The Life and Legends: Simon Wiesenthal
The Glass Box:
The horror enveloping the city’s Great Synagogue was almost unbearable, and hysterical shrieks rose from people crowding around the building. The newspapers reported that there were tens of thousands present and described heartbreaking scenes. There were cries of “Mama! Papa!” and many fainted. Small children were also to be seen.In the main hall of the synagogue stood a glass box, five feet long. In it were thirty porcelain urns, painted with blue and white stripes. According to the newspapers, they contained the ashes of 200,000 Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. The mayor was there, as well as other dignitaries and rabbis. Speeches were made and prayers intoned, and then the glass box was loaded onto a police vehicle, to be carried through some of the city’s streets; the vehicle had trouble making its way through the crowds.
Along the route that the box traveled, people closed their shops and workshops and lined the sidewalks, watching the procession in silent awe. The first stop on the route was Rehovot, where President Chaim Weizmann had his home. Classes were canceled in the town’s schools, and the students were sent to see the box. Weizmann, aged and frail and almost blind, said a few words. Then the box was taken to Jerusalem, and at the entrance to the city there were once again thousands, waiting and weeping. Some of them brought bars of soap. They mistakenly believed that the soap had been made out of the bodies of Jews and wanted to bury it with the glass box, in the soil of the ancient cemetery of Sanhedria, among graves that had been hewn out of rock two thousand years before.
The man who organized this historic spectacle was Simon Wiesenthal, then forty-one years old. From the day he was released from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria he had lived in the nearby city of Linz and occupied himself with searching out Nazi war criminals. The ashes of the dead had been collected at his initiative at concentration camps and other detention sites across Austria.
“The glass box,” he wrote later, “had suddenly become a kind of looking-glass, in which the faces of many, many were reflected—friends from the ghetto, companions from the concentration camps, people who had been beaten to death, died of starvation, been hounded into the electrified fence. I could see the panicked faces of Jews who were whipped and clubbed into the gas chambers, chased from behind by human animals devoid of conscience or feelings, who would not hear their lone plea: to let them live.”
By then Wiesenthal already knew several Israelis, but not many Israelis knew him. The mayor of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Rokach, for one, didn’t know who he was when Wiesenthal first contacted him, in Yiddish, a few months before. But Rokach seems to have been impressed by Wiesenthal’s assertive style. It was more like an order than a query, request, or suggestion: the Association of Former Concentration Camp Inmates in Austria had decided to transfer the ashes of the martyrs to Israel and to honor the city of Tel Aviv by making it the recipient, Wiesenthal wrote. There was no way to refuse, and Rokach replied that Tel Aviv would accept the urns with a “tremor of sanctity,” although he had no idea what to do with them. The annihilation of the Jews haunted many of the inhabitants of Israel.
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.