For more than 40 years, Simon Wiesenthal has been tracking hundreds of "Nazi criminals" from his "Jewish Documentation Center" in Vienna. For his work as the world's most prominent "Nazi hunter," he has been awarded several honorary degrees and numerous medals, including Germany's highest decoration. In a formal White House ceremony in August 1980, a teary-eyed President Carter presented him with a special gold medal awarded by the US Congress. President Reagan praised him in November 1988 as one of the "true heroes" of this century.
This living legend was portrayed in flattering terms by the late Laurence Oliver in the 1978 film fantasy "The Boys From Brazil," and by Ben Kingsley in the 1989 HBO made-for-television movie "Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story." One of world's most prominent Holocaust organizations bears his name: the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles.
Wiesenthal's reputation as a moral authority is undeserved. The man whom The Washington Post has called the "Holocaust's Avenging Angel" (1) has a little known but well-documented record of reckless disregard for truth. He has lied about his own wartime experiences, misrepresented his postwar "Nazi-hunting" achievements, and has spread vile falsehoods about alleged German atrocities.
Szymon (Simon) Wiesenthal was born on December 31, 1908, in Buczacz, a town in the province of Galicia (now Buchach in Ukraine) in what was then the eastern fringe of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a prosperous wholesale sugar merchant.
In spite of all that has been written about him, just what Wiesenthal did during the war years under German occupation remains unclear. He has given conflicting stories in three separate accounts of his wartime activities. The first was given under oath during a two day interrogation session in May 1948 conducted by an official of the US Nuremberg war crimes commission. (2) The second is a summary of his life provided by Wiesenthal as part of a January 1949 "Application for Assistance" to the International Refugee Committee. (3) And the third account is given in his autobiography, The Murderers Among Us, first published in 1967. (4)
In his 1948 interrogation, Wiesenthal declared that "between 1939 and 1941" he was a "Soviet chief engineer working in Lvov and Odessa." (5) Consistent with that, he stated in his 1949 declaration that from December 1939 to April 1940 he worked as an architect in the Black Sea port of Odessa. But according to his autobiography, he spent the period between mid-September 1939 and June 1941 in Soviet-ruled Lvov, where he worked "as a mechanic in a factory that produced bedsprings." (6)
After the Germans took control of Galicia province in June 1941, Wiesenthal was interned for a time in the Janowska concentration camp near Lvov, from where he was transferred a few months later to a camp affiliated with the repair works (OAW) in Lvov of the Ostbahn ("Eastern Railroad") of German-ruled Poland. Wiesenthal reported in his autobiography that he worked there "as a technician and draftsman," that he was rather well treated, and that his immediate superior, who was "secretly anti-Nazi," even permitted him to own two pistols. He had his own office in a "small wooden hut," and enjoyed "relative freedom and was permitted to walk all over the yards." (7)
The next segment of Wiesenthal's life — from October 1943 to June 1944 — is the most obscure, and his accounts of this period are contradictory. During his 1948 interrogation, Wiesenthal said that he fled from the Janowska camp in Lvov and joined a "partisan group which operated in the Tarnopol-Kamenopodolsk area."8 He said that "I was a partisan from October 6, 1943, until the middle of February 1944," and declared that his unit fought against Ukrainian forces, both of the SS "Galicia" division and of the independent UPA partisan force.9
Wiesenthal said that he held the rank of lieutenant and then major, and was responsible for building bunkers and fortification lines. Although he was not explicit, he suggested that this (supposed) partisan unit was part of the Armia Ludowa ("Peoples Army"), the Polish Communist military force established and controlled by the Soviets.10
He said that he and other partisans slipped into Lvov in February 1944, where they were "hidden by friends of the A.L. ['People's Army'] group." On June 13, 1944, his group was captured by the German Secret Field Police. (Although Jewish partisans caught in hiding were often shot, Wiesenthal reports that he was somehow spared.) Wiesenthal told much the same story in his 1949 statement. He said that he fled from internment in early October 1943 and then "fought against the Germans as a partisan in the forest" for eight months — from October 2, 1943, to March 1944. After that, he was "in hiding" in Lvov from March to June 1944.
