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Self-Made Golem

Simon Wiesenthal, painted in a new biography as a fame-seeking myth-maker, is also the man who insisted that the world face up to the Holocaust

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Simon Wiesenthal addressing the United Nations on its 50th anniversary, in 1995. (Simon Wiesenthal Center/Getty Images)

Stop the presses! Are you sitting down? Can you handle the truth? According to Tom Segev’s new biography of Simon Wiesenthal—and I’m not making this up—the famed Nazi hunter was not a perfect human being! He was a media manipulator, a myth-maker, a publicity seeker. He could be a self-aggrandizing credit grabber, a teller of tall tales and much-varied narratives, and sometimes weaver of outright fabrications. He was quarrelsome, vain, egotistical, didn’t play well with others.

But what would we have done without him? To many Jews, especially in the Diaspora, he gave at least the illusion that some of the perpetrators would be brought to justice. “Justice not vengeance,” as Wiesenthal liked to say.

Segev, an indefatigable historian and highly respected reporter for the leftist Israeli daily Haaretz, tells us he had access to 300,000 Wiesenthal-related documents, although he doesn’t say how many he read. (Among his many human sources are agents of the Mossad who believe they deserve credit for some of his successes.) But his attempt at de-mythologizing Wiesenthal can sometimes make one feel he misses the forest for the trees. Yes, the Wiesenthal behind the legend may have been all too human, and it’s always valuable to set the record straight for history, but could this be a case where the legend is more important to the course of history than the life? Is publicity-seeking intrinsically bad if one is seeking to publicize the untroubled afterlives of mass murderers in order to shame the world into action?

The fact that this question has to be asked is due to something we have chosen to forget: the world community’s stunning failure after World War II to treat the Final Solution as a crime unto itself. The 19 Nazis convicted at Nuremberg were found guilty of “crimes against humanity” mainly for planning and starting a devastating war of aggression. Wiesenthal, Segev reminds us, was always adamant that the Final Solution was a crime against humanity as well as against Jews. But it was a different crime from that for which the Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg.

There was a lamentable loss of distinction between the two crimes, or rather a shameful failure to prosecute the second crime, for some 15 years after the war. Hitler lost the war against the Allies, yes. But in effect he won his personal “war against the Jews” (as Lucy Dawidowicz described his greatest priority) by a factor of some 6 million to one.

The world preferred to focus on the fact that the official war was won. We are fortunate that someone—Simon Wiesenthal—made the pursuit of the perpetrators of the second war his lonely obsession. But what if there had been no Wiesenthal? What if he hadn’t started pestering people around the world as early as 1953 that Adolf Eichmann, the chief operating officer of the Holocaust, was alive and living in Buenos Aires? Wiesenthal became the Ancient Mariner of Mauthausen, the Austrian camp he’d been sent to from his native Lvov, buttonholing anyone and everyone, trying to get them to care that there was a monster of evil living a thinly disguised second life in Buenos Aires. And for a long time nobody cared enough to do anything about it. It wasn’t a priority.

Eichmann still may have been caught—Segev is meticulous in disentangling the different threads of information that finally propelled the Mossad to kidnap Eichmann in Argentina and transport him to Israel for trial in 1960—but it was Wiesenthal who seized upon the capture (and his role in it) to make belated justice for ex-Nazi war criminals a worldwide cause.

That was the significance of the Eichmann trial, making the world face the fact that it had let the perpetrators of the greatest mass murder in history walk away for the most part unscathed and unindicted.

Wiesenthal or the myth that grew up around Wiesenthal—that Nazis all over the world were being pursued by the vast inexorable forces of Wiesenthal’s all-powerful, all-knowing “Documentation Center”—served several purposes. It was satisfying to a certain extent to Jews, particularly because many ex-Nazis believed the legend and could be thought of as living in fear of capture. But however exaggerated some of his claims may have been, the exaggerations (the hyping of the so-called ODESSA Nazi escape network, for instance) may have served a purpose—not just psychic healing for Holocaust survivors who could at least imagine justice would eventually be done. Alas, the legend also served as an excuse for the indifference of the rest of the world to the murderers in their midst. It allowed the rest of the world to think that there was no need to make a systematic effort to punish the perpetrators of the greatest mass murder in history—they were being hunted down by Simon Wiesenthal.

