Examining the Legacy of the Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal

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Niccolo and Donkey
Examining the Legacy of the Nazi Hunter

Der Spiegel

Jan Friedman

January 10, 2011


Until his death in 2005, Simon Wiesenthal was the world's best-known Nazi hunter. But a new biography finds fault with the way he pursued his quarry and asks whether his "soaring ego" and "tendency to fantasize" actually got in the way of his mission.

The Austrian police were searching for Adolf Eichmann. He was rumored to be hiding in a house at Fischerndorf 8 in the central Alpine village of Altaussee.

But the officers accidentally knocked on the wrong door, at Fischerndorf 38. Instead of finding the logistical genius behind the Holocaust at the door, as expected, they came upon Anton Burger, a former colleague of Eichmann who went on to become the commandant of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

It was a mistake -- but one that turned out to be a stroke of luck.

Simon Wiesenthal, who had tipped off the police, was overjoyed by the inadvertent catch shortly after the end of the war. And of course he was there on the scene, Wiesenthal said in describing the incident, adding that he personally handed Burger over to the US Army after the capture.

The Nazi Hunter's Other Side
Drawing attention to himself and his successes was the Nazi hunter's modus operandi -- and he became world-famous in the process. Having survived the Holocaust himself, Wiesenthal spent the next 60 years ferreting out Nazi war criminals who had managed to disappear.

Indeed, Wiesenthal's tireless search turned him into a celebrity. He was portrayed as a hero in films, American presidents invited him to the White House, and dozens of universities awarded him honorary doctorates.

But there was also another side to the Nazi hunter: He used questionable methods. He took credit for the achievements of others. And, over the years, he succeeded in antagonizing many people who actually shared the same goals.

This side of Wiesenthal is presented in "Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends," a new biography by Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and journalist. Although Segev describes Wiesenthal as a "brave man who launched some breathtaking ventures," he also writes that Wiesenthal had a "soaring ego" and a harmful "tendency to fantasize."

Wiesenthal's Roots
Wiesenthal's activities had a lot to do with the country he lived in. Austria was even more indulgent than the young Federal Republic of Germany in its treatment of Nazi functionaries who had slipped into ordinary civilian life. They were protected by right-wing sympathizers in positions of political leadership and in the judiciary, but also by a widespread desire to forget. To make himself heard, Wiesenthal had to be very loud.

Wiesenthal had a love-hate relationship with the Austrians. "I am their bad conscience," he once said, "because each one of them should have taken upon himself what I have done for Austrian society." In return, he received bushels of insulting and threatening letters, such as the one that found its way to him despite only being addressed to "The Jew Pig, Austria."

Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Buchach, a city in what is now western Ukraine, into a family that supported the Habsburg monarchy. His father, a sales representative for a sugar refinery, died in World War I. Simon studied architecture in Prague and then moved to what was then the eastern-Polish city of Lvov (now the western Ukrainian city of Lviv). There, he married Cyla Müller, also Jewish, in 1936.

When German troops occupied Lvov in 1941, life became a living hell for its Jewish inhabitants. Only 3,400 of the Jewish community's 160,000 members survived. Wiesenthal was forced to work as a slave laborer in a railroad repair yard. He later escaped, was recaptured and then spent time in a series of concentration camps -- including Plaszow, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald and Mauthausen -- before being liberated by American soldiers on May 5, 1945.

After the war, he discovered that his wife had survived, working as a forced laborer with a forged passport in the western German city of Solingen. When the couple was reunited in a refugee camp in Linz, Austria, they calculated that 89 of their relatives had been murdered.

The Birth of the Nazi Hunter
Wiesenthal then assumed a role that hardly anyone had envisioned at the time. Working for the US military administration, he interviewed Jewish survivors to document their memories of their tormentors.

The register that emerged would go on to become the cornerstone of the archive that Wiesenthal first set up in Linz and later moved to Vienna. He funded the effort with donations -- and regular payments from the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency. For Wiesenthal, emigrating to Israel wasn't an option. Instead, it was his duty, he once wrote, to serve as an "Austrian patriot" and to "provide a warning against future excesses."

Wiesenthal spent his days in a small office filled with files, cards and registration records. He had a secretary and a few volunteers, who addressed him as "Herr Engineer." But that was it. "Contrary to the myths he spun around himself," Segev writes, "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." The Nazi hunter made up for a lack of resources with a pronounced sense of mission. And he scuffled with the competition. He once, for example, denounced Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld by telling West German authorities that she was working for the Stasi, East Germany's secret police -- despite a lack of evidence for the claim.