Wiesenthal tells a totally different story in his 1967 autobiography. He reports there that after escaping from the Ostbahn Repair Works on Oct. 2, 1943, he lived in hiding in the houses of various friends until June 13, 1944, when he was discovered by Polish and German police and returned to a concentration camp. He makes no mention of any partisan membership or activity.11
According to both his 1948 interrogation and his 1967 autobiography, he tried to commit suicide on June 15, 1944, by cutting his wrists. Remarkably, though, he was saved from death by German SS doctors and recovered in an SS hospital.12 He remained in the Lvov concentration camp "with double rations" for a time, and then, he reports in his autobiography, he was transferred to various work camps. He spent the remaining chaotic months, until the end of the war, in different camps until he was liberated from Mauthausen (in Austria) by American forces on May 5, 1945.13
Did Wiesenthal invent a past as a heroic wartime partisan? Or did he later try to suppress his record as a Communist fighter? Or is the true story altogether different — and too shameful to admit?
Did Wiesenthal voluntarily work for his wartime oppressors? That's the accusation leveled by Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself of Jewish ancestry and leader for many years of his country's Socialist Party. During an interview with foreign journalists in 1975, Kreisky charged Wiesenthal with using "Mafia methods," rejected his pretense of "moral authority," and suggested that he was an agent for the German authorities. Some of his more pertinent remarks, which appeared in Austria's leading news magazine Profil, include:14
I really know Mr. Wiesenthal only from secret reports, and they are bad, very nasty. I say this as Federal Chancellor ... And I say that Mr. Wiesenthal had a different relationship with the Gestapo than I did. Yes, and this can be proven. I can't say more [now]. Everything else, I'll say in court.
My relationship with the Gestapo is unambiguous. I was their prisoner, their inmate, and I was interrogated. His relationship was a different one, I can say, and this will come out clearly. It's bad enough what I've already said here. But he can't clear himself by charging me with defaming his honor in the press, as he might wish. It's not that simple, because that would mean a big court case ... A man like this doesn't have the right to pretend to be a moral authority. That's what I say. He doesn't have the right ...
Whether a man who, in my view, is an agent, yes, that's right, and who uses Mafia methods ... Such a man has to go ...
He is no gentleman, and I would say, to make this clear, so that he won't become a moral authority, because he is not ... He shouldn't pretend to be a moral authority ...
I say that Mr. Wiesenthal lived in that time in the Nazi sphere of influence without being persecuted. Right? And he lived openly without being persecuted, right? Is that clear? And you perhaps know, if you know what was going on, that no one could risk that.
He wasn't a "submarine" ... that is, submerged and in hiding, but instead, he was completely in the open without having to, well, ever risk persecution. I think that's enough. There were so many opportunities to be an agent. He didn't have to be a Gestapo agent. There were many other services.
In response to these damning words, Wiesenthal began efforts to bring a lawsuit against the Chancellor. Eventually, though, both Wiesenthal and Kreisky backed away from a major legal clash.
Before he became famous as a "Nazi hunter," he made a name for himself as a propagandist. In 1946 Wiesenthal published KZ Mauthausen, an 85-page work that consists mainly of his own amateurish sketches purporting to represent the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp. One drawing depicts three inmates who had been bound to posts and brutally put to death by the Germans.15
The sketch is completely phony. It was copied — with some minor alterations — from photographs that appeared in Life magazine in 1945, which graphically record the firing-squad execution in December 1944 of three German soldiers who had been caught operating as spies behind the lines during the "Battle of the Bulge."16 The source of the Wiesenthal drawing is instantly obvious to anyone who compares it with the Life photos.17
The irresponsible character of this book is also shown by Wiesenthal's extensive citation therein of the supposed "death bed confession" of Mauthausen Commandant Franz Ziereis, according to which four million were gassed to death with carbon monoxide at the nearby Hartheim satellite camp.18 This claim is totally absurd, and no serious Holocaust historian still accepts it.19 Also according to the Ziereis "confession" cited by Wiesenthal, the Germans supposedly killed another ten million people in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.20 In fact, this fraudulent "confession" was obtained by torture.21
Years later, Wiesenthal was still lying about Mauthausen. In a 1983 interview with the daily newspaper USA Today, he said of his experience in Mauthausen: "I was one of 34 prisoners alive out of 150,000 who had been put there."22 This is a blatant falsehood. The years have apparently not been kind to Wiesenthal's memory, because in his own autobiography he wrote that "almost 3,000 prisoners died in Mauthausen after the Americans liberated us on May 5, 1945."23 Another former inmate, Evelyn Le Chene, reported in her standard work about Mauthausen that there were 64,000 inmates in the camp when it was liberated in May 1945.24 And according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, at least 212,000 inmates survived internment in the Mauthausen camp complex.25
After the war Wiesenthal worked for the US Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) and the US Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC). He was also vice chairman of the Jewish Central Committee in the US occupation zone of Austria.26
Wiesenthal has given circulation and credence to one of the most scurrilous Holocaust stories, the charge that the Germans manufactured soap from the corpses of murdered Jews. According to this tale, the letters "RIF" in bars of German-made soap allegedly stood for "Pure Jewish Fat" ("Rein judisches Fett"). In reality, the initials stood for "National Center for Industrial Fat Provisioning" ("Reichstelle fur industrielle Fettversorgung").27
Wiesenthal promoted the "human soap" legend in articles published in 1946 in the Austrian Jewish community paper Der Neue Weg ("The New Path"). In an article entitled "RIF," he wrote: "The terrible words 'transport for soap' were first heard at the end of 1942. It was in the [Polish] General Government, and the factory was in Galicia, in Belzec. From April 1942 until May 1943, 900,000 Jews were used as raw material in this factory." After the corpses were turned into various raw materials, Wiesenthal wrote, "The rest, the residual fat stuff, was used for soap production."
