Historical News and Comment
New Documents Raise New Doubts as to Simon Wiesenthal's War Years
Simon Wiesenthal is the world's most famous "Nazi"-hunter. His claim to have brought Adolf Eichmann and more than a thousand other Third-Reich "war criminals" to justice has become the stuff of popular myth, familiar to tens of millions through his own writings as well as through fictionalized treatments of his career in bestselling thrillers and film and television hits. Wiesenthal's activities and example, more than those of any other man, have kept alive and institutionalized the international drive to track down and punish Germans and others alleged to have persecuted Jews during the Second World War. Few men of the postwar era have been honored as frequently as has Wiesenthal: a list of his decorations, medals, orders, and honorary degrees, including a special gold medal awarded by the U.S. Congress and presented him by a teary-eyed President Jimmy Carter, would fill two pages in this journal.
Fundamental to Simon Wiesenthal's moral authority as a "Nazi"-hunter, and serving also as the basis for his expertise on the crimes and criminals of Axis Europe, has been the story of his experiences at the hands of the Germans during the war. According to Wiesenthal's public account of his war years, as told in his The Murderers Among Us, and repeated in countless speeches and interviews, he endured almost continual suffering as a German prisoner from July 1941 to May 1945, when he was liberated by American troops at Mauthausen. His time as a concentration camp inmate and "slave" laborer, his numerous narrow escapes from execution by his captors, and his witness to countless crimes and atrocities carried out against other Jews stamp him not merely as a survivor but as an accuser and avenger.
While doubts and even accusations have been raised in the past as to Wiesenthal's conduct during the war years, there has so far been no hard evidence made public in support of allegations, frequently raised, that Wiesenthal "collaborated" with the Germans. Nor, to our knowledge, has an exhaustive comparison of Wiesenthal's separate statements on his wartime experiences been undertaken.
Last spring IHR was able to obtain a certified copy of a transcript of an interrogation which took place on two consecutive days, May 27 and May 28, 1948.  The interrogator was Curt Ponger; the man Ponger was questioning, Simon Wiesenthal. The interrogation is described as having been brought about by (auf Veranlassung von) a Mr. Niederman, and was recorded stenographically by M. Fritsche. There is no indication of the place where the interrogation took place.
The transcript of that portion of the interrogation which took place on May 27, between 11 and 12 o'clock, runs to nine-and-a-half, double-spaced, typewritten, 81/2 x 11-inch pages. That of the following day, which was conducted between 11:30 and 12 o'clock (both times are presumably A.M., although this is not explicitly stated) covers nearer seven pages identical in size and format to the transcript of the first day's interrogation.
The May 27 transcript consists of twenty-eight questions and answers, that of May 28, twenty questions and answers. Answer No. 4 of the first day's interrogation is this statement by Simon Wiesenthal: "I swear by the Almighty and All-knowing God that I will say the absolute truth, conceal nothing and add nothing, so help me God". ("Ich schwoere bei Gott dem Allmaechtigen und Allwissenden, dass ich die reine Wahrheit sagen, nichts verschweigen und nichts hinzufuegen werde, so wahr mir Gott helfe").
Among the sworn statements made by Simon Wiesenthal during this investigation are:
These sworn statements conflict with Simon Wiesenthal's account of his wartime years presented in The Murderers Among Us, his published memoirs, and with certain other sworn statements Wiesenthal has made regarding his war years. The above discrepancies, and a number of others evident when Wiesenthal's several accounts of his activities between September 1939 and May 1945 are compared, raise grave doubts as to the "Nazi"-hunter's credibility, and prompt a further question: What did Simon Wiesenthal actually do during the Second World War?
Three Stories Compared
In the following pages we have attempted a preliminary comparison of three different reports, each of which is an authoritative statement by Simon Wiesenthal. The reports are:
It should be stated at the outset that the aim in comparing these statements is not to attempt to impeach Wiesenthal's credibility by fastening on unimportant differences in detail, or by stressing omissions which may be understandable in view of the differing length and purpose of these documents. Nor is it implied that any of Simon Wiesenthal's statements, even when corresponding in the several documents, is to be taken at face value.
The Period September 1939-June 1941
During this period Simon Wiesenthal claims to have been a resident of Lvov, the metropolis of Galicia, which had been part of post-World-War-I Poland until, in consequence of the partition of Poland agreed on by Germany and the USSR in August 1939, it was occupied by the Soviets the following month.