Concocting Stories
In 1960, after tracking down Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Mossad agents took him to Israel. When Eichmann's trial began in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal published a book entitled "Ich jagte Eichmann" ("I Hunted Eichmann"). Given the fact that it was an armada of researchers and intelligence agencies that hunted down the Nazi war criminal, rather than just Wiesenthal by himself, the title was a bit of a stretch. Still, Wiesenthal did play a key role: Several years earlier, in 1953, it was he who had alerted the Israelis that Eichmann was living in Argentina.

Nevertheless, much of the other information Wiesenthal provided was wrong, such as his conclusions on the whereabouts of the Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele.

Information he provided once sent a reporter working for the German magazine Quick to the Greek island of Kythnos. When the journalist returned empty-handed, Wiesenthal claimed that Mengele had left the island only 12 hours earlier. In reality, though, Mengele was in Brazil -- one of the few countries Wiesenthal had never mentioned -- where he died in a swimming accident in 1979.

Wiesenthal also concocted legends surrounding the story of the Holocaust and his own suffering. It was years before he corrected a claim he made after the war that the Nazis had used the bodies of dead Jews to make soap. Similarly, the number of camps he was supposedly interned in grew over time -- until the list eventually included 12 camps, including Auschwitz.

In one of their memorandums, even the Israelis found that he was a "publicity hound" and complained that he often made assertions that couldn't be proven. The memo hinted that he was egomaniacal and was addicted to publicity.

Those words were written at the peak of Wiesenthal's feud with Bruno Kreisky, Austria's charismatic Social Democratic chancellor. Kreisky, who was Jewish, ironically came into power in 1970 with the help of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Because he led a minority government, he was forced to bring several ministers with unappetizing pasts into his cabinet. The ministers of agriculture, construction, transportation and the interior were all former members of the Nazi Party.

By publicizing the histories of the new ministers, Wiesenthal provoked Kreisky, who saw himself as a man of the people and sensed that Austrians were not interested in rehashing the past. "I'm just waiting for Mr. Wiesenthal to come up with proof that I was in the SS, too" the chancellor once caustically quipped. He was quoted in the press as saying that Wiesenthal was a "Jewish fascist."

Kreisky even had his staff search for incriminating information about Wiesenthal. Although he was never able to prove the allegation, Kreisky told the press that Wiesenthal only survived the war by collaborating with the Nazis. In 1987, the two rivals ended up in court. In the end, Kreisky was found liable for defamation, but he died soon thereafter without having paid the court-ordered fine. Segev characterizes the conflict as a dispute between two Jews who desperately wanted to be a "part of Austrian society."

Wiesenthal's behavior in another Nazi affair underscored his yearning for approval. When it was revealed that Austrian President Kurt Waldheim had concealed certain aspects of his service in the German military during the war, Wiesenthal backed the politician, with whom he was in close contact.

Wiesenthal's reputation suffered as a result. In internal World Jewish Congress documents, he was dubbed "Sleazenthal." During an interview on German television for a 1996 documentary on Wiesenthal, Eli Rosenbaum, the US Justice Department's chief Nazi hunter at the time, described Wiesenthal as "incompetent," "an egomaniac," "a spreader of false information" and "a tragic figure." Rosenbaum's office once wrote to Wiesenthal's center that not a single one of its accusations had led to a trial.

Wiesenthal's Legacy
It is practically impossible to verify whether Wiesenthal truly brought 1,100 war criminals to justice, as he himself claimed. He was always more of a PR man than a serious investigator -- perhaps his primary service to a society determined to forget the past.

Today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center continues to perform this PR role. Derided by criminal prosecutors, the center issues a list of the most-wanted Nazi criminals as well as an annual assessment of the efforts of individual countries to track them down.

Wiesenthal died in September 2005, at 96, two years after his wife Cyla. Speaking about her life at the side of the famous Nazi hunter, she once said: "I am not married to a man I am married to thousands, maybe millions, of dead."
Niccolo and Donkey
The head Nazi-hunter’s trail of lies

Times Online UK

Guy Walters

July 19, 2009

Since the early 1960s Simon Wiesenthal’s name has become synonymous with Nazi hunting. His standing is that of a secular saint. Nominated four times for the Nobel peace prize, the recipient of a British honorary knighthood, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Légion d’honneur and at least 53 other distinctions, he was often credited with some 1,100 Nazi “scalps”. He is remembered, above all, for his efforts to track down Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious war criminals.

