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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.