Simon Wiesenthal-The Conscience of the Holocaust-Remembered

By Hier, Marvin; Cooper, Abraham | Midstream, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Simon Wiesenthal-The Conscience of the Holocaust-Remembered


Hier, Marvin, Cooper, Abraham, Midstream


"Freedom is not a gift from heaven. One must fight for it each and every day."--Simon Wiesenthal

In our time, it is impossible to appreciate the full measure of Simon Wiesenthal's contribution to the Jewish People and the world. And it's not just Simon's longevity and the fact that at 96 and-a-half years age when he died in 2005, he had outlived most of the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust whom he doggedly hunted. The real problem is that in our time, where memory of the Holocaust is so central a societal theme--with Holocaust Remembrance Days, Holocaust Museums and films and websites--it may not be within our grasp to fathom the loneliness and aloneness of the path he embarked on sixty years ago as he stumbled out, a skeletal ghost, into the hands of American liberators at Mauthausen.

Toward the end of World War II, Winston Churchill called Nazi mass murder "the crime that has no name." The word "genocide" (from the Latin genos for "race or tribe" and the Greek cide for "to kill") was coined in 1944; it took two more decades for the terms Holocaust (Greek for "burnt offering") and Shoah (Hebrew for "whirlwind") to come into general usage for the Nazis' "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." The immediate post-World War II period--the crucible for the Nuremberg Trials, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Genocide Convention, and the creation of the State of Israel--made a beginning, but only a beginning, toward coming to grips with history's greatest crime against humanity.

Make no mistake about it: for decades, Simon was virtually alone in his quest for justice for six million Jewish innocents murdered in the Nazi "Final Solution." In post-war Europe, many survivors assumed that the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunals constituted the beginning of that process. They were wrong. It marked the end. For the victorious World War II alliance seamlessly morphed into the bitter confrontation of the Cold War. As far as the Soviets, U.S., and the British were concerned, dossiers of ex-Nazis were to be scoured, not for evidence of crimes against humanity, but for their potential in abetting their respective Intelligence, Military, or Strategic goals.

But Simon had to face the brutal reality that Jewish leaders in the West did not care to do battle: Too many post-war Jewish leaders could not fathom the utility of "dredging up" difficult memories and generating needless confrontation with Cold War-era politicians over "the past." In the 50s, 60s, and into the 70s, prominent and influential Jews would admonish Simon: "Forget about your Don Quixotic quest; it's time to forgive and forget!"

Wiesenthal, then, entered this fray with no political base, virtually no moral or financial support, and bereft of any professional training in the investigative and legal domains.

Yet soon as the news spread that Simon Wiesenthal had passed away, it was the lead story in every major newspaper and television station around the world. The New York Times had it on its front page and The Los Angeles Times devoted four full pages in the front section of its newspaper to tell his remarkable story.

But who was Simon Wiesenthal, the man we had the privilege of working closely with since July 1977, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles was founded?

In the Talmud, there is a debate regarding the most important verse in the Bible. The sage Rabbi Akiva said that it is the verse, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," while another sage, Ben Azzai suggests another verse: "These are the generations of man on the day G-d created him ..."

When a good person passes away, a eulogist will undoubtedly try to console the bereaved from within the rubric of "having loved his neighbor," but few times in history are we given the opportunity to remember a man who spoke for "the generations," who labored and toiled not only for those he knew, but for those he would never know and those not yet born. …

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