Veteran Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal faults World Jewish Congress spokesmen for ``demonizing'' Austrian President-elect Kurt Waldheim -- first accusing him of war crimes, then looking for supporting evidence afterward, and blaming him for Austrian and UN policies viewed as hostile to Israel and Jews. Mr. Wiesenthal also faults Dr. Waldheim, however, for failing to face up to Austria's past support of Adolf Hitler and for asserting improbably that he knew nothing about deportations of Greek Jews in the locality in which he was serving in the German Army in World War II.
In a telephone interview from his Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, Wisenthal further:
Argued that regard for historical truth must outweigh emotions.
Urged that a commission of military historians from the seven nations that have been involved in the Waldheim controversy examine all relevant documents to establish the facts.
Worried that the three-month feud about Waldheim may only have fanned anti-Semitism and steeled Austrians against searching their consciences about the past.
Wiesenthal speaks on this array of subjects with hard-earned authority. He is a survivor of several Nazi concentration camps and he vowed on his liberation from Mauthausen in 1945 that he would bring those who ran the camps to trial. He expected at the time -- naively, he says today -- that this would be a diversion of two or three years, after which he could go back to being an architect.
His planned return never came to pass. Wiesenthal's efforts initially encountered lethargy at best, and antipathy at worst, not only among the defeated Germans and Austrians, but even among the victorious allies, and Jews who felt guilty about having done far too little to save fellow Jews.
Wiesenthal recounts that it took nine years of badgering on his part, for example, before the United States agreed to extradite Hermine Ryan, a sadistic overseer at the Majdanek concentration camp, to West Germany. Ryan was given a life sentence by a D"usseldorf court in 1981.
That Wiesenthal succeeded is attested by the high rate of conviction of the more than 1120 persons he eventually identified as war criminals. Out of this number, only four ever sued Wiesenthal for libel. Three of these lost in court; the fourth dropped the case.
Throughout, Weisenthal emphasizes, he compiled his careful dossiers first and made accusations only after this. ``I have never accused and later looked for documents. I am fighting for the truth, the historic truth -- without emotions, absolutely without emotions. Emotions I understand, but emotions are no friends of the truth.''
From this background Wiesenthal says flatly that the documents he has read about Lt. Waldheim's service with the German Army in the Balkans in the 1940s do not show that Waldheim ``recommended a crime or that he ordered a crime.''
Nor does Wiesenthal think that Yugoslavia's legendary Partisan leader and late President, Josep Broz Tito, would have invited Waldheim to make five state visits to Yugoslavia and one visit as Tito's personal guest, or have bestowed Yugoslavia's highest award on him, if he thought Waldheim was a war criminal.
In this connection Wiesenthal discounts ``stupid stories'' that the Yugoslav failure ever to ask for Waldheim's extradition may indicate a sinister blackmailing of Waldheim through secret compromising information.
Wiesenthal does not want to see the unproven charges against the former UN Secretary-General left dangling, but would like to see them cleared up through examination of the relevant documents by top historians from the US, Israel, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, West Germany, and Britain. UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar told Wiesenthal he would ask the Yugoslavs for the key documents, but so far Yugoslavia has been reluctant to release them, according to Wiesenthal.
Apart from the question about war guilt, Wiesenthal judges severely Waldheim's insistence that he was just doing his duty as a conscript during the war and that he never knew of the deportation of the Jews of Salonika to their death, or of specific atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht against Yugoslav civilians.
``For me, he was the best informed officer in [his] unit, because everything was going to his desk.'' And since the SS troops that were deporting the Jews were dependent on Army trains and food, it's hard to believe that Waldheim could have been stationed five miles outside Salonika and not known of the upheaval there, Wiesenthal suggests. There is no crime in having known of these actions, he points out, but denial of this knowledge has made others mistrust Waldheim and suspect him of worse things.
Wiesenthal's skepticism about the more serious charges against Waldheim has led to clashes with the World Jewish Council over the latter's series of accusations of Waldheim. Congress officials never consulted the Jewish community in Austria before publicizing the allegations, according to Wiesenthal. Nor did the Congress offer to let Austrian Jews raise the issue themselves -- a course that might have been less polarizing if raised by Austrians rather than outsiders, Wiesenthal believes.
In the event, backlash against outside meddling only united Austrian voters behind Waldheim and multiplied the number of anti-Semitic letters received by Wiesenthal and the small Austrian Jewish community of 7000. In the aftermath, the World Jewish Congress's general secretary, Israel Singer, one of the activists against Waldheim, is urging Jews to leave Austria, Wiesenthal says. But they have to desire to go.
On the broader question of the nation's postwar evasion of acknowledging or accepting any responsibility to make amends for Austrian support of Hitler, Wiesenthal notes the disproportionately high number of Austrians in the Nazi concentration-camp apparatus. Although Austrians constituted only 8 percent of the greater German population, they provided three-fourths of extermination camp commanders and committed a minimum of 40 percent of all the war crimes, in Wiesenthal's calculation. Yet the Austrians never offered reparations to Israel or to individual Jews as did West Germany, and never tried war criminals on the scale of the West Germans.