JERUSALEM – JERUSALEM (AP) — A new book claims renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal worked for Israel's Mossad spy agency, providing information on war criminals and Germans working in Arab countries.
The assertions in "Wiesenthal - The Life and Legends" shed a different light on the Holocaust survivor previously believed to have conducted a lone quest to bring war criminals, such as top Nazi Adolf Eichmann, to justice.
"(It) is quite surprising in the context of his own story, because he was always regarded as a loner, someone who does everything alone against all odds and against local law enforcement," the book's author, Israeli historian Tom Segev, said.
The founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said Wiesenthal had told him he had assisted the Mossad. But Hier said he never realized how formal the relationship had been or that Wiesenthal had been paid for it.
In the book, Segev writes that the famed Nazi hunter worked with Israeli agents even before the establishment of the Mossad in 1949. In December 1948, Wiesenthal helped a forerunner of the agency mount a failed attempt to capture Eichmann, who was known as "the architect of the Holocaust."
According to Segev, Wiesenthal and three agents from the political department of Israel's Foreign Ministry waited for Eichmann in the Austrian village of Altaussee, believing he would join his wife and children there for New Year's Eve. But Eichmann never showed up.
Wiesenthal continued to provide intelligence to Israel through the 1950s, but his steady relationship with the Mossad only began in the run-up to the 1960 operation to capture Eichmann, Segev said.
Wiesenthal worked with the Mossad until 1970, operating under the code name "Theocrat" and providing Israeli intelligence information on suspected war criminals, neo-Nazi groups that threatened Jewish communities in Europe and German scientists working for Egypt's rocket program.
The agency helped Wiesenthal open his office in Vienna and put him on the payroll with a monthly retainer of some $300, Segev said.
Segev was given first-time access to Wiesenthal's office and personal archive, and sorted through some 300,000 documents. He then followed the paper trail to track down and interview three of Wiesenthal's former Mossad handlers.
The book says that Wiesenthal and his handlers met to exchange information at the Cafe Mozart in Vienna or at the philatelic club where the Nazi hunter indulged in his stamp collecting hobby. They kept up a friendly correspondence after Wiesenthal's work endedand those letters tipped Segev off to the Mossad link.
"I was allowed to go into (Wiesenthal's) office just as he left it and I found an incredible amount of material," Segev recalled in a telephone interview Thursday. "I found correspondence with people in Israel whom I could not identify. One of the letters had an address so I called the man and that was the beginning."
Segev said Wiesenthal had a good relationship with Israel and Mossad officials, although they didn't always agree on his priorities as an informant.
"The handlers were more interested in neo-Nazis, which was a present, real danger to Jewish communities," Segev said. "He was obsessed with catching Nazis."
Another source of frustration, which was already known to historians, was that Wiesenthal advised the Israelis in 1953 that Eichmann had moved to Argentina. But the Mossad only acted on the information years later, after receiving a tip from another source.
Segev said that after Eichmann's capture, Wiesenthal also opposed putting the former top Nazi to death, feeling he could be used as a source of information and a witness in other trials.
Wiesenthal survived the Nazi death camps and spent the rest of his life documenting the Holocaust, helping refugees and pursuing Nazi war criminals, often with little cooperation from authorities in the countries that served as a haven for the wanted men. He died in Vienna in 2005, at age 97.
Kurt Schrimm, the head of the special German prosecutors' office responsible for investigating Nazi-era crimes, said Wiesenthal's alleged link to Israeli intelligence shouldn't have any impact on the famed Nazi hunter's legacy.
"I don't know if it is actually true, but I don't see that it would have any relevance to his work whether he was a member of the Mossad or not," Schrimm said.
The same goes for Hier, the founder of Wiesenthal Center. "He was a person determined to do something. When everyone else went home after World War II to forget, he alone remained behind to remember," Hier said.
The book also indicates that the Mossad did more than previously thought to track down former Nazi officials. Until Eichmann's capture, Israel was believed to have focused more on present and future threats, but "Wiesenthal's connection requires that we adjust that notion, at least in part," Segev said.
The Mossad did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin and Sue Manning in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS the name of the book in the last paragraph.)