Since the early 1960s Simon Wiesenthal’s name has become synonymous with Nazi hunting. His standing is that of a secular saint. Nominated four times for the Nobel peace prize, the recipient of a British honorary knighthood, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Légion d’honneur and at least 53 other distinctions, he was often credited with some 1,100 Nazi “scalps”. He is remembered, above all, for his efforts to track down Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious war criminals.
His reputation is built on sand, however. He was a liar — and a bad one at that. From the end of the second world war to the end of his life in 2005, he would lie repeatedly about his supposed hunt for Eichmann as well as his other Nazi-hunting exploits. He would also concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic career. There are so many inconsistencies between his three main memoirs and between those memoirs and contemporaneous documents, that it is impossible to establish a reliable narrative from them. Wiesenthal’s scant regard for the truth makes it possible to doubt everything he ever wrote or said.
Some may feel I am too harsh on him and that I run a professional danger in seemingly allying myself with a vile host of neo-Nazis, revisionists, Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. I belong firmly outside any of these squalid camps and it is my intention to wrestle criticism of Wiesenthal away from their clutches. His figure is a complex and important one. If there was a motive for his duplicity, it may well have been rooted in good intentions. For his untruths are not the only shocking discoveries I have made researching the escape of Nazi war criminals. I found a lack of political will for hunting them. Many could have been brought to justice had governments allocated even comparatively meagre resources to their pursuit.
It is partly thanks to Wiesenthal that the Holocaust has been remembered and properly recorded and this is perhaps his greatest legacy. He did bring some Nazis to justice; but it was in nothing like the quantity that is claimed and Eichmann was certainly not among them. There is no space here, however, for my forensic examination of his claims as a Nazi hunter. I will confine myself to some famous episodes before and during the war that are at the heart of the Wiesenthal myth.
He was born in 1908 in Buczacz, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now in Ukraine. After the first world war, Buczacz changed hands frequently between Poles, Ukrainians and Soviet forces. In 1920 the 11-year-old Wiesenthal was attacked with a sabre by a mounted Ukrainian who slashed his right thigh to the bone. Wiesenthal regarded the scar as part of a long line of evidence that he was protected from violent death by an “unseen power” that wanted him kept alive for a purpose.
His background was ideal for any aspiring fabulist. Like many from Galicia, Wiesenthal would have spent his childhood immersed in the Polish literary genre of tall stories told over the dinner table. In a place such as Buczacz in the 1920s, truth was a relatively elastic concept. At 19 he enrolled as an architectural student at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he found his metier as a raconteur and appeared as a stand-up comedian.
His studies went less well. Although most biographies — including that on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s website — say he graduated, he did not complete his degree. Some biographies say he gained a diploma as an architectural engineer at Lvov polytechnic in Poland, but the Lvov state archives have no record of his having studied there and his name is absent from Poland’s pre-war catalogue of architects and builders. He claimed fraudulently throughout his life that he did have a diploma; his letterheads proudly display it.
Similarly, there are large discrepancies in his dramatic stories of the second world war. He was in Lvov when it fell to the Nazis in 1941. He claimed he and a Jewish friend called Gross were arrested at 4pm on Sunday July 6, one of the few dates that remain constant in his ever-shifting life story. Whenever he is so specific, however, he is usually lying.
Frogmarched to prison, they were put in a line of some 40 other Jews in a courtyard. Ukrainian auxiliary police started shooting each man in the neck, working their way down the line towards Wiesenthal. He was saved by a peal of church bells signifying evening mass. Incredibly, the Ukrainians halted their execution to go to worship. The survivors were led to the cells, where Wiesenthal claims he fell asleep. He was woken by a Ukrainian friend in the auxiliary police who saved him and Gross by telling them to pretend they were Russian spies. They were brutally questioned — Wiesenthal lost two teeth — but were freed after cleaning the commandant’s office.
The story of this sensational escape — one of the most famous of Wiesenthal’s war and one that has helped to establish the notion of his divine mission — is in all likelihood a complete fabrication. Certainly the Ukrainians carried out brutal pogroms in Lvov in early July 1941; but there was then a pause and they did not start again until July 25. According to testimony Wiesenthal gave to American war crimes investigators after the war, he was actually arrested on July 13 and managed to escape “through a bribe”. By subsequently placing his arrest on July 6, his story fitted the timing of the pogroms.
