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.

BY: Tom Segev


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This happened not only because the Germans and the Austrians took an indulgent attitude toward the criminals, but also because of the Cold War. More than once Wiesenthal saw that offenders he had located and wanted to prosecute were employed as secret agents in the service of the United States or other countries and, in at least one case, of Israel. “The Nazis lost the war, but we lost the postwar period,” Wiesenthal used to say.Wiesenthal died in September 2005, at the age of ninety-six. His daughter, Paulinka Kreisberg, was flooded with consolation messages. Beatrix, queen of the Netherlands, and Abdullah, king of Jordan, were among those who wrote, as were Laura and George Bush, as well as presidents and prime ministers, legislators and mayors from all over the world. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution commemorating his life and accomplishments. Someone sent condolences on behalf of Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer.

That may have happened because of the constant and repeated pressure that Wiesenthal had exerted on the city of Berlin until it gave in to him and named a street after Jesse Owens, the black sprinter who defeated Hitler’s athletes in the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin in 1936. From Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote: “The State of Israel, the Jewish people and all of humankind owe a great debt to Simon Wiesenthal who devoted his life to ensuring that the Nazi atrocities will not be repeated and that the murderers will not go unpunished.”But his daughter’s heart was touched most by the private letters she received from innumerable individuals, among them hundreds of members of the “second generation”—the children of survivors, for whom the heritage of the Holocaust was a key part of their identity. Many of those children felt a deep identification with Wiesenthal. Esti Cohen, a native of Israel, wrote to Paulinka Kreisberg, “At the age of six, I used to have shoes ready next to my bed so that if the Nazis came in the night, at least I would have shoes, and not be like my mother in the ‘death march’ from the concentration camps at the end of World War II.” She attached to her letter a photocopy of her Israeli ID card, with a yellow star stuck onto it.Wiesenthal related that once when he was a prisoner at the Janowska concentration camp in Lvov, in Ukraine, he was in a group of inmates ordered to dig a deep ditch. “We knew that soon the ditch would be full of bodies,” he said. “The victims were already being marched up. Women and girls.

Then I caught the desperate eye of one of the girls. ‘Don’t forget us,’ is what that look said to me.” On another occasion, he said, he imagined meeting with the victims in heaven, and he was determined to say only four words, “I didn’t forget you,” the phrase that became his personal motto. More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life. Ironically, the more years went by and the more unlikely it became that the surviving Nazi criminals would be brought to justice, the more the Holocaust became a universal synonym for evil, a warning sign for every nation and every person. This happened, to a large extent, thanks to the efforts of Simon Wiesenthal. Nobody did more than he did in this respect. But even at the height of his fame as a “Nazi hunter” and as a humanist authority, he remained a lonely man, haunted throughout his adult life by memories of the horror. He was a tragic hero, always cloaked in the mysteries of his life; it is no easy task to decipher his secrets. As he walked behind the glass box in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal thought not only about the murdered millions, but also about the murderers: “I was reminded of Eichmann,” he wrote later. “That it was possible that the following day he would read in the newspaper about the ceremony and that a smile of satisfaction would come to his lips. . . . In my mind’s eye, I foresaw the day when my silent prayer would be heard, the day on which the murderer of my people would be taken to the land of the Hebrews. I swore that I would not remain silent and I would not rest until that longed-for day came.” This was a statement that was both true and untrue, like much of what Wiesenthal wrote.

Excerpted from Simon Wiesenthal by Tom Segev. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Segev, Translation copyright © Ronnie Hope. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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