Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2005/ 22 Elul,
Death of a salesman
He survived, and so did his mission to pursue the purveyors of
unspeakable evil to the ends of the earth. Simon Wiesenthal hunted Nazis
like the Nazis hunted Jews. His first motives were rooted in revenge and
why not? but soon motive morphed into mission, the pursuit of justice and
the necessity to teach the next generation about what had happened in
civilized, oh-so-refined Germany.
"To young people here, I am the last," he told an interviewer
in Vienna a decade ago. "I'm the one who can still speak. After me, it's
History began last week, when Simon Wiesenthal died at the age
of 96. His voice is still at last, but his testimony survives. His life
spanned decades of changing trends and attitudes toward the study of the
Holocaust. He was a major figure, identified with both the sensationalizing
and even occasionally trivializing of the Holocaust, but fulfilling what he
believed to be his personal obligation to speak for the dead who could not
speak for themselves.
Simon Wiesenthal was the tireless promoter of Holocaust
remembrance. The Holocaust Center in Los Angeles, to which he lent his name,
has been described, not necessarily pejoratively, as "Half Yeshiva, half
Disneyland." Like the Nazi hunter himself, it teaches tolerance with more
than a touch of flamboyance.
His critics accused him of lacking humility, but he is one of the reasons that children study the Holocaust today. He's responsible for documenting facts so grisly, so incredible that the facts at first invited skepticism. He fought both the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the Holocaust deniers and the Jews who wanted to forget rather than to bear witness to evil. "Discovering witnesses is just as important as catching criminals," he wrote in the introduction to "The Sunflower," a short memoir.
Laurence Olivier and Ben Kingsley played the Wiesenthal
character in the movies, but the real man would never have been taken for
James Bond. His flaws were writ large. He was rough, gruff, and sometimes
more than a little too puffed up for his own good and the good of his cause.
His many sightings of Josef Mengele were sometimes hallucinations or even
fabrications. But he contributed information that led to the capture of more
than a thousand Nazis, including the unrepentant Adolf Eichmann, who was
sent to Israel for a trial and a hangman's rope. He tracked down the Gestapo
aide responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank in her hiding place in an
attic in Amsterdam.
Mr. Wiesenthal defended Kurt Waldheim when his Nazi past was
finally revealed, and he did not always live up to the moral purity he
demanded of others. But he brought important discussions of genocide to the
public arena. In "The Sunflower," he writes of how he was asked to offer
forgiveness to a Nazi soldier dying in a hospital. He describes his
confusion and silence, but he doesn't stop there. He asks contemporary
thinkers of various religions to read the story and discuss their own
feelings. The book has become a primer for teaching students about the
Holocaust without the emotional glibness of the popular culture.
Student reactions to his book tell much about their understanding of ethics. Berel Lang, a professor of the humanities, used it to teach college students the concept of evil. In "Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide," he writes how shocked he was at student indifference to Nazi immorality; the students thought the soldier need not ask forgiveness because he was merely a soldier carrying out orders.
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