Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends


"A brilliant and gripping account of an extraordinary life. It draws upon extensive research to offer new insights into the complex personality as well as the notable achievements of Simon Wiesenthal."—Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography" "Richly documented and written with great passion."—Elie wWiesel, Los Angeles Times Book Review" "Superb...Throws new light on the central trauma of Israeli society, and the uses and abuses of this trauma for political manipulation. I, for one, learned from this book that, in order to survive,

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Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

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"A brilliant and gripping account of an extraordinary life. It draws upon extensive research to offer new insights into the complex personality as well as the notable achievements of Simon Wiesenthal."—Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography" "Richly documented and written with great passion."—Elie wWiesel, Los Angeles Times Book Review" "Superb...Throws new light on the central trauma of Israeli society, and the uses and abuses of this trauma for political manipulation. I, for one, learned from this book that, in order to survive, societies must learn not only to remember but also to forget."—Amos Elon, author of The Israelis: Founders and Sons" "A marvelous achievement...Anyone curious about the extraordinary six days of Arab-Israeli war will learn much from it."—The Economist" "Tom Segev's 1967 offers a brilliant description of the Six-Day War in its widest context...This is probably the best book on those most fateful days in the history of Israel and the Middle East."—Saul Friedlander, author of The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945" "The best single account of Palestine under the British mandate...This will doubtlessly become the authoritative text for the pre-state history of Israel."—Omer Bartov, New York Times Book Review" "This first fully documented biography of Simon Wiesenthal, the legendary Nazi hunter, is also a brilliant character study of a man whose life was part invention but wholly dedicated to ensuring both that the Nazis be held responsible for their crimes and that the destruction of European Jewry never be forgotten." "This first fully documented biography of Simon Wiesenthal, the legendary Nazi hunter, is also a brilliant character study of a man whose life was part invention but wholly dedicated to ensuring both that the Nazis be held responsible for their crimes and that the destruction of European Jewry never be forgotten" "Like Most Jews In Eastern Europe on the eve of Hitler's invasion of Poland, twenty-four-year-old Simon Wiesenthal did not grasp the nature of the Nazi threat. But six years later, when a skeletal Wiesenthal was liberated from the concentration camp at Mauthausen, he fully fathomed the crimes of the Nazis. Within days he had assembled a list of nearly 150 Nazi war criminals, the first of dozens of such lists he would make over a lifetime as a Nazi hunter. A hero in the eyes of many, Wiesenthal was also attacked for his unrelenting pursuit of the past, when others preferred to forget." "For this new biography, rich in newsworthy revelations, historian and journalist Tom Segev has obtained access to Wiesenthal's private papers and to sixteen archives, including records of the U.S., Israeli, Polish, and East German secret services. Segev is able to reveal the intriguing secrets of Wiesenthal's life, including his stunning role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, his relationship with Israel's Mossad, his controversial investigative techniques, his unlikely friendships with Kurt Waldheim and Albert Speer, and the nature of his rivalry with Elie Wiesel." "Segev's challenge in writing this biography was Wiesenthal's own complicated relationship to truth. Wiesentha told many versions of his life, his suffering in the camps. and his involvement with the arrests of individual Nazis. Segev shows that in order to gain the information he sought and twist the arms of reluctant government figures, Wiesenthal needed to seem more influential than he really was." For two generations of Americans, Simon Wiesenthal was a Jewish superhero–depicted on film by Ben Kingsley and Laurence Olivier–and the muse for a Frederick Forsyth thriller. Now Segev demonstrates that the truth of Wiesenthal's existence is as compelling as the fiction. Simon Wiesenthal is an unforgettable life of one of the great men of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bringing war criminals to justice makes for endless controversy, according to this thoughtful, knotty biography of the Jewish icon and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Israeli historian and newspaper columnist Segev (1967) recaps Wiesenthal's hair-raising travails in occupied Poland and in German concentration camps during WWII, then follows his unique postwar career as a freelance detective pushing for the arrest and prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators in his homeland of Austria and abroad. Just how many Nazis were tried and convicted as a result of Wiesenthal's actions is a vexed question; Segev's sympathetic but critical treatment grants him a central role in bringing down Adolf Eichmann, death-camp commandant Franz Stang, and hundreds of other Nazis, but allows that he embroidered his exploits and made up evocative stories. The author gives a similarly nuanced reading of Wiesenthal's maneuverings in the treacherous politics of Holocaust remembrance, which garnered him enemies in all quarters: he drew flak--"‘Sleazenthal'"--from Jewish groups for supporting former U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim when he was outed as a Wehrmacht henchman and even Wiesenthal himself was falsely accused of wartime collaboration. Segev's Wiesenthal is a complicated man, by turns avuncular and prickly, idealistic and self-promoting, but he's ultimately a heroic, necessary figure who forced a world that would rather forget to acknowledge its debt to the dead. (Sept. 7)
Library Journal
Nazi hunter Wiesenthal is an iconic figure in modern Jewish history. Given that Israeli journalist Segev is somewhat of an iconoclast, it may be surprising that he does not seek to challenge Wiesenthal's heroic status; instead, he presents a judiciously organized and researched examination of Wiesenthal's life and the images of himself he projected. Segev cogently argues that to understand Wiesenthal it is necessary to situate him in the multiple spheres of modern Jewish life. A Holocaust survivor who lived in Austria among the remnants of European Jewry, Wiesenthal had deep ties to the United States, whose soldiers liberated him and whose Jewish community provided material and emotional support for his work. Wiesenthal's grandchildren, meanwhile, are mostly Israelis. Segev subjects Wiesenthal's autobiography to critical examination, and while he finds that some details are exaggerated, he shows that such slanders as the accusation that Wiesenthal was a Nazi collaborator are not valid. VERDICT The man who emerges from this text is ultimately more complex, and indeed likable, than the mythologized figure. Segev's study should be the standard for many years.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
Dwight Garner
…meticulous and forceful…[Segev's] book delivers not merely an intimate account of Wiesenthal's life and times, but also judicious examinations of the many controversial and little-known aspects of that life…It cannot have been simple work for Mr. Segev to sort out all of Wiesenthal's stories, but sort he does. It's one of his biography's achievements that you see its subject absolutely plain. Mr. Segev admires Wiesenthal but does not turn away from the sketchier aspects of his personality.
—The New York Times
Susan Jacoby
…Segev is one of the world's great investigative reporters—in a class with bloodhounds like Seymour Hersh and the late David Halberstam.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"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. . . . Gripping yet sober, this meticulous portrait of a complicated man is unlikely to be bettered."
The Economist 

