The Bloodhound On the Trail Of the Nazis

Wiesenthal in 1973 with photos concerning his hunt for Nazi Walter Rauff.
Wiesenthal in 1973 with photos concerning his hunt for Nazi Walter Rauff. (Associated Press)
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal was determination, patience and righteousness all rolled up in one unpleasant, deeply bothersome package.

The first time I interviewed Wiesenthal, at his office in Vienna, I was warned by members of his own staff that I would find him curt, superior and difficult. He was a small man, physically and in his manner toward others.

He had neither the time nor the charm to persuade others of the value of his work or the validity of his methods. He hunted Nazis. He found the perpetrators of the crimes that had ruined his youth, exterminated his people and liquidated his home, and then he went out and found the witnesses and the evidence necessary to prove their responsibility, and he piled it up and piled it up in a never-ending and ultimately impossible effort to overwhelm the lies and the horror and the evil.

He didn't write the motto "Never again"; he personified it.

He saw life as an opportunity to make a point. The point was that people are responsible for their actions. The lesson was that looking backward is looking forward.

He knew he would outlive the Nazis. He had to. He died yesterday at 96.

Great poets and novelists delved into the whys and hows of the Holocaust. Wiesenthal smoked out the rats.

The long march of history will value the writers who chronicled the decline of the German nation into a machinery of murder. Wiesenthal will be remembered as almost a Hollywood invention, an Indiana Jones who spent the half-century after World War II chasing aging concentration camp commandants and Nazi functionaries all around the globe, thriving on the knowledge that while the Nazis would never know the sorrow they had created, they would also never have a moment of mental peace.

There were other Nazi hunters around the world. The United States had its Office of Special Investigations, where lawyers such as Neal Sher took on the job of identifying hidden Nazis and bringing them to justice. The French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 11 years hunting down war criminals and managed to capture several of them on film, detailing their deeds, explaining themselves, digging themselves ever deeper.

Most of the people who did this work, and it is now all but over, were obsessives. Many of them were difficult people, unpleasant even to those who shared their aims.

But Wiesenthal was the brand name who defined the category. In the news business, "Nazi hunter" became his first name: "Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal." He lived in Vienna, a city that has lagged a generation behind the Germans in examining its past. He could have moved to a place more welcoming to his work, but he wanted to live in the belly of the beast.

He was a publicity hound of the first order, and he scrambled for mentions without the slightest subtlety. He did this because he believed he deserved the notice, and because he knew that making himself into a character -- building an image as a relentless, cold justice machine -- would win him leads and strike fear in his targets. (That character was so appealing to Hollywood that Wiesenthal, or a figure just like him, was portrayed in movies by Laurence Olivier and Ben Kingsley.)

In 1992, when I covered one of the last big Nazi war crimes trials, in Stuttgart, nearly every major figure in the case was there because of Wiesenthal. The defendant, Joseph Schwammberger, 79 years old, had been the commandant of Ghetto A in the Polish town of Przemsyl, a man who had ordered thousands to their deaths. Wiesenthal had tracked him for decades, fighting in the courts and in the press until finally the West German government had him extradited. The witnesses, people with failing bodies but crystalline memories of the time that scarred them, were people who had contacted Wiesenthal because they had a story to tell and his was the name they knew.

When Wiesenthal landed figures like Schwammberger 50 years after their crimes, the Nazi hunter knew that capturing the criminal was only one step. It was one thing for a judge to hear how Schwammberger had been found in 1945 fleeing France with eight sacks full of gold fillings torn from the mouths of Jews; it was something else to see a bent, hearing-impaired, white-haired man walk into a courtroom. Wiesenthal's evidence had to be massive, undeniable. So he poured it on: dozens, even hundreds, of witnesses in each case, story upon heart-wrenching story of hatred and cruelty. Schwammberger was sentenced to life in prison; he died there last year.

As the decades went by, there was more and more talk of forgiveness, more emphasis on stories about the good Germans, those who had hidden Jews or taken part in the underground opposition. Wiesenthal knew such people and honored their memory. But it tore him apart to see those brighter stories beginning to dominate the narrative about the Nazi time. He knew too well the human desire to soften the harshness of the past, and he devoted himself to stripping away such comforts.

Wiesenthal was 33 when he was taken from his home in Galicia, in what is now Ukraine, and put in a concentration camp. Later, he and his wife were thrown in a forced-labor camp. The Nazis killed 89 members of their families. Wiesenthal could name every one of the dead. Wiesenthal escaped from a camp, only to be caught and sent back. Twice in that dark time, Wiesenthal tried to end his own life. After almost four years in Nazi captivity, he was liberated by American soldiers in May 1945. He weighed 97 pounds.

Wiesenthal made mistakes. He took credit for bringing to justice Nazis who had been caught through the hard work of German, Israeli or American prosecutors. But when Germans of a certain age and persuasion sat down at night over a round of beers, the man they cursed was Simon Wiesenthal.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company