The Life and Legends: Simon Wiesenthal

Within days of being liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal had assembled a list of nearly 150 Nazi war criminals, the first of dozens of such lists he would compile over a lifetime as a Nazi hunter.

The Life and Legends: Simon Wiesenthal 

Introduction

 The Glass Box:

Never before had there been such a funeral. Never before had the remains of so many people been buried in one grave. The procession began in Tel Aviv, on June 26, 1949.

The horror enveloping the city’s Great Synagogue was almost unbearable, and hysterical shrieks rose from people crowding around the building. The newspapers reported that there were tens of thousands present and described heartbreaking scenes. There were cries of “Mama! Papa!” and many fainted. Small children were also to be seen.In the main hall of the synagogue stood a glass box, five feet long. In it were thirty porcelain urns, painted with blue and white stripes. According to the newspapers, they contained the ashes of 200,000 Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. The mayor was there, as well as other dignitaries and rabbis. Speeches were made and prayers intoned, and then the glass box was loaded onto a police vehicle, to be carried through some of the city’s streets; the vehicle had trouble making its way through the crowds.

Along the route that the box traveled, people closed their shops and workshops and lined the sidewalks, watching the procession in silent awe. The first stop on the route was Rehovot, where President Chaim Weizmann had his home. Classes were canceled in the town’s schools, and the students were sent to see the box.

Weizmann, aged and frail and almost blind, said a few words. Then the box was taken to Jerusalem, and at the entrance to the city there were once again thousands, waiting and weeping. Some of them brought bars of soap. They mistakenly believed that the soap had been made out of the bodies of Jews and wanted to bury it with the glass box, in the soil of the ancient cemetery of Sanhedria, among graves that had been hewn out of rock two thousand years before.

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The man who organized this historic spectacle was Simon Wiesenthal, then forty-one years old. From the day he was released from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria he had lived in the nearby city of Linz and occupied himself with searching out Nazi war criminals. The ashes of the dead had been collected at his initiative at concentration camps and other detention sites across Austria.

“The glass box,” he wrote later, “had suddenly become a kind of looking-glass, in which the faces of many, many were reflected—friends from the ghetto, companions from the concentration camps, people who had been beaten to death, died of starvation, been hounded into the electrified fence. I could see the panicked faces of Jews who were whipped and clubbed into the gas chambers, chased from behind by human animals devoid of conscience or feelings, who would not hear their lone plea: to let them live.”

By then Wiesenthal already knew several Israelis, but not many Israelis knew him. The mayor of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Rokach, for one, didn’t know who he was when Wiesenthal first contacted him, in Yiddish, a few months before. But Rokach seems to have been impressed by Wiesenthal’s assertive style. It was more like an order than a query, request, or suggestion: the Association of Former Concentration Camp Inmates in Austria had decided to transfer the ashes of the martyrs to Israel and to honor the city of Tel Aviv by making it the recipient, Wiesenthal wrote. There was no way to refuse, and Rokach replied that Tel Aviv would accept the urns with a “tremor of sanctity,” although he had no idea what to do with them. The annihilation of the Jews haunted many of the inhabitants of Israel.

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Related Topics: Books, Holocaust Memory, Israel

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