In Segev’s account, we come to understand how Wiesenthal was driven close to madness by the indifference of the rest of the world to the pursuit of justice and ironically, his work, his legend gave the rest of the world a fig leaf for its inaction.

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of it all was the way many Jewish leaders such as the World Jewish Congress’s Nahum Goldman failed to act with any vigor on the escaped Nazi information Wiesenthal supplied. And there was the episode when Austria’s Jewish chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, found excuses to attack Wiesenthal.

“The dispute with Kreisky caused Wiesenthal great pain,” Segev writes. “He reckoned that most, if not all, Austrians were happy that someone had taken upon himself to free them at long last from their Nazi past…. ‘I am their bad conscience,’ he wrote some time later, ‘because each one of them should have taken upon himself what I have done for Austrian society.’ Never had he felt so alone.”

And indeed looking back it’s rather astonishing that of all the Jews in the world just one man, however flawed, systematically unappeasably dedicated himself to being the world’s “bad conscience” and the Nazi’s living nightmare. Segev is good at capturing the catch-as-catch-can origins of Wiesenthal’s “Documentation Center.” He makes much of what a sloppy, disorganized, out-of-pocket, one-man shop it was for much of its early history, how it depended on stacks of newspaper clippings, old phone books, barely legible letters, flawed memories from camp survivors who randomly wandered in, false trails, red herrings—this was no CSI Vienna, no Cold Case Squad. For a long time it was one irritable guy who’d lived through a hellish experience he wasn’t going to allow the perpetrators to forget.

Wiesenthal started by collecting information from his fellow camp survivors and then looking up SS murderers in Austrian phone books and pressuring authorities to prosecute them, or dismiss them from whatever important office they held (often with the tacit knowledge of everyone around them). Soon his “bad conscience” became an inconvenience not just to ex-Nazis but to the American foreign policy, which was more heavily invested in prosecuting the Cold War than on prosecuting the many Nazi war criminals West Germany allowed to hold prominent state positions.

Segev demonstrates the way Wiesenthal learned to manipulate the media, play politicians against each other, sometimes plant false stories about sightings (Eichmann in Syria!) just to keep an escaped Nazi’s name in the news. He was a combination of detective and showman. Segev sometimes makes him seem like Geraldo Rivera, which I think is a bit unfair: Look at what he was taking on—the burden the world had shrugged off its shoulders, the moral weight of the world. The immoral wait of the world.

Yes, Wiesenthal was a born tummler. He stirred things up, made things up, sometimes got things wrong, but he made it impossible for people to forget the murderers—like Eichmann.

Wiesenthal and Eichmann: the two poles of post-Holocaust consciousness. Let us take a moment to give Eichmann some consideration since he was the central figure in the drama of Wiesenthal’s life and legend.

The late Milton Himmelfarb once wrote an influential polemic called “No Hitler, No Holocaust” arguing—against pseudo-sophisticated detractors of the “great man” theory of history—that in fact it had been Hitler’s implacable drive alone that made the Jews the victims, not just of oppression or Pogroms as they had been in the past in Europe, but of systematic extermination. One could say of Eichmann, “No Eichmann, no systematic, industrialized continent-wide extermination.” He made the trains run on time. To review: Heydrich called Eichmann and told him that the Furher has given the order for the extermination of the Jews. You’re in charge.

Aside from the industrialized gas chamber/crematoria complex, Eichmann can be held responsible for the psychological component of the continent-wide extraction, concentration, and transportation of Jews with minimum fuss. The technique of promising “work in the east” to the ghettoized Jews if they’d just get on board the trains. The diabolical “wish you were here” postcards home from the dead.

But you won’t find in Segev’s book a full description of the real Eichmann. He was not merely the neutral administrator par excellence but an ideologically committed, bloodthirsty, Jew-hating killer. You have to go to a book such as Neal Bascomb’s recent Hunting Eichmann, where in five pages he tells you more than Segev’s entire book does about Eichmann’s obscene ferocity in personally coming to Budapest at the end of the war to insure that the last surviving Jewish community, the 400,000 that had been protected in Hungary from extermination by the fascist but somewhat independent Hungarian regent, Admiral Horthy, were shipped to the death camps.