"[A] meticulous yet forceful new biography . . . [Segev's] book delivers not merely an intimate account of Wiesenthal's life and times, but also judicious examinations of the many controversial and little-known aspects of that life. . . . It is a serious pleasure to imagine a new generation of readers discovering his life in this careful telling."
The New York Times

“Segev sticks to the ‘true story,’ [which is] what makes all of his work so compelling. Telling the unvarnished truth ultimately honors the man he is writing about, and Wisenthal emerges from Segev’s book as an even richer and more consequential character than the one he invented for himself.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Segev is one of the world’s great investigative reporters—in a class with bloodhounds like Seymour Hersh and the late David Halberstam. . . . The real achievement of this warts-and-all biography [is] that truth, justice, and memory are the province not of saints, but of flawed human beings.”
—Susan Jacoby, The Washington Post

"Tom Segev has produced a biography that is a model of fascinating description and measured analysis."
—The Sunday Times (UK)

"Segev paints a vivid portrait of this human dynamo who made it his life’s work to make people not only confront and remember the Nazi genocide but also to punish as many of its perpetrators as possible."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A brilliant and gripping account of an extraordinary life. It draws upon extensive research to offer new insights into the complex personality as well as the notable achievements of Simon Wiesenthal."
—Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385519465
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 9.54 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Segev is the award-winning author of seven works of nonfiction. A columnist for Haaretz, Israel’s leading daily newspaper, he lives in Jerusalem.

