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.
BY: Tom Segev
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.
He cabled Yad Vashem that he was on his way to Rome, where he would board an Italian airliner with the ashes and fly to Israel. Please make all the preparations, he demanded. Only now did Yad Vashem convene a committee, which hastily organized the ceremony as mutual recriminations flew through the air between the various parties involved. These found their way into the newspapers. There was a scandal, but at the last minute the speaker of the Knesset managed to read into the parliamentary record a state declaration of mourning, and the papers gave the event extensive coverage.This was Wiesenthal’s first visit to Israel. He entered the country on a Polish passport. He was welcomed respectfully and no one troubled him with the obvious questions: Where exactly were the ashes collected? How can we know if they are really the ashes of the victims? And how did you determine that the number of Jews who were killed in Austrian concentration camps was 200,000? One newspaper apparently thought this wasn’t enough, and wrote 250,000. The papers tended to conceal the fact that these were in fact symbolic samples of ash and described the urns as containing all the ashes of the hundreds of thousands of victims.Wiesenthal was very emotional.
“As I followed the box of ashes,” he wrote, “I remembered my family members, my friends and companions, and all those who paid with their lives for one single sin—being born Jewish. I looked at the box, and I saw my mother’s face the way it looked the last time I saw her on that fateful day when I left home in the morning for forced labor outside the ghetto and I did not know that I would not see her when I returned in the evening, nor ever again.”