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