He continued: "After 1942 people in the General Government knew quite well what the RIF soap meant. The civilized world may not believe the joy with which the Nazis and their women in the General Government thought of this soap. In each piece of soap they saw a Jew who had been magically put there, and had thus been prevented from growing into a second Freud, Ehrlich or Einstein."28
In another imaginative article published in 1946 entitled "Belzec Soap Factory," Wiesenthal alleged that masses of Jews were exterminated in electrocution showers:29
The people, pressed together and driven on by the SS, Latvians and Ukrainians, go through the open door into the "bath." Five hundred persons could fit at a time. The floor of the "bath chamber" was made of metal and shower heads hung from the ceiling. When the room was full, the SS turned on the 5,000 volts of electric current in the metal plate. At the same time water poured from the shower heads. A short scream and the execution was over. An SS chief physician named Schmidt determined through a peep hole that the victims were dead. The second door was opened and the "corpse commando" came in and quickly removed the dead. It was ready for the next 500.
Today no serious historian accepts the stories that Jewish corpses were manufactured into bars of soap or that Jews were electrocuted to death at Belzec (or anywhere).
Wiesenthal's imaginative view of history is not limited to the twentieth century. In his 1973 book Sails of Hope, he argued that Christopher Columbus was a secret Jew, and that his famous voyage to the western hemisphere in 1492 was actually a search for a new homeland for Europe's Jews.30
Wiesenthal is not always wrong, of course. In 1975 and again in 1993 he publicly acknowledged that "there were no extermination camps on German soil."31 He thus implicitly conceded that the claims made at the postwar Nuremberg Tribunal and elsewhere that Buchenwald, Dachau and other camps in Germany proper were "extermination camps" are not true.
In more than 40 years of "Nazi hunting," Wiesenthal's role in locating and capturing Adolf Eichmann is often considered his greatest achievement.32 (Eichmann headed the wartime SS Jewish affairs department. He was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Argentina in May 1960 and hanged in Jerusalem after a trial that received worldwide media attention.)
But Isser Harel, the Israeli official who headed the team that seized Eichmann, has declared unequivocally that Wiesenthal had "absolutely nothing" to do with the capture. (Harel is a former head of both the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel's foreign and domestic security agencies.)33
Wiesenthal not only "had no role whatsoever" in the apprehension, said Harel, but in fact he endangered the entire Eichmann operation. In a 278-page manuscript, Harel carefully refuted every claim by Wiesenthal about his supposed role in identifying and capturing Eichmann. Claims by Wiesenthal and his many friends about his supposedly crucial role in capturing the former SS officer, said Harel, have no foundation in fact. Many specific assertions and incidents described in two books by Wiesenthal, said the Israeli official, are "complete fabrications."34
"Wiesenthal's reports and statements at that period prove beyond any doubt that he had no notion of Eichmann's whereabouts," said Harel.35 (For example, just before Eichmann's capture in Argentina, Wiesenthal was placing him in Japan and Saudi Arabia.)36
Characterizing Wiesenthal as a rank opportunist, Harel summed up: "All the information supplied by Wiesenthal before and in anticipation of the [Eichmann] operation was utterly worthless, and sometimes even misleading and of negative value."37
One of Wiesenthal's most spectacular cases involved a Polish-born Chicago man named Frank Walus. In a letter dated December 10, 1974, he charged that Walus "delivered Jews to the Gestapo" in Czestochowa and Kielce in Poland during the war. This letter prompted a US government investigation and legal action.38 The Washington Post dealt with the case in a 1981 article entitled "The Nazi Who Never Was: How a witch hunt by judge, press and investigators branded an innocent man a war criminal." The lengthy piece, which was copyrighted by the American Bar Association, reported:39
In January 1977, the United States government accused a Chicagoan named Frank Walus of having committed atrocities in Poland during World War II.
