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Self-Made Golem

Simon Wiesenthal, painted in a new biography as a fame-seeking myth-maker, is also the man who insisted that the world face up to the Holocaust

Ron Rosenbaum
September 02, 2010
Simon Wiesenthal addressing the United Nations on its 50th anniversary, in 1995.(Simon Wiesenthal Center/Getty Images)
Simon Wiesenthal addressing the United Nations on its 50th anniversary, in 1995.(Simon Wiesenthal Center/Getty Images)

Stop the presses! Are you sitting down? Can you handle the truth? According to Tom Segev’s new biography of Simon Wiesenthal—and I’m not making this up—the famed Nazi hunter was not a perfect human being! He was a media manipulator, a myth-maker, a publicity seeker. He could be a self-aggrandizing credit grabber, a teller of tall tales and much-varied narratives, and sometimes weaver of outright fabrications. He was quarrelsome, vain, egotistical, didn’t play well with others.

But what would we have done without him? To many Jews, especially in the Diaspora, he gave at least the illusion that some of the perpetrators would be brought to justice. “Justice not vengeance,” as Wiesenthal liked to say.

Segev, an indefatigable historian and highly respected reporter for the leftist Israeli daily Haaretz, tells us he had access to 300,000 Wiesenthal-related documents, although he doesn’t say how many he read. (Among his many human sources are agents of the Mossad who believe they deserve credit for some of his successes.) But his attempt at de-mythologizing Wiesenthal can sometimes make one feel he misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the Wiesenthal behind the legend may have been all too human, and it’s always valuable to set the record straight for history, but could this be a case where the legend is more important to the course of history than the life? Is publicity-seeking intrinsically bad if one is seeking to publicize the untroubled afterlives of mass murderers in order to shame the world into action?

The fact that this question has to be asked is due to something we have chosen to forget: the world community’s stunning failure after World War II to treat the Final Solution as a crime unto itself. The 19 Nazis convicted at Nuremberg were found guilty of “crimes against humanity” mainly for planning and starting a devastating war of aggression. Wiesenthal, Segev reminds us, was always adamant that the Final Solution was a crime against humanity as well as against Jews. But it was a different crime from that for which the Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg.

There was a lamentable loss of distinction between the two crimes, or rather a shameful failure to prosecute the second crime, for some 15 years after the war. Hitler lost the war against the Allies, yes. But in effect he won his personal “war against the Jews” (as Lucy Dawidowicz described his greatest priority) by a factor of some 6 million to one.

The world preferred to focus on the fact that the official war was won. We are fortunate that someone—Simon Wiesenthal—made the pursuit of the perpetrators of the second war his lonely obsession. But what if there had been no Wiesenthal? What if he hadn’t started pestering people around the world as early as 1953 that Adolf Eichmann, the chief operating officer of the Holocaust, was alive and living in Buenos Aires? Wiesenthal became the Ancient Mariner of Mauthausen, the Austrian camp he’d been sent to from his native Lvov, buttonholing anyone and everyone, trying to get them to care that there was a monster of evil living a thinly disguised second life in Buenos Aires. And for a long time nobody cared enough to do anything about it. It wasn’t a priority.

Eichmann still may have been caught—Segev is meticulous in disentangling the different threads of information that finally propelled the Mossad to kidnap Eichmann in Argentina and transport him to Israel for trial in 1960—but it was Wiesenthal who seized upon the capture (and his role in it) to make belated justice for ex-Nazi war criminals a worldwide cause.

That was the significance of the Eichmann trial, making the world face the fact that it had let the perpetrators of the greatest mass murder in history walk away for the most part unscathed and unindicted.