By the end of the year Wiesenthal was in Janowska, a concentration camp outside Lvov. Given the task of painting Soviet railway engines with Nazi insignia, he made friends with Adolf Kohlrautz, the German senior inspector at the workshop, who was secretly anti-Nazi. On April 20, 1943, Wiesenthal was apparently selected for a mass execution again. The SS at Janowska picked him among some Jews to be shot in a grim celebration of Hitler’s 54th birthday. They silently walked towards a huge sandpit, 6ft deep and 1,500ft long. A few dead bodies were visible in it. Forced to undress, they were herded in single file down a barbed-wire corridor known as the hose to be shot one by one at the edge of the pit.
A whistle interrupted the gunshots, followed by a shout of “Wiesenthal!” An SS man called Koller ran forward and told Wiesenthal to follow him. “I staggered like a drunk,” Wiesenthal recalled. “Koller slapped my face twice and brought me back to earth. I was walking back through the hose, naked. Behind me, the sounds of shooting resumed but they were over long before I had reached the camp.” Back at the workshop he found a beaming Kohlrautz, who had convinced the camp commander it was essential to keep Wiesenthal alive to paint a poster that would feature a swastika and the words “We Thank Our Führer”.
On October 2, 1943, according to Wiesenthal, Kohlrautz warned him that the camp and its prisoners were shortly to be liquidated. The German gave him and a friend passes to visit a stationery shop in town, accompanied by a Ukrainian guard. They managed to escape out the back while the Ukrainian waited at the front.
Yet again he had seemingly cheated death in a miraculous fashion. But we only have his word for it. According to Wiesenthal, Kohlrautz was killed in the battle for Berlin in April 1945. He also told a biographer, however, that Kohlrautz was killed on the Russian front in 1944. And in an affidavit made in August 1954 about his wartime persecutions, he neglects to include the story at all. In both this document and in his testimony to the Americans in May 1945, he mentions Kohlrautz without saying the German saved his life.
From this point in Wiesenthal’s war it is impossible to establish a reliable train of events. With at least four wildly different accounts of his activities between October 1943 and the middle of 1944 — including his alleged role as a partisan officer — serious questions must be raised. Some, such as Bruno Kreisky, the former Austrian chancellor, repeatedly accused Wiesenthal in the 1970s and the 1980s of collaborating with the Gestapo. Kreisky’s claims were supported by unsubstantiated evidence from the Polish and Soviet governments. Wiesenthal took him to court and won.
Whatever the truth, by November 1944 Wiesenthal was in Gross-Rosen, a camp near Wroclaw. He told Hella Pick, his biographer, that he was forced to work barefoot in the camp quarry and soon learnt that the team of 100 prisoners assigned to the work kommando shrank by one each day. After a few days he felt sure his turn was about to come. “My executioner was behind me,” he recalled, “poised to smash my head with a rock. I turned around and the man, surprised, dropped his stone. It crushed my toe. I screamed.”
Wiesenthal’s quick reactions and yell apparently saved his life because there was some form of inspection that day — he thought it may have been by the Red Cross — and so he was stretchered away to the first-aid station. His toe was cut off without anaesthesia while two men held him still. The following day, Wiesenthal said, he was in agony. “The doctor came back and saw that I had a septic blister on the sole of my foot. So they cut it open and the gangrene spurted all over the room.”
Yet again, one of Wiesenthal’s “miracles” is open to doubt. First, the story appears in no other memoir or statement. Secondly, if the Red Cross really was inspecting Gross-Rosen that day, then the SS would have temporarily halted any executions. As it was, the Red Cross was not allowed access to concentration camps at that time. Thirdly, the medical consequences seem entirely implausible.
Soon afterwards, according to Wiesenthal’s account, he managed to walk 170 miles west to Chemnitz after Gross-Rosen was evacuated. Walking on a gangrenous foot with a recently amputated toe would have been hellish. Instead of a shoe, he had the sleeve of an old coat wrapped around his foot with some wire. For a walking stick he had a broomstick. Of the 6,000 prisoners who marched out, only 4,800 arrived in Chemnitz. With his infected foot, Wiesenthal was lucky to be among them.
