If anyone had the whiff of heroism about him, it was Simon Wiesenthal, the Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor who became the world’s most famous Nazi hunter.
Yet even as Wiesenthal helped to bring Adolf Eichmann and more than 1,000 other Nazis to justice, the “Jewish James Bond” was plagued by accusations that he exaggerated his role in these captures, defended perpetrators like Kurt Waldheim who fooled him into believing their claims of innocence, and fabricated elements of his own past in the concentration camps.
Now the self-proclaimed “deputy” for the dead is himself resurrected in Tom Dugan’s “Wiesenthal,” a one-man show that will be performed at the 92nd Street Y on April 10. When it ran two years ago in Los Angeles, Charlotte Stoudt of the L.A. Times called it a “compelling” show that “recounts the horrors and triumphs of an astonishing life.”
Wiesenthal, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908, was liberated from Mauthausen in 1945. He founded a documentation center in Austria that enabled investigators to track down former Nazi officials, from Adolf Eichmann to Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo policeman who arrested Anne Frank. While he captured the public’s imagination with the tales of his exploits, it was his painstaking detective work with a mountain of documents that enabled Wiesenthal to carry on his fabled crusade.
“Wiesenthal,” directed by Jenny Sullivan, is Dugan’s third one-man show; he has also created memorable plays about the lives of Robert E. Lee (in which he also performed) and Frederick Douglass. But “Wiesenthal” is his most personal yet, since Dugan’s father liberated the Langenstein concentration camp, and Dugan grew up in the 1960s hearing his war stories. He first performed “Wiesenthal” in Los Angeles in 2009, and he has since brought it to more than two dozen cities in North America.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Dugan called the play “part memoir and part spy thriller,” as his larger-than-life subject works the phone to track down Eichmann’s demonic assistant, Alois Brunner. In order to write the play, Dugan used the many books that Wiesenthal wrote, as well as Tom Segev’s recent biography. And he watched portrayals of Wiesenthal in films ranging from “The Odessa File” to “The Boys in Brazil.”
Dugan has had his own challenges in performing the play, such as when a 22-year-old girl resisted his message of tolerance; she got up at a performance in Beverly Hills and identified herself as a great-granddaughter of Eichmann! But like Wiesenthal, Dugan sees himself as first and foremost an educator. “Wiesenthal’s greatest achievement,” he pointed out, “was in teaching people how to recognize the signs of the perfect storm of desperation that society can sink to.”
“Wiesenthal” runs for one performance only on Wednesday, April 10 at 8 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y (Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street). For tickets, $29 and up, call (212) 415-5500 or visit www.92y.org.