Wiesenthal or the myth that grew up around Wiesenthal—that Nazis all over the world were being pursued by the vast inexorable forces of Wiesenthal’s all-powerful, all-knowing “Documentation Center”—served several purposes. It was satisfying to a certain extent to Jews, particularly because many ex-Nazis believed the legend and could be thought of as living in fear of capture. But however exaggerated some of his claims may have been, the exaggerations (the hyping of the so-called ODESSA Nazi escape network, for instance) may have served a purpose—not just psychic healing for Holocaust survivors who could at least imagine justice would eventually be done. Alas, the legend also served as an excuse for the indifference of the rest of the world to the murderers in their midst. It allowed the rest of the world to think that there was no need to make a systematic effort to punish the perpetrators of the greatest mass murder in history—they were being hunted down by Simon Wiesenthal.

In Segev’s account, we come to understand how Wiesenthal was driven close to madness by the indifference of the rest of the world to the pursuit of justice and ironically, his work, his legend gave the rest of the world a fig leaf for its inaction.

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of it all was the way many Jewish leaders such as the World Jewish Congress’s Nahum Goldman failed to act with any vigor on the escaped Nazi information Wiesenthal supplied. And there was the episode when Austria’s Jewish chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, found excuses to attack Wiesenthal.

“The dispute with Kreisky caused Wiesenthal great pain,” Segev writes. “He reckoned that most, if not all, Austrians were happy that someone had taken upon himself to free them at long last from their Nazi past…. ‘I am their bad conscience,’ he wrote some time later, ‘because each one of them should have taken upon himself what I have done for Austrian society.’ Never had he felt so alone.”

And indeed looking back it’s rather astonishing that of all the Jews in the world just one man, however flawed, systematically unappeasably dedicated himself to being the world’s “bad conscience” and the Nazi’s living nightmare. Segev is good at capturing the catch-as-catch-can origins of Wiesenthal’s “Documentation Center.” He makes much of what a sloppy, disorganized, out-of-pocket, one-man shop it was for much of its early history, how it depended on stacks of newspaper clippings, old phone books, barely legible letters, flawed memories from camp survivors who randomly wandered in, false trails, red herrings—this was no CSI Vienna, no Cold Case Squad. For a long time it was one irritable guy who’d lived through a hellish experience he wasn’t going to allow the perpetrators to forget.

Wiesenthal started by collecting information from his fellow camp survivors and then looking up SS murderers in Austrian phone books and pressuring authorities to prosecute them, or dismiss them from whatever important office they held (often with the tacit knowledge of everyone around them). Soon his “bad conscience” became an inconvenience not just to ex-Nazis but to the American foreign policy, which was more heavily invested in prosecuting the Cold War than on prosecuting the many Nazi war criminals West Germany allowed to hold prominent state positions.

Segev demonstrates the way Wiesenthal learned to manipulate the media, play politicians against each other, sometimes plant false stories about sightings (Eichmann in Syria!) just to keep an escaped Nazi’s name in the news. He was a combination of detective and showman. Segev sometimes makes him seem like Geraldo Rivera, which I think is a bit unfair: Look at what he was taking on—the burden the world had shrugged off its shoulders, the moral weight of the world. The immoral wait of the world.

Yes, Wiesenthal was a born tummler. He stirred things up, made things up, sometimes got things wrong, but he made it impossible for people to forget the murderers—like Eichmann.

Wiesenthal and Eichmann: the two poles of post-Holocaust consciousness. Let us take a moment to give Eichmann some consideration since he was the central figure in the drama of Wiesenthal’s life and legend.

The late Milton Himmelfarb once wrote an influential polemic called “No Hitler, No Holocaust” arguing—against pseudo-sophisticated detractors of the “great man” theory of history—that in fact it had been Hitler’s implacable drive alone that made the Jews the victims, not just of oppression or Pogroms as they had been in the past in Europe, but of systematic extermination. One could say of Eichmann, “No Eichmann, no systematic, industrialized continent-wide extermination.” He made the trains run on time. To review: Heydrich called Eichmann and told him that the Furher has given the order for the extermination of the Jews. You’re in charge.