Even though the war was lost, and there was no point (as if there ever was) in Eichmann’s making sure every last Jew alive in Hungary died, but Eichmann did his best, sending the last 7,500 Jews left in Budapest to Auschwitz until, Bascomb reports, Eichmann had to be summoned by Himmler himself (who was trying to make some devil’s bargain for the lives of those Jews), who ordered Eichmann to stop the final frenzy of extermination. Wiesenthal pieced it altogether from the ground up, from Eichmann’s collaborators and victim/survivors. That’s why he got into everyone’s face about Eichmann. He was no cog in a machine, he was the screeching driving wheel.

At least Segev doesn’t buy into Hannah Arendt’s fatuous pseudo-profound notion of Eichmann’s “banality of evil,” a scandalously inaccurate, philosophically meretricious phase that historically ignorant people parrot to make themselves seem intellectually sophisticated.

Actually, Segev’s attitude toward Eichmann seems inconsistent, which is a problem since he is so central to the Wiesenthal narrative and Wiesenthal’s iconic triumph, however much he may have exaggerated his role in the final denouement.

In fact, Segev seems to be of two minds about Eichmann. When he first introduces him early in the book he claims Eichmann “was never a maker of policy, he implemented it. He was one of those Nazi killers who as a rule did his work sitting behind a desk.” In Eichmann’s case this is utterly misleading considering how eager Eichmann was to get out from behind his desk to outrace the coming end of the war to complete his final evil project, the murder of the Hungarian Jews.

Which gives you the feeling that Segev buys into Arendt’s bogus “banality of evil” theory—that Eichmann was merely a paper-pushing bureaucrat who had no emotional investment in the mass murder he was enabling, a follower of orders, an exculpatory line Arendt foolishly took directly from Eichmann’s own dishonest attempt to exculpate himself—and save himself from the hangman—at his trial in Jerusalem.

But then Segev seems to have had a change of heart because a hundred pages later he tells us that he was shocked, shocked by some new Eichmann revelations in the year 2000, “when Israel permitted the publication of an autobiography written by Eichmann in prison,” and, Segev says, “a different person emerged.”

Different person! No more Mr. Nice Guy, I guess. Anyone who didn’t know the nature of Eichmann by 2000 was ignoring the well-documented history of his fanatic frenzied last-ditch crusade to kill every last Jew in Hungary.

Which leads one to wonder about Segev’s imputing a belief in Arendt’s banality theory to Wiesenthal, although Segev offers an empathetic (or perhaps patronizing) explanation.

“As a man who identified with the principles of humanistic ethics, Wiesenthal found it difficult to accept this [the profound and vicious calculation behind Eichmann’s hatred,] so he preferred Arendt’s thesis. She too refused to see in Eichmann a thinking person, she therefore erred in her assessment of him as did Wiesenthal.”

So now Segev tells us Arendt was wrong to see Eichmann as a mere paper-pushing deskman but uses the fraudulence of her theory to reprove Wiesenthal for an alleged failure to see Eichmann’s anti-Semitic “ferocity.” Somehow I doubt Segev’s claim to see Eichmann’s nature more clearly than Wiesenthal.

What’s fascinating is that, despite all his strenuous debunking and attempted debunking of the Wiesenthal myth, Segev is too good a reporter, too honest an observer, not to have developed a grudging admiration for his subject that he will sometimes allow to slip through.

What could be the cause of the demythologizing impulse that seems to drive Segev’s book, though? I believe it can be traced back to something Segev himself describes:

Many of the Israelis who had settled in the country before World War II or were born there, tended to relate condescendingly to Holocaust victims and survivors, identifying them with the Jews of the Diaspora, whom they despised as the polar opposite of the “new Hebrews” they were trying to create in the Land of Israel, in the spirit of the Zionist vision. It was the customary to blame the victims for not coming to the country beforehand, remaining in Europe instead and waiting to be slaughtered without doing anything to prevent it.

Harsh, no? And the length to which he goes to describe this prejudice suggests that part of him still shares the Israeli contempt for the survivors and that part of him treats Wiesenthal as the man who thrust the Holocaust upon Israel—an unwanted legacy for a nation founded on a vision of the future not the past, as the central focus of Jewishness. One could argue this case, but it’s unfair to take it out on Wiesenthal.

