Simon Wiesenthal’s reputation has of late come in for sceptical reappraisal. A new biography examines the evidence
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Simon Wiesenthal: difficult, possibly dubious, but definitely determined
By Tom Segev
Jonathan Cape, £25
From the moment he set out to preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to hunt down the Nazis who had murdered them, Simon Wiesenthal attracted enemies, and they have shown no sign of going away since his death in 2005 at the age of 96.
The latest of his critics is the writer Guy Walters, who has recently been afforded ample space in the Sunday Times and Daily Mail and on the BBC to detail his belief, previously set out in his 2009 biography of Wiesenthal, that the great so-called Nazi-hunter was a fraud.
It takes a special kind of chutzpah for an Old Etonian born 26 years after the war who has made a good living writing potboilers about fictional Nazis to blacken the name of a Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to tracking down real ones, but Wiesenthal was wearily familiar with such assaults, as Tom Segev's biography records in meticulous detail.
They ranged from those who claimed Wiesenthal played no part in finding Adolf Eichmann, and the (Jewish) Austrian Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, who amazingly stated at great length his belief that Wiesenthal had kidnapped his (Kreisky's) brother, to the most serious allegation, that Wiesenthal not only embellished his wartime record but was actually a Nazi collaborator.
Segev has constructed his book rather like one of Wiesenthal's own reports, piling detail upon slightly numbing detail to try to get to the truth about these and many other such claims. The subtitle - The Life and Legends - shows Segev is aware of the need to sort reality from fiction, for it has to be recognised that Wiesenthal could be something of a fantasist, particularly about the precise details of his wartime experiences, which, God knows, were hideous enough to need no embroidering.
After an extraordinary amount of research, Segev emphatically clears Wiesenthal of the most serious charges. Wiesenthal was not alone in locating Eichmann but the State of Israel officially recognised that he was one of four who played key roles in bringing him to justice. Kreisky was totally discredited. And, at the height of the Cold War, the combined forces of the Polish and East German secret services could not turn up a single piece of evidence that Wiesenthal was a collaborator despite trying for years to discredit him (Wiesenthal was as staunch an anti-Communist as he was an anti-Nazi).
Among Segev's revelations is that Wiesenthal was a Mossad agent, which is about as surprising as discovering that the Chief Rabbi is Jewish. He clearly enjoyed the closest possible links with Israel in his hunt for war criminals; it is, however, interesting to get chapter and verse on the subject.
Wiesenthal was undoubtedly a difficult man, as is anybody who devotes their life single-mindedly to one obsession. He was also a sad man, though with a rich store of sometimes off-colour Jewish jokes. But his haul of 1,100 Nazi criminals brought to book (many more got off in court) and his lifelong determination that the Holocaust would not be forgotten will ensure that his own memory lives on.
Robert Low is consultant editor of 'Standpoint' magazine