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The Day of the Hunter

Erich Lessing/Magnum Photos
Simon Wiesenthal, Vienna, 1975

Simon Wiesenthal’s legend is well known: the survivor of a succession of concentration camps, he was the Nazi hunter who tracked down Adolf Eichmann and brought to justice such monsters as Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, the most murderous of death camps, and Hermine Braunsteiner, the whip-wielding “Mare of Majdanek.” He was received by presidents at the White House, and had among his more surprising friends in high places German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and, once he had been released from Spandau prison, Albert Speer.

Countless honors were bestowed on him, among them the first honorary degree granted a Jew by the Jagellonian University in Kraków in its 610 years, the US Congressional Gold Medal, and the Golden Cross of Honor that the president of Austria brought to Wiesenthal’s bedside when he was nearing death. A prolific author of autobiographical texts1 as well as two novels and other writings, he has been the subject of several biographies, the most recent and the most fully documented of which is Tom Segev’s wise and balanced work. An Israeli historian and journalist, Segev had access to previously unavailable materials, including those lodged in the Israeli State Archive. Surprisingly, he was also privy to documents in the possession of the US official Eli M. Rosenbaum, Wiesenthal’s Inspector Javert–like tormentor during the last fifteen years of his life.2

Practically everything known about Wiesenthal up to May 5, 1945, when American troops liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he was a prisoner, is based on what he said in his books and countless articles, speeches, and interviews.3 By then he was thirty-six; he had been through the hell of four camps. The discrepancies in his accounts, however, matched by a tendency to embroider and exaggerate, fed an undercurrent of skepticism about Wiesenthal’s recollections, and opened him to slurs impugning his conduct during the war.

Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, Galicia, a very small town southeast of the city then called Lemberg. Lemberg became Lwów at the end of World War I, as a Polish city. It is now Ukrainian Lviv. There was no lack of Jews to exterminate in Galicia. Before World War I, some 870,000 Jews lived there, about 20 percent of the population. Buczacz, birthplace of the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon as well, had a population of nine thousand, of whom six thousand were Jews,4 the balance divided evenly between Ukrainians and Poles.5 Depending on which biography you read, Wiesenthal’s father was either a local agent for a sugar-manufacturing company or a wholesale commodity merchant dealing mostly in sugar. His uncle was a baker; his grandfather kept an inn.6 After World War II, Wiesenthal claimed that his parents had spoken German to each other, and that it was also the language he used with his mother. It is far more likely that this lower-middle-class family spoke Yiddish at home,7 which would be consistent with little Simon’s having been sent at the age of four to a cheder, a religious school.

Called up as a reservist, Wiesenthal’s father was killed in action in 1915. As the Austrian front crumbled in the east, the advance of Russian troops—and the prospect of pogroms that would attend their arrival—frightened Galician Jews, especially those who lived in small towns like Buczacz. Wiesenthal’s family fled first to Lwów and then to Vienna, where they lived in Leopoldstadt, the heavily Jewish lower-class district. As soon as the war ended, Wiesenthal’s mother decided it was safe to return to Buczacz. At the school he attended in Vienna the classes were in German. Back in Buczacz, he learned or relearned Polish and went to a Polish secondary school where he met Cyla, the girl he was to marry.

At twenty, he passed on the second try the matura, or final examination, that should have entitled him to attend a Polish university. The nearest university was in Lwów but, according to Wiesenthal, Jews taking the entrance examination there were intentionally given failing grades. The solution was to go abroad, in his case to Prague. Since he knew no Czech, he matriculated at the Deutsche Technische Hochschule Prag, where the German language was in use. He studied architecture. In 1932 he returned to Lwów, managed to gain admission to the university, and then to combine study with work for a building firm. In 1936 he married Cyla, and apparently, at the end of 1939, obtained a degree that entitled him to be called Herr Ingenieur, no trifling matter in title-conscious Austria.

German troops, accompanied by Ukrainian auxiliaries, entered Lwów on June 28, 1941, and Wiesenthal and his wife and mother were caught in the vortex of the Holocaust. As Segev puts it, at the time

there were between 160,000 and 170,000 Jews living there. By the time the Russians returned and drove the Germans out three years later, there were 3,400 Jews left, and one of them was Wiesenthal. During the Nazi occupation he lost track of his mother and his wife, but he was alive.

Horrors began promptly. They included in Wiesenthal’s case forced labor in the Ostbahn Ausbesserungswerke (OAW; Eastern Railroad Repair Works) yard in Lwów, and imprisonment in the Janowska concentration camp on the city’s outskirts. Segev writes that by a remarkable stroke of luck Wiesenthal was able to establish contact with the Polish underground while he worked for the OAW, and to obtain false Aryan papers for his wife. Cyla had the required Polish look that allowed her to pass during the remaining war years for a Catholic Pole, first in Lwów, then in Warsaw, and, finally in Germany where she was a forced laborer.

