Self-Made Golem

Tablet Magazine, September 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

Self-Made Golem


Stop the presses! Are you sitting down? Can you handle the truth? According to Tom Segev's new biography of Simon Wiesenthaland I'm not making this upthe famed Nazi hunter was not a perfect human being! He was a media manipulator, a myth-maker, a publicity seeker. He could be a self-aggrandizing credit grabber, a teller of tall tales and much-varied narratives, and sometimes weaver of outright fabrications. He was quarrelsome, vain, egotistical, didn't play well with others.

But what would we have done without him? To many Jews, especially in the Diaspora, he gave at least the illusion that some of the perpetrators would be brought to justice. "Justice not vengeance," as Wiesenthal liked to say.

Segev, an indefatigable historian and highly respected reporter for the leftist Israeli daily Haaretz, tells us he had access to 300,000 Wiesenthal-related documents, although he doesn't say how many he read. (Among his many human sources are agents of the Mossad who believe they deserve credit for some of his successes.) But his attempt at de-mythologizing Wiesenthal can sometimes make one feel he misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the Wiesenthal behind the legend may have been all too human, and it's always valuable to set the record straight for history, but could this be a case where the legend is more important to the course of history than the life? Is publicity-seeking intrinsically bad if one is seeking to publicize the untroubled afterlives of mass murderers in order to shame the world into action?

The fact that this question has to be asked is due to something we have chosen to forget: the world community's stunning failure after World War II to treat the Final Solution as a crime unto itself. The 19 Nazis convicted at Nuremberg were found guilty of "crimes against humanity" mainly for planning and starting a devastating war of aggression. Wiesenthal, Segev reminds us, was always adamant that the Final Solution was a crime against humanity as well as against Jews. But it was a different crime from that for which the Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg.

There was a lamentable loss of distinction between the two crimes, or rather a shameful failure to prosecute the second crime, for some 15 years after the war. Hitler lost the war against the Allies, yes. But in effect he won his personal "war against the Jews" (as Lucy Dawidowicz described his greatest priority) by a factor of some 6 million to one.

The world preferred to focus on the fact that the official war was won. We are fortunate that someoneSimon Wiesenthalmade the pursuit of the perpetrators of the second war his lonely obsession. But what if there had been no Wiesenthal? What if he hadn't started pestering people around the world as early as 1953 that Adolf Eichmann, the chief operating officer of the Holocaust, was alive and living in Buenos Aires? Wiesenthal became the Ancient Mariner of Mauthausen, the Austrian camp he'd been sent to from his native Lvov, buttonholing anyone and everyone, trying to get them to care that there was a monster of evil living a thinly disguised second life in Buenos Aires. And for a long time nobody cared enough to do anything about it. It wasn't a priority.

Eichamann still may have been caughtSegev is meticulous in disentangling the different threads of information that finally propelled the Mossad to kidnap Eichmann in Argentina and transport him to Israel for trial in 1960but it was Wiesenthal who seized upon the capture (and his role in it) to make belated justice for ex-Nazi war criminals a worldwide cause.

That was the significance of the Eichmann trial, making the world face the fact that it had let the perpetrators of the greatest mass murder in history walk away for the most part unscathed and unindicted.

Wiesenthal or the myth that grew up around Wiesenthalthat Nazis all over the world were being pursued by the vast inexorable forces of Wiesenthal's all-powerful, all-knowing "Documentation Center"served several purposes. …

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