According to The Murderers Among Us, Wiesenthal, as a "bourgeois" Jew (with his own architectural practice), ran the danger of being arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. We learn that both his stepfather and his stepbrother were arrested: the stepfather later died in jail and the stepbrother was eventually shot by the Soviets. The account of Wiesenthal's time under Soviet rule continues:
Wiesenthal gives a rather different statement as to his position under the Soviet regime in his 1948 interrogation. There he sums up his activities during the Soviet occupation in these words: " ... between 1939-1941 Soviet chief engineer working in Lvov and Odessa" (" ... zwischen 1939-1941 sowjetischer Hauptingenieur in Lemberg und Odessa"). 
These two contrasting statements suggest several questions. Is the evident discrepancy to be accounted for by Wiesenthal's desire to present himself in his memoirs, published during the "Cold War," as primarily a victim of the Soviet regime, who narrowly escaped the fate of his stepfamily? Has he lied about athe badly paid job as a mechanic in a factory that produced bedsprings"? If it is true that Wiesenthal avoided deportation to Siberia for himself, his wife, and his mother by bribing an NKVD commissar, how much more might this "bourgeois" Jew have had to pay to obtain a position as a "Soviet chief engineer"? Or, finally, are we to understand that Wiesenthal's "collaboration" with the Soviet invaders was occasioned by a mutual sympathy between the Jewish "bourgeois" and the Communist invaders?
Escape from Lvov to the Partisans (?), October 1943
On June 22, 1941 the Germans and their allies invaded the Soviet Union; eight days later the first Germans entered Lvov. Just before they left, the Soviet authorities had massacred several thousand political opponents in the city's prisons. Most of the victims were Ukrainian nationalists, and the discovery of the slaughter unleashed a pogrom of epic proportions against the Jews of Lvov, who were hated by many of the city's Poles and Ukrainians for their Soviet sympathies and for their enthusiastic cooperation with the NKVD. 
Simon Wiesenthal came into the hands of the Germans in early July 1941, by his telling. The three statements compared in this article mention at least two different arrests, one by Ukrainian auxiliary police, after which Wiesenthal claims to have narrowly escaped death; the other by soldiers of the Wehrmacht, who rounded up Wiesenthal and other Jews for hard labor at the railway yard. Here is not the place to analyze the conflicting accounts or to evaluate their credibility; nor to examine in depth Wiesenthal's stories as to his activities from July 1941 to October 1943, during which time he claims to have worked, first as a sign-painter, then as a draftsman, at the Ostbahn Ausbesserungswerk (Eastern Railroad Repair Works -- OAW). For the purposes of this study it is enough to state that in his memoirs, Wiesenthal claims to have been in close co-operation with the Polish underground while at the OAW, and to have supplied them with detailed maps showing the vulnerable points of the Lvov railway junction.  He further alleges that he became so friendly with a sympathetic National Socialist superior, Oberinspektor Adolf Kohlrautz, that Kohlrautz permitted Wiesenthal to conceal two pistols in his (Kohlrautz's) desk. 
According to the shortest account of his escape and recapture, Wiesenthal's 1954 sworn application for reparations:
That there is little chance of a casual mistake in the dates is shown by an affidavit which immediately follows the reparations application:
In each of the other two Wiesenthal statements under analysis, the "Nazi"-hunter claims to have escaped from German custody in Lvov on October 2, 1943. The date of his recapture is given in both these statements as June 13, 1944, exactly five months later than the date claimed in Wiesenthal's reparations application. Other than this agreement as to dates, Wiesenthal's 1948 interrogation and his memoirs differ in virtually every particular.
According to Wiesenthal's memoirs, in late September 1943 Wiesenthal and the other Jews working at the OAW were ordered to be sent under guard nightly to the Lvov (Lemberg) concentration camp. Sensing his impending doom, Wiesenthal prepared his escape. The obliging Kohlrautz, "who often permitted him to go to town to buy drafting supplies," arranged for Wiesenthal to be accompanied by a "stupid-looking Ukrainian" policeman on a shopping expedition with Arthur Scheiman, another Jewish inmate. Naturally Kohlrautz permitted Wiesenthal to retrieve the two pistols he had hidden in the "good Nazi"'s desk.
