The indefatigable, implacable agent of justice is as old as the Furies and as familiar as the detective novel, which may be why an early TIME article on Nazi hunter SIMON WIESENTHAL called him the "Intercontinental Op," a reference to a Dashiell Hammett protagonist. But there were differences. The Op worked for money. Wiesenthal was a death-camp survivor whose family, narrowly and broadly defined, were the victims. At a time when the genocide of the Jews (as distinct from the existence of concentration camps) was still little known and deemed exaggerated, his crusade from the start presumed a terrible, accurate focus. Yet unlike the Op or his even harder-boiled literary successors, Wiesenthal, whose work led to the capture of hundreds of butchers, was neither a strong-arm nor a vigilante.
There was a tragic aspect to his victories. Like the movie Schindler's List, they invited the delusion that the good had somehow balanced out the Holocaust bad. But they also embodied an essential lesson: that Jews were no more dependent weaklings than they were the all-powerful conspirators painted by the Nazis.
There was, of course, a national expression of this ideal: Israel. And if Wiesenthal proved imperfect over time-- he was accused of claiming others' victories--so the Zionist dream has generated a more complicated reality. But dealing with power's confounding implications is infinitely preferable to being powerless, forgotten, dead. In a final statement, Wiesenthal lived to be 96 and died at home, in his sleep, in Vienna. --By David Van Biema