John Wayne of the Jews

BIOGRAPHY SIMON WIESENTHAL: A Life in Search of Justice by Hella Pick, Weidenfeld pounds 20

I don't envy Hella Pick the writing of this biography. The Holocaust destroyed almost everything and everyone (with the near-miraculous exception of his wife) from the first part of Wiesenthal's life, so the only source for this period are his own much-repeated though not always consistent memories. For the second half, on the other hand - from the moment in 1945 when Wiesenthal hobbled into a hut in Mauthausen with a scrap of paper on the door on which an American officer had scrawled "War Crimes" - Wiesenthal has lived in the public light. His career has been dogged by controversy at every turn, and Pick has encountered quarrels of Byzantine complexity. But she found that, despite his faults, she admired her subject: "It has been a hero's life: not just a Jewish hero's, but a hero of our epoch."

When Wiesenthal was a child in Buczacz, a Galician shtetl in what is now the Ukraine, he saw a man staring silently out of an attic window. His grandmother explained that this man had once screamed, in the course of a bitter argument with his wife, that he wished she would burn. That night his house caught fire and his wife died. His rabbi's ruling was simple: the guilty man must never speak again for the rest of his life, but pray for forgiveness. It is a story revealing of the world in which Wiesenthal was brought up, and of the values he carried from it.

Wiesenthal was born in the waning hours of 1908, into a land of war and pogroms; his home town changed hands between Poles, Ukrainians and Russians six times before he became an adult; he still carries a scar in his leg received from a sword during a Cossack onslaught on Galicia's Jews. Simon was brought up in a tight, comforting and acutely self-consciously Jewish world, steeped in an informal, populist, Hassidic mysticism. Wiesenthal himself rarely attends a synagogue, and has declined to move to Israel, but his upbringing made him a Zionist and assured him a strong sense of the Jews as a people apart. Wiesenthal's father, a merchant, was killed fighting for Austro-Hungary in the First World War, and his mother, who took over the family business, remarried. Wiesenthal, a lonely, rather neglected, strong-willed boy, trained as an architect and married a childhood friend. Her Aryan looks meant that she managed to survive genocide.

The ordeals Wiesenthal suffered during the Holocaust have become familiar to us, but, if so, this is partly due to the efforts of a small band of story-telling survivors like him. He was a prisoner of half a dozen camps, escaping from some, being transferred from others; naturally a big hefty man, he weighed seven stone when the Americans liberated the last. Wiesenthal was extraordinarily determined, with a will to live that was not so much egotistical or animal, as, from the beginning, ethical: even during his blackest moments, he made an effort to remember the names, ranks and crimes of his persecutors. But he was also extremely lucky, sometimes escaping death, but just as often being exempted from it: twice he was lined up to be shot, only to be reprieved at the last minute. His enemies later argued that he survived because he had collaborated, but the truth seems less sinister. The arbitrariness that allowed millions to die for no good reason also ensured that some lived without any special cause. Wiesenthal spent the rest of his life trying to conjure some sort of order out of this moral chaos.

At the end of the war, Wiesenthal volunteered to work for the US army in its hunt for war criminals in Austria. Two years later he set up in Lintz, in Austria, a small Documentation Centre, devoted to helping Jews trace missing relatives and amassing evidence on the crimes and whereabouts of Nazi killers still at large. He soon had an unparalleled grasp of the subject, although his prejudices and idiosyncrasies did, perhaps too often, lead him astray - he spent years refusing to believe that Bormann, who was killed in 1945, was dead.

By 1954 Germany and Austria seemed to have lost interest in deNazification and Wiesenthal was forced to close the Centre and go into refugee work. His role in hunting down Adolf Eichmann, however, brought him new prestige, and in 1961 he was able to reopen his Centre, this time in Vienna.

Wiesenthal has been described as "the John Wayne of the Jews", but this is misleading. He has struggled with the incompatible claims of forgiveness and justice, and justice has tended to win out. But, as Pick is keen to stress, Wiesenthal has resisted giving way to revenge. He has protested as vociferously as anyone against groups taking justice into their own hands, has argued against the concept of collective guilt - more than once a Nazi saved his life - and has always insisted that the most important duty of the Holocaust survivor is not to punish the criminals but to ensure that its memory lives on. The future matters more than the past.

His contribution, Pick argues, has not been so much to Holocaust literature, or to sentencing of Nazis, but to something less tangible: the scandalously slow process by which Austria in particular acknowledged guilt, and more importantly still, to the establishment, albeit shakily, of the notion that war crimes, where ever they are committed, should be punished.

As Wiesenthal has become ever more famous, his critics have grown. Pick's thorough and judicious biography admits there is some truth in the charge that Wiesenthal exaggerated his role in hunting down Eichmann. Two more serious controversies have marred - or is it enlivened? - his later years. In 1970 he began an extraordinarily bitter 20-year feud with Bruno Kreisky, the Social Democratic Chancellor of Austria. Wiesenthal accused him of tolerating former Nazis both in his own and in opposition parties, and Kreisky, himself Jewish, charged Wiesenthal with launching witch hunts, as well as deliberately setting out to undermine the Social Democrats - politically Wiesenthal is on the liberal right. In the 1980s the attacks came from the other direction; this time the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organisations accused him of attempting to hide Kurt Waldheim's crimes - Wiesenthal agreed he was a liar, but refused, on the evidence, to condemn him as a war criminal. The charges upset Wiesenthal, but perhaps he should have welcomed them - too often he has been cast simply as an avenger.

There is no disputing that Wiesenthal has an extraordinary memory, infinite energy and genius for publicity, but he is no intellectual. He has lived intensely, is stubborn, determined, exasperatingly egotistical and incredibly lucky; an outsider who has to work on his own, but one touchingly needy of the accolades his efforts have won; a boy from a shtetl who has done something extraordinary against the odds, where the odds include limitations of character as well as the Nazi's attempts to murder him and his people. All too literally, one in a million.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform