2016-06-30
After surviving the Holocaust, the late Simon Wiesenthal, who died on Sept. 20, 2005, at 96, devoted his life to tracking down Nazis and documenting their crimes. Shortly after Wiesenthal's death, Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan spoke with law professor and novelist Thane Rosenbaum, author of "The Myth of Moral Justice," about Wiesenthal's legacy and what moral obligations exist for victims and wrongdoers.

You are the child of Holocaust survivors. What were you taught about Simon Wiesenthal growing up?

There were two kinds of perspectives in the survivor community. And those who very much celebrated Wiesenthal were those who mostly thought of themselves as survivors. Survival itself is a kind of retribution for the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews. Wiesenthal--and of course the nationhood of Israel--represented a post-Holocaust mindset of a kind of what I would call the "never again" philosophy. Wiesenthal stood for the concept of never again. Everything about the idea of the Nazi-hunter and bringing Nazis to justice in an era when Nazis were in hiding and then the world didn't care [about finding them] anymore, represented that kind of retributive philosophy, that Jews will never forget and it will never happen again.

My family really didn't fall into that category so much. There was much more of a sense of loss and lamentation about what was lost. I think the people who were big followers of Wiesenthal were the very people who had thought in a much more forward-looking way. I think my family just never got past the magnitude of the loss.


Was it surprising to your parents that there was a survivor like Wiesenthal who was so willing to take an active role in bringing the Nazis to justice?

It didn't surprise my parents that there were Nazi-hunters--not only Wiesenthal, but also Serge and Beate Klarsfeld in France. There was also the [Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad, which in its own covert way had dedicated itself to bringing Nazis to justice.

In American consciousness, Wiesenthal came to embody the "Nazi-hunter" role. But did his persistence in bringing Nazis to justice through the decades make people uncomfortable?

I think the "Nazi-hunter" label is itself a misnomer. Wiesenthal didn't actually capture anybody. He wasn't really a Nazi-hunter; he was a Nazi documenter. And that's a very big difference. He was a first-rate, meticulous, fastidious chronicler of historical documentation. He founded the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. The real hunting element in his work was the hunting for information and documents. It's really important to make that distinction, because for us as Americans, "Nazi-hunter" is such a classic "Rambo" image fostered by Hollywood. In the United States, we have the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigation, technically the Nazi-hunting arm of the government. But they just deport Nazis; they don't even prosecute them for crimes.

When we think of Wiesenthal's hunting for information, his persistence, and the meticulousness of gathering of evidence, that's where he was extraordinary. He was dogged in his obsession to find as much as possible to track [Nazis] down. And then he alerted the Israelis or alerted the U.S. government to the whereabouts of these people.

In some cases he was accused of embellishing [his success], especially with respect to [the Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef] Mengele, who may have died years before. He continued to manufacture new sightings of Mengele, and many people assumed that that was because it was a great way to raise money for the Jewish Documentation Center. Every time he reported new leads on Mengele, he could expect that more people would contribute to his efforts. Similarly, he exaggerated his role in the tracking down of [Third Reich official and S.S. Obersturmbannführer] Adolf Eichmann. I think it's pretty clear that early on, he tipped off the Israelis [about Eichmann's whereabouts]. But the work was really done by the Mossad.

He wasn't involved in the planning phases like a true hunter. So I think that what's really important about him is not to inflate the physical prowess or the wily, clever hunting dimension. It's really to say that here was a guy who dedicated his life to a certain kind of moral truth. And the way he preserved that truth was to create a documentation center and to create an incredible Rolodex of people who were constantly on the lookout for information about a hit-list of all the Nazis who had escaped prosecution [at the war-crimes tribunals] in Nuremberg.

There were hundreds [of Nazis] out there. And he kept track of all of them. Photographs, fingerprints, last whereabouts, trying to find out what their friends knew, trying to find out basically by having people talk to their friends, find out where so and so was. It was not just a matter of even bringing people to justice, which was clearly the goal. But making them know that they can't rest easy because there was this man who was constantly watching and alert for any lead, any tip. While the rest of the world was moving on--to the Cold War, radical student politics in the 60's, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, the hostage taking in Iran, all the things that the world focused on--this guy was singularly focused on one thing: Where are the Nazis now and how could we track them down and still bring some level of justice?

Architect of memory
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  • You've written a book, `The Myth of Moral Justice,' about moral justice as opposed to narrowly defined legal justice. Wiesenthal, even among people who didn't so much know the specifics of his "Nazi-hunting" work, was renowned for his memoir, "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness." In it, Wiesenthal tells the story of being called to the bedside of a Nazi and his refusal to exonerate him for his crimes, to absolve him if his guilt. How do you understand what he did in terms of notions of forgiveness within Judaism or Christianity or other religious traditions?

    My book is a moral critique of the legal system precisely because of its narrowness. It is looking in many ways for what I would describe as Wiesenthal's standard of justice. I reject purely retributive legal justice: You've lost money, it must be remedied by receiving compensation in a monetary way. If a crime has been committed, somebody must be punished, whether by putting him in jail, or killing him. That's a very narrow sense of how to relieve people of damages that were done to them. To give them remedies, or to do what's legally called justice. That's different from the sense of doing what's just.

