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Jewish Journal

New Wiesenthal documentary recounts Nazi hunter’s turbulent life

by Tom Tugend

June 14, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Simon Wiesenthal. Photo courtesy Moriah Films

Simon Wiesenthal. Photo courtesy Moriah Films

"I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal" runs for close to two hours, but the documentary is barely long enough to encompass the 96 years of the legendary Nazi hunter.

The image of the sad-eyed, balding man with the wide mustache is almost as well known as that of Albert Einstein, but the film fills in the portrait by showing Wiesenthal as a student, survivor, husband, father and scorned troublemaker in his single-minded pursuit of his people's murderers.

The Moriah Films production opens with a map tracing Wiesenthal's stay at various concentration camps, a curious itinerary through the circles of hell, until he was liberated, barely alive, by American troops at Mauthausen in Austria.

With a group of volunteers and scavenged furniture, he opened the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in the Austrian city of Linz. In one of his life's many ironies, he discovered that his office was only a few houses down from Adolf Eichmann's family residence.

It was not a good time and place to start hunting Nazi war criminals. The Cold War had put the short-lived American interest into deep freeze, and the Austrians wanted nothing more than to forget about the atrocities and their part in them.

In 1954, Wiesenthal closed down his struggling, under-funded operation and shipped his voluminous files to Yad Vashem, with one exception - the dossier on Eichmann, the engineer of the Final Solution.

During the next six years, Wiesenthal tried to resume his professional career as an architect and devoted some time to his wife and daughter, but the capture of Eichmann in Argentina and trial in Jerusalem catapulted Wiesenthal into the global media spotlight.

In 1961, he reopened the documentation center, this time in Vienna, and the next two decades saw some of his greatest triumphs, as well as a few of his bitterest controversies.

Due to his meticulous research and an ace detective's ability to connect the dots, Wiesenthal is credited with ferreting out 1,100 war criminals during his lifetime. Among them were Hermine Braunsteiner, the sadistic SS supervisor at Majdanek; Franz Stangl, the commandant at Treblinka and Sobibor; and Karl Silberbauer, the Nazi functionary who arrested Anne Frank and her family.

Yet, as Wiesenthal's reputation grew, so did attacks on his integrity, which the film discusses openly.

Some Mossad agents charged that Wiesenthal took undeserved credit for the Eichmann capture, while other critics noted that he had traced Dr. Josef Mengele to the wrong South American country. In the lowest blow of all, Bruno Kreisky, the Jewish chancellor of Austria, hinted that Wiesenthal had collaborated with the Gestapo.

Wiesenthal certainly made some mistakes, but the film notes that, as a private researcher, he had less legal power and resources than the most obscure district attorney in rural America.

Nor was Wiesenthal a gunslinger, or, as he himself put it, "I am not a Jewish James Bond." Indeed, he was pilloried by some of his strongest supporters when he refused to condemn Austrian President Kurt Waldheim as a war criminal, believing that the evidence was not conclusive enough.

"You don't mix politics with justice," he observed at the time.

However, Wiesenthal's successes far outweighed any failures, and his international stature grew as he spoke out on the sufferings of gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of the Holocaust.

Without Wiesenthal's pioneer work, concludes one historian, there would have been no subsequent trials of the perpetrators of the Bosnian, Rwandan and other genocides.

Director-screenwriter Richard Trank, who co-wrote and co-produced the documentary with Rabbi Marvin Hier for the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Oscar-winning Moriah Films division, has infused his work with an important third dimension. He has done so by picturing the private, human side of a man who, however driven by his self-imposed mission "never to forget" the 6 million, could be witty, charming and even self-deprecating.

His somewhat prim secretary was shocked by his occasionally risqué jokes, but added a light touch herself by filing the steady flow of hate and anti-Semitic mail in a drawer labeled "M" for meshugge.

On a more serious note, when his lonely young daughter asked why she had no grandparents or aunts like other kids, Wiesenthal did not talk about the 89 relatives he and his wife lost during the Holocaust but instead invented a host of imaginary "cousins" living in different parts of the world.

The impact of Wiesenthal's life pursuit on his family is heart-breakingly recalled in a remark by his wife, Cyla: that she is married "to a million dead people."

When Nicole Kidman saw some of the preliminary footage of the film, the glamorous and talented actress was so moved that she volunteered to serve as the unpaid narrator. Perhaps concerned about adding her own emotions to an already emotional subject, her reading of the narration is so restrained as to border on flatness.

"I Have Never Forgotten You" will screen at noon on July 1 at the Mann Festival Theatre in Westwood as part of the June 21-July 1 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Admission is free. For information, call (866) 345-6337.

On July 6, the film opens at Laemmle's Fallbrook 7 in West Hills (818) 340-8710 and the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, call (310) 274-6869.

For online tickets, go to www.laemmle.com/buy.php.
For more information, go to www.ihaveneverforgottenyou.com.

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