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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Then I caught the desperate eye of one of the girls. ‘Don’t forget us,’ is what that look said to me.” On another occasion, he said, he imagined meeting with the victims in heaven, and he was determined to say only four words, “I didn’t forget you,” the phrase that became his personal motto. More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life. Ironically, the more years went by and the more unlikely it became that the surviving Nazi criminals would be brought to justice, the more the Holocaust became a universal synonym for evil, a warning sign for every nation and every person. This happened, to a large extent, thanks to the efforts of Simon Wiesenthal. Nobody did more than he did in this respect. But even at the height of his fame as a “Nazi hunter” and as a humanist authority, he remained a lonely man, haunted throughout his adult life by memories of the horror. He was a tragic hero, always cloaked in the mysteries of his life; it is no easy task to decipher his secrets. As he walked behind the glass box in Jerusalem, Wiesenthal thought not only about the murdered millions, but also about the murderers: “I was reminded of Eichmann,” he wrote later. “That it was possible that the following day he would read in the newspaper about the ceremony and that a smile of satisfaction would come to his lips. . . . In my mind’s eye, I foresaw the day when my silent prayer would be heard, the day on which the murderer of my people would be taken to the land of the Hebrews. I swore that I would not remain silent and I would not rest until that longed-for day came.” This was a statement that was both true and untrue, like much of what Wiesenthal wrote.

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Excerpted from Simon Wiesenthal by Tom Segev. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Segev, Translation copyright © Ronnie Hope. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Related Topics: Books, Holocaust Memory, Israel

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