It’s hard to read Segev’s mind, but he is one of the leading “revisionist” historians of Israel. Does he resent the focus on the Holocaust of the European Jews as a rationale for the state of Israel, as a focus of Jewish identity? Does he share the early Israeli’s contempt for alleged Diasporic weakness that allowed the Holocaust to happen? This blame-the-victim attitude all too prevalent in Jewish and non-Jewish circles discounts the hideous progressive dehumanization of the victims before the slaughter. I actually think Segev has overcome a great deal of this Sabra attitude. One could speculate that Segev’s Mossad sources convinced him Wiesenthal grabbed too much credit for the Eichmann capture and other exploits. One could also speculate he sold the book as a sensational debunking project but the deeper he got into the documentation of the crimes Wiesenthal was seeking justice for, the loneliness of his quest, the more Segev’s integrity as a historian and a human being deepened his own world view to see the value as well as the hype in Wiesenthal’s work.

Try this thought experiment: What would the history of post-Holocaust Judaism have been like without Wiesenthal, this edgy irritable man who loved to spend his weekends with a stamp-collectors club at the Museum Cafe in Vienna but who managed—like pasting stamps in an album—to put hundreds of ex-Nazis in jail and redeem a portion of justice for Holocaust perpetrators?

Does Wiesenthal represent the inexorable triumph of justice? Alas no, we should be grateful for his work but realize that it was a lucky accident in a world that didn’t want to care, an aberration in a world where people and nations consciously and unconsciously fled from facing the fact of their complicity in perhaps the greatest crime in history. Sought to bury it in the past. Is too much attention to the past being paid now? How much does it matter that the Wiesenthal legend was exaggerated? Segev’s book provokes fascinating and important questions, especially when the prospect of a second holocaust (from a nuclear attack on the Jewish state) is not out of the question. If few cared then, will many care next time?

Wiesenthal was a tummler, but there’s something more to him, a moral seriousness that gets lost in Segev’s focus on the colorful fabrication of the legend surrounding him. He was a tummler but he was also kind of golem summoned up from the collective unconscious of the survivors and dead souls of the victims, someone who, as Segev points out, would almost have had to be invented if he hadn’t existed.

He was a larger-than-life figure and his stories were sometimes larger than truth, but he was dealing with a crime that was larger than death.

Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and a forthcoming book on the new age of nuclear war, is a cultural columnist for Slate.

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Tom Segev’s motivation is blatantly obvious. As an Israel-bashing anti-Zionist Israeli expatriate, he has followed the well-trodden path of innumerable assimilating diaspora Jews. Fleeing the shame of his original national and cultural (to say nothing of religious) identity, he has adopted instead a deracinated academic intellectual persona that emulates his new colleagues’ supercilious disgust for the nation, people and religion into which he was born.

His biggest fear, naturally, is that his chosen role as elite member of the world intellectual community is in fact no less precarious than his previous one–that is, that to the rest of the world, he’s still just another despised Jew. Nazi-hunter Wiesenthal was a kind of personification of that fear, a man who ceaselessly reminded the world–Tom Segev included–that the continent at the heart of world civilization fairly recently devoted itself to rounding up and murdering Jews, from the humblest peasant to the most exalted intellectual; and that the murderers were, and are still, welcomed back into the “civilized” world’s warm embrace far more readily than were the innocent Jewish survivors. Therefore Segev must refute Wiesenthal–for if Wiesenthal is correct, then Segev’s personal project of completely shedding the stigma of his Jewish heritage and winning full acceptance as a pure, untainted global intellectual is doomed to failure.

The article is based on the writings of”Segev, an indefatigable historian and highly respected reporter for the leftist Israeli daily Haaretz”
I did a search on peer-reviewed journals and Segev has ZERO academic articles published.
He has published books. As a novelist could do. Or a journalist.
Thus, not being his research peer-reviewed, has not value at all.

Tablet, once again is publishing without analyzing sources, and in this case this is a libel.

Laurie Chana says:

I couldn’t agree more with Dan Simon.

Well it sounds to me like he was just “a human being” being totally human in nature. “All men are created equal and are sinners” in the eyes
of the L_RD our G_D.

So NU?

Dan has nailed it.

Mark S. Devenow says:

This is an interesting review of a book I’ve not yet read: not least for the fact that Ron Rosenbaum, at once, seeks to heavily credit Simon Weisenthal in connection with the capture of Eichmann and seems to rely heavily on Neal Bascomb – at least for ascertaining the degree(s) to which Eichmann’s zeal and malevolence removes him from any feeble (and ultimately vain) protestations he offered in Jerusalem ascribing to himself the role of a mere bureaucrat/”soldier.”

