The Life and Legends: Simon Wiesenthal

Within days of being liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal had assembled a list of nearly 150 Nazi war criminals, the first of dozens of such lists he would compile over a lifetime as a Nazi hunter.

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This was his life’s goal. Sometimes he would go out on small detective missions, extracting leads from talkative neighbors or barmen, mailmen, waiters, and barbers. An acquaintance compared him to Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective in The Pink Panther. His faith in the liberal system of justice and in America, combined with his communication skills, made him very much a man of the twentieth century. The concept of Holocaust commemoration that he developed was a broad, humanistic one. In contrast to the memorializing of only the Nazis’ Jewish victims fostered in Israel and by the Jewish establishment in the United States, Wiesenthal tended to view the murder of the Jews as a crime against the whole of humanity, and he tied it in with the atrocities committed by the Nazis against other groups, such as incurable invalids, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his eyes, the Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but a human one.

Wiesenthal’s broad humanity was anchored in the story of his life. He always lived within more than one sphere of identity. He was born in a Jewish shtetl and until his dying day he defined himself first and foremost as a Jew. But he grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and chose to live in Austria, which he saw as his cultural and political homeland. He kept one foot within the Israeli sphere, too; he looked upon Israel as a second homeland. And with the passage of time he developed a deep sense of identity with America. Living within different circles of identity gave him a certain cosmopolitan openness.On more than one occasion he had to show great courage. One of the rooms in his office housed hundreds of files containing threatening letters and anti-Semitic abuse that he received. Wiesenthal marked these files with the letter m for meshuganers—lunatics, in Yiddish. Once a letter addressed to “The Jew Pig, Austria” was delivered to his office. Wiesenthal phoned the posts minister to ask how they knew that it was meant for him. But they knew, always. Nonetheless, Wiesenthal chose to live in Austria and to tie his life and fate to that country. It is not easy to explain why he did so.In 1953 Wiesenthal discovered and reported to the Israeli authorities that Adolf Eichmann, one of the main Nazi criminals, was hiding in Argentina. Seven years later, Israel sent its agents to Buenos Aires to seize Eichmann and bring him to Jerusalem. He was put on trial, convicted, and executed. Wiesenthal’s role in the affair gave him a heroic aura, as if he had captured Eichmann single-handedly. Some Israelis never forgave him for this,
and one of them compared him to a hitchhiker who took over the driver’s seat. Others likened him to the legendary liar Baron Munchhausen. Actually, Wiesenthal worked for years in the service of Israel’s secret intelligence agency, the Mossad.

He was involved in efforts to locate and prosecute hundreds of Nazi criminals, and assisted in the conviction of dozens. 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. Some of them had done well in politics, in the civil service, in the judiciary, and in the educational and economic systems.
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