The Wiesenthal Files: What the Documents Reveal about Simon Wiesenthal's Past, Part 3

Published: 1998-01-04

Chapter 3: The Soviet Past of Simon Wiesenthal

Researchers associated with the Committee for Open Debate of the Holocaust have gathered evidence which raises serious questions as to Simon Wiesenthal' s past associations with the Soviet Union. Most of this evidence appears to stem from Simon Wiesenthal himself, and it points to Wiesenthal' s voluntary cooperation with Soviet authorities on more than one occasion and for considerable periods of time. Furthermore, the evidence–developed from biographies favorable to Wiesenthal and from an official U.S. document-indicates that the famous "Nazi hunter" held positions of trust and authority under the Soviets, at the apogee of Joseph Stalin's rule of terror in the decade 1934-1944.

Simon Wiesenthal is doubtless our century's most noted advocate of a justice without statutory or territorial limitations, and its most honored champion of remembering past crimes rather than forgiving or forgetting. He boasts of tracking down and exposing more than a thousand alleged Nazi war criminals; the well-financed and publicity-savvy center that bears his name specializes not only in bedeviling aging veterans of the SS, but in working to muzzle and censor revisionist scholars and activists around the globe. Only a few weeks ago, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's representative in Canada, Sol Littman, succeeded in getting local authorities to cancel, a revisionist gathering in Oliver, British Columbia. At around the same time, the SWC's "dean," Rabbi Marvin Hier, began a campaign to "bring to justice" Canadian immigrants from Ukraine who fought with Hitler's Germans against Stalin's Soviets over half a century ago. .

Soviet Simon?

For all Wiesenthal's evocation of "memory" and his ruthless delving into others' pasts, he has been hazy about aspects of his own career, and for much of his life very careful about revealing himself to biographers. The lingering suspicion that has most often found expression by his critics, whether Austria's late social democratic premier Bruno Kreisky or opponents on the far right:, is that he collaborated with his captors from the Gestapo. It is all the more strange, therefore, that in a sworn statement given to a U.S. interrogator in 1948 and in two recent:, friendly biographies by Wiesenthal intimates, there emerges strong indication that Simon Wiesenthal:

  • "apprenticed as a building engineer" for a period of twenty-one months in Soviet-ruled Kiev and Odessa in 1934-35;
  • was "a Soviet chief engineer" in Lviv and Odessa in 1939-1941;
  • and served as a major in a Soviet-controlled partisan force in 1943-44.

Evidence for the above is supplied by a recent, friendly biography of Simon Wiesenthal, The Wiesenthal File (Grand Rapids, M1: Eerdmans, 1993), by Alan Levy, with whom the famed Nazi-hunter closely cooperated, as well as by a 1948 interrogation of Wiesenthal first noted by The Journal of Historical Review a decade ago.

A Soviet Apprentice?

Until Levy's book, the years 1934-35 remained a blank in accounts of Simon Wiesenthal' s life, including the closest thing to a published biography of Simon Wiesenthal before 1993, Joseph Wechsberg's "introductory profile" in Wiesenthal's 1967 The Murderers among Us (New York, NY: McGraw Hill).

Levy writes in The Wiesenthal File: "In 1934 and 1935, Wiesenthal apprenticed as a building engineer in Soviet Russia. He spent a few weeks in Kharkov and Kiev, but most of those two years in the Black Sea port of Odessa...." (p. 31). Why Wiesenthal headed to the USSR to be "apprenticed," and why he chose to work with the Communist rulers in a Ukraine that had just been blasted by a double-headed holocaust of state-imposed famine and purge to the Gulag or the graveyard, his biographer does not reveal.

Soviet Chief Engineer?

According to evidence presented by Levy, the nearly two years Wiesenthal spent working in and for the USSR was followed four years later by a second such stint, 193941. For many years Wiesenthal represented this period, which coincided with the Soviet occupation of Lviv (Lemberg), where he was living after the Hitler-Stalin pact, as one of privation and near persecution for him and his family. According to The Murderers among Us Wiesenthal was able to obtain regular passports (thus evading deportation) for him and his family only by bribing the NKVD, and "He was glad to find a badly paid job as a mechanic in a factory that produced bedsprings"(p. 27).

Ten years ago revisionist scholarship raised the first hard questions as to Wiesenthal' s actual, Soviet past, as opposed to the cosmetics of his own "memory." In 1988 The Journal of Historical Review received a copy of a German-language interrogation of Simon Wiesenthal under American auspices in 1948, purporting to originate in the National Archives. Convinced the document was authentic, IHR published an analysis of it and other recently surfaced documents in the Winter 1988/89 Journal of Historical Review ("New Documents Raise New Doubts as to Simon Wiesenthal's War Years," pp. 489-503.)

