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.

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They were tormented by the pain. Already in 1946, ashes brought from a camp in Poland had been interred in Israel. But even in 1949, nobody really knew the right way to go about mourning six million dead or how to perpetuate their memory. The law on prosecuting Nazis and their collaborators would only be enacted a year later; the official Holocaust Memorial Day would be designated two years later, and the law establishing the State Memorial Authority, Yad Vashem, would be passed only in 1953. When Wiesenthal came to Israel, the Holocaust was still wrapped in silence. Parents never told their children what they had experienced; the children never dared to ask. Holocaust survivors made people flinch with anxiety, embarrassment, and feelings of guilt. They were not easy to live with: How can you share an apartment building with them, work with them, go to the movies or the beach with them? How can you fall in love with them and marry them? How can their children go to school with yours? It’s doubtful that any other society ever faced so difficult or painful an encounter with “the Other,” to use a phrase that came into currency later.Many of the Israelis who had settled in the country before World War II, or were born there, tended to relate condescendingly to Holocaust victims and survivors, identifying them with the Jews of the Diaspora, whom they despised as the polar opposite of the “new Hebrews” they were trying to create in the Land of Israel, in the spirit of the Zionist vision. It was customary to blame the victims for not coming to the country beforehand, remaining in Europe instead and waiting to be slaughtered without doing anything to prevent it.

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.

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