In the following years, this retired factory worker went into debt in order to raise more than $60,000 to defend himself. He sat in a courtroom while eleven Jewish survivors of the Nazi occupation of Poland testified that they saw him murder children, an old woman, a young woman, a hunchback and others ...
Overwhelming evidence shows that Walus was not a Nazi War criminal, that he was not even in Poland during World War II.
... In an atmosphere of hatred and loathing verging on hysteria, the government persecuted an innocent man. In 1974, Simon Wiesenthal, the famous "Nazi hunter" of Vienna, denounced Walus as "a Pole in Chicago who performed duties with the Gestapo in the ghettos of Czestochowa and Kielce and handed over a number of Jews to the Gestapo."
The Chicago weekly newspaper Reader also reported on the case in a detailed 1981 article headlined: "The Persecution of Frank Walus: To Catch a Nazi: The U.S. government wanted a war criminal. So, with the help of Simon Wiesenthal, the Israeli police, the local press and Judge Julius Hoffman, they invented one."40 The article stated:
... It is logical to assume that the "reports received by Wiesenthal [against Walus] actually were rumors... In other words, Simon Wiesenthal had no evidence against Walus. He denounced him anyway.
While [Judge] Hoffman had the Walus case under advisement, Holocaust aired on television. During the same period, in April 1978, Simon Wiesenthal came to Chicago, where he gave interviews taking credit for the Walus case. "How Nazi-Hunter Helped Find Walus," was the Sun-Times headline on a story by Bob Olmstead. Wiesenthal told Sun-Times Abe Peck that he "has never had a case of mistaken identity." "I know there are thousands of people who wait for my mistake," he said.
It was only after an exhausting legal battle that the man who was vilified and physically attacked as "the butcher of Kielce" was finally able to prove that he had spent the war years as a peaceful farm laborer in Germany. Frank Walus died in August 1994, a broken and bitterly disappointed man, man.
Wiesenthal's recklessness in the Walus case should have been enough to permanently discredit him as a reliable investigator. But his Teflon reputation survived even this.
Much of the Wiesenthal myth is based on his hunt for Joseph Mengele, the wartime physician at Auschwitz known as the "Angel of Death." Time and time again, Wiesenthal claimed to be close on Mengele's heels. Wiesenthal reported that his informants had "seen" or "just missed" the elusive physician in Peru, Chile, Brazil, Spain, Greece, and half a dozen locations in Paraguay.41
One of the closest shaves came in the summer of 1960. Wiesenthal reported that Mengele had been hiding out on a small Greek island, from where he escaped by just a few hours. Wiesenthal continued to peddle this story, complete with precise details, even after a reporter whom he had hired to check it out informed him that the tale was false from beginning to end.42
According to another Wiesenthal report, Mengele arranged for the murder in 1960 of one of his former victims, a woman he had supposedly sterilized in Auschwitz. After spotting her, and her distinctive camp tattoo, at a hotel in Argentina where he was staying, Mengele allegedly arranged to have her killed because he feared that she would expose him. It turned out that the woman was never in a concentration camp, had no tattoo, had never met Mengele, and her death was a simple mountaineering accident.43
Mengele regularly dined at the finest restaurants in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital, Wiesenthal said in 1977, and supposedly drove around the city with a bevy of armed guards in his black Mercedes Benz.44
Wiesenthal announced in 1985 that he was "100 percent sure" that Mengele had been hiding out in Paraguay until at least June 1984, and charged that the Mengele family in Germany knew exactly where. As it turned out, Wiesenthal was completely wrong. It was later definitively established that Mengele had died in 1979 in Brazil, where he had been living for years in anonymous poverty.45
Israel's ambassador to Paraguay from 1968 to 1972, Benjamin (Benno) Varon, remarked in 1983 on the Mengele campaign: "Wiesenthal makes periodic statements that he is about to catch him, perhaps since Wiesenthal must raise funds for his activities and the name Mengele is always good for a plug." Wiesenthal "failed miserably" in the Mengele case, the diplomat said on another occasion.46 In the Mengele case, former Mossad chief Harel remarked, "Wiesenthal's folly borders on the criminal."47
In truth, the bulging Mengele file in Wiesenthal's Vienna "Documentation Center" was such a jumble of useless information that, in the words of the London Times, it "only sustained his self-confirmatory myths and gave scant satisfaction to those who apparently needed a definitive answer to Mengele's fate."48