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Read an Excerpt

The Glass Box
Never before had there been such a funeral. Never before had the remains of so many people been buried in one grave. The procession began in Tel Aviv, on June 26, 1949. The horror enveloping the city’s Great Synagogue was almost unbearable, and hysterical shrieks rose from people crowding around the building. The newspapers reported that there were tens of thousands present and described heartbreaking scenes. There were cries of “Mama! Papa!” and many fainted. Small children were also to be seen.
In the main hall of the synagogue stood a glass box, five feet long. In it were thirty porcelain urns, painted with blue and white stripes. According to the newspapers, they contained the ashes of 200,000 Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. The mayor was there, as well as other dignitaries and rabbis. Speeches were made and prayers intoned, and then the glass box was loaded onto a police vehicle, to be carried through some of the city’s streets; the vehicle had trouble making its way through the crowds. Along the route that the box traveled, people closed their shops and workshops and lined the sidewalks, watching the procession in silent awe.
The first stop on the route was Rehovot, where President Chaim Weizmann had his home. Classes were canceled in the town’s schools, and the students were sent to see the box. Weizmann, aged and frail and almost blind, said a few words. Then the box was taken to Jerusalem, and at the entrance to the city there were once again thousands, waiting and weeping. Some of them brought bars of soap. They mistakenly believed that the soap had been made out of the bodies of Jews and wanted to bury it with the glass box, in the soil of the ancient cemetery of Sanhedria, among graves that had been hewn out of rock two thousand years before.
The man who organized this historic spectacle was Simon Wiesenthal, then forty-one years old. From the day he was released from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria he had lived in the nearby city of Linz and occupied himself with searching out Nazi war criminals. The ashes of the dead had been collected at his initiative at concentration camps and other detention sites across Austria.
“The glass box,” he wrote later, “had suddenly become a kind of looking-glass, in which the faces of many, many were reflected—friends from the ghetto, companions from the concentration camps, people who had been beaten to death, died of starvation, been hounded into the electrified fence. I could see the panicked faces of Jews who were whipped and clubbed into the gas chambers, chased from behind by human animals devoid of conscience or feelings, who would not hear their lone plea: to let them live.”
By then Wiesenthal already knew several Israelis, but not many Israelis knew him. The mayor of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Rokach, for one, didn’t know who he was when Wiesenthal first contacted him, in Yiddish, a few months before. But Rokach seems to have been impressed by Wiesenthal’s assertive style. It was more like an order than a query, request, or suggestion: the Association of Former Concentration Camp Inmates in Austria had decided to transfer the ashes of the martyrs to Israel and to honor the city of Tel Aviv by making it the recipient, Wiesenthal wrote. There was no way to refuse, and Rokach replied that Tel Aviv would accept the urns with a “tremor of sanctity,” although he had no idea what to do with them.
The annihilation of the Jews haunted many of the inhabitants of Israel. They were tormented by the pain. Already in 1946, ashes brought from a camp in Poland had been interred in Israel. But even in 1949, nobody really knew the right way to go about mourning six million dead or how to perpetuate their memory. The law on prosecuting Nazis and their collaborators would only be enacted a year later; the official Holocaust Memorial Day would be designated two years later, and the law establishing the State Memorial Authority, Yad Vashem, would be passed only in 1953.
When Wiesenthal came to Israel, the Holocaust was still wrapped in silence. Parents never told their children what they had experienced; the children never dared to ask. Holocaust survivors made people flinch with anxiety, embarrassment, and feelings of guilt. They were not easy to live with: How can you share an apartment building with them, work with them, go to the movies or the beach with them? How can you fall in love with them and marry them? How can their children go to school with yours? It’s doubtful that any other society ever faced so difficult or painful an encounter with “the Other,” to use a phrase that came into currency later.
Many of the Israelis who had settled in the country before World War II, or were born there, tended to relate condescendingly to Holocaust victims and survivors, identifying them with the Jews of the Diaspora, whom they despised as the polar opposite of the “new Hebrews” they were trying to create in the Land of Israel, in the spirit of the Zionist vision. It was customary to blame the victims for not coming to the country beforehand, remaining in Europe instead and waiting to be slaughtered without doing anything to prevent it.
They were despised for their weakness, because most of them had not fought against the Nazis but had gone to their deaths “like lambs to the slaughter.” Many Holocaust survivors found neither a sympathetic ear nor any compassion; often they were not even believed when they related what had happened to them.
For their part, the survivors had plenty to say to the Israelis. Why, they would ask, had the Zionist movement not made greater efforts to rescue them from the Nazis? Implicit in this question was a terrible accusation, and the leaders of the movement found it difficult to explain their powerlessness. Besides the question of what they could have done, there was the far more embarrassing one of whether they had taken any interest at all in the plight of European Jews. Many survivors of the Holocaust were shocked to discover after the war that Jews in the United States and in Palestine had lived through the war in relative complacency; reports about the destruction of their brethren concerned them only to the extent that their day-to-day lives were affected.
Wiesenthal once described how, soon after the war, he had seen Jewish newspapers from America and Palestine printed in the summer of 1943, when he was a concentration camp inmate. “And what I read was terribly depressing to me,” he wrote. For the papers described the routines of community life, politics, economic prosperity, culture, entertainment, and family celebrations. Only here and there did Wiesenthal find items about the murder of the Jews in Poland, based usually on BBC reports. In the papers from Palestine, he found big headlines about Arabs who attacked a kibbutz and killed two cows. A report about what was happening in Poland, by a refugee who had made it to Palestine, was relegated to page seven. “I started asking myself, are we still one people, the same people?” he wrote.
In 1946, Wiesenthal attended the first Zionist Congress since the Holocaust, held in Basel, Switzerland, and the thought ran through his mind that the leaders of the Zionist movement deserved to be put on trial, like the heads of the Nazi regime who were tried in Nuremberg. “I took a good look at those who were our ‘leadership’ and had done very little to save Jews,” he related. He was referring to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, among others. By bringing the ashes of the victims to Jerusalem for burial, Wiesenthal was demanding of the Israelis that they at long last confront the Holocaust, in the same way that in days to come he was to demand it of the other nations of the world.