“Hunting Eichmann”, a book which I HAVE READ, however, seems to establish beyond peradventure that where it came to tracing Eichmann to the actual “house on Garabaldi Street”, Weisenthal’s involvement in the hunt was minor and, in some respects at least, more a distraction than an aid in the actual capture.

Thus, we have in this review a troublesome reliance. “Hunting Eichmann” certainly is a terrific read in it’s own right and withstands all cavil as to its thoroughgoing and scholarly character. However, the same book cannot be read to even suggest that Simon Weisenthal had any major role in the subject matter which forms the frontispiece of the review.

Great article by Ron Rosenbaum. I’ve spent many hours in the past arguing futilely in internet political fora about the world’s indifference to the Holocaust, about the bogusness of the notion that justice was served because of two dozen Nuremberg sentences, about what a ridiculous notion the ‘banality of evil’ is, about what a travesty it is that Nazis were allowed to live freely and without worry in Europe, etc. It’s nice to see a columnist speak the plain truth as Ron does here.

As for Segev, he’s a journalist, not a historian. I guess he’s what you’d call an investigative journalist. The ‘contempt’ he exhibits for his subject is just his version of journalistic neutrality (having not read the book being reviewed, but based on reading previous books like 1949 and The Seventh Million). I wouldn’t put it down to any particular Israeli contempt for Holocaust victims, just his coarse journalistic attitude. As readers of his past books know, he treats various Israeli icons and founding myths with even more apparent contempt (as some of the comments above reflect).

He was a man who was right for his time. Indeed, what would we have done without him?

Robin Margolis says:

The reviewer and some of the commenters seem to be saying that Wiesenthal had a few human weaknesses that don’t detract from his greatness. They are upset with Tom Segev for writng the book.

I think the matter is much more complex.

First, these charges were apparently brought up first in a 2009 book by a British scholar, Guy Walters, called “Hunting Evil.” It appears to me that many Jews ignored the book. We can’t make charges go away by ignoring them until a second book comes out.

Second, the disclosure that Wiesenthal was a Mossad agent and concealed it is pretty major. There is a great difference between his public presentation of himself as a lone crusader and the truth — he was the paid agent for years of an Israeli intelligence network. This does not seem to be mentioned in the review.

I think all of us who admired Wiesenthal in the Diaspora are entitled to the truth.

Third, the revelation that Wiesenthal consistently misrepresented himself means that many stories he told as facts may not be true. And that is troubling, because his stories had a lot of influence due to his public stature.

A person may be forgiven for exaggerating — it is human — but when a major public figure consistently bends the historical facts about himself and his mission, that is a problem.

For example, the famous “Sunflower” story, in which Wiesenthal as a Jewish prisoner of the Nazis was brought in to a dying German soldier, who begged his forgiveness for crimes committed against the Jews, and Wiesenthal kept silent and refused to forgive him — is that story true?

I guess that I will have to check in these books and see whether or not it is true. And that is sad.

The reviewer apppears to be suggesting that if a legend consoles Jews, other people should not disturb the legend. I think “emet,” the truth, comes first in Judaism. It is mentioned repeatedly in our liturgy. Our Tanach (Hebrew Bible) is unsparing in its stories of past heroes’ misdeeds.

Why didn’t this schmuck write the book when Wiesenthal was alive? Easy to cast stones at those who are not alive to defend themselves.

Mention of Wiesenthal being a paid Mossad agent is not made in this review, so it’s hard for us to comment about it. But, ‘paid Mossad agent’ is one of those terms that might not have a lot of context to it but can be thrown around to discredit someone. It makes it seem as if Wiesenthal himself was nothing but a Mossad plant and his decades of activity nothing but a front for whatever the Mossad was really doing. Somehow, that doesn’t ring true.
The conventional wisdom is that the Mossad hated him, because agents involved in the Nazi hunting feel he stole their credit, and also that he blew their cover by publicizing activities in South America which allowed Mengele to elude capture.

The real story here is not that Wiesenthal is less than a perfect saint, or even that he was a ‘paid Mossad agent’. The real story is that it was one old man who stood down the polite Western World’s wall of indifference and made them acknowledge the Holocaust as opposed to ‘crimes against humanity’. One man with a desk and a phone book fearlessly setting up shop in the middle of postwar Vienna, a city rife with unrepentant Nazis.
At the time of his death, Austrian media portrayed Wiesenthal honorifically, as if he were a state treasure. Of course he was loathed by most Austrians for most of his career, for reasons we all can surmise. Sadly, for the most part, this one man was all that stood in the way of mass murderers getting away with impunity and a world completely willing to let them do so.
The story isn’t Wiesenthal, the story is the destruction of European Jewry and subsequent lack of accountability. Wiesenthal himself was merely a dedicated muckraker and chronicler of the story.

