Friday, May 13, 2016

Review of Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File by Alan Levy (rev ed, 2002, Robinson & Constable)

Simon Wiesenthal was born in Galicia in Poland on New Year’s Eve 1908.  He lived in Vienna as a child until seven, then returned to Galicia which was ‘liberated’ six times in the First World War as it constantly swapped hands.  In the late 1920s he trained as an architect in Prague and then returned to Galicia to set up practice. In the mid-1930s he spent time working in Odessa before returning to Lvov to marry in 1936.  In 1939, Lvov was annexed and occupied by the Soviets. After the German blitzkrieg in 1941, Wiesenthal and his wife were moved in the Lvov Ghetto, then late 1941 were transferred to Janowska concentration camp, undertaking forced labour. Wiesenthal was then moved to a satellite camp from which he escaped in October 1943, returning to Lvov where he was recaptured in June 1944 and returned to Janowska. Shortly after he was transported to Przemyśl, then in September to Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp.  In October he was moved to Gross-Rosen concentration camp, then in January he was marched to Chemnitz. From there he was moved to Buchenwald and a few days later in mid-February to Mauthausen. The camp was liberated in May 1945, his ninth ‘liberation’.

As he recuperated, Wiesenthal vowed to seek justice – not revenge – for all those murdered by the Nazi regime.  Within three weeks of liberation he’d prepared a list of war criminals and started to work for the US Army in amassing evidence tracking them down and followed the US army to Linz when eastern Austria was placed in the Soviet zone.  He was reunited with his wife in 1946, the only other survivor of the 89 relatives in their respective families.  He set up his own document centre and also took depositions from survivors, passing on relevant evidence to various authorities.  He also aided refugees.  After the initial trials, the allies desire to pursue war criminals dimmed, the focus shifting to rebuilding Europe.  Wiesenthal, however, vowed to continue tracking them down, helping to bring 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice, including Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl, and kept in pursuit of Josef Mengele.  He also tangled with Austria’s post-war politicians, notably Bruno Kreisky and Kurt Waldheim.  His single-mindedness and determination to pursue justice often meant he ended up in political dogfights and at different times he fell out with many former collaborators and institutions.  He died in 2005 aged 96.

Alan Levy first met Wiesenthal in 1974.  Over the next 28 years they met frequently to discuss Wiesenthal’s work and that of his document centres.  The first edition of Levy’s biography was published in 1993 and subsequently revised nine years later.  It is a sympathetic account of Wiesenthal’s life and work, but importantly it is fair in its treatment setting out both sides of his various political battles with other Nazi hunters, politicians and institutions and also critiquing his thoughts and actions where merited.  Levy’s account highlights both Wiesenthal’s compassion and humanist stance, but also his contradictions and ego.  Rather than map out in chronological detail Wiesenthal’s life, Levy’s strategy is focus on key events and strands to highlight what made and drove the man.  The portrait created reveals Wiesenthal to be a quite clearly a complex person, one who experienced a varied life that was full of personal tussles and conflict throughout.  While the book provides a fascinating read, the strategy taken does leave plenty of gaps, most notably around his family and his dealings with and feelings about Israel.  Filling them however would have led to a very long narrative.  Overall, an interesting book that details the work of a fascinating man and the crimes for which he sought justice.

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