From Chemnitz, the prisoners ended up at Mauthausen camp near Linz in Austria. Wiesenthal arrived there on the frozen night of February 15, 1945. In The Murderers Among Us, he tells how he and a fellow prisoner, Prince Radziwill, linked arms to make the last four miles uphill to the camp. The effort was too great and they collapsed in the snow. An SS man fired a shot that landed between them. As the two men did not get up, they were left for dead in the sub-zero temperature. When lorries arrived to collect those who had died on the march, the unconscious Wiesenthal and Radziwill were so frozen that they were thrown onto a pile of corpses. At the crematorium, however, the prisoners unloading them realised they were alive. They were given a cold shower to thaw out and Wiesenthal was taken to Block VI, the “death block” for the mortally ill.
In 1961, when Wiesenthal was interviewed for the Yad Vashem archive by the Israeli journalist Haim Maas about his war years, Wiesenthal mentioned that the infection from his foot had now turned blue-green and had spread right up to his knee. He lay in the death block for three months until the end of the war. Too weak to get out of bed, he claimed he survived — incredibly — on 200 calories a day, along with the occasional piece of bread or sausage smuggled to him by a friendly Pole.
Mauthausen was liberated on May 5, 1945. Despite weighing just 100lb, Wiesenthal struggled outside to greet the American tanks. “I don’t know how I managed to get up and walk,” he recalled. If he was able to walk, his severely infected leg must have been cured during the previous three months by either amputation or antibiotics. We know the former did not take place, and the latter was emphatically not a common treatment for ailing Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Once again, it appears as though a miracle had taken place.
The rapidity of Wiesenthal’s recovery is so astonishing that it is doubtful whether he was as ill as he claimed. Just 20 days after the liberation, he wrote to the US camp commander asking whether he could be involved in assisting the US authorities investigating war crimes. Claiming to have been in 13 concentration camps — he had in fact been in no more than six — Wiesenthal supplied a list of 91 names of those who he felt were responsible for “incalculable sufferings”.
According to most accounts, Wiesenthal asked if he could join the American war crimes investigators, but they refused, telling him he was not well enough. After he had gained some weight, he returned and was assigned to a captain with whom Wiesenthal claimed to have captured his first “scalp”, a snivelling SS guard called Schmidt. “There were many others in the weeks that followed,” Wiesenthal later wrote. “You didn’t have to go far. You almost stumbled over them.”
A curriculum vitae Wiesenthal completed after the war does not mention his work for the Americans but lists his occupation as the vice-chairman of the Jewish Central Committee for the US zone, based in Linz. Its task was to draw up lists of survivors that other survivors could consult in their hunt for relatives.
For at least a year after the war, Wiesenthal’s other task was to lobby hard for his fellow Jews; he became president of the Paris-based International Concentration Camp Organisation. He also forged contacts with the Brichah, which smuggled Jews out of Europe to Palestine.
It was not until February 1947 that he formed the organisation that would make him famous, the Jewish Historical Documentation Centre in Linz. Its aim was to collate information on the final solution with a view to securing the indictments of war criminals. Wiesenthal claimed to have started it because of an anti-Semitic remark made by an American officer, which made him realise that the allies would never hunt down the Nazis to the extent that was required.
Sadly, he was to be proved right. He and his band of 30 volunteers travelled around the displaced persons’ camps, collecting evidence on the atrocities from former concentration camp inmates. In all, Wiesenthal’s team compiled 3,289 questionnaires, which is a far more impressive feat than anything the allies achieved.
Wiesenthal died in 2005 at the age of 96 and was buried in Israel. The tributes and eulogies were many and fulsome and at the time it would have been churlish to have detracted from the many positive aspects of the role he played. He was at heart a showman and when he found a role as the world’s head Nazi hunter, he played it well. As with so many popular performances, it was impossible for the critics to tell the public that the Great Wiesenthal Show was little more than an illusion. Ultimately, it was an illusion mounted for a good cause.
© Guy Walters 2009