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Tribute to Simon Wiesenthal

September 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JONATHAN MILLER: He walked a lonely road, his task overwhelming, his cause had few friends. But Simon Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor turned self-styled Nazi hunter, detective and prosecutor rolled into one, was perhaps the first to understand that never again is a vacuous phrase without justice.

AVNER SHALEV, Director: He has become more than a symbol. He was the main active person who dedicated his whole life pursuing those German Nazi war criminals, and bringing up the notion that a bit of justice should be done.

JONATHAN MILLER: And a bit of justice is what Simon Wiesenthal got, the man they call the conscience of the Holocaust, helped convict 1,100 Nazis.

PRESIDENT HORST KOEHLER: This is very sad news because for me Simon Wiesenthal is one of the greats. He tried to seek justice and not just take revenge.

JONATHAN MILLER: Born the son of a Jewish businessman in Ukraine, Simon Wiesenthal’s life was scarred by tragedy and loss. His father died in the First World War, his stepfather in the Second; his mother, sent to a concentration camp in 1942, the year the Nazis implemented their final solution to what they called the Jewish problem.

Within months, Simon Wiesenthal and his wife were to lose 89 members of their immediate families. Wiesenthal himself survived three death camps; in one he was among just 34 inmates of an original 150,000 to make it out alive. On liberation, he weighed under seven stone.

For the next six decades from a nondescript office in Vienna, Wiesenthal made sure the Nazi genocidal killers would not sleep easy in their beds. His big catch, Adolf Eichmann, who ran the Gestapo’s Jewish Department, tracked down in Argentina, kidnapped by Mossad and secreted back to Israel, found guilty of mass murder and executed in 1961.

During the Cold War the world lost interest in hunting Nazis, but Wiesenthal went on. His undercover work brought scores of top SS men to the dock, including the officer who caught Anne Frank, the teen-age diarist. His big regret, not catching death camp doctor Josef Mengele.

SIMON WIESENTHAL: I missed him five times.

JONATHAN MILLER: The Third Reich’s angel of death, whom Wiesenthal said killed 400,000 Jews, died in Brazil, still a fugitive from justice. Simon Wiesenthal repeatedly warned the world that history repeats itself.

SIMON WIESENTHAL: This is important that our children and grandchildren and not only they but also the new generation, the young generation from many nations, for their benefit should learn from our tragedy.

JIM LEHRER: In a 1990 NewsHour interview with Robert MacNeil, Wiesenthal discussed his relentless search for Nazi war criminals. Here’s an excerpt.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Are there many perpetrators of the Holocaust, criminals, still alive and at large today?

SIMON WIESENTHAL: I think thousands.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Thousands?

SIMON WIESENTHAL: Germans, Austrians, and voluntary collaborators of Nazis in different countries of the world. But it is going to a biological end; criminals die, witnesses die. I will die. But how long people from these two generations are alive, the matter must remain an open matter and as a warning for the future: That these people they commit crimes will never rest. This is the warning.

ROBERT MAC NEIL: This is the warning?

SIMON WIESENTHAL: Yes, because it’s possible that the murders of the murderer are around today. They should know that they will never rest, like these murders are not resting. And there are sleepless nights. They don’t know if we know them or not know them, but they believe that we know them. That’s a part of the sentence.

ROBERT MACNEIL: A part of the sentence is to give them sleepless nights because you’ll never catch all of them before they die?

SIMON WIESENTHAL: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: And joining us to talk about Simon Wiesenthal, the man and his broader legacy, is Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who helped create the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He’s now an adjunct professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Mr. Berenbaum, welcome.

There were millions of European Jews whose families were killed in the Holocaust. Yet none pursued the Nazis after the war with such determination as Simon Wiesenthal. I know you knew him. What drove him to do this?

MICHAEL BERENBAUM: Simon Wiesenthal was consumed by a sense that these people had to be brought to justice and that the world had to achieve that modicum of justice that was available to it in the aftermath of the destruction.

His word always was justice, not vengeance, and that is that in the early days especially there were other ways of dealing with war criminals and he felt that the world must come to terms with this event by achieving a modicum of justice, and he saw that as essential not only to our obligation to the past but to how we create our future together.

MARGARET WARNER: Now how did this one man operating alone without a government, essentially behind him, operating out of that little office we saw a video of in this piece, manage to track down clever former Nazi officials everywhere from Argentina to Queens, New York; how did he do it, how did he operate?

MICHAEL BERENBAUM: Well, he operated by tenacity, number one. He was stubborn. And he was determined. And his determination fueled him. Number two, he operated on the margins with people who had reasons to inform him. Number one there were victims who bumped into and indeed surprisingly lived among the perpetrators.

Remember the United States received a whole range of people in 1948 under the provisions of the new law of immigration that was passed in 1948. Among them were Holocaust survivors, but also among them were a series of people who, some of whom were perpetrators.

He then worked with detectives, he worked with organizations that tracked it and he worked with governments, and he also followed up and followed through on the rumor mill. There were anti-Nazis throughout Germany who wanted to score points. There were even Nazis who wanted to get even with former Nazis whom they felt were not giving them a square deal. He lived in the world of rumor, he lived in the world of innuendo, and he also lived in a world in which research was done and card files were kept in order to find out who these people were and where they were.

One of the stories he was fond of telling was the fact that he looked at the marriage record of Nazi war criminals widows. And he very often found that they were marrying a man who was not supposed to be their late husband and who in fact was their late husband.

His great achievement on Eichmann was not allowing Eichmann to be declared dead and consequently keeping the search for Eichmann open.

MARGARET WARNER: Did he ever talk to you – I mean, he was a man who was an architect, he could have gone back to being an architect, did he ever talk to you on a personal level about why he was doing this?

MICHAEL BERENBAUM: He told the wonderful story that was — took place in 1946 or ’47. He went to a castle, but it wasn’t, the castle was serving as a warehouse of books. They were told that there were a whole range of Jewish material possessions there of books that would go in a library. He went with a rabbi and the rabbi picked up a prayer book and the prayer book had two sentences in it that never left him. The first was: “Whoever picks up this prayer book, contact my brother,” and secondly, “Remember what these killers did to us.” It probably were the words of the Book of Deuteronomy, “Remember what Arma Lake did you in the desert. Remember the killers.”

The rabbi looked at him and said this book is intended for you. It was his sister’s prayer book, and Simon Wiesenthal said that when his days on earth ended, he wanted to be able to meet his death and say that he remembered the killers because he stood in solidarity always with their victims.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally before we go, it’s said that he helped at least hunt down 1,100 Nazi war criminals. Is that the mark of his effectiveness, or do you think it’s broader than that in terms of his legacy?

MICHAEL BERENBAUM: That’s one of the marks of his effectiveness. The real mark of his effectiveness is found in the world today, which is that he was, he believed in justice, he believed that justice must be served, he believed that in the aftermath of destruction we have to recreate that modicum of justice that is available to us.

That led to the idea that other nations under other circumstances bring their criminals to justice. It’s the reason we have Slobodan Milosevic standing trial, it’s the reason that people who were perpetrators in Rwanda are being brought to justice, it’s probably indirectly the reason why the Iraqi people will bring Saddam Hussein to justice.

Not that these events compared to the Holocaust, but the desire to recreate and to recreate and reestablish justice in the aftermath of destruction is part of the ways in which societies restore themselves. That will be his legacy, not to the past, but to our collective future.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Berenbaum, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL BERENBAUM: You’re welcome.