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Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

by Tom Segev

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With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations

Now in paperback, the first fully documented biography of the legendary Polish-born Nazi hunter—a revelatory account of a man whose life, though part invention, was wholly dedicated to ensuring both that the Nazis be held responsible for their crimes and that their destruction of European Jewry never be


With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations

Now in paperback, the first fully documented biography of the legendary Polish-born Nazi hunter—a revelatory account of a man whose life, though part invention, was wholly dedicated to ensuring both that the Nazis be held responsible for their crimes and that their destruction of European Jewry never be forgotten.

Within days of being liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal had assembled a list of nearly 150 Nazi war criminals, the first of dozens of such lists he would compile over a lifetime as a Nazi hunter. A hero in the eyes of many, Wiesenthal was also attacked for his unrelenting pursuit of justice for crimes committed in a past that many preferred to forget. With access to Wiesenthal’s private papers and to American, East German, and Israeli government archives, Tom Segev sheds new light on Wiesenthal’s most closely guarded secrets: his true role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, his connection to Isreal’s Mossad, his controversial investigative techniques, his unlikely friendships with Kurt Waldheim and Albert Speer, his rivalry with Elie Wiesel—making clear that the truth of Wiesenthal’s existence was far more complex and compelling than the legends (often of his own making) that surrounded him.

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.
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
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
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

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.54(w) x 11.28(h) x 1.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.
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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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