The institutions and the officials involved in organizing the funeral tended to look upon the matter as a nuisance, but Wiesenthal would not let them alone. At first he had written to Yad Vashem, but at that time it was only a private society operating out of a three-room office and having a hard time paying the rent. “We regret that our project is as yet unable to receive this sacred consignment,” the organization wrote to Wiesenthal, and so he turned to the Tel Aviv municipality. The heads of Yad Vashem had no choice but to acquiesce, but they soon changed their minds and demanded that the glass box be buried in Jerusalem. Wiesenthal went along with that as well: “We believe that for diplomatic and national reasons at this time we must do everything to concentrate in Jerusalem all things and all projects that symbolize the link between the Diaspora of our people and the State of Israel,” he wrote, using the first-person plural, as was his custom.
But now the need arose to decide who would finance the project. Wiesenthal assured Mayor Rokach that the organization he was acting for would cover all the shipping costs, but he requested funding for airplane tickets and a ten-day stay for himself and one companion. Yad Vashem replied immediately that it had no money. The request led to a lengthy correspondence, and eighteen months went by. It was a dramatic and bloody period. Between his first letter to Yad Vashem in January 1948 and the funeral, a war had been waged and the State of Israel had been declared. Wiesenthal, who was a keen stamp collector, had an idea: the Israeli Postal Service should issue stamps in memory of the Holocaust, and the revenue would be used to cover the expenses of the memorial project.
But it was not only the issue of funding that held up his initiative. The fledgling state needed an aura of heroic glory, and some of the officials handling the matter thought the remains of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, should be brought from Vienna for reinterment in Jerusalem before the ashes of the Holocaust victims from Austria; Herzl was a symbol of triumph, the Holocaust represented defeat. So this is what was done. An argument also arose as to the respective roles of the state and the Chief Rabbinate in burying the ashes of those who perished in the Holocaust, an echo of the ever present confrontation between the secular and the religious. And out of this arose the question of whether the urns that Wiesenthal wanted to bury in a Jewish cemetery in Israel really contained only the ashes of Jews, or whether there were also ashes of gentiles mixed in with them.
In the end, Wiesenthal lost his patience. He cabled Yad Vashem that he was on his way to Rome, where he would board an Italian airliner with the ashes and fly to Israel. Please make all the preparations, he demanded. Only now did Yad Vashem convene a committee, which hastily organized the ceremony as mutual recriminations flew through the air between the various parties involved. These found their way into the newspapers. There was a scandal, but at the last minute the speaker of the Knesset managed to read into the parliamentary record a state declaration of mourning, and the papers gave the event extensive coverage.
This was Wiesenthal’s first visit to Israel. He entered the country on a Polish passport. He was welcomed respectfully and no one troubled him with the obvious questions: Where exactly were the ashes collected? How can we know if they are really the ashes of the victims? And how did you determine that the number of Jews who were killed in Austrian concentration camps was 200,000? One newspaper apparently thought this wasn’t enough, and wrote 250,000. The papers tended to conceal the fact that these were in fact symbolic samples of ash and described the urns as containing all the ashes of the hundreds of thousands of victims.
Wiesenthal was very emotional. “As I followed the box of ashes,” he wrote, “I remembered my family members, my friends and companions, and all those who paid with their lives for one single sin—being born Jewish. I looked at the box, and I saw my mother’s face the way it looked the last time I saw her on that fateful day when I left home in the morning for forced labor outside the ghetto and I did not know that I would not see her when I returned in the evening, nor ever again.”
The burial of the ashes was meant to be only the first stage in a much more ambitious program: Wiesenthal hoped to have a huge structure erected in memory of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, what he called a mausoleum. Before the Nazi occupation of Poland, he had studied architecture, and he designed a memorial site that he proposed should be built in a forest outside Jerusalem, to which the ashes should eventually be moved from Sanhedria. He sketched a kind of platform paved with marble, topped with two menacing towers, an exact replica of the gate of the Mauthausen camp, and a stone dome over a round memorial hall with a black floor.
This was the first time he tackled what was to become a vast enterprise. He radiated resourcefulness, self-confidence, and conviction. He was already revealing his innate skill at public relations. Before leaving for Israel he had sent the design for the mausoleum to a large number of Jewish organizations and individuals in various countries. The project was also meant to mark the closing of the Jewish displaced persons’ camps in Austria, and the migration of their inmates to Israel. He received many pledges of help. When he sent a copy of the plan to Ben-Gurion in April 1952, he asserted: “We can raise the sum of money needed for this within two years.” The prime minister’s office informed him politely that it had conveyed his proposal to Yad Vashem.
Wiesenthal did not demand to be appointed the architect of the project, but probably assumed that he would be. If his proposal had been accepted, he might have settled in Israel and practiced architecture, instead of remaining in Austria. Ohel Yizkor—the Tabernacle of Remembrance, which would eventually be built at the Yad Vashem complex in Jerusalem—resembles the memorial hall that Wiesenthal had sketched. Some of the ash that he had brought was later transferred from Sanhedria to Ohel Yizkor, but he was not given a role in its design, and he never returned to architecture.
The drama of Simon Wiesenthal’s life is stored in hundreds of files containing some 300,000 pieces of paper: letters he received and, mainly, copies of letters he wrote in his sixty years of work as a “Nazi hunter.” The first file begins in 1945, when he was a walking skeleton, weighing ninety-seven pounds, who had just left Mauthausen with no hope and no future. About sixty feet down on the same shelf, there’s a file from the 1980s, containing the following handwritten note: “Darling Simon, Take good care of yourself and stay happy. I love you and we all need you, Elizabeth Taylor.”
A tireless warrior against evil and a central figure in the struggle for human rights, Wiesenthal enjoyed worldwide admiration. Hollywood adopted him as a cultural hero, as did the scores of universities that awarded him honorary degrees. American presidents hosted him in the White House. Wiesenthal relished every moment of acclaim, but when he said that President Jimmy Carter needed him more than he needed Carter, he was right. One of the officials of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles observed that if he had not existed, Wiesenthal would have had to be invented, because people all over the world, both Jews and gentiles, needed him as an emblem and a source of hope.
He sparked their imaginations, he enchanted them, thrilled them, and frightened them, weighed on their consciences, and granted them a consoling faith in good. A lone Jew, he had taken it upon himself to make sure that even the last of the Nazis would not die free, or at least free of anxiety, because he, the Jew Wiesenthal, would hunt him down and do his very best to have him brought to trial and punished. And justice would prevail.
A quixotic romantic with a James Bond image and a soaring ego, a tendency to fantasize, and a penchant for crude jokes in Yiddish, he was a brave man who launched some breathtaking ventures. But contrary to the myth he spun around himself, he never operated a worldwide dragnet, but worked almost on his own from a small apartment, surrounded by high piles of old newspapers and yellowing index cards. This was the Documentation Center that he established in Vienna, not far from where the Nazis had set up the headquarters of the Gestapo secret police in the luxurious Hotel Metropol.