Another near miracle to which Segev also gives cautious credence was the benevolent protection of two good Germans who were Wiesenthal’s bosses at the OAW. They made it possible for him to act almost like a free man in the railroad yard; he worked in an office with a telephone, was cut in on the bribes paid to his good Germans by civilian contractors; he obtained weapons for the underground and kept two pistols for himself in the desk drawer of one of his bosses.

One of the good Germans died during the war, but Wiesenthal got in touch with the other afterward, inviting his former labor camp boss to his daughter’s wedding years later. As Segev observes, Wiesenthal had no reason to make up a story showing that he had suffered less than others during the war, which might be construed as evidence of collaboration with the Germans; and Segev found several witnesses who confirmed his account of his job. Still, according to Segev, it seemed “as if the main force driving him after the war was the need to prove that he had not been one of the villains.”

The fourth and last of the concentration camps through which Wiesenthal passed was Mauthausen, located in Upper Austria close to Linz, Hitler’s favorite city, and designed to kill by harsh labor. American troops liberated the camp on May 5, 1945. By then Wiesenthal, by build tall and burly, had been imprisoned since mid-February in the camp’s barracks for sick prisoners and weighed less than a hundred pounds. He saw the first American tanks at about ten in the morning. “People ran up to [them],” he remembered. “I also ran. But I was so weak that I couldn’t walk back. I crawled back, on all fours.”

He recovered his health rapidly and talked his way into jobs with the American military—an army war crimes unit and the local bureau of the counterintelligence corps—and became the head of local refugee groups with important-sounding names, as well as a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization working with DPs. The American connection, which involved identifying and apprehending war criminals, led directly to his life’s work: creating a database of Nazi criminals, tracking them down, and bringing them to justice. He had thought that Cyla was dead; he learned that in fact she too had survived. They were reunited in the fall of 1945, and their only child, a daughter, was born one year later. Not long afterward, Wiesenthal made a surprising decision: he and his family would live in Linz, in spite of abiding Austrian anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and hostility to refugees living among them. The explanation Wiesenthal gave over the years boiled down to a need to remain near his “his clients,” the war criminals. In September 1947 his connection began with the client who would make him famous, Adolf Eichmann.

The search for Eichmann defined Wiesenthal as the foremost Nazi hunter, and ultimately embroiled him in bitter disputes about the contribution he had really made to his capture. His first attempt at autobiography was Ich jagte Eichmann (I Hunted Eichmann). He finished the book and found a publisher six weeks before the Eichmann trial started on April 11, 1961. The book was a commercial success and received a great deal of publicity. Wiesenthal, in Segev’s words,

relished finding himself at the center of this tale [of the capture of Eichmann]. But already, less than four weeks after the announcement that Eichmann had been taken [he was kidnapped in a suburb of Buenos Aires by Mossad agents on May 11, 1960], Wiesenthal sensed the stirrings of a future war for the glory, and he was very careful not to ascribe the actual abduction operation to himself. “My part in the final phase of the operation was more than modest,” he wrote to Yad Vashem. “Perhaps the best way to describe my achievement is that last autumn I revived the matter with new evidence.”

In fact, Wiesenthal had done more. Although his early attempts to find Eichmann had failed, in 1947 he learned that Eichmann’s wife had applied to the Austrian local court to have him declared dead—a ploy used by families of war criminals still at large to remove them from “wanted” lists—and he was able to have the application denied.8 Subsequently, on the first day of 1953, one of his contacts told him that Eichmann’s wife and children, who had disappeared from the Austrian town of Altaussee during the summer of 1952, had emigrated to South America, where Eichmann was working at a water plant.

Wiesenthal sent a copy of the contact’s letter to the Israeli consul in Vienna. A year later he found out from a fellow philatelist, an Austrian baron who had served in Wehrmacht intelligence, that one of the baron’s acquaintances had seen twice “that filthy swine Eichmann, who dealt with the Jews. He is living near Buenos Aires and working for a water supply company.” The information turned out to be correct, and Wiesenthal again reported it to the same Israeli consul. Having done so, Wiesenthal expected the Israeli government to take some action, and was disappointed when there was none. As Hannah Arendt observed:

  1. 1

    See Ich jagte Eichmann (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Lesering, 1961); The Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Memoirs, edited by Joseph Wechsberg (McGraw-Hill, 1967); and Justice, Not Vengeance, translated by Ewald Osers (Grove Weidenfeld, 1989). 

  2. 2

    See Eli M. Rosenbaum and William Hoffer, Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up (St. Martin’s, 1993). 

  3. 3

    Sources of information behind the Iron Curtain were as a practical matter unavailable, and the memories of witnesses who had survived the war were not necessarily more reliable than his. 

  4. 4

    Wiesenthal, The Murderers Among Us, p. 24. 

  5. 5

    Hella Pick, Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996), p. 29. 

  6. 6

    Pick, Simon Wiesenthal, p. 30. 

  7. 7

    Pick, Simon Wiesenthal, p. 30. 

  8. 8

    Pick, Simon Wiesenthal, pp. 120–121. 

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