Wiesenthal The Collector

Simon Wiesenthal died last month at 96 in his sleep at his home in Vienna. This seems particularly fitting, since Wiesenthal spent the last 60 years troubling the sleep of Nazi war criminals, their henchmen, collaborators and supporters.

During the Holocaust, 89 members of Wiesenthal’s extended family were murdered, including his mother who was deported to the Belzec extermination camp. Wiesenthal himself was a prisoner at a succession of charnel houses, such as the Janovska camp, Plaszow (the camp in “Schindler’s List”), Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Mauthausen, where the Americans liberated him in May 1945.

Wiesenthal soon compiled a list of every Nazi persecutor he had come across during the war and began collecting evidence for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army.

As Jewish refugees and concentration camp survivors flooded Austria’s displaced persons camps from Eastern Europe, Wiesenthal saw a unique opportunity to gather testimony of war crimes. At the same time, the criminals, the Nazis, were still on the loose, many still in Austria and Germany. In 1947, Wiesenthal set up an office in Linz, Austria, and began his life’s work, which he continued until a few years ago.

My late father, Bruce Teicholz, and Wiesenthal were friends. They were contemporaries, both born in Galicia, that part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now Ukraine. Before the war, both had lived and worked in Lvov (known today as Lviv); both remained there during the 1939 Soviet occupation, and each escaped after the Nazis arrived in 1941 (although Wiesenthal was apprehended).

After the war, they found each other in Austria. Whether they had known each other in Lvov or met in Vienna, I can’t say, but they were bonded by their shared background. At the time, my father was the designated representative of the former concentration camp inmates and Jewish displaced persons (DPs) in Austria, and as such, had dealings with the four occupying powers, as well as with the Jewish Agency and the Bricha, the precursor to the Haganah. Wiesenthal often came from Linz to meet with my father, seeking support for his work.

In later years, they stayed in touch. They sent each other Jewish New Year cards, and I recall Wiesenthal as a guest in our home in New York on more than one occasion. I remember him because we shared a mutual interest in stamp collecting (more on that later).

Although now remembered as “the conscience of the Holocaust,” over the years, Wiesenthal was accused by some of being an egomaniac, an opportunist, a man who lived off the Holocaust, a liar who exaggerated his own accomplishments, a bungler who reported false sightings of Mengele and then refused to believe he was dead (when he was).

And although he was most often described as a “Nazi hunter,” during his dispute with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, Kreisky implied that Wiesenthal had been a Nazi collaborator — never offering any evidence to support his claim. And some labeled Wiesenthal an apologist for U.N. Secretary General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, when Waldheim’s Nazi past came to light.

My father knew Wiesenthal well enough not to excuse his occasional failings but to set them in context. Wiesenthal’s personality, with its several foibles, was also the basis for his lasting legacy and well-deserved renown.

It’s important to understand that two developments had a serious impact on Wiesenthal’s early post-war work. First, by the late 1940s, the Nuremberg trials were, for all intents and purposes over. As Abby Mann dramatized so effectively in “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the growing Cold War created pressure to end the war crimes trials and enlist Germany as an ally against the Soviet Union.

Also by 1953, the displaced persons administration in Austria was dismantled. Its work, too, was deemed over. The DPs had all gone to start new lives, many in the U.S. and Israel. Without witnesses and without trials, Wiesenthal’s work seemed at an end.

In 1954, he formally closed his Documentation Center office in Linz, and transferred his files to the Holocaust archives at Yad Vashem in Israel.

Wiesenthal himself remained in Austria, moving to Vienna. He continued to work with refugees from Eastern Europe, organizing language and rehabilitation courses.

Then in 1960, Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires and brought him to stand trial in Jerusalem. The publicity convinced Wiesenthal to return to Nazi hunting. He opened a small office in Vienna.

Wiesenthal’s decision was not met with universal approval and support. At the time, Nazi hunting was not on anyone’s list of accepted private professions — and although Wiesenthal lived modestly — some thought it unseemly when he requested funds to support himself and his work in Vienna of all places.

Holocaust survivors were, for the most part, focused on building new lives in new countries. Israel was offered up as the answer to the Holocaust. To many, the right place to archive Nazi documentation was in Israel, with its large population of survivor witnesses. Tuviah Friedman, a colleague of Wiesenthal’s in Austria, opened the Haifa Documentation Center. The Israel police created a Nazi-hunting unit.

Further, Wiesenthal’s decision to make a full-time career of Nazi hunting seemed odd. Holocaust remembrance was something to be done, if at all, in one’s spare time, like charity work. What could one private citizen do — as opposed to a government prosecutor, or an academic, or even a journalist?

Despite all this, Wiesenthal set about his work.

Did Wiesenthal have an ego?

