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.

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