Pursuing Truth, Seeking Moral Justice

Simon Wiesenthal understood that when it comes to heinous acts, only the apology, not the absolution, is morally obligatory.

After surviving the Holocaust, the late Simon Wiesenthal, who died on Sept. 20, 2005, at 96, devoted his life to tracking down Nazis and documenting their crimes. Shortly after Wiesenthal's death, Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan spoke with law professor and novelist Thane Rosenbaum, author of "The Myth of Moral Justice," about Wiesenthal's legacy and what moral obligations exist for victims and wrongdoers.

You are the child of Holocaust survivors. What were you taught about Simon Wiesenthal growing up?

There were two kinds of perspectives in the survivor community. And those who very much celebrated Wiesenthal were those who mostly thought of themselves as survivors. Survival itself is a kind of retribution for the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews. Wiesenthal--and of course the nationhood of Israel--represented a post-Holocaust mindset of a kind of what I would call the "never again" philosophy. Wiesenthal stood for the concept of never again. Everything about the idea of the Nazi-hunter and bringing Nazis to justice in an era when Nazis were in hiding and then the world didn't care [about finding them] anymore, represented that kind of retributive philosophy, that Jews will never forget and it will never happen again.


My family really didn't fall into that category so much. There was much more of a sense of loss and lamentation about what was lost. I think the people who were big followers of Wiesenthal were the very people who had thought in a much more forward-looking way. I think my family just never got past the magnitude of the loss.

Was it surprising to your parents that there was a survivor like Wiesenthal who was so willing to take an active role in bringing the Nazis to justice?

It didn't surprise my parents that there were Nazi-hunters--not only Wiesenthal, but also Serge and Beate Klarsfeld in France. There was also the [Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad, which in its own covert way had dedicated itself to bringing Nazis to justice.

In American consciousness, Wiesenthal came to embody the "Nazi-hunter" role. But did his persistence in bringing Nazis to justice through the decades make people uncomfortable?

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