Aside from the industrialized gas chamber/crematoria complex, Eichmann can be held responsible for the psychological component of the continent-wide extraction, concentration, and transportation of Jews with minimum fuss. The technique of promising “work in the east” to the ghettoized Jews if they’d just get on board the trains. The diabolical “wish you were here” postcards home from the dead.

But you won’t find in Segev’s book a full description of the real Eichmann. He was not merely the neutral administrator par excellence but an ideologically committed, bloodthirsty, Jew-hating killer. You have to go to a book such as Neal Bascomb’s recent Hunting Eichmann, where in five pages he tells you more than Segev’s entire book does about Eichmann’s obscene ferocity in personally coming to Budapest at the end of the war to insure that the last surviving Jewish community, the 400,000 that had been protected in Hungary from extermination by the fascist but somewhat independent Hungarian regent, Admiral Horthy, were shipped to the death camps.

Even though the war was lost, and there was no point (as if there ever was) in Eichmann’s making sure every last Jew alive in Hungary died, but Eichmann did his best, sending the last 7,500 Jews left in Budapest to Auschwitz until, Bascomb reports, Eichmann had to be summoned by Himmler himself (who was trying to make some devil’s bargain for the lives of those Jews), who ordered Eichmann to stop the final frenzy of extermination. Wiesenthal pieced it altogether from the ground up, from Eichmann’s collaborators and victim/survivors. That’s why he got into everyone’s face about Eichmann. He was no cog in a machine, he was the screeching driving wheel.

At least Segev doesn’t buy into Hannah Arendt’s fatuous pseudo-profound notion of Eichmann’s “banality of evil,” a scandalously inaccurate, philosophically meretricious phase that historically ignorant people parrot to make themselves seem intellectually sophisticated.

Actually, Segev’s attitude toward Eichmann seems inconsistent, which is a problem since he is so central to the Wiesenthal narrative and Wiesenthal’s iconic triumph, however much he may have exaggerated his role in the final denouement.

In fact, Segev seems to be of two minds about Eichmann. When he first introduces him early in the book he claims Eichmann “was never a maker of policy, he implemented it. He was one of those Nazi killers who as a rule did his work sitting behind a desk.” In Eichmann’s case this is utterly misleading considering how eager Eichmann was to get out from behind his desk to outrace the coming end of the war to complete his final evil project, the murder of the Hungarian Jews.

Which gives you the feeling that Segev buys into Arendt’s bogus “banality of evil” theory—that Eichmann was merely a paper-pushing bureaucrat who had no emotional investment in the mass murder he was enabling, a follower of orders, an exculpatory line Arendt foolishly took directly from Eichmann’s own dishonest attempt to exculpate himself—and save himself from the hangman—at his trial in Jerusalem.

But then Segev seems to have had a change of heart because a hundred pages later he tells us that he was shocked, shocked by some new Eichmann revelations in the year 2000, “when Israel permitted the publication of an autobiography written by Eichmann in prison,” and, Segev says, “a different person emerged.”

Different person! No more Mr. Nice Guy, I guess. Anyone who didn’t know the nature of Eichmann by 2000 was ignoring the well-documented history of his fanatic frenzied last-ditch crusade to kill every last Jew in Hungary.

Which leads one to wonder about Segev’s imputing a belief in Arendt’s banality theory to Wiesenthal, although Segev offers an empathetic (or perhaps patronizing) explanation.

“As a man who identified with the principles of humanistic ethics, Wiesenthal found it difficult to accept this [the profound and vicious calculation behind Eichmann’s hatred,] so he preferred Arendt’s thesis. She too refused to see in Eichmann a thinking person, she therefore erred in her assessment of him as did Wiesenthal.”

So now Segev tells us Arendt was wrong to see Eichmann as a mere paper-pushing deskman but uses the fraudulence of her theory to reprove Wiesenthal for an alleged failure to see Eichmann’s anti-Semitic “ferocity.” Somehow I doubt Segev’s claim to see Eichmann’s nature more clearly than Wiesenthal.

