Beliefnet

They were despised for their weakness, because most of them had not fought against the Nazis but had gone to their deaths “like lambs to the slaughter.” Many Holocaust survivors found neither a sympathetic ear nor any compassion; often they were not even believed when they related what had happened to them.For their part, the survivors had plenty to say to the Israelis. Why, they would ask, had the Zionist movement not made greater efforts to rescue them from the Nazis? Implicit in this question was a terrible accusation, and the leaders of the movement found it difficult to explain their powerlessness. Besides the question of what they could have done, there was the far more embarrassing one of whether they had taken any interest at all in the plight of European Jews. Many survivors of the Holocaust were shocked to discover after the war that Jews in the United States and in Palestine had lived through the war in relative complacency; reports about the destruction of their brethren concerned them only to the extent that their day-to-day lives were affected.Wiesenthal once described how, soon after the war, he had seen Jewish newspapers from America and Palestine printed in the summer of 1943, when he was a concentration camp inmate. “And what I read was terribly depressing to me,” he wrote. For the papers described the routines of community life, politics, economic prosperity, culture, entertainment, and family celebrations. Only here and there did Wiesenthal find items about the murder of the Jews in Poland, based usually on BBC reports. In the papers from Palestine, he found big headlines about Arabs who attacked a kibbutz and killed two cows. A report about what was happening in Poland, by a refugee who had made it to Palestine, was relegated to page seven. “I started asking myself, are we still one people, the same people?” he wrote.

In 1946, Wiesenthal attended the first Zionist Congress since the Holocaust, held in Basel, Switzerland, and the thought ran through his mind that the leaders of the Zionist movement deserved to be put on trial, like the heads of the Nazi regime who were tried in Nuremberg. “I took a good look at those who were our ‘leadership’ and had done very little to save Jews,” he related. He was referring to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, among others. By bringing the ashes of the victims to Jerusalem for burial, Wiesenthal was demanding of the Israelis that they at long last confront the Holocaust, in the same way that in days to come he was to demand it of the other nations of the world. The institutions and the officials involved in organizing the funeral tended to look upon the matter as a nuisance, but Wiesenthal would not let them alone. At first he had written to Yad Vashem, but at that time it was only a private society operating out of a three-room office and having a hard time paying the rent. “We regret that our project is as yet unable to receive this sacred consignment,” the organization wrote to Wiesenthal, and so he turned to the Tel Aviv municipality. The heads of Yad Vashem had no choice but to acquiesce, but they soon changed their minds and demanded that the glass box be buried in Jerusalem. Wiesenthal went along with that as well: “We believe that for diplomatic and national reasons at this time we must do everything to concentrate in Jerusalem all things and all projects that symbolize the link between the Diaspora of our people and the State of Israel,” he wrote, using the first-person plural, as was his custom.But now the need arose to decide who would finance the project. Wiesenthal assured Mayor Rokach that the organization he was acting for would cover all the shipping costs, but he requested funding for airplane tickets and a ten-day stay for himself and one companion. Yad Vashem replied immediately that it had no money. The request led to a lengthy correspondence, and eighteen months went by. It was a dramatic and bloody period.

Between his first letter to Yad Vashem in January 1948 and the funeral, a war had been waged and the State of Israel had been declared. Wiesenthal, who was a keen stamp collector, had an idea: the Israeli Postal Service should issue stamps in memory of the Holocaust, and the revenue would be used to cover the expenses of the memorial project.But it was not only the issue of funding that held up his initiative. The fledgling state needed an aura of heroic glory, and some of the officials handling the matter thought the remains of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, should be brought from Vienna for reinterment in Jerusalem before the ashes of the Holocaust victims from Austria; Herzl was a symbol of triumph, the Holocaust represented defeat. So this is what was done. An argument also arose as to the respective roles of the state and the Chief Rabbinate in burying the ashes of those who perished in the Holocaust, an echo of the ever present confrontation between the secular and the religious. And out of this arose the question of whether the urns that Wiesenthal wanted to bury in a Jewish cemetery in Israel really contained only the ashes of Jews, or whether there were also ashes of gentiles mixed in with them.In the end, Wiesenthal lost his patience.

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