After giving their escort the slip, Wiesenthal and Scheiman repaired to the Lvov apartment of a friend in the "Polish underground" (precisely which political affiliation is left unstated). After some days of concealment there and in Scheiman's house in the country, Wiesenthal and Scheiman found shelter in an apartment of other "friends," where the two hid out under the floorboards until their recapture. Wiesenthal possessed not only arms but a diary and "a list of SS guards and their crimes that he'd compiled, believing that one day it might be useful." On the evening of June 13, 1944 Wiesenthal was discovered under the floor, in possession of his pistol, diary, and list of SS men by two Polish plainclothes detectives and an SS man. Thus Wiesenthal's story as presented in The Murderers Among Us. 
On May 27, 1948 Wiesenthal told Curt Ponger under sworn oath that: "On October 2, 1943 [having] fled from Janovska [or Lemberg] concentration camp; I [joined?] a partisan group which operated in the Tarnopol-Kamenopodolsk area" ("Am 2. Oktober 1943 vom K.L. Janovska gefluechtet, habe ich mich an eine Partisanengruppe, welche in den Raum Tarnopol-Kamenopodolsk operiert hat"). 
During the next day's interrogation session, Wiesenthal went into much more detail. Aside from facing Ukrainian police formations and the Ukrainian-manned SS "Galicia" division, Wiesenthal's unit fought mostly against partisans from the UPA, or Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the military arm of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. According to Wiesenthal, as the Germans fell back and the front moved nearer at the start of 1944, the situation in his sector grew so chaotic that Soviet aircraft sometimes bombed his unit by mistake. With four or five different partisan groups at large in the same territory, "In January 1944 there was such confusion that one didn't know who was for him and who was against him. Whoever so much as stuck his head out of the woods would be shot at" ("Es war im Januar 1944 so ein Durcheinander, dass man nicht wusste, wer mit wem und wer gegen wen war. Wer nur seinen Kopf aus dem Wald streckte, auf den wurde geschossen"). 
After informing his interrogator that his partisan unit paid local farmers in dollars for provisions, Wiesenthal was asked: "Where did you get the dollars?" ("Woher bekamen Sie die Dollar?"). He answered as follows:
Asked about the rank he held, Wiesenthal answered this way:
Although Wiesenthal never states explicitly the afflliation of his partisan unit, it seems clear from his remarks that it was part of the Armia Ludowa (People's Army), the Soviet-organized and -manned "Polish" guerrilla force. After his unit was surrounded in February, and forced to split up and escape through the German lines, Wiesenthal describes being hidden by friends in Lvov as follows:
From the context, and in view of Wiesenthal's earlier statements concerning his unit, as to "the Russian partisans" and "the Russian liaison man," "us" in the above passage would seem to refer to the AL, the military arm of the Communist regime the Soviets were to install in Poland at the end of the war.
Whatever the precise identity of the partisan group Wiesenthal claims to have served in, the question remains: Which, if any, of Wiesenthal's accounts of what he was doing between October 1943 and June (or is it January) 1944 is to be believed?
In the Hands of the Gestapo(?)
As has been mentioned, Wiesenthal claims in his memoirs to have been recaptured in an apartment in Lvov, with a pistol, a diary, and a list of SS men and their crimes, by two Polish detectives and an SS man on June 13, 1944. This version contrasts markedly with Wiesenthal's affirmation in 1954 that his recapture took place in a barn near Lemberg, where he claims to have been discovered by the Gestapo and the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the security service of the German National Socialist Workers' Party) on January 13, 1944 (see above).
That Wiesenthal's sworn 1948 account of his recapture differs, once more, from his other stories will by now probably not surprise the reader. To be sure, his 1948 version exhibits similarities to that in The Murderers Among Us: he is captured, armed, hiding under the floor in an apartment in Lvov on June 13, 1944. According to his 1948 interrogation, however, Wiesenthal had on him not a diary and a list of SS misdeeds, but "different notes," "certain notes regarding the entire partisan area of operations" ("verschiedene Aufzeichnungen," "gewisse Aufzeichnungen ueber das gesamte Partisanengebiet"). 
