Simon Wiesenthal, the legendary Nazi hunter, was in many ways a smaller-than-life character. Balding, mustached, the wearer of frumpy suits and neckties, possessed of an old-world Yiddish accent and a distracted air, he often seemed to be stooped, one observer said, “as if permanently looking for a mislaid piece of paper.”
Wiesenthal (1908-2005) liked to give the impression, in the decades following World War II, that he operated a bustling worldwide dragnet, awesome in its ability to swoop down and apprehend war criminals. The reality was far more humble. He mostly worked alone, out of a cramped apartment, poring through yellowed news clippings and telephone books and scraps of paper, seizing on tiny bits of evidence he would then turn over to others. One acquaintance compared him to Inspector Clouseau.
Wiesenthal’s scraps of paper were plenty. As Tom Segev makes plain in his meticulous and forceful new biography, “Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends,” his achievements were real even if his heroic aura was sometimes exaggerated. His work helped lead to the capture of Adolf Eichmann. He tracked down the policeman who arrested Anne Frank. He was resourceful, confident, indefatigable.
“He was involved in efforts to locate and prosecute hundreds of Nazi criminals and assisted in the conviction of dozens,” Mr. Segev writes. “His endeavors were remarkable, especially in view of the fact that after the defeat of the Third Reich, most of those involved in Nazi atrocities had gone unpunished. They had integrated themselves into the lives of their communities in Germany and Austria and other countries and were not called upon to answer for their crimes.”
Wiesenthal, himself a Holocaust survivor, was driven by an unslakable yearning for — as he titled one of his autobiographies — “Justice Not Vengeance.” He imagined meeting the Nazis’ victims in heaven and was determined to speak just four words to them: “I didn’t forget you.” According to Mr. Segev, that phrase was both his animating force and motto.
Wiesenthal led one of the 20th century’s great lives. His moral authority in matters concerning the destruction of the European Jews was vast. Governments, security agencies and lonely survivors turned their eyes to him when no one else had hard information or a sympathetic ear. It is a serious pleasure to imagine a new generation of readers discovering his life in this careful telling.
Mr. Segev is an Israeli journalist and historian, a columnist for the daily newspaper Haaretz, and the author of several well-regarded books, including “1949: The First Israelis” and “One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate.” His biography of Wiesenthal is the most fully documented to date, relying on new material gleaned from his subject’s voluminous private papers and from more than a dozen governmental archives.
His 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, including his work with the Mossad, his bitter rivalries with Elie Wiesel and with other Nazi hunters, and his bizarre friendships with Kurt Waldheim and Albert Speer.
Wiesenthal was a complicated hero, an angel with dirty wings. The reader of “Simon Wiesenthal” will encounter wince-making material on every other page. Wiesenthal was petty and egomaniacal. He was a serial exaggerator. He made unfounded accusations. He tended to tell, in memoirs and interviews, different versions of the same events. His enemies called him “Sleazenthal,” and he gave them the ammunition to do so.
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. Near the end of this book he wrestles mightily with the question of why Wiesenthal lied as often as he did. He had survivor’s guilt, the author suggests, and a literary bent that made him want to tell good stories.
Mr. Segev’s book begins in medias res — with the hunt for Eichmann — and rarely slows to catch its breath. He manages to pour the details of Wiesenthal’s early years, the least interesting part of most biographies, seamlessly into the onrushing story of his imprisonment in concentration camps and his search for war criminals.
Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Buczacz, Galacia, a small town then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now part of Ukraine. His father, who worked for a sugar company, fought for the Austrian army in World War I and died in combat in 1915. Wiesenthal married his high school sweetheart and worked as an architect in Lvov before Hitler’s army overtook that town on June 22, 1941.
He was arrested and spent time in five concentration camps (he would stretch that number to 12 or more), including Buchenwald and Plaszow, the camp made famous in the film “Schindler’s List.” While imprisoned he became separated from his wife and mother. (He never saw his mother again, but he reunited with his wife, Cyla, after the war.) He survived, Mr. Segev writes, thanks to resourcefulness, the relative kindness of some decent Germans and blind luck.
Within days of the war’s end Wiesenthal had compiled a list of nearly 150 Nazi war criminals and began to work with the Unites States Army as an interpreter. The sight of imprisoned SS officers, Mr. Segev writes, “filled him with an elation akin to that evoked by divine worship.”
Mr. Segev writes well about Wiesenthal’s early methods. He would approach refugees and pepper them with questions: “Where were you? When? Which Nazis do you remember? What was each one’s family name, first name, nickname, rank, hometown, distinguishing features, hair, eyes, face, approximate age?” He compiled endless files.
Wiesenthal scraped out a living working for two Jewish welfare organizations and by mediating disputes that included the return of property looted from the Jews. By the late 1950s he was receiving monthly restitution payments from Germany.
The arrest of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents made Wiesenthal an international hero. Wiesenthal had tracked Eichmann — the Gestapo chief who implemented Hitler’s “final solution” — for more than 15 years and contributed crucial information, even if he was not directly involved in his arrest. Eichmann’s trial brought a new worldwide awareness of the Holocaust, a subject that had not been at the core of the Nuremberg trials.
Mr. Segev closely follows Wiesenthal’s work on many cases yet also notes his less glamorous but no less important victories, like fighting against statues of limitations on Nazi crimes. It helped that Wiesenthal lived with his family in Austria instead of moving away, as most Jews did after the war. “The reason I don’t live in Israel,” he said, “is that there are no Nazis or anti-Semites there.”
Wiesenthal liked good food, candy, cigarettes and crude humor (in 1962, under a pseudonym, he published a collection of anti-Communist jokes), but his life was often a lonely one. He had no close friends. Mr. Segev describes his wife as a “sickly, depressive woman” with whom Wiesenthal did not share his work. “I am not married to a man,” she said. “I am married to thousands, maybe millions, of dead.”
Mr. Segev’s book — it has been translated from the Hebrew by Ronnie Hope — is not a masterpiece of English prose. It has its infelicities, awkward passages and repetitions. But its bumpy streams pour into what is a mighty narrative river.
Wiesenthal lived to be 96, and he enjoyed the renown he gained in his final decades. There were awards and honorary degrees. He was portrayed in films by Ben Kingsley and Laurence Olivier. (He loathed Olivier’s portrayal of him as a “scared ghetto Jew.”) The comic Jackie Mason stopped a show when he saw Wiesenthal in the audience. Frank Sinatra sang “My Way” for him.
Amid all the praise Wiesenthal never forgot that his real gift was this: to be a necessary irritant. A patriotic Austrian, he nonetheless declared about its people, “I am their bad conscience.”