Ethics of Memory: Tom Segev’s Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

Segev, Tom. Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends. Trans. Ronnie Hope. Doubleday, 2010.

Excluding the acknowledgements and detailed notes, this book takes 409 pages. At times, as is often the case with biographies, the book felt like a mere listing of events. Also, at times, I found the prose a little unvaried, the sentence structure somewhat repetitive and overly journalistic. Segev is a journalist. Translation, too, can sometimes reduce the vigour of prose. That all said, however, Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends is a very worthwhile book. Simon Wiesenthal has probably become synonymous with our idea of the dedicated Nazi hunter, and by the end of Segev’s work, I found myself impressed by Wiesenthal’s dedication and determination but ambivalent about whether I would have enjoyed him as a social acquaintance.

The title of the book says much about Segev’s approach to his subject. He focuses not just on the events of Wiesenthal’s life but also upon what is believed about him, some of which, such as the encounter with the dying SS man (Chapter 13 “What Would You Have Done?”) may in fact not be true. Segev points out that Wiesenthal himself may have contributed to his own legend, for friends who survived him told Segev that Wiesenthal “wove tales out of things that happened to him or others, or that he saw in his imagination” (239).

The Wiesenthal Segev presents in this book is indeed a complex man: dedicated, but also somewhat vain, ambitious, perhaps overly sensitive, overly imaginative, utterly focused on justice. Wiesenthal’s life was punctuated by rivalries with such figures as novelist Elie Wiesel and Bruno Kreisky, the first Jewish Chancellor of Austria, who was fined for defaming Wiesenthal. Relationships with the state of Israel were not always completely harmonious, nor was his relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. Wiesenthal emerges from this book as a man haunted by the past, who was focussed on his search for justice rather than for vengeance.

Although the book focuses on Wiesenthal’s life, I think what remained with me most after I’d finished it was not so much particular events or even the idiosyncrasies of its main subject but discovering I share with Segev the sense of how with the passing of time within both the Jewish diaspora and the gentile world our memories and attitudes towards the Shoa have shifted. There was for a time post the Nuremberg trials what I might call a not quite silence on the subject of the Holocaust. Survivors tended towards silence not even telling their children much about the past. Segev reminds us of the tensions that underlay the relationship between those who survived the Nazis and those who living as they had been under the British Mandate in Palestine or in North America were not immediately affected by the Nazi program. He tells us, “Many felt that they had survived at the expense of their relatives and blamed themselves for not having done enough to rescue them,” and that “many people tended to think that those who survived the camps had done so at the expense of their less-fortunate fellow prisoners, and labeled them as rogues and scoundrels” (400). No wonder survivors remained silent. However, the capture, trial, and execution of Eichmann followed not many years later by the Six-Day war fired the post-war just-coming-to-young-adulthood generation with a desire to know more, and a desire to ensure that such inhumanity never occurred again.

However, we are still struggling with questions of collective responsibility for past actions and how to right the wrongs perpetrated by our forebears. To what extent should we be ashamed of or bear the guilt for the actions of our parents or grandparents? Is it possible to forgive? These are extremely challenging questions with which we continue to struggle not only in relationship with the Holocaust. 

I agree with Segev that the Holocaust has now become “a universal synonym for evil” (10), and I’m somewhat concerned that seeing the Holocaust as a metaphor for all inhumane acts rather than  a remembered, specific, shared experience may well reduce our sense of its actual concrete effects. If we lose our sense of  specific evils, then having lost lost sight of the individual, personal experiences of those who suffered, we risk allowing similar atrocities to occur. Why is it, for example, that we seem to have had little ability or will to take any preventive collective action in such places as Rwanda or Srebrenica? Now, over eighty years since the promulgation of the Nuremberg race laws in Germany, the numbers of survivors are shrinking, and few of those who facilitated and perpetrated the atrocities of the Final Solution remain, so we will soon have only the record and the memory. Do we have a responsibility to that memory? Wiesenthal believed we do.

Segev makes Wiesenthal’s commitment to that responsibility clear: “More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life” (10). 

 

 

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