On one of the walls of his office hung a large map of Europe, with the names of all the hundreds of Nazi death and concentration camps on it; Wiesenthal himself had been held in some of them. He used historical documents, municipal population registries, and even telephone books in order to gather personal details about Nazi criminals and information about their possible whereabouts. This was his life’s goal. Sometimes he would go out on small detective missions, extracting leads from talkative neighbors or barmen, mailmen, waiters, and barbers. An acquaintance compared him to Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective in The Pink Panther.
His faith in the liberal system of justice and in America, combined with his communication skills, made him very much a man of the twentieth century. The concept of Holocaust commemoration that he developed was a broad, humanistic one. In contrast to the memorializing of only the Nazis’ Jewish victims fostered in Israel and by the Jewish establishment in the United States, Wiesenthal tended to view the murder of the Jews as a crime against the whole of humanity, and he tied it in with the atrocities committed by the Nazis against other groups, such as incurable invalids, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his eyes, the Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but a human one.
Wiesenthal’s broad humanity was anchored in the story of his life. He always lived within more than one sphere of identity. He was born in a Jewish shtetl and until his dying day he defined himself first and foremost as a Jew. But he grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and chose to live in Austria, which he saw as his cultural and political homeland. He kept one foot within the Israeli sphere, too; he looked upon Israel as a second homeland. And with the passage of time he developed a deep sense of identity with America. Living within different circles of identity gave him a certain cosmopolitan openness.
On more than one occasion he had to show great courage. One of the rooms in his office housed hundreds of files containing threatening letters and anti-Semitic abuse that he received. Wiesenthal marked these files with the letter m for meshuganers—lunatics, in Yiddish. Once a letter addressed to “The Jew Pig, Austria” was delivered to his office. Wiesenthal phoned the posts minister to ask how they knew that it was meant for him. But they knew, always. Nonetheless, Wiesenthal chose to live in Austria and to tie his life and fate to that country. It is not easy to explain why he did so.
In 1953 Wiesenthal discovered and reported to the Israeli authorities that Adolf Eichmann, one of the main Nazi criminals, was hiding in Argentina. Seven years later, Israel sent its agents to Buenos Aires to seize Eichmann and bring him to Jerusalem. He was put on trial, convicted, and executed. Wiesenthal’s role in the affair gave him a heroic aura, as if he had captured Eichmann single-handedly. Some Israelis never forgave him for this,
and one of them compared him to a hitchhiker who took over the driver’s seat. Others likened him to the legendary liar Baron Munchhausen. Actually, Wiesenthal worked for years in the service of Israel’s secret intelligence agency, the Mossad.
He was involved in efforts to locate and prosecute hundreds of Nazi criminals, and assisted in the conviction of dozens. His endeavors were remarkable, especially in view of the fact that after the defeat of the Third Reich, most of those involved in Nazi atrocities had gone unpunished. They had integrated themselves into the lives of their communities in Germany and Austria and other countries and were not called upon to answer for their crimes. Some of them had done well in politics, in the civil service, in the judiciary, and in the educational and economic systems.
This happened not only because the Germans and the Austrians took an indulgent attitude toward the criminals, but also because of the Cold War. More than once Wiesenthal saw that offenders he had located and wanted to prosecute were employed as secret agents in the service of the United States or other countries and, in at least one case, of Israel. “The Nazis lost the war, but we lost the postwar period,” Wiesenthal used to say.
Wiesenthal died in September 2005, at the age of ninety-six. His daughter, Paulinka Kreisberg, was flooded with consolation messages. Beatrix, queen of the Netherlands, and Abdullah, king of Jordan, were among those who wrote, as were Laura and George Bush, as well as presidents and prime ministers, legislators and mayors from all over the world. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution commemorating his life and accomplishments.
Someone sent condolences on behalf of Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer. That may have happened because of the constant and repeated pressure that Wiesenthal had exerted on the city of Berlin until it gave in to him and named a street after Jesse Owens, the black sprinter who defeated Hitler’s athletes in the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin in 1936.
From Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote: “The State of Israel, the Jewish people and all of humankind owe a great debt to Simon Wiesenthal who devoted his life to ensuring that the Nazi atrocities will not be repeated and that the murderers will not go unpunished.”
But his daughter’s heart was touched most by the private letters she received from innumerable individuals, among them hundreds of members of the “second generation”—the children of survivors, for whom the heritage of the Holocaust was a key part of their identity. Many of those children felt a deep identification with Wiesenthal. Esti Cohen, a native of Israel, wrote to Paulinka Kreisberg, “At the age of six, I used to have shoes ready next to my bed so that if the Nazis came in the night, at least I would have shoes, and not be like my mother in the ‘death march’ from the concentration camps at the end of World War II.” She attached to her letter a photocopy of her Israeli ID card, with a yellow star stuck onto it.
Wiesenthal related that once when he was a prisoner at the Janowska concentration camp in Lvov, in Ukraine, he was in a group of inmates ordered to dig a deep ditch. “We knew that soon the ditch would be full of bodies,” he said. “The victims were already being marched up. Women and girls. Then I caught the desperate eye of one of the girls. ‘Don’t forget us,’ is what that look said to me.” On another occasion, he said, he imagined meeting with the victims in heaven, and he was determined to say only four words, “I didn’t forget you,” the phrase that became his personal motto.
More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life. Ironically, the more years went by and the more unlikely it became that the surviving Nazi criminals would be brought to justice, the more the Holocaust became a universal synonym for evil, a warning sign for every nation and every person. This happened, to a large extent, thanks to the efforts of Simon Wiesenthal. Nobody did more than he did in this respect. But even at the height of his fame as a “Nazi hunter” and as a humanist authority, he remained a lonely man, haunted throughout his adult life by memories of the horror. He was a tragic hero, always cloaked in the mysteries of his life; it is no easy task to decipher his secrets.
As he walked behind the glass box in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal thought not only about the murdered millions, but also about the murderers: “I was reminded of Eichmann,” he wrote later. “That it was possible that the following day he would read in the newspaper about the ceremony and that a smile of satisfaction would come to his lips. . . . In my mind’s eye, I foresaw the day when my silent prayer would be heard, the day on which the murderer of my people would be taken to the land of the Hebrews. I swore that I would not remain silent and I would not rest until that longed-for day came.” This was a statement that was both true and untrue, like much of what Wiesenthal wrote.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Glass Box 1

