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.

Wiesenthal’s broad humanity was anchored in the story of his life. He always lived within more than one sphere of identity. He was born in a Jewish shtetl and until his dying day he defined himself first and foremost as a Jew. But he grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and chose to live in Austria, which he saw as his cultural and political homeland. He kept one foot within the Israeli sphere, too; he looked upon Israel as a second homeland. And with the passage of time he developed a deep sense of identity with America. Living within different circles of identity gave him a certain cosmopolitan openness.On more than one occasion he had to show great courage. One of the rooms in his office housed hundreds of files containing threatening letters and anti-Semitic abuse that he received. Wiesenthal marked these files with the letter m for meshuganers—lunatics, in Yiddish. Once a letter addressed to “The Jew Pig, Austria” was delivered to his office. Wiesenthal phoned the posts minister to ask how they knew that it was meant for him. But they knew, always. Nonetheless, Wiesenthal chose to live in Austria and to tie his life and fate to that country. It is not easy to explain why he did so.In 1953 Wiesenthal discovered and reported to the Israeli authorities that Adolf Eichmann, one of the main Nazi criminals, was hiding in Argentina. Seven years later, Israel sent its agents to Buenos Aires to seize Eichmann and bring him to Jerusalem. He was put on trial, convicted, and executed. Wiesenthal’s role in the affair gave him a heroic aura, as if he had captured Eichmann single-handedly. Some Israelis never forgave him for this,
and one of them compared him to a hitchhiker who took over the driver’s seat. Others likened him to the legendary liar Baron Munchhausen. Actually, Wiesenthal worked for years in the service of Israel’s secret intelligence agency, the Mossad.

He was involved in efforts to locate and prosecute hundreds of Nazi criminals, and assisted in the conviction of dozens. His endeavors were remarkable, especially in view of the fact that after the defeat of the Third Reich, most of those involved in Nazi atrocities had gone unpunished. They had integrated themselves into the lives of their communities in Germany and Austria and other countries and were not called upon to answer for their crimes. Some of them had done well in politics, in the civil service, in the judiciary, and in the educational and economic systems.

This happened not only because the Germans and the Austrians took an indulgent attitude toward the criminals, but also because of the Cold War. More than once Wiesenthal saw that offenders he had located and wanted to prosecute were employed as secret agents in the service of the United States or other countries and, in at least one case, of Israel. “The Nazis lost the war, but we lost the postwar period,” Wiesenthal used to say.Wiesenthal died in September 2005, at the age of ninety-six. His daughter, Paulinka Kreisberg, was flooded with consolation messages. Beatrix, queen of the Netherlands, and Abdullah, king of Jordan, were among those who wrote, as were Laura and George Bush, as well as presidents and prime ministers, legislators and mayors from all over the world. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution commemorating his life and accomplishments. Someone sent condolences on behalf of Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer.

That may have happened because of the constant and repeated pressure that Wiesenthal had exerted on the city of Berlin until it gave in to him and named a street after Jesse Owens, the black sprinter who defeated Hitler’s athletes in the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin in 1936. From Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote: “The State of Israel, the Jewish people and all of humankind owe a great debt to Simon Wiesenthal who devoted his life to ensuring that the Nazi atrocities will not be repeated and that the murderers will not go unpunished.”But his daughter’s heart was touched most by the private letters she received from innumerable individuals, among them hundreds of members of the “second generation”—the children of survivors, for whom the heritage of the Holocaust was a key part of their identity. Many of those children felt a deep identification with Wiesenthal. Esti Cohen, a native of Israel, wrote to Paulinka Kreisberg, “At the age of six, I used to have shoes ready next to my bed so that if the Nazis came in the night, at least I would have shoes, and not be like my mother in the ‘death march’ from the concentration camps at the end of World War II.” She attached to her letter a photocopy of her Israeli ID card, with a yellow star stuck onto it.Wiesenthal related that once when he was a prisoner at the Janowska concentration camp in Lvov, in Ukraine, he was in a group of inmates ordered to dig a deep ditch. “We knew that soon the ditch would be full of bodies,” he said. “The victims were already being marched up. Women and girls.

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