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Simon Wiesenthal: Bogus Nazi HUnter

by Mark Weber Simon Wiesenthal is a living legend. In a formal White House ceremony in August 1980, a teary-eyed President Carter presented the world's foremost "Nazi hunter" with a special gold medal awarded by the U.S. Congress. President Reagan praised him in November 1988 as one of the "true heroes" of this century.

He is the recipient of West Germany's highest decoration, and one of the world's most important Holocaust organizations bears his name: the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles.

He was portrayed in flattering terms by the late Laurence Olivier in the 1978 film fantasy "The Boys From Brazil," and by Ben Kingsley in the April 1989 made-for-television movie "The Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story."

Wiesenthal's reputation is undeserved. The man known as the "Holocaust's Avenging Angel" has a 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. He is certainly no moral authority.

Fraudulent "Nazi Hunter"

Wiesenthal's reputation as the world's foremost "Nazi Hunter" is completely undeserved. His greatest achievement in more than thirty years of searching for "Nazi criminals" was his alleged role in locating and capturing Adolf Eichmann. (Eichmann headed the wartime SS Jewish Affairs department. He was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires in 1960 and was hanged in Jerusalem after a trial that received worldwide media attention.)

But Isser Harel, the Israeli official who headed the team that captured Eichmann, has declared unequivocally that Wiesenthal had "absolutely nothing" to do with the capture. "All the information supplied by Wiesenthal before and in anticipation of the operation was utterly worthless, and sometimes even misleading and of negative value," Harel says. (Harel is a former head of both the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel's foreign and domestic security agencies.) In addition, Arnold Forster, general counsel of the Anti- Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the influential Zionist organization, reported in his book _Square One_ that just before the Israelis seized Eichmann in Argentina, Wiesenthal was placing him in both Japan and Saudi Arabia.

One of Wiesenthal's most spectacular cases involved a Chicago man named Frank Walus. In a letter dated Dec. 10, 1974, he charged that Walus "delivered Jews to the Gestapo" in Czestochowa and Kielce in Poland during the war. This letter prompted the U.S. government's investigation and legal campaign against Walus. The _Washington Post_ dealt with the case in a May 1981 article entitled "The Nazi Who Never Was: How a witchhunt by judge, press and investigators branded an innocent man a war criminal." The lengthy piece, which was copyrighted by the American Bar Association, reported:

"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 11 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."

In other words, even though Wiesenthal's "reports" about Walus were actually nothing more than empty rumors, the "Nazi hunter" went ahead and denounced him anyway.

In April 1978, during a period when the case was under advisement, Wiesenthal visited Chicago and gave interviews taking credit for the Walus case. "How Nazi-Hunter Helped Find Walus," was the headline in the daily Sun-Times newspaper. Wiesenthal told the paper that he "never had a case of mistaken identity," and added: "I know there are thousands of people who wait for my mistake."

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. Wiesenthal's irresponsible and reckless behavior in the Walus case should have been enough to permanently discredit him as a reliable investigator. But his Teflon reputation survived even this.

Wrong About Mengele

Much of the Wiesenthal myth is based on his hunt for Josef 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 informant had "seen" or "just missed" the elusive physician in Peru, Chile, Brazil, Spain, Greece, and half a dozen locations in Paraguay.

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 the 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.

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. Wiesenthal announced in 1985 that he was "100 per cent sure" that Mengele had been hiding out in Paraguay until at least June 1984, and charged that the Mengele family in West Germany knew exactly where. As it turned out, Wiesenthal was completely wrong. It was later definitely established that Mengele had died in 1979 in Brazil, where he had been living for years in anonymous poverty.

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." Even Israel's former ambassador to Paraguay, Benjamin Varon, cautiously criticized the phony Mengele campaign in 1983:

"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."

"Human Soap"

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" ("Reichsstelle fur industrielle Fettversorgung").

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 fo 1942. It was in the [Polish] General Government, and the factory was in Galacia, 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."