His reputation is built on sand, however. He was a liar — and a bad one at that. From the end of the second world war to the end of his life in 2005, he would lie repeatedly about his supposed hunt for Eichmann as well as his other Nazi-hunting exploits. He would also concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic career. There are so many inconsistencies between his three main memoirs and between those memoirs and contemporaneous documents, that it is impossible to establish a reliable narrative from them. Wiesenthal’s scant regard for the truth makes it possible to doubt everything he ever wrote or said.

Some may feel I am too harsh on him and that I run a professional danger in seemingly allying myself with a vile host of neo-Nazis, revisionists, Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. I belong firmly outside any of these squalid camps and it is my intention to wrestle criticism of Wiesenthal away from their clutches. His figure is a complex and important one. If there was a motive for his duplicity, it may well have been rooted in good intentions. For his untruths are not the only shocking discoveries I have made researching the escape of Nazi war criminals. I found a lack of political will for hunting them. Many could have been brought to justice had governments allocated even comparatively meagre resources to their pursuit.

It is partly thanks to Wiesenthal that the Holocaust has been remembered and properly recorded and this is perhaps his greatest legacy. He did bring some Nazis to justice; but it was in nothing like the quantity that is claimed and Eichmann was certainly not among them. There is no space here, however, for my forensic examination of his claims as a Nazi hunter. I will confine myself to some famous episodes before and during the war that are at the heart of the Wiesenthal myth.

He was born in 1908 in Buczacz, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now in Ukraine. After the first world war, Buczacz changed hands frequently between Poles, Ukrainians and Soviet forces. In 1920 the 11-year-old Wiesenthal was attacked with a sabre by a mounted Ukrainian who slashed his right thigh to the bone. Wiesenthal regarded the scar as part of a long line of evidence that he was protected from violent death by an “unseen power” that wanted him kept alive for a purpose.

His background was ideal for any aspiring fabulist. Like many from Galicia, Wiesenthal would have spent his childhood immersed in the Polish literary genre of tall stories told over the dinner table. In a place such as Buczacz in the 1920s, truth was a relatively elastic concept. At 19 he enrolled as an architectural student at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he found his metier as a raconteur and appeared as a stand-up comedian.

His studies went less well. Although most biographies — including that on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s website — say he graduated, he did not complete his degree. Some biographies say he gained a diploma as an architectural engineer at Lvov polytechnic in Poland, but the Lvov state archives have no record of his having studied there and his name is absent from Poland’s pre-war catalogue of architects and builders. He claimed fraudulently throughout his life that he did have a diploma; his letterheads proudly display it.
Similarly, there are large discrepancies in his dramatic stories of the second world war. He was in Lvov when it fell to the Nazis in 1941. He claimed he and a Jewish friend called Gross were arrested at 4pm on Sunday July 6, one of the few dates that remain constant in his ever-shifting life story. Whenever he is so specific, however, he is usually lying.

Frogmarched to prison, they were put in a line of some 40 other Jews in a courtyard. Ukrainian auxiliary police started shooting each man in the neck, working their way down the line towards Wiesenthal. He was saved by a peal of church bells signifying evening mass. Incredibly, the Ukrainians halted their execution to go to worship. The survivors were led to the cells, where Wiesenthal claims he fell asleep. He was woken by a Ukrainian friend in the auxiliary police who saved him and Gross by telling them to pretend they were Russian spies. They were brutally questioned — Wiesenthal lost two teeth — but were freed after cleaning the commandant’s office.

The story of this sensational escape — one of the most famous of Wiesenthal’s war and one that has helped to establish the notion of his divine mission — is in all likelihood a complete fabrication. Certainly the Ukrainians carried out brutal pogroms in Lvov in early July 1941; but there was then a pause and they did not start again until July 25. According to testimony Wiesenthal gave to American war crimes investigators after the war, he was actually arrested on July 13 and managed to escape “through a bribe”. By subsequently placing his arrest on July 6, his story fitted the timing of the pogroms.

By the end of the year Wiesenthal was in Janowska, a concentration camp outside Lvov. Given the task of painting Soviet railway engines with Nazi insignia, he made friends with Adolf Kohlrautz, the German senior inspector at the workshop, who was secretly anti-Nazi. On April 20, 1943, Wiesenthal was apparently selected for a mass execution again. The SS at Janowska picked him among some Jews to be shot in a grim celebration of Hitler’s 54th birthday. They silently walked towards a huge sandpit, 6ft deep and 1,500ft long. A few dead bodies were visible in it. Forced to undress, they were herded in single file down a barbed-wire corridor known as the hose to be shot one by one at the edge of the pit.