What’s fascinating is that, despite all his strenuous debunking and attempted debunking of the Wiesenthal myth, Segev is too good a reporter, too honest an observer, not to have developed a grudging admiration for his subject that he will sometimes allow to slip through.

What could be the cause of the demythologizing impulse that seems to drive Segev’s book, though? I believe it can be traced back to something Segev himself describes:

Many of the Israelis who had settled in the country before World War II or were born there, tended to relate condescendingly to Holocaust victims and survivors, identifying them with the Jews of the Diaspora, whom they despised as the polar opposite of the “new Hebrews” they were trying to create in the Land of Israel, in the spirit of the Zionist vision. It was the customary to blame the victims for not coming to the country beforehand, remaining in Europe instead and waiting to be slaughtered without doing anything to prevent it.

Harsh, no? And the length to which he goes to describe this prejudice suggests that part of him still shares the Israeli contempt for the survivors and that part of him treats Wiesenthal as the man who thrust the Holocaust upon Israel—an unwanted legacy for a nation founded on a vision of the future not the past, as the central focus of Jewishness. One could argue this case, but it’s unfair to take it out on Wiesenthal.

It’s hard to read Segev’s mind, but he is one of the leading “revisionist” historians of Israel. Does he resent the focus on the Holocaust of the European Jews as a rationale for the state of Israel, as a focus of Jewish identity? Does he share the early Israeli’s contempt for alleged Diasporic weakness that allowed the Holocaust to happen? This blame-the-victim attitude all too prevalent in Jewish and non-Jewish circles discounts the hideous progressive dehumanization of the victims before the slaughter. I actually think Segev has overcome a great deal of this Sabra attitude. One could speculate that Segev’s Mossad sources convinced him Wiesenthal grabbed too much credit for the Eichmann capture and other exploits. One could also speculate he sold the book as a sensational debunking project but the deeper he got into the documentation of the crimes Wiesenthal was seeking justice for, the loneliness of his quest, the more Segev’s integrity as a historian and a human being deepened his own world view to see the value as well as the hype in Wiesenthal’s work.

Try this thought experiment: What would the history of post-Holocaust Judaism have been like without Wiesenthal, this edgy irritable man who loved to spend his weekends with a stamp-collectors club at the Museum Cafe in Vienna but who managed—like pasting stamps in an album—to put hundreds of ex-Nazis in jail and redeem a portion of justice for Holocaust perpetrators?

Does Wiesenthal represent the inexorable triumph of justice? Alas no, we should be grateful for his work but realize that it was a lucky accident in a world that didn’t want to care, an aberration in a world where people and nations consciously and unconsciously fled from facing the fact of their complicity in perhaps the greatest crime in history. Sought to bury it in the past. Is too much attention to the past being paid now? How much does it matter that the Wiesenthal legend was exaggerated? Segev’s book provokes fascinating and important questions, especially when the prospect of a second holocaust (from a nuclear attack on the Jewish state) is not out of the question. If few cared then, will many care next time?

Wiesenthal was a tummler, but there’s something more to him, a moral seriousness that gets lost in Segev’s focus on the colorful fabrication of the legend surrounding him. He was a tummler but he was also kind of golem summoned up from the collective unconscious of the survivors and dead souls of the victims, someone who, as Segev points out, would almost have had to be invented if he hadn’t existed.

He was a larger-than-life figure and his stories were sometimes larger than truth, but he was dealing with a crime that was larger than death.

Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and a forthcoming book on the new age of nuclear war, is a cultural columnist for Slate.

Ron Rosenbaum’s books include Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and Those Who Forget the Past, an anthology of essays on contemporary anti-Semitism.

Ron Rosenbaum’s books include Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and Those Who Forget the Past, an anthology of essays on contemporary anti-Semitism.

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