In the considered view of Gerald Posner and John Ware, coauthors of Mengele: The Complete Story, Wiesenthal spent years assiduously cultivating a mythical "self-image of a tireless, dogged sleuth, pitted against the omnipotent and sinister might of Mengele and a vast Nazi network." Because of his "knack of playing to the gallery," Posner and Ware concluded, Wiesenthal "ultimately compromised his credibility."49
Eli Rosenbaum, an official with the US government's "Nazi hunting" Office of Special Investigations and an investigator for the World Jewish Congress, took aim at Wiesenthal's carefully cultivated "Nazi hunter" reputation in a detailed 1993 book, Betrayal.50 For example, Rosenbaum mentioned, Wiesenthal "had all these reports placing Mengele in almost every country in Latin America except the one he was in — namely, Brazil."51
Wiesenthal, wrote Rosenbaum, has been a "pathetically ineffective" investigator who had "gone far beyond the buffoonery and false boasts in prior years." Much of his illustrious career, Rosenbaum said, has been characterized by "incompetence and arrogance."52
Bruno Kreisky once summed up his attitude towards the "Nazi hunter" in these words:53
The engineer Wiesenthal, or whatever else his title is, hates me because he knows that I despise his activity. The Wiesenthal group is a quasi-political Mafia that works against Austria with disgraceful methods. Wiesenthal is known as someone who isn't very careful about the truth, who is not very selective about his methods and who uses tricks. He pretends to be the "Eichmann hunter," even though everyone knows that this was the work of a secret service, and that Wiesenthal only takes credit for that.
The Los Angeles Wiesenthal Center pays the Vienna "Nazi Hunter" $75,000 a year for the use of his name, the director of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust center said in 1988.
Both the Center and Wiesenthal "commercialize" and "trivialize" the Holocaust, the director added.
Wiesenthal "threw out" the figure of "11 million who were murdered in the Holocaust — six million Jews and five million non-Jews," said the Yad Vashem official. When asked why he gave these figures, Wiesenthal replied: "The gentiles will not pay attention if we do not mention their victims, too." Wiesenthal "chose 'five million (gentiles)' because he wanted a 'diplomatic' number, one that told of a large number of gentile victims but in no way was larger than that of Jews ..."54
"What Wiesenthal and the Los Angeles Center that bears his name do is to trivialize the Holocaust," commented The Jewish Press, a weekly that claims to be the largest-circulation English-language Jewish community paper in America.
In recent years Wiesenthal has been concerned about the growing impact of Holocaust revisionism. In "A Message from Simon Wiesenthal" published by the Center that bears his name, he said: "Today, when I see the rise of antisemitism here in Europe ... the popularity of Le Pen, of David Duke, of the Holocaust revisionists, then I am convinced more than ever about the need for our new [Wiesenthal Center] Beit Hashoah-Museum of Tolerance" in Los Angeles.55
Wiesenthal is often asked why he does not forgive those who persecuted Jews half a century ago. His stock answer is that although he has the right to forgive for himself, he does not have the right to forgive on behalf of others.56 On the basis of this sophistical logic, though, neither does he have the right to accuse and track down anyone in the name of others. Wiesenthal has never confined his "hunt" to those who victimized him personally.
It is difficult to say just what drives this remarkable man. Is it a craving for fame and praise? Or is he trying to live down a shameful episode from his past?
Wiesenthal clearly enjoys the praise he receives. "He is a man of considerable ego, proud of testimonials and honorary degrees," the Los Angeles Times has reported.57 Bruno Kreisky has given a simpler explanation. He said that Wiesenthal is "driven by hatred."58
In light of his well-documented record of deceit, lies and incompetence, the extravagant praise heaped upon this contemptible man is a sorry reflection of the venal corruptibility and unprincipled self-deception of our age.
"... I escaped on October 18, 1943, from the Lemberg [Lvov] hard labor camp where I was kept as a prisoner during my two years of labor at the railroad works... and went into hiding until joining Jewish partisans on November 21, 1943, who operated there. It was while fighting in the partisan ranks against the Nazis that we managed to collect and bury for safekeeping considerable amount of evidence... When the partisans were dispersed by the Germans I fled to Lemberg on February 10, 1944, and again went into hiding. On June 13, 1944, I was found during a house to house search and was immediately sent to the famous Lacki camp, near that city ..." Source: "Curriculum Vitae of Ing. Wiesenthal, Szymon." SHAEF, Subject: War Crimes, July 6, 1945. Records of USAEUR, War Crimes Branch, National Archives (Suitland, Maryland), Records Group 338, Box 534, Folder 000-50-59.
This is a revised and updated version of an article that first appeared in The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1989-90 (Volume 9, number 4), pages 439-452.