Of course. How else could one man think that what he did, alone in an office, without government aid, mattered and persuade others of that as well?

Over the years, Wiesenthal was publicly at odds with prominent figures, such as Elie Wiesel, Mossad Chief Isser Harel, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, Edgar Bronfman and Eli Rosenbaum. All I can say is that perhaps there was a reason Wiesenthal was best suited to working alone.

Wiesenthal was said to have aided in the capture of more than 1,100 Nazis. Although this may not be not strictly true, to call it untrue is to misunderstand what Wiesenthal accomplished.

Wiesenthal did not personally capture Eichmann. Nor did he provide Israel with the specific tip that led to Eichmann, who lived under the name Ricardo Klement in Buenos Aires.

As the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to its credit, states in its official bio of Wiesenthal, in 1954 he supplied information to the Israeli Embassy in Vienna that Eichmann was in Argentina. It was only in 1959, when Israeli intelligence received information from Fritz Bauer, a West German prosecutor, that they sent agents to Buenos Aires to abduct Eichmann.

Yet it was Wiesenthal who insisted that Eichmann not be declared dead, as his widow requested as early as 1947. Wiesenthal kept the hunt for Eichmann alive, literally, until Eichmann was apprehended, and for that he deserves praise.

Information Wiesenthal gathered led to many significant prosecutions. There was the arrest of Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo aide who arrested Anne Frank — at a time when Holocaust deniers questioned the veracity of her published diary.

He also found Majdanek camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, who was living as a Queens housewife. The notion that this seemingly retiring person had been a notoriously sadistic tormentor did as much, if not more, to wake up people to the everyday quality of participants in the Final Solution as did seeing Eichmann in a glass booth.

In Brazil, Wiesenthal located Franz Stangl, the Treblinka commandant, responsible for the deaths of more than 870,000 Jewish men, women and children in little more than a year. He was extradited to stand trial in Germany. Also in the 1980s, Wiesenthal was able to locate and bring pressure to bear on extraditing and prosecuting SS officer Josef Schwammberger.

This latter case touched some close family friends, the Tuchmans, who lived in the same building as my family on West End Avenue in New York. I went to high school with Jeff Tuchman. His father, Dr. Marcel Tuchman, still remembers Schwammberger and the way he used his German shepherd dog, Prince, to sadistically prey on Jewish inmates.

Dr. Tuchman flew to Germany to give testimony at Schwammberger’s trial. Being able to do so was, as the credit card commercials say, priceless.

Stangl died in jail in 1971; Schwammberger died in prison in 2004. At each step of their final journey, there were press accounts detailing their evil deeds. Wiesenthal outlived them both. There was justice in that, a little vengeance and some measure of satisfaction.

Over the years Wiesenthal wrote books, consulted on movies and even had Ben Kingsley portray him on the screen in the HBO movie, “Murderers Among Us.” This, too, is his legacy.

Wiesenthal and his work have been irresistible subjects for books and films. As I write this, Tony Stern, another high school friend, has the rights to Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower” and is developing adaptations for the screen and the stage, as well as planning a documentary film.

Wiesenthal relished the awards he received from all over the world, including an honorary knighthood from the queen of England. He was disappointed not to win the Nobel (and miffed that Wiesel received it alone in 1986).

But it was Wiesenthal who became an international “brand” in 1977 by making what amounted to a licensing deal with the founders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization dedicated to the ideals of combating anti-Semitism and promoting tolerance (a somewhat more abstract elucidation of Wiesenthal’s own specific quest to document and prosecute the crimes of the Holocaust in the name of the victims). The organization’s success and popularity insures Wiesenthal a degree of immortality.

In the end, Wiesenthal’s accomplishments are larger and deeper than mere words such as “justice” or “vengeance.” Wiesenthal labored to ensure that what occurred was not forgotten.

As for those who committed the crimes and believed that doing so was permissible — or that no one would ever know, or ever care, or that there would be no consequence, no shame for doing so — they were all wrong.

A side note: Wiesenthal trained to be an architect, and was certified as an architectural engineer. The obits say he never practiced after the war, but I do recall seeing among the papers my father donated to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research a Wiesenthal drawing for a proposed Holocaust memorial.

There was indeed an architecture to his mission. He essentially created a structural foundation for Nazi war crimes prosecution. He collected evidence; he researched. And as part of his repertoire of tactics, he held press conferences and he badgered — when others cared little or, certainly, cared less.

Perhaps the best way to think of Wiesenthal is as a collector. Collecting stamps was his beloved hobby. And in much the same way, he collected criminals.

At the end of the war, he drew up his list. Over the years, he refined and added to that list. Like many a stamp collector, he was happiest alone with his papers in his office, working at his collection, and happier still when he was able to sequester a hard-to-find Nazi criminal and close the book on him.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood