Nazi neme­sis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Si­mon Wiesen­thal ( M) Syd­ney and Melbourne; other cities later

IT’S strange how of­ten our men­tal im­pres­sions of peo­ple turn out to be wrong. I must have seen dozens of pho­to­graphs of Si­mon Wiesen­thal and the im­age I had of him, from all

had read and heard, was of some­one haunted and im­pla­ca­ble, hu­mour­less, gaunt with worry and ex­haus­tion. In Richard Trank’s in­tensely mov­ing doc­u­men­tary it’s as if I were see­ing Wiesen­thal for the first time: portly, jovial, with his bald­ing pate and avun­cu­lar mous­tache. The dark eyes are alive with youth­ful en­ergy.

Ben Kings­ley, who played Wiesen­thal in a television movie in 1989, noted a char­ac­ter­is­tic ges­ture: the open palm drawn across eyes and fore­head. For Kings­ley that move­ment said ev­ery­thing there was to know about the man: an un­fath­omable grief and an in­domitable strength in the face of weari­ness or de­spair.

Wiesen­thal sur­vived life in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp to em­bark on his great post- war cru­sade: the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and track­ing down of Nazi war crim­i­nals, many of whom were lead­ing re­spectable lives as busi­ness­men or hid­ing in South Amer­ica. Wiesen­thal is said to have traced about 1100 of them and brought many to jus­tice.

For most of his life he worked in a lit­tle of­fice in Vi­enna, search­ing through end­less doc­u­ments. When his health failed in 2002, he con­tin­ued work­ing from home un­til he died, aged 96, in 2005. ‘‘ I’m a sur­vivor,’’ he in­sisted, ‘‘ not a hero.’’ To be a sur­vivor was the great­est of all priv­i­leges.

Trank’s film re­calls Wiesen­thal’s achieve­ments and gives a rounded por­trait of the man. It also serves as a re­minder of the evils of the Nazi regime. I have seen many films of the death camps, but no images quite as hor­ri­ble as th­ese. Some of the archival footage has not been shown be­fore and much of it is un­bear­ably painful. It was the knowl­edge of th­ese hor­rors that drove Wiesen­thal’s life­long labours of in­ves­ti­ga­tion. As his wife once said: ‘‘ For us the war never ended.’’

Born to Jewish par­ents in a Pol­ish vil­lage, Wiesen­thal es­caped death in Mau­thausen con­cen­tra­tion camp. Among the sights he wit­nessed were Jewish pris­on­ers hurled to their deaths in their hun­dreds from a cliff top for the amuse­ment of visit­ing Nazi big­wigs.

But he wasn’t idle dur­ing his cap­tiv­ity. He drew pic­tures of much that he saw and in the weeks af­ter his lib­er­a­tion com­piled a doc­u­ment list­ing Nazi crimes, names of killers and vic­tims, dates and de­scrip­tions. It was the first wit­ness dossier of Nazi atroc­i­ties. More than any­one else, Wiesen­thal es­tab­lished the mod­ern con­cept of war crimes and the need for a per­ma­nent in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal to deal with them.

Trank’s film is chiefly a record of Wiesen­thal’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions: mea­sured and sober, with a clear and un­ob­tru­sive nar­ra­tion by Ni­cole Kid­man.

Though his meth­ods were dogged and metic­u­lous, many of his great­est suc­cesses owed some­thing to chance. Adolf Eich­mann, the SS bu­reau­crat who su­per­vised Adolf Hitler’s fi­nal so­lu­tion, lived for a time af­ter the war near Wiesen­thal in Vi­enna, where he was spot­ted one day by Wiesen­thal’s land­lady. ( Eich­mann later fled to Ar­gentina and was tracked down af­ter pho­tos of his fa­ther’s funeral were pro­cured by Wiesen­thal and passed to Is­raeli intelligence.)

Fred­er­ick Forsyth re­calls how the film of his book The Odessa File was screen­ing at a cin­ema in Paraguay when some­one in the au­di­ence recog­nised the Nazi fugi­tive Ed­ward Roschmann and passed the word to Wiesen­thal’s of­fice.

Other fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries are re­counted: how the in­ven­tor of the Nazi gas vans was traced to San­ti­ago but died be­fore he could be tried; how an­other death camp com­man­dant was ar­rested in Brazil and re­leased on a tech­ni­cal­ity ( he killed him­self soon af­ter­wards); how one of the worst and most sadis­tic fe­male guards mar­ried a GI af­ter the war and was traced to New York.

Wiesen­thal emerges as nei­ther a fa­natic nor an avenger but as a staunch be­liever in jus­tice. He recog­nised that with­out jus­tice there could be no end to guilt. This led him to de­fend for­mer UN sec­re­tary- gen­eral Kurt Wald­heim, whose Nazi con­nec­tions, he in­sisted, were not so bad that he de­served to be con­demned out of hand. For this he was crit­i­cised by his own sup­port­ers.

As mem­o­ries of the war faded his task grew harder. Wit­nesses were dis­pers­ing, Nazi sus­pects were be­ing re­leased by the Al­lied au­thor­i­ties and US in­ter­ests were more fo­cused on the Cold War.

Wiesen­thal was ac­cused of hold­ing out false hope when he claimed that Josef Men­gele, the Nazi doc­tor no­to­ri­ous for ex­per­i­ments on death camp in­mates, was hid­ing in Paraguay. With Holo­caust de­nial on the rise, Wiesen­thal des­per­ately wanted Men­gele put on trial. ( It emerged later that he had died in Brazil in 1979.)

Trank has given us a film re­plete with hor­rors but rich in hope and com­pas­sion. The rec­ol­lec­tions of Wiesen­thal’s daugh­ter Pauline are es­pe­cially poignant. For Wiesen­thal, life had its con­so­la­tions. He was grate­ful that his mother died dur­ing trans­porta­tion to the death camps and was spared the in­dig­nity of the gas cham­ber. That small mercy was some­thing of a mir­a­cle. His own sur­vival was an­other. On his 90th birth­day his friends gave him a splen­did kosher meal at the Im­pe­rial Ho­tel in Vi­enna, once the favoured res­i­dence of Hitler and the Nazi hi­er­ar­chy. He re­joiced in the irony of it all.

‘‘ If a Jew doesn’t be­lieve in mir­a­cles, he is not a re­al­ist,’’ Wiesen­thal once said. For me the mir­a­cle was his life and work. If it is pos­si­ble for a film to do jus­tice to such a man, this one suc­ceeds mag­nif­i­cently.

Jus­tice, not re­venge: Si­mon Wiesen­thal ded­i­cated his life to track­ing down war crim­i­nals

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