1 "Eichmann Is My Passion" 12

2 "During That Period, We Never Took Hitler Seriously" 29

3 "See You on the Soap Shelf" 44

4 "Who Knows Her? Who Has Seen Her?" 64

5 "The Duty of an Austrian Patriot" 81

6 "That's How I Became a Stamp Collector" 96

7 "I Hope You're Not Coming to See Me" 119

8 "I Always Said He's in Buenos Aires" 137

9 "Sleuth with 6 Million Clients" 158

10 "You May Have Thought He Was Happy, but He Also Cried Sometimes" 177

11 "A Huge Mass of Rotten Flesh" 196

12 "Auschwitz Lines" 213

13 "What Would You Have Done?" 229

14 "Kreisk Is Going Mad" 241

15 "Better Than Any Monster 255

16 "Mr. Wiesenthal, I Claim, Had Different Relations with the Gestapo from Mine" 272

17 "It's Not Easy to Be My Wife" 292

18 "The Children...Were Actually the Same Children" 311

19 "Only So That Mengele's Name Would Not Be Forgotton" 332

20 "As If I Were Already Dead" 351

21 "Sleazenthal" 362

22 "We All Made Mistakes in Our Youth" 385

Acknowledgments 411

Notes 415

Index 463

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First Chapter

Simon Wiesenthal

The Life and Legends
By Tom Segev


Copyright © 2010 Tom Segev
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780385519465


"Eichmann Is My Passion"

1. Between Vengeance and Justice

Adolf Eichmann was the most senior Nazi official to speak to Jewish leaders before the war, first in Berlin and afterward in Vienna and Prague. At first he worked in the Nazi party's security service and later in the Reich Central Security Office. He also talked to several representatives of the Zionist movement. The object of these contacts was to arrange for the transfer of Jews from Germany and some of the territories conquered by the Nazis. As of 1941, Eichmann directed the deportation of the Jews of Europe, first to ghettos and then to systematic annihilation in the death camps.

