Simon Wiesen­thal: The Life and Legends

  • Review
By – September 19, 2011

Segev, wide­ly acclaimed for his cov­er­age of Israeli his­to­ry and pol­i­tics, now offers read­ers a biog­ra­phy of Simon Wiesen­thal cov­er­ing both the man and the move­ment he cre­at­ed, Holo­caust Stud­ies. With access to a wide range of archives, includ­ing Wiesenthal’s pri­vate papers, Segev has pieced togeth­er an enor­mous­ly read­able account of this unique man’s life and lega­cy. While the saga of Wiesenthal’s sur­vival of the Nazi death camps has been told and retold, and the sto­ries of how he tracked down var­i­ous war crim­i­nals has been the stuff of nov­els and movies, Segev adds a vital dimen­sion to our under­stand­ing by explor­ing the more con­tro­ver­sial episodes — Wiesenthal’s rela­tion­ships with Bruno Kreisky and the Aus­tri­an Jew­ish estab­lish­ment, his bewil­der­ing entan­gle­ment with Joachim Wald­heim, his ambiva­lence towards Elie Wiesel, and his late-life rela­tion­ship with Albert Speer. 

Segev explores both Wiesenthal’s point-of view and those of his detrac­tors, not to arrive at a final ver­dict, but to under­stand Wiesenthal’s approach to ques­tions of respon­si­bil­i­ty, guilt, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of for­give­ness. Read­ers might expect to be awed by Wiesenthal’s life­long ded­i­ca­tion to track­ing down war crim­i­nals, espe­cial­ly with­out the aid of the inter­net. After read­ing Segev’s account, how­ev­er, they may real­ize some­thing more — that this one man’s insis­tence on the impor­tance of mem­o­ry, on the prin­ci­ple of indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ty, has shaped the post-Holo­caust world for all of human­i­ty. Index, notes.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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