Commentary Magazine


Justice, Not Vengeance, by Simon Wiesenthal

Justice Not Vengeance.
by Simon Wiesenthal.
Grove Weidenfeld. 372 pp. $22.50.

Simon Wiesenthal, who has devoted his life to hunting down Nazis, believes that “guilt cannot be forgiven but only paid for by expiation.” In his memoirs, which created a furor when they were published in Austria (where he now lives) in 1988, Wiesenthal explores the lack of remorse among former Austrian Nazis in the larger context of that country’s approach to its past. This is not an autobiography in the strict sense—those wishing a fuller account of his life should turn to The Murderers Among Us (1967); rather, Wiesenthal shows here how his own pursuit of war criminals came to be entangled in the net of Austrian politics. Appropriately, Justice Not Vengeance reaches its climax in a narrative of his battles with the late Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky.

The contrast between Kreisky, the product of an assimilated Viennese Jewish family, and Wiesenthal could hardly be starker. Wiesenthal is an Ostjude (East European Jew), born in 1908 into a traditional religious family in Buczacz, a small town in the easternmost corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire (also the birthplace of the Nobel Prizewinning novelist S.Y. Agnon). He had an early brush with anti-Semitism: in 1915, first the Cossacks and then Ukrainians stormed Buczacz, causing the family to flee to Vienna.

During the Nazi invasion of Russia at the outset of World War II, Wiesenthal, by then a professional architect, lived in Lvov, where he was captured by Ukrainians fighting on the German side; though thousands of Jews were slaughtered, he was spared when a former Ukrainian colleague recognized and hid him. Once the German army proper arrived, Wiesenthal and his wife were deported to the Janowska concentration camp where—his luck holding—they were assigned to work in a railway shop. Later he was removed to a death camp (the Polish resistance successfully hid his wife in Warsaw), then deported back to Janowska, thence to Buchenwald, and finally to Mauthausen, where he ended his captivity.

Not long after American forces liberated Mauthausen, Wiesenthal decided to devote his life to tracking down Nazis. What prompted this decision? In part, he writes, it was a beating administered to him by a Pole after the camp had been liberated. The Americans punished the Pole, and thus “contributed significantly to my recapturing the meaning of my life: to help restore justice by bringing to trial those who had . . . murdered my companions in the ghettos and my fellow prisoners in the concentration camps.”

He also noticed that the Nazis, when ordered by American soldiers to bury Jews who had died of hunger, now shrank from tasks hardly unfamiliar to them. This, too, left a deep impression: “For the first time in my life I saw what enormous cowards these people were; how, instead of dealing with their guilt, they tried to deny it.”

Wiesenthal, who could recall exactly the names and likenesses of numerous Nazis, volunteered to work with the Allied War Crimes Unit. But very soon he was contending with American and Soviet plans to exploit rather than punish war criminals. A typical case was that of Dr. Wasyl Stroncickij, exposed by Wiesenthal for murdering Ukrainian Jews, then set free by American army intelligence as a source of information on the Soviet Union. Wiesenthal was stunned.

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There were other impediments. By the close of the war, the Nazis had established a sophisticated escape route to South America that would be used by thousands of war criminals. The immense resources necessary for this enterprise, dubbed Odessa, came from the rapacity that had been the ally of their murderous program: with the Nazis, writes Wiesenthal, “it was never just a case of exterminating the Jewish race, but always one of Aryanizing Jewish assets, plundering Jewish homes, and prising gold from the teeth of Jews after they had been gassed.” They were aided as well by individuals within the structure of the Catholic Church who helped establish Odessa’s escape route between Austria and Italy, the “monastery route.”

Wiesenthal’s account here of the Eichmann case, which catapulted him to fame, adds some interesting details to the record. For years he attempted to follow Eichmann in the latter’s South American travels, and in 1960 arranged for secret photos of family members which enabled the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, to establish his identity. (Eichmann, fearing that snapshots might be used after the war to identify him, had resolutely refused to be photographed and “wished to be known as little as possible.”) Nevertheless, exactly how much Wiesenthal contributed to Eichmann’s capture remains a matter of controversy: Isser Harel, the former head of the Mossad who led the kidnapping effort, has insisted that Wiesenthal’s role has been exaggerated.

Whatever the truth, Wiesenthal was indisputably a pioneer in pursuing Nazis during the late 1940’s and 1950’s—a time when few governments were interested in bringing them to justice. As Wiesenthal tells it, the West German government only began to look for Nazis actively after the worldwide publicity given to the Eichmann trial in 1961. One reason for dilatoriness was the fact that the postwar German police and judiciary were riddled with holdovers from the Nazi era.

But if in the 1950’s West Germany shirked its duty to face up to the Nazi past, Austria’s delinquency has been much longer-lived. During World War II, Austrians, who accounted for only 8 percent of the Third Reich’s population, committed half the murders of Jews. After the war, both the conservative People’s party and the Socialist party, while contriving to present Austria as the first victim of Hitlerian aggression, simultaneously courted the votes of Nazis and ex-Nazis. In addition, Jews who had fled Austria during the war were discouraged from returning.

It was the Socialist party in particular, Wiesenthal writes, that was the “principal apologist of former Nazis.” During the 1970’s the party’s leader, Bruno Kreisky, a man who tried to suppress his Jewish ancestry, “systematically demolished the opposition to former Nazis” in government posts, inviting four former Nazis, including one SS officer, to join his cabinet. When Wiesenthal exposed their pasts to the German weekly Der Spiegel, Kreisky indignantly retorted that a “Nazi party member should be permitted to hold political office in Austria, so long as he has not had any crimes proved against him.”

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In 1975 Wiesenthal revealed that Friedrich Peter, a favorite of Kreisky’s, had been a member of an SS unit which had murdered thousands of Jews. Now the battle between Wiesenthal and Kreisky was joined. With the help of the Polish secret service, Kreisky produced forged documents purporting to prove that Wiesenthal had collaborated with the Gestapo; later he called him a “mafioso.” Wiesenthal sued. In the end, the lawsuit was withdrawn, and Kreisky stated in parliament that he had never accused Wiesenthal of collaboration.

Wiesenthal remains troubled and wounded by his bout with Kreisky, whom he calls “a Jew striving for total assimilation. . . . For this reason—and not, as he pretends, because of our political conflicts—he hates me.” Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that politics did indeed play a role. For in dealing with the Nazi past of Friedrich Peter on the one hand, and with that of Kurt Waldheim on the other hand, Wiesenthal employs a bit of a double standard. Initially, indeed, he defended Waldheim, who is a member of the People’s party, with which Wiesenthal has close ties. Here he attacks at length the handling of the Waldheim affair by the World Jewish Congress, while devoting only cursory attention to the accusations leveled against the former Austrian President.

Still, Wiesenthal observes correctly enough that the Waldheim affair has served to expose the core of Austrian anti-Semitism lurking under the veneer of Austrian democracy. In some ways, Austria’s relation to its Nazi past resembles less that of West Germany than that of East Germany. Both countries have refused to pay reparations to Jews, and each has preferred to portray itself as a victim of Hitler. But when, in April of this year, Prime Minister Lothar de Mazière of East Germany acknowledged the enduring obligation of guilt incurred by his country toward the Jews, he did more in one day to expiate that guilt than Austria has done in forty years. In these absorbing memoirs, Wiesenthal goes some way toward counting up the cost, to Austria itself, of its ongoing destructive attempt to suppress and to deny its past.

About the Author

Jacob Heilbrunn is a writer in Washington, D.C.




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