I would agree that the author is clearly motivated by his anti Zionist feelings. Perhaps he can see a position like Norman Finklestein touring third rate backwater Catholic Colleges like LeMoyne in Syracuse giving talks on the evils of those who sought justice for the Shoah.

Excellent review.

I am certain the Holocaust Industry types like Finkelstein and Chomsky will quote from him often. He can speak at conferences in Iran and Dubai and be loved by Jew haters everywhere.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Dave:

Here the link to the Israeli newspaper review (in English) of the book. The headline: “Famous Nazi-hunter was a Mossad agent, new book reveals”

I am not disturbed that Mr. Wiesenthal worked with Mossad fifty years ago. He was hunting Nazis; that was a logical step.

I’m disturbed that this was concealed for so long.

I admired Mr. Wiesenthenthal’s work and am disturbed at the idea that I will now have to look up anything that might have information from Mr. Wiesethal for fear it won’t be fully accurate because he apparently bent facts sometimes. That is very saddening.

Mr. Segev’s biography is said to have been written with the full cooperation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and his daughter. I have seen no press releases anywhere from the Center denouncing the book as inaccurate. That says a great deal.

It is my hope that like many Biblical characters whose virtues and weaknesses are on display in the Tanach, Mr. Wiesenthal’s virtues will be remembered along with his weaknesses.

Enrico says:

Perhaps Segev would have preferred a tzadik (saint) to do the job, but such a person would hardly have been interested in going after criminals. It seems (without having read the book) that the flaws Segev describes in Wiesenthal’s character were exactly what was necessary for him to succeed at challenging an apathetic world. Indeed, the prophets of Israel were able to challenge the apathy around them in ways that was infuriating.

artcohn says:

Tom Segev is highly unreliable; Always trying to denigrate anybody admired for their service to the Jews as a people.

P. scg., says:

Bravo Enbrico. I agree with you totally

One needs to recall that Tom Segev, born Tom Schwerin) was raised by a German mother who had married a German Jew and run away with him to Palestine. Segev’s father was killed in the 1948 war of independence and his German mother Ricarda raised him and his sister in Jerusalem as non-Jews. That surely has affected his view of the events and people in this book, and to the issues surrounding Eichmann. What did it mean to a young Segev/Schwerin as he and his family watched the unfolding of the Eichmann trial and the attitude to the Holocaust change in Israel. Is any of this revealed to the reader in Segev’s analysis of Weisental?

I saw Mr Wiesenthal speak at John Carrol University in the late 70’s. There were so many people there that I had to stand in the auditorium’s projection booth to see and hear him. He stood alone when there should have been others helping him with his mission. And he persevered! No “biographer” can detract from Mr. Wiesenthal’s work or record. He was a great man.

Thanks Robin.

It looks like the Mossad set him up with $300/month in the early days when he really needed it, and the article doesn’t indicate that the Mossad placed conditions or limits on his research. Instead of compromising him, they enabled him to fully engage in his research and his self-appointed mission.

BTW, interesting stuff about Tom Segev’s background. I don’t resent the guy or anything, it’s just an interesting back story.

Perhaps we are all leaping to judgment. The NY Times says the book is quite favorable to Mr. Wiesenthal, even though it is honest about his tendency to bend facts and his concealed alliance with Mossad:

So perhaps all of us, myself included, need to look intensively at other reviews, rather than focus entirely on the less-favorable Tablet review of the book. The NYTimes review said Mr. Wiesenthal is portrayed as “an angel with dirty wings.” That is true of many admirable people.

Second, I don’t think it is kosher to suggest that Mr. Segev naturally writes bad things about Jews like Mr. Wiesenthal because he is half-Jewish.

As I recall, the WWII era Germans devalued things half-Jewish people said by noting that they were only “half-Aryan.” We shouldn’t be following that bad example.

I’m the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network. I didn’t know Mr. Segev was half-Jewish, so I thank Mr. Heilman for letting me know. If you visit the Half-Jewish Network website, you’ll see our page on the Holocaust and what happened to half-Jewish people in that era.

