Tuesday, September 20, 2005

RIP: Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal, who has died aged 96 in Vienna, was the world's highest profile "Nazi-hunter", a term which does him too little credit, even if it encapsulates the role which brought him global fame.

Wiesenthal believed in "justice, not vengeance". He rejected notions of collective guilt, collective punishment and collective forgiveness. All crimes were to be dealt with individually, he believed - this was the best way both to deal with the traumatic aftermath of the crimes, and to help prevent a repetition.

"Nazi-hunting" was a role he stumbled into: immediately after the war (he had been in 11 concentration camps and had thrice tried to commit suicide during captivity), he helped the American War Crimes Unit with efforts to bring Nazi criminals to justice. Having given them the information he personally remembered, he saw that much was left to be done. He reckoned it might require perhaps two years' commitment, litle realising that he had found his life's work. Even so, Wiesenthal remained a victim to periodic doubts and frustrations. He gave up the effort for a while from 1954, deflated by lack of interest and support.

The capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann, the SS "desk murderer", by Mossad in 1960, was the result of Wiesenthal's work, and the cause of its resumption. Wiesenthal had refused to accept that Eichmann was dead - as his "widow" asserted - and had gotten eyewitness evidence, via a philatelist friend, that Eichmann was in Buenos Aires. The ensuing trial and execution of Eichmann gave Wiesenthal huge recognition and helped persuade him to take up his painstaking labours again.

Throughout his career, a lot of people looked askance at Wiesenthal's monumental commitment. Perhaps they saw a kind of psychological imbalance in it, perhaps his example shamed them. There is a story about Wiesenthal discussing this with a couple of friends not very long after the war. Wiesenthal's friends had done well for themselves, were visibly prosperous. They upbraided him for not taking enough care of his material comfort. He said that when he died, the 6 million murdered Jews would welcome him, as having kept their memory alive in the world. Then, said Wiesenthal, he would be the rich one.

Wiesenthal's focus on the individual has thrown light on the overwhelming volume of individuals that were wiped away by the Nazis, and of the difficulties of saving such remnants as we can. A single illustration: Simon Wiesenthal and his mother.

In 1944, his frail mother was taken away by the Nazis. Wiesenthal never discovered what happened to her. He did not even have a photograph of her.

"When I was taken from the ghetto to the concentration camp," Wiesenthal explained, "everything that I still possessed was taken from me. There is nothing left from my home or my family, not even a handkerchief, and I would give anything to have a picture of my mother."

May God bless Simon Wiesenthal and may we all learn from his great and monumental example.

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