An Imperfect Nazi Hunter
Klein, Daniel, Moment
Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends
By Torn Segev Doubleday 2010, $32.50, pp. 448
Early in his career as a Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal enlisted the help of a handsome, 24-year-old Austrian Jew named Manus Diamant in his pursuit of Adolf Eichmann. Diamant's parents had been murdered by the Nazis, and after the war he posed as a Dutch SS officer in his personal search for Nazi criminals. Eichmann's wife, Veronika, and their three young children had been located in the Austrian lakeside village of Altaussee, so Diamant was dispatched there. He quickly ingratiated himself with Eichmann's family, so much so that one day he was entrusted to take the children out on the lake in a rowboat. Diamant thought how easy it would be "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." This became Diamant's plan of action, but first he consulted Wiesenthal.
"There is no room for revenger Wiesenthal adamantly replied, and Diamant's plan was abandoned.
Such is the man at the center of Tom Segev's artful portrait: a deeply committed humanist philosopher, guided by moral precepts of the highest order. This characteristic is also central to the tragedy of Wiesenthal's post-war life, the one that led him to acrimonious relationships with many prominent Jews, including Elie Wiesel, and to his astounding and highly questionable friendship with the former Third Reich minister, Albert Speer.
Segev's fascinating, exhaustively researched, painstakingly balanced and very readable biography delves into many other aspects of Wiesenthal's personality and life: his egocentrism, his proclivity for exaggeration and outright mendacity, his gift for public relations and political maneuvering, his stubbornness and contentiousness. But it is Wiesenthal's profoundly felt and constantly reexamined moral-mindedness that emerges from these pages as the essence of the man.
As a Jew who survived the Holocaust through both good luck and acts of honor by decent Germans, Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, was an outspoken critic of the idea of the "collective guilt" of the German people, a concept that had been embraced by many Jews immediately after the war. For Wiesenthal, there were only individuals and their decisions and deeds that should be held to account, a principle that compelled him to also investigate Jews who had been complicit with Nazis during the war, a pursuit that caused rancor among many Jews as well as many gentiles.
Indeed, it was Wiesenthal's insistence on equal accountability for Jewish collaborators that initiated his lifelong clash with Elie Wiesel. Recounts Segev: "Wiesel ... observed that Wiesenthal had tried to persuade him that it was not just six million Jews but 11 million human beings" of various (or no) religious persuasion who had perished in the death camps, including Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Germans, homosexuals and gypsies, and not one of them must be forgotten. "All of the victims must be united in a single memory," Wiesel quoted Wiesenthal as saying.
"Wiesel was incensed," Segev writes. "He said that there was no historian who cited the number 11 million and Wiesenthal lost his temper. 'You think only of the Jews!' he exclaimed. Tor you, they were all saints. I can prove to you that among them there were the worst kind of scoundrels, worse than the non-Jews."'
Wiesenthal apologized for his outburst, but the line between them had been drawn. In this incident, we see Wiesenthal's penchant for playing fast and loose with the facts--the figure, 11 million, is arbitrary at best--and for ugly hyperbole in the words, "worse than." But we also see Wiesenthal's unwavering moral conviction about the "brotherhood of all the victims."
Later, when Wiesenthal and Wiesel were in competition for the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize--which Wiesel won after an active campaign--their rift was complete. …