In January 1942, Eichmann attended an interdepartmental conference held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the organization of the extermination. He was never a maker of policy; he implemented it. He was one of those Nazi killers who as a rule did their work sitting behind a desk, but he also took many trips into the field. In his memoirs he mentioned an incident that occurred near the city of Minsk in the German-occupied Soviet republic of Byelorussia. As a group of Jews was being readied for execution, Eichmann wrote, he saw a woman with a baby in her arms. He tried to pull the infant away to save it, he wrote, but someone opened fire and it was killed. Fragments of its brain splashed onto his leather coat, and his driver helped him clean them off. The Jews, who never encountered a more senior Nazi than him, looked upon him and Hitler as the two Adolfs who perpetrated the Holocaust.

The leaders of the Jewish people kept a watch on Eichmann's activities. Three months after the war broke out, Ben-Gurion recorded in his diary a report he had received from a Czechoslovakian Zionist official, to the effect that the condition of the Jews in Prague had deteriorated greatly since Eichmann arrived there. Ben-Gurion noted that Eichmann was directly subordinate to the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler. This was not accurate, but it reflected the prevalent notion that Eichmann was a very senior Nazi official.

Indeed, as late as April 1944, Eichmann appeared to be omnipotent, as he initiated negotiations that were to decide not only the fate of Hungary's Jews, but perhaps also the outcome of the whole war. Some of the leaders of Budapest's Jews, among them Rezso Kastner, heard him offer them a deal: the lives of a million Jews in exchange for an assortment of goods, including several thousand trucks. Kastner said that Eichmann had told him the Jews were being sent to be exterminated at Auschwitz, but that he, Eichmann, was prepared to stop this. The proposal was conveyed to the Western Allies by an emissary.

The story of the "blood for trucks" affair was retold many times, and although fewer than two thousand Jews were saved as a result of a deal between Kastner and Eichmann, the proposition contributed to the inflation of Eichmann's image and his identification with the Holocaust. "He is the guiltiest of all in the extermination of millions of Jews in Europe," wrote a Jewish journalist in Palestine soon after the war ended.

The Jewish Agency, which functioned as the government of the Jewish state in the making, began to collect material on the Nazi criminals toward the end of the war from refugees who had managed to reach Palestine, and from other sources. Based on this information, in June 1945 a standard form for war criminals was filled out at the Agency under Eichmann's name; out of several hundred such forms filled out, Eichmann was listed as the most senior of the wanted Nazis. The information was very incomplete and flawed. Even his first name was missing, and he was erroneously listed as having been born in Sarona, a German colony next to Tel Aviv. In the explanatory remarks, he was accurately described as one of those responsible for the annihilation of the Jews.

A few weeks later, one of the heads of the World Jewish Congress, an international federation of Jewish communities and organizations, petitioned the American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and requested that steps be taken to arrest Eichmann and prosecute him along with the prominent Nazis being tried there.6 But Eichmann had vanished. Straight after the war, various people had begun searching for him: emissaries from the Jewish community in Palestine, American intelligence agents, and Holocaust survivors, among them Simon Wiesenthal. It was a joint effort and though not always well coordinated, not to mention amateurish, reckless, and replete with mistakes, it was informed entirely by inner passion and devotion to the goal.

Accurate details about Eichmann's life and even a hint as to where he might be hiding were obtained without much difficulty from his deputy, Dieter Wisliceny, who had been arrested in May 1945 by American soldiers. He provided detailed testimony on the destruction of the Jews, placing most of the responsibility on Eichmann's shoulders. Some leaders of the Zionist movement who were in Europe at the time met with Wisliceny; one of them was Gideon Ruffer, who would later change his family name to Rafael and become a top Israeli Foreign Ministry official. What seems to have interested Ruffer most was the cooperation between Eichmann and the Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Amin el-Husseini. Wisliceny was extradited to Czechoslovakia, where, in Bratislava Prison, he gave a statement to Arthur Piernikraz, an Austrian-born emissary from Palestine who went by the name of "Pier" and was later to change his name to Asher Ben Natan. In days to come he became one of the heads of the Israeli defense establishment, and the Jewish state's first ambassador to Germany.

Pier was based in Vienna, where he was one of the commanders of the Briha-the operation for getting the Jews who had survived the Holocaust out of Eastern Europe and sending them to Palestine (briha is Hebrew for "flight" or "escape"). His mission was not to hunt Nazi criminals, but he nevertheless harbored a hope of trapping Eichmann. Wisliceny told him that Eichmann's chauffer was in detention. The driver was interrogated and gave the names of a number of women whom Eichmann was friendly with. Wisliceny also reported that Eichmann had left his wife and three sons in a village called Altaussee. This was the most significant information that existed then.

In Vienna, Pier had agreed to assist a refugee from the Polish city of Radom to find the murderers of his family and the other Jews there. The man's name was Tadek (Tuvia) Friedman. Pier gave him a little money and Friedman opened a "center for documentation." His aim was to take revenge on the murderers of Radom's Jews. Pier instructed him to concentrate on one man. "He is the greatest murderer of them all," he told Friedman, and Friedman began the search for Adolf Eichmann.