Both in 1948 and when composing his memoirs, Wiesenthal was quite conscious that:the fate of an escaped Jew who had fallen into the hands of the Germans in 1944 armed with a pistol and either a list of SS war criminals or detailed notes on partisan activity would be regarded as rather precarious. In the memoirs, Wiesenthal is taken to a police outpost on Smolki Square, where he has his first bit of good fortune, for unbeknownst to the SS man, a venal Polish policeman relieves him of his pistol: "If a German had found the gun, he would have shot Wiesenthal at once."
According to both his memoirs and his 1948 interrogation, Wiesenthal staved off a quick execution by slashing his wrists. Even then, according to his 1948 version, it was his notes on partisan operations which saved him:
In The Murderers Among Us Wiesenthal's suicide attempt is prompted by the appearance of SS Oberscharführer Oskar Waltke, "perhaps the most feared man in Lvov." Waltke, against whom Wiesenthal testified at his 1962 trial in Germany, is described in the following chilling terms:
Thereafter, according to his memoirs, Wiesenthal is committed to the prison hospital, where two more suicide attempts fail. There he is restored to health with "a special diet of strong soups, liver, and vegetables" prescribed by the solicitous sadist Waltke so that he can get on with his "interrogation" all the more quickly.
If Wiesenthal's memoirs and his interrogation in 1948 represent the truth accurately, this interrogation never took place, which makes the following sentence in his 1954 reparations application all the more interesting: "There [in the Lacki Gestapo prison] I was fearfully tortured by Unterscharführer Waltke and to put an end to these tortures, I cut open my veins" ("Dort wurde ich vom Unterscharführer Waldtke [sic] furchtbar gefoltert und um diese Folterungen ein Ende zu setzen, habe ich mir die Pulsadern aufgeschnitten"). 
How to account for the survival of a Jew caught with a gun and, to say the least, compromising documents? Is Wiesenthal's 1954 claim to have been tortured simply one more roccoco furbelow on his story of persecution, or do his other two accounts suppress an actual event which might have resulted in Wiesenthal's having been "turned," and thus spared as a Gestapo agent? (One can speculate on what might have been Wiesenthal's fate had he escaped once more to his alleged partisan unit and been trapped in such contradictions about his treatment in the hands of the German secret police.)
'I Didn't Wish to Die ...'
Wiesenthal's 1954 story of his recovery from his suicide attempt and his evacuation from Lvov in July 1944 is short and simple. After his torture by Waltke:
This dry account omits a dramatic incident recounted in both Wiesenthal's memoirs and in his 1948 interrogation, whereby the "Nazi"-hunter narrowly escaped execution thanks to a providential Soviet aerial attack.
According to The Murderers Among Us, Wiesenthal was to be tortured at last by the fiendish Waltke on July 17, on which day he and the other prisoners were summoned to the prison courtyard. There Wiesenthal was assigned to a group of non-Jews slated for execution. Wiesenthal describes what happened next as follows:
Herewith the same incident in his sworn statements of 1948:
For what it's worth, then, Simon Wiesenthal's sworn testimony of 1948 is that he was saved because he was a Jew as late as July 1944!
A sustained comparison of his several accounts of his evacuation westward, all of them differing in numerous particulars, will not be
undertaken here. The purpose of this brief study has been to make an internal criticism of Wiesenthal's credibility on his war years as reflected in several authoritive accounts he has provided of them, two of them sworn documents and the other his published memoirs.
The evident fact that Wiesenthal has more than once altered his story of the six most important years of his life must be considered in connection with his credibility as a "Nazi"-hunter. The ongoing and intensifying hunt for World-War-II criminals (so long as they were Germans, or German allies, accused of mistreating Jews or Communists) has brought to grief more than one man unable to account for what he was doing, in minute detail, forty-five years ago.
Thus John Demjanjuk, whose inability to remember in precisely which prison camp or holding pen he was held in at any given date contributed to his framing as "Iivan the Terrible" in Jerusalem. So Frank Walus, the wartime forced laborer from Poland whom Wiesenthal claimed to have documented as a member of the Gestapo until such humanitarians as Jerome Brentar of Cleveland were able to unearth insurance records which proved otherwise. It is time that competent authorities, in the United States and elsewhere, made a determined effort to establish the facts of Simon Wiesenthal's wartime career, by whatever means necessary. It is suggested that this time, if Mr. Wiesenthal is deposed under oath, appropriate penalties be imposed for deliberate misstatements.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 489-503.