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Wiesenthal Biographer Tom Segev Discusses Famed Nazi Hunter

By Mike Unger

Photo: Israeli journalist and author Tom Segev

Israeli journalist and author Tom Segev speaking about his new biography of Simon Wiesenthal. (Photo: Hilary Schwab)

Shortly after Simon Wiesenthal’s death a half-decade ago, Israeli journalist Tom Segev went to Vienna to see the office from which the legendary Holocaust survivor single-mindedly tracked down Nazis for the final 45 years of his life.

It was there, in three small “modest” rooms so packed with files he could hardly walk, that Segev found the roots for his new biography, Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends.

“By the time I began to look into the life of Simon Wiesenthal, he had already become a myth,” Segev said Nov. 8 at American University, where he spoke during an event sponsored by the Center for Israel Studies. “He was such a fascinating man, he was a very courageous man, a very bright man. His life was full of adventure, but it also contained a lot of philosophical and moral questions. The myth of Simon Wiesenthal was something he helped to create.”

Wiesenthal was born in 1908 and could remember the first time he saw an automobile. By the time he passed away at the age of 96, he was fighting Nazism on the Internet. During World War II he spent time in at least five—though he later claimed as many as 13—concentration camps. When he was freed after the war, thanks in part to some “good Germans,” as he was fond of saying, he dedicated the rest of his life to finding war criminals. His most famous success was alerting authorities to the fact that the Nazi Adolph Eichmann was living in Argentina. Eichmann was later tried and convicted.

“He believed in justice,” Segev said. “He did not want these people to be shot in a dark alley.”

Wiesenthal spent most of his days by himself in his Austrian office, cutting out newspaper articles and sorting through hundreds of letters from survivors and those claiming knowledge of Nazis’ whereabouts. Segev drew heavily from Wiesenthal’s 300,000-document files to write the book.

“Wiesenthal was a very lonely man,” Segev said. “He had many admirers, but he hardly had any friends.”

One of the world’s other most-famous Holocaust survivors, Elie Wiesel, was neither Wiesenthal’s friend nor admirer. The men clashed in philosophical, personal, and often petty ways, Segev said. Wiesenthal took a more universalistic view of the Holocaust, often taking pains to discuss the plight of other persecuted groups, such as gypsies.

“We often talk about him as a Nazi hunter, but I think he was haunted by the Holocaust,” Segev said. “He was obsessed with it, he couldn’t let go. Memory for Wiesenthal was not just a commitment to the dead, it was also a commitment to [fighting] other genocides.”