I think much of this discussion is fueled by deep admiration for Mr. Wiesenthal — but perhaps we are slamming a book that is a balanced portrayal.

Joanna Bankier says:

Please, tone it down a bit. This subject neither requires breathless excitement nor unfounded praise or criticism. So Wiesenthal wasn’t the saint he was made out to be. Why not? Was it perhaps necessary to get his work done? What about the work? What about Segev’s other books?

Robin, I really don’t think its relevant that someone is ‘half Jewish’ but as head of that network I understand your concern. In my opinion, I believe one is Jewish or not, you are not ‘half’ Jewish or ‘whole’ Jewish…but of course people should be free to define themselves as they wish. I am a convert and I always take offense when people refer to my children as ‘half Jewish’….they were raised as Jews and don’t feel divided at all. They don’t wait for Santa or the Easter bunny and feel no confusion on that score altho I know their are many children of mixed faith backgrounds who do. Its a complex thing no question.

Grantman says:

Somehow this article reminds me of the quote from the John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I’m fine with that. As someone stated above, Angel with dirty wings works, too.

Wiesnethal did good work and lots of it, quite often by himself. That’s what matters.

History is information and knowledge about the past acquired through investigation. This is exactly what Segev has done. He should not have mentioned W’s Mossad connection in order to protect Rosenbaum’s precious narrative on the subject? I assume that Rosebaum would not have accused Segev’s Mossad sources of having ulterior motives if they had reported that W had refused to work for them. And BTW if Haaretz is “leftist” so is The Economist. They both support a secular agenda, free market economics and a two-state solution and are critical of many of the Likud polcies.

To Segev: Big Whoop…

Steve Brizel says:

Tom Segev is a journalist, as opposed to a historian, and the perspective reflected in his books and articles are eflective of a post Zionist perspective that dominates the Israeli secular intellegentsia in its views on the Holocaust, Zionim and the future of the State of Israel. Ron Rosenbaum deserves a major round of kudos for reading between the lines in his review of this book.

Tom Segev is not an historian?
Yep. And there were WMDs in Iraq.

As the Director of Otsego County Mental Health (NY) in the 1980’s I had a staff psychiatrist
who was a Holocaust survivor and was in the same camp and building as Wiesenthal.
At liberation, my staff member hoped to practice medicine again, but Simon Wiesenthal
told him he will make a career at hunting Nazi’s. His motivation certainly sounds like one
who felt that justice demanded this hunt. Both men at that time were close to death
from gross malnutrition and loss of body weight. Simon Wiesenthal certainly sounded less self-centered than your perception of the message from the Tom Segev book.

M.L. Denburg, Ph.D. Coralville, IA

Old Rockin' Dave says:

Simon Wiesenthal was a “paid Mossad agent”? I’m shocked – shocked! – to find this out.
Since a significant number of Nazi war criminals continued their anti-Semitic activities in the pay of the Arab states that were most implacably anti-Israeli, namely Syria and Egypt, or else in their various other nations of refuge, then Wiesenthal and Mossad had overlapping interests. The hunt for Nazis probably also yielded a notable harvest of information about intelligence services, police agencies, crime syndicates and whatnot, making him a valuable asset. Further, since Nazi-hunting was an expensive and ill-paying occupation and Mossad had a government funding it, it must have helped to pay his bills.
Good for him. While he was doing the holy work of justice, he was also helping Israel to survive. I am even more grateful to him than ever.

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lactmama says:

Wiesenthal made it a point to speak to young people. He may have given the same speech and schtick to everyone but it was inspiring. I met him in Vienna in the 60’s, at his office. This was almost a self run operation – people helped, people contributed time and money. Word of mouth and networking is how we would describe it today. One of the things he would say is something like ‘ when I die and have to face God and he asks what I did in life, I will say ‘I did not forget’. That is the point. Personality traits, feuds with others – does it matter?

Re Eichmann’s trying to kill all of the Jews in Budapest, Yad Vashem tells us –

The different sections of Budapest were liberated in January and February 1945. Approximately 120,000 Jews survived in the city, the majority in the ghetto, and the others as a result of the documents of diplomatic protection, falsified Aryan papers and hiding places.


At least some Jews were able to survive – the people in the rest of the country were not.


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Self-Made Golem

Simon Wiesenthal, painted in a new biography as a fame-seeking myth-maker, is also the man who insisted that the world face up to the Holocaust

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