Wiesenthal heard about Eichmann only after the war, and he later recalled precisely from whom he had heard the name and when: from Aharon Hoter-Yishai, an officer in the Jewish Brigade (which had fought the Axis as part of the British army) and a well-known attorney in Palestine, in July 1945. Wiesenthal, who had begun public activities on behalf of the refugees, was then in touch with the American occupation forces and was helping them locate Nazi war criminals. On one or two occasions, he traveled to Nuremberg to attend the trials.

One of the Briha agents, Avraham Weingarten, put him in touch with Pier, and not long after that Gideon Ruffer also came to see him in Linz. They brought with them the list of Nazi criminals drawn up by the Jewish Agency, and told him that Eichmann was the most important of all.

Eichmann's family had settled in Linz when he was a child. His parents had an electrical goods store on one of the city's main streets. It still bore their family name after the war, and finding them was no problem. But Wiesenthal, who lived nearby in a rented room, was not sure that they were the same Eichmanns. He found out for sure by chance, as he relates in his memoirs. One evening, his landlady was serving him tea, and when she placed the tray on his desk she glanced at the papers lying there.

Her eye caught the name Eichmann. "Eichmann? Isn't that the SS general who persecuted the Jews?" she asked inquisitively, and mentioned that his parents lived nearby. Wiesenthal was excited and he asked her if she was sure. "What do you mean, sure? Don't I know my own neighbors?" the landlady replied. The next day, the police questioned Eichmann's parents, but they said they had no idea where he was.

It may have been this development that led Pier to write to Ruffer, "In the matter of Eichmann, we have begun to address it. So far, only Wiesenthal has done anything, because I was away for a week in Prague and Bratislava. Yesterday he told me that there has been some progress, and that I'd get a letter from him today. In two or three days' time I'll know more." But Pier had also taken action. On the basis of the information divulged by Wisliceny, he sent one of the Jewish refugees in Vienna to get to know one of Eichmann's female friends, in order to get a photograph of him. The man was Manus Diamant, from Katowice in Poland, who was then twenty-four years old.

During the war, Diamant roamed from city to city; the Nazis had killed his mother and his father. After the war he found himself in Vienna, where he met Tuvia Friedman and through him reached Pier. The passion for revenge raged within him. He had known Eichmann's name since 1943. A handsome young man, Diamant posed as an SS officer from Holland and set out to search for Eichmann's girlfriend. It was not an easy task, and when he found her he could not get her to show him her photo album right away. But eventually he managed to get a photograph of Eichmann out of her.

Pier sent Diamant to Linz to work with Wiesenthal, who showed him the Eichmann family's electrical goods store. Diamant began to keep an eye on it. Eichmann's brother also worked there. One day, the brother set out in the direction of the railroad station. Diamant followed him and got onto the same train. They arrived at Altaussee, the village mentioned by Wisliceny. As expected, Eichmann's brother had come to visit his sister-in-law, Veronika; now her address was known to those searching for her husband.

Many years later, Asher Ben Natan wrote to Diamant: "In daring personal actions, you managed to find out where his wife and children were living and to obtain the only photograph of Eichmann, which was the important first step toward trapping the criminal. Eichmann's photograph was used later to identify him in Buenos Aires, before he was abducted."

In the coming weeks, the Jewish refugee impostor managed to make friends with Veronika Eichmann, who was using her maiden name, Liebel, and sometimes he even frolicked with her children on the shore of the lake. Ben Natan would later reveal that at one stage a proposal to kidnap the children had been weighed, "but it was ultimately rejected for fear of possible entanglements."

This was only part of the story. Diamant filled in the gaps. Once, he said, he had gone sailing on the lake, with Eichmann's three children in the boat with him, all happy and full of joy. He remembered a book that he had read, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, the story of a murder on a lake in New York State, and an idea occurred to him: "to drown Eichmann's three children to punish the chief butcher, so that he would feel what millions of Jewish mothers and fathers had felt when their children were torn away from them by force and murdered by his orders." The idea would not leave him alone, he wrote, giving him insomnia and refusing to go away.

All his efforts to locate Eichmann failed, so Diamant decided to return to Vienna and report to Pier. The night before, he slept in Wiesenthal's room in Linz and told him the plan for vengeance that he had thought of. Wiesenthal objected strenuously. "There's no room for revenge," he declared. Diamant tried to convince him. "It's not just revenge, it's punishment. It would be fitting for Eichmann to have to dive into the lake to seek the bodies of his children, the same way we are looking for our million and a half lost children."

Wiesenthal remained adamant. Pier was also opposed to the proposal but nevertheless passed it on to his superiors, who forbade killing Eichmann's children. Diamant was disappointed, but many years later, as a successful Israeli industrialist, he wrote: "When I thought of rocking the boat that I was sitting in with Eichmann's children, I had a vision of my mother shaking her head from side to side, in doubt and in worry; out of respect for her, I threw the oar down and made for the shore."


Excerpted from Simon Wiesenthal by Tom Segev Copyright © 2010 by Tom Segev. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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