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Simon Wiesenthal and the Ethics of History


Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends
by Tom Segev
Doubleday, 496 pp., $35

If there was anything in particular that prevented Simon Wiesenthal from becoming, after S.Y. Agnon, the second Jew from Buczacz to win a Nobel Prize, it was probably his relationship with Kurt Waldheim. Back in the 1960s, when he was Austria's foreign minister, Waldheim had helped Wiesenthal to defend himself against rumors spread by Communist bloc countries that he had been a Nazi collaborator during World War II.

Two decades later, after he had served as Secretary-General of the UN and was running for the presidency of Austria, Waldheim's actual Nazi past finally came to light. Grateful for his earlier support, Wiesenthal, who should have known better (and probably did), dismissed the case against Waldheim as mere "gossip" spread by his political adversaries. This landed him in a nasty public battle with the World Jewish Congress, which lobbied to have Waldheim labeled a war criminal, placed on the United States' Watch List, and banned from entering the country. In 1986, at the height of this scandal, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to fellow survivor Elie Wiesel. "It is reasonable to assume," writes Tom Segev in his new biography, "that Wiesenthal didn't get the prize" at the same time "because he was at the center of a raging controversy."

Odessa FileThis was scarcely the only controversy that Wiesenthal sparked. Throughout his career as a Nazi hunter he had both fervent admirers and angry detractors. In the eyes of some, he was the matchless hero who inspired Frederick Forsyth's novel The Odessa File, a man who had dedicated himself, often at risk to his own personal safety, to tracking down Nazi war criminals, and bringing them to justice. Sitting in a modest office in Vienna, behind heavily fortified steel doors, he managed—without a state's intelligence apparatus or financial resources—to find what he called "the murderers among us." A United States Congressional Resolution lauded him as being "instrumental in the capture and conviction of more than 1,000 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi plan to annihilate European Jewry." But Isser Harel, the mastermind who headed Israel's Security Services at the time of Eichmann's capture, insisted that Wiesenthal played no role in the operation. In fact, according to Harel, Wiesenthal almost sabotaged the whole effort when he shared information that had been given to him in strictest confidence. While Harel's account of this episode in The House on Garibaldi Street may be somewhat self-serving, he is by no means the only one to denounce Wiesenthal as a self-promoter and even a fraud. Other critics have accused him of falsely taking credit for finding criminals and repeatedly inventing information unsupported by any data.

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About the Author

Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and the author of The Eichmann Trial (Nextbook/Schocken), coming this spring.

 

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