Saturday, September 24, 2005

Obituary for Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal survived the Nazi death camps, but was haunted for the rest of his life by the need to track down those responsible for them.

Born in Lviv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, into a family of Orthodox Jews, Simon Wiesenthal survived the Soviet invasion of the area in the late 1930s, and suffered the arrival of the Nazis in 1941.

As a young architect, Wiesenthal watched his mother being transported away for execution. He believed his wife Cyla had died too. In fact, she had escaped persecution by pretending to be a Pole.

He spent four years in concentration camps, once spared by a firing squad that stopped before it reached him.

Unaccounted for as the advancing Red Army pushed into Germany, Wiesenthal was forced to march westwards by his SS guards. The survivors of this arduous trek were liberated, finally, by American troops at the Mauthausen camp in Austria, in May 1945.

Holocaust horror: Wiesenthal's drawings He cried from loneliness and then dictated a list of 91 names of camp officials. He later tracked down more than 70 of them.

In 1947, Wiesenthal helped establish a centre in Linz, Austria, devoted to collecting information for use in future war crimes trials. Despite the successes of the Nuremberg trials, many of the Nazi regime's most notorious killers remained unaccounted for. And while the Cold War brewed between East and West, Nazi hunting fell from the political agenda. 

Dispirited, Wiesenthal closed the Linz office in 1954, Worldwide network . But his enthusiasm was rekindled with the capture by Israeli agents of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the so-called Final Solution.

Buoyed by the trial and execution of the Nazi technocrat, Wiesenthal opened the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna. Collating sightings and tip-offs from a worldwide network of sympathisers, human rights activists and even former Nazis themselves, he pursued the 90,000 people named in the German war crimes files.

Both the Wiesenthals survived the war. His biggest success was bringing Franz Stangl to justice in West Germany in 1967. Stangl was commandant at Treblinka where an estimated 800,000 Jews died. In all, he was believed to have brought 1100 war criminals to trial.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, set up in the United States in 1977, has pressed for the extradition of numerous war crimes suspects, as well as campaigning for the rights of Holocaust survivors and an end to pensions for SS officers.

In 1986, he succeeded in having gypsy representatives included on the Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington DC.

His biggest disappointments were his failure to secure the capture of Gestapo chief, Heinrich Muller, and Auschwitz doctor, Josef Mengele, who died in Brazil in 1978.

Dogged perseverance, Simon Wiesenthal's career was not without its controversial aspects. He was accused of egocentricity by those who claimed he took more than his fair share of credit for the arrest of Adolf Eichmann. He was also involved in a personal spat with the former, and first Jewish, Chancellor of Austria, Bruno Kreisky.

Eichmann's capture rekindled Wiesenthal's enthusiasm. Wiesenthal objected to Kreisky's overtures to a far-right Austrian party leader to save his coalition government.

Kreisky, a socialist, falsely accused Wiesenthal of having collaborated with the Gestapo at the end of the war. Wiesenthal also fell out with the World Jewish Congress when he refused to support their case for blacklisting the former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who had sought to become Austrian chancellor.
He dismissed the WJC's allegations that Waldheim had assisted in the deportation of Jews during the war.

But his dogged perseverance in hunting down those who had colluded in the most barbarous of crimes made him a legend in his lifetime. He always claimed he sought justice not vengeance.

"I might forgive them for myself," he once said, "but I couldn't speak for the millions they killed."

Wiesenthal authored a book, "Sunflower -On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness ."

The premise of this book is based on a day when doing slave labor in Nazi concentration camp that Wiesenthal was taken from his work detail to the bedside of a dying member of the S.S. Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to and obtain absolution from - a Jew.

This unusual encounter and the moral dilemma it posed raise fundamental questions about the limits and possibilities of forgiveness. Must we, can we forgive the repentant criminal? Can we forgive crimes committed against others? What do we owe the victims? Twenty-five years after the Holocaust, Wiesenthal asked leading intellectuals what they would have done in his place. Collected into one volume, their responses became a classic of Holocaust literature and a touchstone of interfaith dialogue. 

This revised edition of The Sunflower includes 46 responses (10 from the original volume) from prominent theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, China, and Tibet. Their answers reflect the teachings of their diverse beliefs - Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, secular, and agnostic - and remind us that Wiesenthal's question is not limited to events of the past.

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