Famed Nazi-hunter fights for own reputation in Waldheim case

January 21, 1994|By Thom Shanker | Thom Shanker,Chicago Tribune

VIENNA, Austria -- The sign is misleading by design. "Documentation Center" it says, a humble introduction to the third-floor office where memory has been honored, history made, justice sought and sometimes exacted.

Despite the simplicity of the plaque, this is the place. The tip-off is the round-the-clock police guard.

In Central Europe, where everyone lives under the shadow of history, Simon Wiesenthal has chosen to plant his office in this gray block adjacent to the wartime Gestapo headquarters where Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and Jews were interrogated to death.

Mr. Wiesenthal's name usually is followed by the phrase "legendary Nazi-hunter," as if it were a title officially conferred. It was conferred, instead, by his having outlived most of the men who engineered the Holocaust and then dedicating himself to the worldwide pursuit of the rest.

"I am a survivor of the concentration camps. I am a survivor of the world's great human catastrophe," Mr. Wiesenthal says in a reflective mood, having celebrated his 85th birthday Dec. 31. "I must do these things. If not, why was I allowed by God to TTC survive?"

Mr. Wiesenthal, whose center claims to have helped track down 1,100 Nazi war criminals for prosecution, received an especially touching birthday tribute from the leader of modern-day Germany.

"For us Germans, you have sharpened our awareness of a collective responsibility to ensure history is not repeated," said Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

At 85, Mr. Wiesenthal has rededicated his life to analyzing and attacking the neo-Nazism now infecting Europe. And he has become a leading advocate for convening a Nuremberg-style war-crimes tribunal in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But there is one more piece of unfinished business, painful in the extreme for Mr. Wiesenthal: He is struggling to preserve the reputation of his life's work in the face of an unexpected new allegation of incompetence -- and maybe even of conspiracy to cover up the wartime Nazi record of Kurt Waldheim, the former president of Austria and secretary-general of the United Nations.

The disclosure in the mid-1980s of Mr. Waldheim's career in the Nazi Wehrmacht polarized Austrian politics. When Mr. Waldheim won the presidency in 1986, it seemed that the Nazi connection only increased his support.

His most enthusiastic supporters even said the anti-Waldheim campaign was evidence of an international conspiracy by Jewish-controlled media. For an international audience, which had known Mr. Waldheim as the respected U.N. secretary-general from 1972 to 1982, his supporters made a general accusation of meddling in domestic Austrian politics.

Questions remain whether Mr. Waldheim was subjected to political blackmail during his Cold War-era tenure at the United -- Nations, because Soviet and Yugoslav authorities had evidence of his Nazi career.

In the well-documented book "Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up" (St. Martin's Press), authors Eli M. Rosenbaum and William Hoffer allege that Mr. Wiesenthal might have known as early as 1979 that Mr. Waldheim had lied to the world about his Nazi military service, which included high-level intelligence work in the Balkans where atrocities were committed -- including deportation of Jews to Auschwitz and evacuation of villages in Yugoslavia to local concentration camps in reprisals for partisan activities.

Mr. Rosenbaum is now principal deputy director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations; Mr. Hoffer is a professional co-author. Much of the research was conducted by Mr. Rosenbaum while he was general counsel to the World Jewish Congress in the 1980s.

The book cites documents and letters to show Mr. Wiesenthal investigated Mr. Waldheim's background and, after a cursory check, pronounced him innocent.

In a passionate brief that figured prominently in reviews of "Betrayal," Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Hoffer allege that as evidence to the contrary mounted, Mr. Wiesenthal was drawn into a web of covering up to protect his own prestige:

"Wiesenthal's reputation as the world's all-knowing authority on Nazi war criminals was now bound inextricably with Waldheim's desperate struggle to protect the secrets of his Nazi past. If Wiesenthal backtracked, or if Waldheim's pursuers succeeded independently, the Nazi-hunter would be forced to face the humiliation of having the Israelis know -- and perhaps even make public -- the fact that he had failed so horribly."

Not surprisingly, Mr. Wiesenthal has denounced the book.

He said that in 1979, at the request of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and archive in Jerusalem, he sent a query to the Berlin Document Center. The center is a bank of Nazi information recently returned to German control after having been administered by the Western allies who governed divided Berlin.

The document center reported that it had no information about Mr. Waldheim, Mr. Wiesenthal said, so he announced that finding to officials in Israel and to the world.

"I have always said that such charges from Jewish organizations must be subjected to the strictest rules of credibility," Mr. Wiesenthal said. "I stated only that I had found no evidence. That now is being interpreted as a defense of Waldheim."

Mr. Wiesenthal does not deny the limits of any one person's investigative powers, including his own. But he has yet to make peace with the new allegation after near-sainthood in the international Jewish and world human-rights communities.

"I do not know what else I can say now, except what I have always said," Mr. Wiesenthal concluded. "I do not know what else I can do now, except what I have always done.

"I am a survivor. And I have more work to do."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.