According to that 1948 document, in answer to the question of what he did in Soviet-occupied territory before the June, 1941 German attack, Wiesenthal said that he had been: "...between 1939-1941 Soviet chief engineer in Lemberg [Lviv] and Odessa."

Levy's 1993 biography acknowledges the 1948 interrogation insofar as it draws on it for direct quotes regarding Wiesenthal's wartime activities-although it never cites the document by name (in fact, author Levy represents statements taken word for word from the 45-year old interrogation as if he'd gleaned them himself from Wiesenthal in recent conversation). One possible reason for this omission becomes evident when one reads (p. 34) that Wiesenthal was forced by the Reds to eke out a humble living in a bed springs factory. Of Wiesenthal's proud boast that he was a Soviet chief engineer, nary a mention–until we learn that following June 1940, " agricultural co-operative near Odessa needed outbuildings for feather-plucking, so Szymon returned twice to the city of his apprenticeship and worked his way up to chief engineer of the firm." (p. 34) (Context makes clear that the "firm" was a construction company [sic] in Lviv).

Another recent biography of Wiesenthal, Hella Pick's Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in the Service of Justice (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), reveals that the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps (which, the author discloses, conducted the 1948 interrogation of Wiesenthal in question) maintained a file on Wiesenthal. The CIC file included an Israeli intelligence report dating from 1952, which states (p. 49, in Pick Simon Wiesenthal):

Wiesenthal was taken into custody by the Soviets and transported to the Russian interior. After several months in a labor camp, he was put to work in a pen factory in Odessa. Later he advanced to the position of chief engineer. In some instances he was used as a technical adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Industry.

What are the facts, and who is to be trusted here? What functions was Soviet "Chief Engineer" Wiesenthal actually carrying out in Red-occupied Ukraine?

Soviet Partisan Major?

The 1990 JHR article dealt at length with contradictions in Wiesenthal's accounts of his time under the German occupation of Lvov, following his escape to the partisans, and after his recapture. Of interest here is his self professed activity as a partisan between about October 1943 and June 1944. The previously canonical Murderers among Us treats this entire period as one in which Wiesenthal merely hid from the Germans, in several different houses (p. 37). Levy's Wiesenthal File admits Wiesenthal's active service with the partisans, but is very vague on the question of his duties and responsibilities. It gives a distorted version of Wiesenthal's 1948 answer to the CIC on how he helped the partisans build bunkers and fortifications: "I was not so much a strategic expert as a technical expert" (p.50). What Wiesenthal actually said in 1948 about his partisan involvement 1943-44 is this: "I had a high rank I was immediately made a lieutenant on the basis of my intellect, then was promoted to major, and finally the commander said, 'If you come through this alive, then you're a lieutenant colonel.' I helped very much in building bunkers and fortification lines. My rank [compare to Levy, above] was not so much as strategic expert as a technical expert." (JHR, p. 497).

Biographer Levy acknowledges what was suspected by the JHR: that Wiesenthal's guerrilla group was part of the Armia Ludowa (people's Army), in other words the Polish underground force that was armed by, paid by, and loyal to Moscow (p. 51).

To be sure, the above information does not yet constitute unimpeachable fact, and much of it is contradictory. CODOH's researchers have, so far, worked from secondary sources. Nevertheless, it begins to look like the Holocaust avenger with the allegedly elephantine memory for the wrongs of his prey has conveniently forgotten some very inconvenient episodes in his own past. CODOH doesn't have the answers, just yet, but it intends to find them out-and even as you read this CODOH is alerting well-placed individuals and groups in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to the questions that need to be answered about Simon Wiesenthal's Soviet past. The time has come to cure Wiesenthal of his personal amnesia, and that of his henchmen at the Wiesenthal Center (and in the Nazi-hunting industry in general) as to the crimes of non-Nazis, including their mentor's old friends in the Soviet. "Memory"' shouldn't be a one-way street.

Editor's Note: This article appeared in slightly different form in Smith's Report, No. 53, April 1998.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Theodore J. O'Keefe
Title: The Wiesenthal Files: What the Documents Reveal about Simon Wiesenthal's Past, Part 3
Sources: Smith's Report, No. 53, April 1998
Published: 1998-01-04
First posted on CODOH: April 29, 1998, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Appears In: