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
The burial of the ashes was meant to be only the first stage in a much more ambitious program: Wiesenthal hoped to have a huge structure erected in memory of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, what he called a mausoleum. Before the Nazi occupation of Poland, he had studied architecture, and he designed a memorial site that he proposed should be built in a forest outside Jerusalem, to which the ashes should eventually be moved from Sanhedria. He sketched a kind of platform paved with marble, topped with two menacing towers, an exact replica of the gate of the Mauthausen camp, and a stone dome over a round memorial hall with a black floor. This was the first time he tackled what was to become a vast enterprise. He radiated resourcefulness, self-confidence, and conviction. He was already revealing his innate skill at public relations. Before leaving for Israel he had sent the design for the mausoleum to a large number of Jewish organizations and individuals in various countries. The project was also meant to mark the closing of the Jewish displaced persons’ camps in Austria, and the migration of their inmates to Israel. He received many pledges of help. When he sent a copy of the plan to Ben-Gurion in April 1952, he asserted: “We can raise the sum of money needed for this within two years.” The prime minister’s office informed him politely that it had conveyed his proposal to Yad Vashem. Wiesenthal did not demand to be appointed the architect of the project, but probably assumed that he would be. If his proposal had been accepted, he might have settled in Israel and practiced architecture, instead of remaining in Austria.
Ohel Yizkor—the Tabernacle of Remembrance, which would eventually be built at the Yad Vashem complex in Jerusalem—resembles the memorial hall that Wiesenthal had sketched. Some of the ash that he had brought was later transferred from Sanhedria to Ohel Yizkor, but he was not given a role in its design, and he never returned to architecture.The drama of Simon Wiesenthal’s life is stored in hundreds of files containing some 300,000 pieces of paper: letters he received and, mainly, copies of letters he wrote in his sixty years of work as a “Nazi hunter.” The first file begins in 1945, when he was a walking skeleton, weighing ninety-seven pounds, who had just left Mauthausen with no hope and no future. About sixty feet down on the same shelf, there’s a file from the 1980s, containing the following handwritten note: “Darling Simon, Take good care of yourself and stay happy. I love you and we all need you, Elizabeth Taylor.”
A tireless warrior against evil and a central figure in the struggle for human rights, Wiesenthal enjoyed worldwide admiration. Hollywood adopted him as a cultural hero, as did the scores of universities that awarded him honorary degrees. American presidents hosted him in the White House. Wiesenthal relished every moment of acclaim, but when he said that President Jimmy Carter needed him more than he needed Carter, he was right. One of the officials of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles observed that if he had not existed, Wiesenthal would have had to be invented, because people all over the world, both Jews and gentiles, needed him as an emblem and a source of hope.He sparked their imaginations, he enchanted them, thrilled them, and frightened them, weighed on their consciences, and granted them a consoling faith in good. A lone Jew, he had taken it upon himself to make sure that even the last of the Nazis would not die free, or at least free of anxiety, because he, the Jew Wiesenthal, would hunt him down and do his very best to have him brought to trial and punished. And justice would prevail.A quixotic romantic with a James Bond image and a soaring ego, a tendency to fantasize, and a penchant for crude jokes in Yiddish, he was a brave man who launched some breathtaking ventures. But contrary to the myth he spun around himself, he never operated a worldwide dragnet, but worked almost on his own from a small apartment, surrounded by high piles of old newspapers and yellowing index cards. This was the Documentation Center that he established in Vienna, not far from where the Nazis had set up the headquarters of the Gestapo secret police in the luxurious Hotel Metropol. On one of the walls of his office hung a large map of Europe, with the names of all the hundreds of Nazi death and concentration camps on it; Wiesenthal himself had been held in some of them. He used historical documents, municipal population registries, and even telephone books in order to gather personal details about Nazi criminals and information about their possible whereabouts.
This was his life’s goal. Sometimes he would go out on small detective missions, extracting leads from talkative neighbors or barmen, mailmen, waiters, and barbers. An acquaintance compared him to Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective in The Pink Panther. His faith in the liberal system of justice and in America, combined with his communication skills, made him very much a man of the twentieth century. The concept of Holocaust commemoration that he developed was a broad, humanistic one. In contrast to the memorializing of only the Nazis’ Jewish victims fostered in Israel and by the Jewish establishment in the United States, Wiesenthal tended to view the murder of the Jews as a crime against the whole of humanity, and he tied it in with the atrocities committed by the Nazis against other groups, such as incurable invalids, Gypsies, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his eyes, the Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but a human one.