The death of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal brings to a close a storied career shrouded in achievement, in dazzle and perhaps even in mystery. Wiesenthal’s life, like those of all Holocaust survivors, may be described in three chapters: “Before,” “During” and “After.” The last is the most mysterious.
“Before” was the life of a young boy born in Galicia whose thigh was cut by a Ukrainian soldier, and who was forced by the quota system to leave home and to study architecture in Prague. He married his high school sweetheart, Cyla — a marriage that would last 67 years — and practiced his trade designing houses in Poland, until that country was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. For two years he lived under Soviet rule, at one point paying a bribe that “saved” him and his family from deportation to Siberia. As it turned out, the sufferings of Siberia would have been preferable to the fate he met.
“During” began with the German invasion of Soviet-held territories in 1941 and the murderous rampages of the first stages of the Final Solution. Over the next four years he found himself in 12 camps, Janowska and Mauthausen among the most famous. Mauthausen helped shape his future path. Fewer than one in three prisoners there was a Jew; the rest included Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Spanish Republicans, and ordinary criminals. Wiesenthal never forgot these other victims of Nazism.
“After,” of course, was a fabled career as a Nazi hunter, replete with honor and international reputation, cherished by the Jewish community, feared by the perpetrators and respected by the international community, or so it seems now. But for a long time it was quite different.
To begin with, even his own wife wanted him to return to his former profession and rebuild his life — elsewhere, not on the continent soaked with the blood of Jews, including 89 members of his own family. But Wiesenthal had found a calling, and in his pursuit of it he was unyielding, tenacious and indefatigable — a stiff-necked man, heir of a stiff-necked people.
Wiesenthal insisted that Nazi criminals be brought to justice, not to death. He intuited that justice was needed — or at least the attempt at limited, imperfect justice — if the world was to rebuild after the destruction he had witnessed. He did not cooperate with those seeking revenge, even though their path was more certain, more immediate, more passionate and perhaps even more just.
But after the first trials and the grand theater they represented, and the much heralded successor trials, there was much less enthusiasm for facing the past, much more for getting on with the future.
Wiesenthal pressed on. He opened a documentation center and started corresponding with survivors all over the world, seeking to identify the perpetrators and to locate them. But in the mid-1950s, his documentation center was forced to close because of lack of funding and lack of interest in the hunt for Nazi war criminals: Israel was at war; it needed intelligence on the Arabs and not the Germans, and it had strategic interests — basic survival interests — and, soon, important financial and trade interests with Germany. The American Jewish community was not yet prepared to buck American national interests.
Wiesenthal’s cause only began to gain wide support with the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s. Contrary to popular perception, Wiesenthal did not capture Eichmann. Israel’s Mossad did the work. Wiesenthal’s contribution can be described as modest.
Still, if his hand in the actual capture has been exaggerated, his role in preparing the world for it cannot be. For years before the nabbing, Wiesenthal had a hunch about the widows of Nazi criminals: He suspected that the men they married during the postwar years were in fact their former husbands with new names and new identities. Eichmann’s wife tried to have him declared dead so that she could receive a pension and so that Eichmann’s name would disappear from the list of the wanted. She even produced an affidavit “proving” that Eichmann had died in Prague. But Wiesenthal would not let her get away with it; he produced his own documents declaring that witnesses had seen Eichmann alive after the date of his supposed death. He also alerted Israeli and World Jewish Congress officials to information that Eichmann had escaped to Rome and then had gone to South America — but they were uninterested in pursuing the issue. In frustration, he closed his office, shipped off material to Yad Vashem and went through an emotionally tough time.
After Eichmann’s capture and the fame brought about by the trial, Wiesenthal was able to reopen his office and greatly increase support for the modest center. Though the numbers are not precise, it is said that Wiesenthal was involved in bringing 1,100 Nazis to justice. Some were major criminals; others were minor. One, Josef Megele, eluded him. In fact, Mengele’s death in a drowning accident, a simple death without suffering, violated Wiesenthal’s sense of justice.
Even after he settled into fame, however, Wiesenthal was no stranger to conflict and controversy. At home in Austria, he squared off again and again with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who was of Jewish origin but was often seen as opposing Jewish causes. He drew criticism when he refused to condemn Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian leader and former United Nations secretary-general, as a Nazi war criminal. Wiesenthal conceded that Waldheim had been a Nazi and a liar, but he claimed the evidence did not permit him to label Waldheim a criminal. This cost him friends, allies and even, some have said, the Nobel Prize he might have shared with Elie Wiesel, the other iconic Holocaust survivor.
Actually, Wiesenthal’s most well-known philosophical battle was with Wiesel. The two squared off indirectly in the late 1970s over the question of who were the true victims of the Holocaust; that is, was the Holocaust a Jewish event or a universal event? Wiesel argued that the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish experience, settling the role of non-Jews in the Holocaust with the turn of a phrase: “While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims.”
Wiesenthal, in contrast, argued that the Holocaust was the death of 11 million people, 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews. The figure was invented: If we consider all civilian non-Jewish deaths, then it is too small; if we consider only those who died at the hands of the Nazi killing apparatus, then it is too large. But the central point was Wiesenthal’s belief that the inclusion of non-Jews was essential to his postwar commitment. Nations had to feel that they had lost their own if they were to bring the war criminals to justice.
As we approach the High Holy Days and contemplate our fate before the ultimate throne, we think of the divine attributes of Justice and Mercy. Wiesenthal believed in the importance of justice, inadequate justice, imperfect justice, and the idea that we might wait for Divine Justice to give the killers the reward they truly deserve.
There is a paradox of the Holocaust: The innocent feel guilty, and the guilty feel innocent. But Wiesenthal threw a wrench into the equation: He often said that his greatest contribution was that the killers did not sleep very well at night; they were afraid of capture. Their exaggerated sense of his power and of the power of the Jewish community caused them no small amount of unease. I would like to think he was right. Let the guilty feel worried even if they are unburdened by their guilt.
He retired from Nazi hunting several years ago, declaring — albeit prematurely — that he had outlived the perpetrators. Others stepped in to fill the breach. But even long after all these disputes are indeed over, Wiesenthal will be remembered for his perseverance and determination, for the idea that justice or at least the attempt at justice — maybe even only the illusion of it — is an essential restorative measure to a broken world. Other men and women — perpetrators of heinous crimes, genocide and mass murder — will sit in the docket because of that idea.
Wiesenthal said that he wanted to go to his death being able to say with absolute conviction that he had not forgotten — not the victims and not their killers. This, above all else, he certainly did.