldheim record to score political points and heighten their own influence. That does not lead him to disparage Rosenbaum, but rather to evaluate his condescending treatment of Wiesenthal in context.

Whose Holocaust?

Another controversy related to Wiesenthal's relationship with the most prominent survivor of his generation, Elie Wiesel.

The point of contention was a seemingly semantic point: the definition of the Holocaust. Wiesel defined the Holocaust as the murder of the 6 million Jews - Jews and Jews alone - by the Nazis and their collaborators. For Wiesenthal, the definition of the Holocaust was the systematic state-sponsored murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews. The figure of 5 million was not based on any serious research.

I was an eyewitness to the fallout of this controversy while working in 1979-1980 as deputy director of the U.S. President's Commission on the Holocaust, which Wiesel chaired. The issue threatened to torpedo the work of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, as President Jimmy Carter decided to adopt Wiesenthal's definition of the Holocaust in the executive order establishing the body, which was to be responsible for building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Wiesel refused to accept the chairmanship under Carter's definition but the presidential order would not be changed. A standoff ensued, making it impossible to hold the annual national commemorative ceremony for the Holocaust in the Capitol Rotunda in 1980.

In part, the issue of definition cost me my job, as I was perceived as being on the side of the "assimilationists," who, though not adopting Wiesenthal's numbers, favored the inclusion of non-Jewish victims of Nazism within the museum, after I noted that a museum built on government land, in Washington, D.C., must be inclusive.

Yehuda Bauer, the distinguished Israeli historian, pounced on Carter and, indirectly, on Wiesenthal. He wrote: "The Memorial as seen by the President [not by the Commission] should commemorate all victims of Nazism, Jews and non-Jews alike, and should submerge the specific Jewish tragedy in the general sea of atrocities committed." This, Bauer contended, falsified the history and dejudaized the Shoah.

Wiesel warned: "First they will speak of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews. Soon they will speak of 11 million victims, some of whom were Jews. And then they will speak of 11 million victims without even mentioning the Jews."

In the end, Wiesel settled for a linguistic solution - "While all Jews were victims, not all victims were Jews" - and a metaphysical, ahistorical formulation, which was used in the report to the president of the President's Commission on the Holocaust: "The Holocaust was the systematic state-sponsored murder of the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II; as night descended million of others were killed as well."

Historically, the institutions and methods first developed for incarcerating and ultimately killing non-Jews, such as the concentration camps and gassing installations, were later used to kill Jews. And in the end non-Jewish victims of the Nazis were included in the Washington museum and in other Holocaust museums built afterward, including the revamped Yad Vashem.

One simply could not describe the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy without including non-Jewish victims of Nazism. Bauer was wrong: Inclusion was not submergence. Only by considering all victims could one understand how the Jewish experience was unlike that of non-Jews.

Nonetheless, as Segev well understands, the 5 million figure was invented by Wiesenthal for a political purpose: to gain support from European governments for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Wiesenthal wanted to make the Holocaust not only about Jews, but also about non-Jewish European nationals, citizens of the very countries whose support he wanted. Moreover, Wiesenthal's definition reflected his own experience during the Holocaust. While Elie Wiesel was incarcerated in Birkenau and Buna-Monowitz during the great spring 1944 Hungarian transports, which were limited to Jews, Wiesenthal was in camps whose inmates included both Jews and non-Jews.

Were there tensions between them, and some jealousy? Wiesenthal expressed admiration for Wiesel, but they were rivals. It appeared for some time that they might have to awkwardly share the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, but the Waldheim controversy may have cost Wiesenthal his chance at the prize. Also, Wiesenthal naively refused to campaign for the prize, while Wiesel's supporters, superbly organized by the late Sigmund Strochlitz, made every effort to secure him the prize. Wiesel remained above the fray, seemingly surprised by the award. In contrast, Wiesenthal did not, for example, turn loose Rabbi Marvin Hier, universally acknowledged as a master of public relations.

And finally, Segev traces in great detail the difficult relationship between Simon Wiesenthal and the same Rabbi Hier, the "dean" of the institution that bears Wiesenthal's name. Hier took the brand name Simon Wiesenthal and ran with it, allowing subordinates, mainly Efraim Zuroff in Jerusalem, to carry on Wiesenthal's mission as a Nazi hunter while Hier created the Wiesenthal Center in his own image as an educational organization and political lobby, a museum and a Zionist, activist human rights NGO. Few institutions so reflect the vision of their founders, and no executive in the Jewish community are as empowered as Hier to fulfill their missions unencumbered by lay leaders, a board or rivals. Wiesenthal often complained: "They treat me as if I am already dead."

Hier brilliantly understood the iconic nature of Wiesenthal's charisma and effectively leased the name from him while doinghis own thing. Having had complete access to Wiesenthal's archive and correspondence, it is a shame that Segev was not granted the same access to the archives of the Wiesenthal Center so that Wiesenthal's complaints could be understood from Hier's perspective as well. Having left no instructions for succession, no transition to a new generation of leadership, Wiesenthal's historical legacy will be shaped by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and not by the man himself.

The verdict of history is mixed: Nazi war criminals feared Wiesenthal, living in dread of capture to their dying day. They, and the media, exaggerated his reach and the scope of his activities. Yet that was all to the good. Wiesenthal accomplished much, but not as much as he said he did and not as much as he was credited with accomplishing. He and those around him paid a heavy price for his work: One chapter is called, "It Is Not Easy Being My Wife." The rewards were personally great; peace and tranquility were not among them.

Segev makes Wiesenthal come alive again. He is bound to be criticized by Wiesenthal's admirers, of whom there are many, for bringing his failings to public scrutiny. But he will also disappoint Wiesenthal's detractors, because he has demonstrated his significant achievements. Wiesenthal may not have lived a satisfying life - he paid a high personal price for bringing so few of the killers to justice and had many more failures than successes, though not for want of effort and determination - but most readers will find Segev's portrait, unlike Walters' one-sided account, rich and satisfying, in addition to being well-researched, well-informed and well-written.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for Holocaust and Ethics, and professor of Jewish studies, at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.