Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends
Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend is a poorly organized book that presents the reader with a disjointed narrative chronicling the life of a supremely caustic, yet also compassionate, man. The title suggests that readers will be presented with a traditional biography, chronologically narrating the private and personal life of an individual who through an accident of birth, or professional merit, has led a noteworthy life. While Simon Wiesenthal certainly falls into the latter category for his admirable and extraordinary work hunting down and legally prosecuting Nazi collaborators and Nazis alike, this book fails to do any real justice to Wiesenthal through its mediocre prose, confusing and awkward organization and narrative progression, and unnecessarily and overly long tangents which litter the text.
Simon Wiesenthal’s life story is well known to many the world over. Born in Austria in 1908, Wiesenthal spent four and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. On February 15, 1945 he was liberated from the concentration camp Mauthausen, and from that day forward vowed to devote his life to bringing Nazi criminals to justice for this horrific crimes they committed against Jews during the Holocaust. Wiesenthal succeeded in locating hundreds of Nazis in hiding, most of whom fled to South America and the United States in order to avoid prosecution for their crimes. Popular public memory of Wiesenthal by and large remembers him as an altruistic hero whose own Holocaust experiences drove him to pursue what Segev calls “not for glory or personal vendetta did Wiesenthal hunt Nazi criminals, but for a simple sense of justice.” In Life and Legend, however, Segev analyzes the lesser known, and not altogether likeable aspects of Wiesenthal’s personality, and the creative ways in which Wiesenthal constructed his public persona, and the controversial and contradictory stories that Wiesenthal told about his Holocaust experiences; throughout the book Segev suggests that Wiesenthal exaggerated his life experience to inflate his importance and aggrandize his Holocaust ordeals. Whatever the controversies surrounding Wiesenthal’s life story are, there is no question that his contributions to Holocaust memory—especially in the United States— along with his tireless and arduous work bringing Nazi criminals to justice are profoundly admirable. Unfortunately Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend fails to do justice to an extraordinary and complex man.
In the first chapter, author Tom Segev—an Israeli journalist and award-winning nonfiction writer—launches into a biography and analysis of famous Nazi Adolf Eichmann, and not Wiesenthal, as one would expect from a biography on Wiesenthal’s life. There is no apparent clear chronological or thematic organization; chapter titles are quotations taken from things Wiesenthal has said, and the context of these sayings are not altogether clear until halfway through the chapters, which is confusing and awkward a majority of the time; one cannot understand exactly where Segev is ultimately leading readers, and what his point is.
Very brief paragraphs form the foundation of the narrative, and they are typeset in such a way as to make the reader feel that they are reading a series of articles instead of a cohesive story. The abundance of these paragraph breaks make for a disjointed reading experience and choppy progression. A large part of the first quarter of the book is dedicated barely in part to Wiesenthal’s life, and instead is given over to the international search for Eichmann, and Wiesenthal’s role in the search effort. Additionally, Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legend focuses entirely upon Wiesenthal’s work seeking to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to trial, and very little upon his personal life. Overall it reads much more like a “who’s who” of the more prominent Nazis Wiesenthal persisted in seeking out—especially Adolf Eichmann. The primary narrative thrust is devoted to Wiesenthal’s methods and processes he utilizes in order to achieve his goals, which reads less like a compelling story and more like a business plan. A great deal of attention is also allocated to the specific Nazis themselves, and their transgressions.
The book’s narrative and writing style stumbles and falters in overly long tangents that fail to further contextualize Wiesenthal’s life. Tangential topics include pages long biographies of people Wiesenthal worked with, theological and philosophical arguments on the nature of forgiveness, and movies made about Wiesenthal and bios on the actors who portrayed him, and how Wiesenthal reacted to them (he liked Ben Kingsley but disliked Laurence Olivier). The few compelling passages describe Wiesenthal’s commitment to learning from the past; he firmly believed that convicted Nazi criminals should not in fact be executed, as many believed, but instead he felt that “a life imprisonment, forever haunted by ones conscience, is far worse than a quick and painless death.” Additionally, Wiesenthal firmly believed that Nazis should not be executed because they could supply replies to historical questions: this was the main reason he had objected to the execution of Eichmann.
Ultimately Simon Wiesenthal is less a true biography chronicling the private and professional life of the world’s most famous Nazi seekers, but rather it is more a chronicle of Zionism, Judaism, anti-Semitism, and brining Nazis and Nazi collaborators to justice following the Second World War. All worthwhile topics to be sure, but readers hoping to truly learn more about Simon Wiesenthal’s life would do better to find a less disjointed and organizationally flawed biography.