A whistle interrupted the gunshots, followed by a shout of “Wiesenthal!” An SS man called Koller ran forward and told Wiesenthal to follow him. “I staggered like a drunk,” Wiesenthal recalled. “Koller slapped my face twice and brought me back to earth. I was walking back through the hose, naked. Behind me, the sounds of shooting resumed but they were over long before I had reached the camp.” Back at the workshop he found a beaming Kohlrautz, who had convinced the camp commander it was essential to keep Wiesenthal alive to paint a poster that would feature a swastika and the words “We Thank Our Führer”.

On October 2, 1943, according to Wiesenthal, Kohlrautz warned him that the camp and its prisoners were shortly to be liquidated. The German gave him and a friend passes to visit a stationery shop in town, accompanied by a Ukrainian guard. They managed to escape out the back while the Ukrainian waited at the front.

Yet again he had seemingly cheated death in a miraculous fashion. But we only have his word for it. According to Wiesenthal, Kohlrautz was killed in the battle for Berlin in April 1945. He also told a biographer, however, that Kohlrautz was killed on the Russian front in 1944. And in an affidavit made in August 1954 about his wartime persecutions, he neglects to include the story at all. In both this document and in his testimony to the Americans in May 1945, he mentions Kohlrautz without saying the German saved his life.

From this point in Wiesenthal’s war it is impossible to establish a reliable train of events. With at least four wildly different accounts of his activities between October 1943 and the middle of 1944 — including his alleged role as a partisan officer — serious questions must be raised. Some, such as Bruno Kreisky, the former Austrian chancellor, repeatedly accused Wiesenthal in the 1970s and the 1980s of collaborating with the Gestapo. Kreisky’s claims were supported by unsubstantiated evidence from the Polish and Soviet governments. Wiesenthal took him to court and won.

Whatever the truth, by November 1944 Wiesenthal was in Gross-Rosen, a camp near Wroclaw. He told Hella Pick, his biographer, that he was forced to work barefoot in the camp quarry and soon learnt that the team of 100 prisoners assigned to the work kommando shrank by one each day. After a few days he felt sure his turn was about to come. “My executioner was behind me,” he recalled, “poised to smash my head with a rock. I turned around and the man, surprised, dropped his stone. It crushed my toe. I screamed.”

Wiesenthal’s quick reactions and yell apparently saved his life because there was some form of inspection that day — he thought it may have been by the Red Cross — and so he was stretchered away to the first-aid station. His toe was cut off without anaesthesia while two men held him still. The following day, Wiesenthal said, he was in agony. “The doctor came back and saw that I had a septic blister on the sole of my foot. So they cut it open and the gangrene spurted all over the room.”

Yet again, one of Wiesenthal’s “miracles” is open to doubt. First, the story appears in no other memoir or statement. Secondly, if the Red Cross really was inspecting Gross-Rosen that day, then the SS would have temporarily halted any executions. As it was, the Red Cross was not allowed access to concentration camps at that time. Thirdly, the medical consequences seem entirely implausible.

Soon afterwards, according to Wiesenthal’s account, he managed to walk 170 miles west to Chemnitz after Gross-Rosen was evacuated. Walking on a gangrenous foot with a recently amputated toe would have been hellish. Instead of a shoe, he had the sleeve of an old coat wrapped around his foot with some wire. For a walking stick he had a broomstick. Of the 6,000 prisoners who marched out, only 4,800 arrived in Chemnitz. With his infected foot, Wiesenthal was lucky to be among them.

From Chemnitz, the prisoners ended up at Mauthausen camp near Linz in Austria. Wiesenthal arrived there on the frozen night of February 15, 1945. In The Murderers Among Us, he tells how he and a fellow prisoner, Prince Radziwill, linked arms to make the last four miles uphill to the camp. The effort was too great and they collapsed in the snow. An SS man fired a shot that landed between them. As the two men did not get up, they were left for dead in the sub-zero temperature. When lorries arrived to collect those who had died on the march, the unconscious Wiesenthal and Radziwill were so frozen that they were thrown onto a pile of corpses. At the crematorium, however, the prisoners unloading them realised they were alive. They were given a cold shower to thaw out and Wiesenthal was taken to Block VI, the “death block” for the mortally ill.

