Pursuing Truth, Seeking Moral Justice

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

BY: Interview by Alice Chasan

 
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?

I think the "Nazi-hunter" label is itself a misnomer. Wiesenthal didn't actually capture anybody. He wasn't really a Nazi-hunter; he was a Nazi documenter. And that's a very big difference. He was a first-rate, meticulous, fastidious chronicler of historical documentation. He founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. The real hunting element in his work was the hunting for information and documents. It's really important to make that distinction, because for us as Americans, "Nazi-hunter" is such a classic "Rambo" image fostered by Hollywood. In the United States, we have the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigation, technically the Nazi-hunting arm of the government. But they just deport Nazis; they don't even prosecute them for crimes.



When we think of Wiesenthal's hunting for information, his persistence, and the meticulousness of gathering of evidence, that's where he was extraordinary. He was dogged in his obsession to find as much as possible to track [Nazis] down. And then he alerted the Israelis or alerted the U.S. government to the whereabouts of these people.



In some cases he was accused of embellishing [his success], especially with respect to [the Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef] Mengele, who may have died years before. He continued to manufacture new sightings of Mengele, and many people assumed that that was because it was a great way to raise money for the Jewish Documentation Center. Every time he reported new leads on Mengele, he could expect that more people would contribute to his efforts. Similarly, he exaggerated his role in the tracking down of [Third Reich official and S.S. Obersturmbannführer] Adolf Eichmann. I think it's pretty clear that early on, he tipped off the Israelis [about Eichmann's whereabouts]. But the work was really done by the Mossad.



He wasn't involved in the planning phases like a true hunter. So I think that what's really important about him is not to inflate the physical prowess or the wily, clever hunting dimension. It's really to say that here was a guy who dedicated his life to a certain kind of moral truth. And the way he preserved that truth was to create a documentation center and to create an incredible Rolodex of people who were constantly on the lookout for information about a hit-list of all the Nazis who had escaped prosecution [at the war-crimes tribunals] in Nuremberg.



There were hundreds [of Nazis] out there. And he kept track of all of them. Photographs, fingerprints, last whereabouts, trying to find out what their friends knew, trying to find out basically by having people talk to their friends, find out where so and so was. It was not just a matter of even bringing people to justice, which was clearly the goal. But making them know that they can't rest easy because there was this man who was constantly watching and alert for any lead, any tip. While the rest of the world was moving on--to the Cold War, radical student politics in the 60's, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, the hostage taking in Iran, all the things that the world focused on--this guy was singularly focused on one thing: Where are the Nazis now and how could we track them down and still bring some level of justice?



Architect of memory
Read more on page 2 >>


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