In another imaginative article published in 1946 entitled "Belzec Soap Factory," Wiesenthal alleged that masses of Jews were exterminated in electrocution showers:

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 reputable historian accepts the stories that Jewish corpses were manufactured into bars of soap or that Jews were electrocuted to death at Belzec (or anywhere).


Different Stories

In spite of all that has been written about him, what Wiesenthal did during the war years under German occupation is still not clear. He has given disturbingly conflicting stories in three separate accounts of his wartime activities.

Soviet Engineer or Factory Mechanic?

In a 1948 interrogation, Wiesenthal declared under oath that "between 1939 and 1941" he was a "Soviet chief engineer working in Lvov and Odessa." But in his 1967 autobiography, The Murderers Among Us, he claimed that 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."

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.

Partisan Fighter?

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 a camp in Lvov and joined a "partisan group which operated in the Tarnopol- Kamenopodolsk area." 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.

Wiesenthal said that he held the rank of lieutenant and then major, and was responsible for building bunkers and fortification lines. He suggested that this (supposed) partisan unit was part of the Armia Ludowa ("People's Army"), the Polish Communist military force established and controlled by the Soviets.

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.

Wiesenthal told much the same story in a sworn January 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 Oct. 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.

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. 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 (near Linz) by American forces on May 5, 1945.

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 a wide-ranging interview with foreign journalists in November 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.

Mauthausen Myths

Before the "Nazi hunter" came the unscrupulous propagandist.

In a sensational book published in 1946, KZ Mauthausen, Wiesenthal quoted extensively from the supposed "death bed confession" of Mauthausen Commandant Franz Ziereis, according to which FOUR MILLION people were gassed to death with carbon monoxide at the nearby Hartheim satellite camp. This claim is totally absurd, and no serious Holocaust historian still accepts it.

Also according to the Ziereis "confession" cited by Wiesenthal, the Germans supposedly killed another TEN MILLION people in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In fact, this "confession" is utterly fraudulent and was obtained by torture.

Years later, Wiesenthal was still lying about Mauthausen. In an April 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." 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." According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, at least 212,000 inmates survived internment in the Mauthausen camp complex.

"Commercializing the Holocaust"

Simon Wiesenthal and the Los Angeles Center that bears his name "commercialize" and "trivialize" the Holocaust, according to the director of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust center. The charge was reported by the Israeli daily newspaper _Ha'aretz_ in December 1988. The charge:

"The displeasure of Yad Vashem over what it sees as the commercialization of the Holocaust by the Wiesenthal Center has long been known, but this is the most open attack yet."

The Los Angeles Center pays Wiesenthal $75,000 a year to use his name, the Yad Vashem director said. "The Jewish people does many vulgar things," the report added, "but the Wiesenthal Center raises it to a complete level: The optimum use of sensitive issues in order to raise money..."

Kreisky Sums Up

Wiesenthal is not always wrong, of course. In 1975 he acknowledged in a letter published in the British periodical _Books & Bookmen_ that "there were no extermination camps on German soil." He thus implicitly conceded the claims made at the postwar Nuremburg Tribunal and elsewhere that Buchenwald, Dachau and other camps in Germany proper were "extermination camps" are not true.

Bruno Kreisky once summed up his unambiguous attitude toward the "Nazi hunter" in these words:

"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. "

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 [his] testimonials and honorary degrees," the _Los Angeles Times_ has reported. Kreisky has given a simpler explanation. He said that Wiesenthal is "driven by hatred" ("von Hass diktiert").

In light of his well-documented record of deception, lies and incompetence, the extravagent praise heaped upon this contemptible man is a sorry reflection of the venal corruptibility and unprincipled self-deception of our age.


Mark Weber is editor of The Journal of Historical Review, published six times yearly by the Institute for Historical Review. He studied history at the University of Illinois (Chicago), the University of Munich, Portland State University, and Indiana University (M.A., 1977). For five days in March 1988, he testified as a recognized expert witness on the "final solution" and the Holocaust issue in a Toronto District Court case. He is the author of many published articles, reviews and essays on various aspects of modern European history. Weber has appeared as a guest on numerous radio talk shows, and on the nationally-syndicated "Montel Williams" television show.

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