In 1961, when Wiesenthal was interviewed for the Yad Vashem archive by the Israeli journalist Haim Maas about his war years, Wiesenthal mentioned that the infection from his foot had now turned blue-green and had spread right up to his knee. He lay in the death block for three months until the end of the war. Too weak to get out of bed, he claimed he survived — incredibly — on 200 calories a day, along with the occasional piece of bread or sausage smuggled to him by a friendly Pole.

Mauthausen was liberated on May 5, 1945. Despite weighing just 100lb, Wiesenthal struggled outside to greet the American tanks. “I don’t know how I managed to get up and walk,” he recalled. If he was able to walk, his severely infected leg must have been cured during the previous three months by either amputation or antibiotics. We know the former did not take place, and the latter was emphatically not a common treatment for ailing Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Once again, it appears as though a miracle had taken place.

The rapidity of Wiesenthal’s recovery is so astonishing that it is doubtful whether he was as ill as he claimed. Just 20 days after the liberation, he wrote to the US camp commander asking whether he could be involved in assisting the US authorities investigating war crimes. Claiming to have been in 13 concentration camps — he had in fact been in no more than six — Wiesenthal supplied a list of 91 names of those who he felt were responsible for “incalculable sufferings”.

According to most accounts, Wiesenthal asked if he could join the American war crimes investigators, but they refused, telling him he was not well enough. After he had gained some weight, he returned and was assigned to a captain with whom Wiesenthal claimed to have captured his first “scalp”, a snivelling SS guard called Schmidt. “There were many others in the weeks that followed,” Wiesenthal later wrote. “You didn’t have to go far. You almost stumbled over them.”

A curriculum vitae Wiesenthal completed after the war does not mention his work for the Americans but lists his occupation as the vice-chairman of the Jewish Central Committee for the US zone, based in Linz. Its task was to draw up lists of survivors that other survivors could consult in their hunt for relatives.

For at least a year after the war, Wiesenthal’s other task was to lobby hard for his fellow Jews; he became president of the Paris-based International Concentration Camp Organisation. He also forged contacts with the Brichah, which smuggled Jews out of Europe to Palestine.

It was not until February 1947 that he formed the organisation that would make him famous, the Jewish Historical Documentation Centre in Linz. Its aim was to collate information on the final solution with a view to securing the indictments of war criminals. Wiesenthal claimed to have started it because of an anti-Semitic remark made by an American officer, which made him realise that the allies would never hunt down the Nazis to the extent that was required.

Sadly, he was to be proved right. He and his band of 30 volunteers travelled around the displaced persons’ camps, collecting evidence on the atrocities from former concentration camp inmates. In all, Wiesenthal’s team compiled 3,289 questionnaires, which is a far more impressive feat than anything the allies achieved.

Wiesenthal died in 2005 at the age of 96 and was buried in Israel. The tributes and eulogies were many and fulsome and at the time it would have been churlish to have detracted from the many positive aspects of the role he played. He was at heart a showman and when he found a role as the world’s head Nazi hunter, he played it well. As with so many popular performances, it was impossible for the critics to tell the public that the Great Wiesenthal Show was little more than an illusion. Ultimately, it was an illusion mounted for a good cause.
Niccolo and Donkey
Niccolo and Donkey
Bob Dylan Roof

I occasionally wonder if there is a genetic basis for Jewish perfidy because I can't imagine anything else that would compel so many disparate members of the tribe to concoct such elaborate false narratives. Every group has its own paranoiacs, histrionics, and other deviants who thrive on the trust and good will of the credulous majority, but the Jews seem to be unique in their tendency to enshrine their outlandish old wives tales as universal truth. Maybe my impression is based on the magnifying effect produced by Jewish wealth (not every victim group can afford to establish a "center" or produce a film to promote a member's lies), but I cannot, for example, remember any instances of Armenians or Negroes escaping their persecutors and living with wolves or defecating diamonds for several years like Irene Zisblatt.

Such a trait would certainly be a useful survival strategy for a group ensconced within a more powerful society predicated on Frankness and trust.

I haven't read MacDonald's trilogy but I assume he addresses something like this.


Hunting Nazis is only ethical if you eat them after.

Team Zissou

Rather predictably, the same sort of narrative is taking shape with regard to slavery. So many negros were killed, forced to work naked, tortured, maimed, etc., that apparently no actual slave labor ever got performed. Slave traders in Charleston had to be opening the hulls of ships only to see row upon row of dead slaves. There should only be about 1 million negros left on the entire planet at this point.

Bob Dylan Roof
But remember that the 15% or so of the American population that were slaves nevertheless built dis country while the rest lounged around and did nothing.