A terrible firmness of purpose

Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice by Hella Pick Weidenfeld, pounds 20
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Simon Wiesenthal arouses strong emotions in many people. Is he a hero? A profiteer on memories of the Holocaust? A doughty campaigner? An obsessive? An innocent in the field of international politics? A human rights activist? Is he all of these things, this complicated man who has devoted most of his adult life to the pursuit and bringing to justice of Nazi war criminals?

Hella Pick has written a remarkably tender biography of him, all the more remarkable because so little is given away about him personally. The intimate details of his life are largely absent, in part at least because of his wife's dislike of personal publicity. Instead, we view the working life of a man who, after surviving the concentration camps almost miraculously, has pursued the perpetrators of the camps' greatest horrors, in order that the world should not forget.

Wiesenthal was born in Buczacz, in Galicia, in what was then part of the Habsburg Empire. He lives in Austria, but his daughter lives in Israel, and, like so many Jews who survived the camps whose homes are no longer welcoming, he is in part a world citizen with friends everywhere, and enemies as well. Hella Pick herself came from Austria as a child refugee. She too lost much of her family in the Holocaust, as did my mother, a refugee from Nazi Germany. These personal details about the biographer and the reviewer are essential, because no Jew can view Simon Wiesenthal dispassionately. He has been the Nazi-hunter supreme. He believes in democratic systems and in their criminal justice procedures, even when they let him down. He is a self-publicist. He loves the honours the modern world showers on those it wishes to praise. He was disappointed not to be awarded the Nobel peace prize with Elie Wiesel. Yet he does not seek wealth. He is hopeless at working within an organisation, and might have been more successful in his endeavour at Nazi hunting if he had been less of a one-man band.

To many Christians, Wiesenthal's approach seems incomprehensible. It is time (they say) to forget, or, better, time for the Jews to forgive the Nazis. But Jewish doctrines of forgiveness are different from Christian ones. Only God can forgive, or the victims. Human beings cannot forgive vicariously. Instead, human beings should judge the activities of their fellow human beings in the courts, with due process. And, in the end, God will judge us all. Hence Wiesenthal's view that countries such as America must not harbour war criminals in their midst.

Szymon Serafinowicz, who entered the UK in 1946, has just been committed for trial under the controversial War Crimes Act of 1991. He is now 85. If he is found guilty, it will be right that he should not have been able to die easy in his bed. But the cost of bringing the prosecution, and the difficulty of identification, 50 years on, is considerable. Simon Wiesenthal argues that there should be no statute of limitation on crimes against humanity. But the cost in terms of public perception of an old man standing trial, and the fact that the crimes were committed in another country under another jurisdiction, makes one nervous.

For Simon Wiesenthal is not always right. His battle with Bruno Kreisky, the Austrian chancellor, shows them both in an appalling light. Kreisky was a different kind of Jew, an assimilationist, a compromiser with former Nazis in political affairs, one whose own family would have despised the Wiesenthals as Ostjuden. Wiesenthal could not stomach Kreisky's toleration of former Nazis in his new socialist party. Kreisky could not bear Wiesenthal's righteous attacks.

Similarly controversial is the extent to which Wiesenthal takes credit for tracing Eichmann or for persuading President Jimmy Carter to set up the Office for Special Investigations, to look for Nazi war criminals in the US. Others have earned much of the credit for both, and Wiesenthal can be less than generous. But this does not explain the degree to which his detractors loathe him. The World Jewish Congress, who disputed his views about Kurt Waldheim in his campaign to become Austrian president, practically spit about him.

Perhaps one of his greatest mistakes was to lend his name to the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a sophisticated computer operation and museum of tolerance, run in a very different style from his own. It is led by Rabbi Marvin Hier whose views about many issues sit uneasily with Wiesenthal's. Here is Wiesenthal the symbol of Nazi hunting, of remembering, and recording. But here too is Wiesenthal the man, who does not want to lose control of his message, even at 87. Yet the centre named after him disagreed with him about Kurt Waldheim. He was a liar, in Wiesenthal's view, but lying is different from war crimes. One has to admire his firmness of purpose, but, despite being considerably moved by Hella Pick's elegant biography, I am not as convinced as she is that he is "a hero of our time". He is too flawed for that - but a brave man, he undoubtedly is.