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Book of the Week: Simon Wiesenthal - The Life and Legends, By Tom Segev

Trail of a mighty hunter

As one of Israel's "New Historians", Tom Segev is used to disinformation and conflict. That is just as well, for a biographer of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose story is packed with both.

This is a historian's biography, concentrating on the archives – many newly opened – and on sifting fact from fiction, both Wiesenthal's and his enemies'. The previous Life, by Hella Pick, was more personal and empathetic. So, for instance, Segev lists the depressions of Wiesenthal's wife, Cyla, and their roots in his Holocaust obsession – even at one stage accusing him of cruelty. Pick explores more vividly, but also more delicately, how Cyla suffered, and how little of his life she shared. "I am not married to a man," Pick quoted her. "I am married to thousands, maybe millions, of dead." Segev quotes this too.

His book does not lack drama. Segev is a fact man, but in Wiesenthal's case the facts are the drama. His war was extraordinary: escape from a forced-labour camp with the help of two "good Germans"; then three of the worst concentration camps – Plaszów (the camp in Schindler's List), Gross Rosen and finally Mauthausen, where he was liberated by the Americans, weighing 97 pounds and barely alive.

But every survivor's story is extraordinary. The unique drama came afterwards. Even stripped by Segev of Wiesenthal's many careless or compulsive exaggerations, his life is a thriller of almost unbearable tension.

Wiesenthal was not involved in the final capture of his main prey, Adolf Eichmann. But it was he who proved that Eichmann had not died, and he who traced Eichmann to Argentina. He played an even bigger role in the hunt for other Nazi criminals: Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, and Karl Silberbauer, the policeman who arrested Anne Frank. Even his failures – and they were many – make nail-biting stories: such as Franz Murer, "the butcher of Vilna", acquitted in Graz in 1961; Erich Rajakowitsch, one of Eichmann's aides, who got off with a sentence of 30 months; or Josef Mengele and Martin Bormann, who both died before Wiesenthal could find them.

Segev's facts are not always welcome. He shows that many of Wiesenthal's most vicious battles were not with Nazis, but with fellow Jews – rival Nazi hunters, the Jewish communities of Linz and Vienna, the Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the head of the American Holocaust centre set up in his name. This is distressing but true. The problem is that Segev devotes almost as much time to it as to the main business of Nazi-hunting (especially to the quarrel with Kreisky, who appears to have been almost insane). In-fighting took up much of Wiesenthal's life; but it is anti-climactic and should have been given less room.

On the other hand, Segev draws a vivid portrait of Wiesenthal the man. He was a classic "organiser" – the name given in the camps to the wheelers and dealers who were most likely to survive. He went straight to the top, pretended to have a huge organisation behind him – which he never had – and was a consummate showman, who could turn his genuine anguish on and off like a tap.

He was obsessive from the start, presenting his first list of Nazi criminals to the Americans days after liberation. He was egocentric, ambitious and easily offended, with many admirers but few friends. Despite the thousands of victims with whom he lived every day – or because of them – he was a lonely man. He was not a great thinker or writer, as he would have liked to be. But he was something more important: a man of unshakeable moral instinct, who fought for the victims of Nazism alone for decades, until the rest of the world caught up with him.

This is where the historical focus of this biography comes into its own. Segev documents in detail how no one cared about Nazi criminals or their victims for 20 years after the war, and how it took another 20 for the Holocaust to become the (almost) universally known symbol of evil it is today. It was the Eichmann trial of 1961 that began the change, and we know Wiesenthal's role in that.

The fact that it took Mossad seven years to follow his lead to Argentina – and even longer to find Stangl, living under his own name – demonstrates the tragic divide that runs through the Jewish world. Neither Israeli nor American Jews can accept defeat or humiliation; and neither did enough to help the victims of the Shoah at the time, or to bring their murderers to justice after.

America never punished Nazi criminals for killing Jews, but only for lying to US immigration. Germany and Austria never treated Nazi crimes as unique, but handled them as ordinary offences. The British did still less than the Americans – so little that Segev doesn't discuss it. Even the Germans did too little too late: nine out of ten suspects were never brought to trial, and more than half acquitted for "lack of evidence". Only 6,656 Germans were found guilty, and only 200 convicted of murder. Most received light sentences, while longer ones often ended in commutations and pardons. And let us not speak of the Austrians, who all suffered until recently from Waldheimer's Disease – forgetting what you did in the war.

Jewish attitudes to the Shoah have changed like everyone else's, and today it is at the heart of Jewish identity. Wiesenthal was the main agent of this change, and a conservative in both Austrian and Israeli politics. Nonetheless, in the post-Eichmann Jewish divide (because Jews, alas, always divide) he took the left-liberal side.

Like Primo Levi, he sought justice, not revenge – he even argued against the execution of Eichmann. Because of his own experience of good Germans, Segev suggests – and because of Cyla's experience of good Poles, he might have added – Wiesenthal firmly rejected collective guilt, and insisted that every case must be decided on its own merits. So, on the evidence, he exonerated both Waldheim himself and John Demjanjuk, one of the last suspects to be tried.

Like Levi again – but against the Jewish establishment – he insisted that the Holocaust was not unique, and not only a Jewish tragedy. He spoke up for contemporary victims of genocide, including the Muslims of Bosnia; and no one did more than he, Segev says, for the remembrance of Hitler's Roma victims. He even agreed with Hannah Arendt that the Jewish leadership, and all other Jewish collaborators, were criminally responsible, not (as Levi argued) victims as well; and he pursued them equally, or tried.

In his rejection of some of our most basic instincts, for revenge and tribal loyalty, this instinctive man showed the greatest courage of all. And in writing his biography, so has Segev. His other books have all been published in Israel, despite being critical of Israeli policy. But Simon Wiesenthal has been translated from "an unpublished Hebrew-language work". After 40 years, Wiesenthal's last enemies faced the truth, but after 65 he still hasn't succeeded with his friends.

Carole Angier's biography 'The Double Bond: Primo Levi' is published by Penguin