A new biography of Simon Wiesenthal, by Tom Segev

Friday, October 29, 2010; 1:30 PM


The Life and Legends

By Tom Segev

Doubleday. 482 pp. $35

Simon Wiesenthal, Nazi-hunter and impassioned loner, is a legendary figure for his role in helping track down hundreds of Nazi war criminals, the most famous among them Adolf Eichmann. Wiesenthal's death in 2005, at age 96, was a coda for an entire generation of Holocaust survivors who are now passing from the earth. What more could there be to say?

Plenty, as it turns out in "Simon Wiesenthal," by Israeli journalist Tom Segev. A columnist for the newspaper Ha'aretz and the author of numerous books, Segev is one of the world's great investigative reporters - in a class with bloodhounds like Seymour Hersh and the late David Halberstam.

In this biography, the subject is not only Wiesenthal but the shifting relationship since the end of World War II of American, Israeli and European culture to what is now known as the Holocaust but was never called that in the first two decades after the war. Segev places Wiesenthal's life within a context almost unthinkable to Americans under 50 today, for whom Holocaust memorialization is a given. That the singular fate of European Jews under the Nazis was downplayed for many years after the war and that the U.S. government was none too eager to pursue Nazi war criminals who had taken refuge here is not widely known (even among young Jews). Segev notes that the Holocaust was also "wrapped in silence" in the young state of Israel and that many Israelis who had emigrated to Palestine before the war had denigrated survivors for "remaining in Europe instead and waiting to be slaughtered without doing anything to prevent it."

Against this background, Wiesenthal emerges as a man of contradictions: a lone detective with close ties to Israeli and U.S. intelligence; a Zionist who chose to settle in Vienna, not Israel, after the war; a man who fought to extend the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes in Germany and Austria but befriended Albert Speer - the only defendant in the Nuremberg trials to plead guilty - after his release from prison in 1966.

Above all, although no one was more relentless in his pursuit of Nazis who murdered Jews, Wiesenthal was a humanist who rejected the idea of collective guilt and attributed his own survival partly to the help of individual "good Germans."

Perhaps the most revealing fact in this biography is that within less than three weeks of his liberation from Mauthausen concentration camp, Wiesenthal submitted a list of 150 war criminals - known to him personally - to American authorities. This was the first paper in a file that grew to more than 300,000 documents. A revealing photograph taken in his native town of Buczacz in eastern Galicia, now a part of Ukraine, shows Wiesenthal, the leader of a Zionist youth movement, in an ordinary jacket and tie surrounded by boys in uniforms. Even as a child, he recalled, he hated uniforms.

One reason Wiesenthal became controversial in Jewish establishment circles is simply that he exaggerated achievements that needed no exaggeration. Segev, drawing on previously classified Israeli intelligence material, demonstrates convincingly that Wiesenthal told Israeli authorities in 1953 - seven years before the Mossad caught up with Eichmann- that the Nazi criminal was in Argentina. But many Israelis considered Wiesenthal a publicity hound who took credit for bringing Eichmann to justice that should have gone to the government - even though Yad Vashem, in charge of Israel's Holocaust memorialization, congratulated him on his "brilliant achievement."

But there is a deeper reason for the ambivalent attitude of many international Jewish leaders toward Wiesenthal. In the long-running debate about whether the Holocaust was a unique crime to which nothing can be compared, he falls on the side of those who, while never denying the particularity of Jewish suffering, take a more universalist position.

During the 1970s, when Elie Wiesel headed up a council planning what is now the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he and Wiesenthal were on opposite sides in a debate over whether gypsies - also targeted for extermination - should be represented on the the council. Wiesel opposed such representation. Segev's account of the very personal, often petty nature of the rivalry between the two (the author quotes directly from letters that reflect badly on both men) will give no comfort to those who believe in secular saints. But perhaps it is just as well - and the real achievement of this warts-and-all biography - to accept that truth, justice and memory are the province not of saints but of flawed human beings.


Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company