    Wiesenthal was interested in something wider than the purely retributive. It's also about truth. We need to know what happened. Nuremberg in many ways is an example of moral justice. Many people don't remember that Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who was the Secretary of Treasury during World War II, believed that if you see a Nazi you kill a Nazi. That that was most efficient way and the most legally correct way, given the enormity of the crime. You see a Nazi, you hang him from the closest tree.

    That was the original thinking in the aftermath of the war. What ultimately prevailed was [the perspective that emerged from the war-crimes tribunals at] Nuremberg. The legacy of Nuremberg was that justice required that the community witness and participate, that testimony is taken, that you hear the witnesses, the testimonies of survivors, that you hear the testimony of the perpetrator, that you assemble all of the documents and all the documentation and the film footage, that you keep a historical record. Because truth is the ultimate imperative of what's just. You have to know what happened, and why it happened, and who ultimately bears responsibility.


    And if you hang people from a tree or shoot them in the head, you don't know that. That's what's called historical justice. That's why I am saying it's a mistake to focus on the hunting of people. It seems to me that it's better, it's a more accurate sense to understand Wiesenthal's quest as ultimately moral: We are keeping tabs on you and we want to make an accurate historical record, for now and for the future, of what happened.

    That is a very Jewish idea.

    Exactly. Another Jewish idea is repair, tikkun, which goes back to the question of forgiveness and the opportunity for confrontation. If you get shot in the head there's no potential for confrontation. The ability to speak to what has happened, to speak to the people, the perpetrators, to say, "This is what you did to me, or to our people, or to us." And if necessary hear what they have to say. And when you shoot someone in the head you lose that opportunity.

    Do you think that this idea of relentless pursuit of the wrong-doer was incomprehensible to some Christians, for whom turning the other check is the paradigm?

    Yes, I think that the lessons of the Holocaust are very confusing [from the perspective of] Christian theology, which focuses on the redemptive quality of suffering, that suffering is good. As Terrence Des Pres reminded everyone in his book "The Survivor," it's very confusing to Christians because in fact the survivor of the Holocaust knows that suffering at this level is senseless. It's not human, this is not what you mean by suffering as being good. And under such circumstances, turning the other cheek--forgiveness--is never morally necessary. Apologies, however, are morally necessary.

    The Germans suffer with this now; no nation has ever been in a greater state of moral scrutiny and inquiry than the Germans. And they wonder whether they ever will be forgiven, as if that is somehow obligatory after 60-some years of both contrition and acknowledgement and apologies. The answer to that is that the acknowledgments, the contrition, and the apologies are all morally necessary. But forgiveness is not obligatory. It strikes me that it cheapens the apology if you have to be forgiven. It seems to me that it's a very narcissistic thing

    Crimes beyond forgiveness
    Read more on page 3 >>


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  • In Judaism's high holiday season, Jews are required to seek to rectify their dealings with other people.

    That's different from needing to be forgiven. It strikes me as a different idea. Repair, yes--apologies, acknowledgements, repair. Undertaking moral gestures of repair. Yes, during the Days of Awe [from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur], that is a morally obligatory stance. We must say to the person we've harmed, "This is what I've done. I have tremendous remorse about it. I seek awareness of it. I wan to acknowledge it as often as it's necessary for you. And I want to undertake whatever meaningful gestures of repair will make it better for you." That's morally necessary.

    The next step that says "And in return I would like you to forgive me"? To me, that's crap. You don't have to have that step. That is at the discretion of the person who has been harmed. He can do it if he likes. It would be nice, and that's his own spiritual journey. The person who has the power to forgive, that's his decision.

    You gave me an example that Wiesenthal didn't feel competent or willing to forgive the Nazi. And my response to that is: That's his prerogative. I don't look at that as a failing, that this guy would not forgive. I think it's not his place to forgive the crimes of the Nazis. There were six million Jews and five million others who were killed, and nobody has the right to forgive collectively when you're talking about millions of innocents murdered.


    For example, no one has the moral right to forgive Al Qaeda if they came forward tomorrow and said we are very sorry, please forgive us [for the 9/11 attacks]. I don't think the widow of a bond trader or a fireman has the right to issue forgiveness, nor would they.

    The common-sense idea around the word "reconciliation" in such contexts as a justice and reconciliation commission usually connotes healing. And I guess implicit in that is the idea that the breaches are healed. But without forgiveness, of course, the offending party continues to stand in an almost impossible tension of perpetual guilt. So I guess that's part of the dynamic that drives people to expect absolution.

    It doesn't work. Desmond Tutu wrote a book, "No Future Without Forgiveness," in which he lamented the fact that the truth and reconciliation commissions of South Africa did not result in forgiveness. He felt very strongly that that was a failing. I respectfully disagree. I don't think that reconciliation means forgiveness.

    The human-rights professor in me says that reconciliation means giving people the opportunity to reconcile themselves to the past in order to move forward. They've received some level of repair, as much repair as possible in order to move forward. And again, forgiveness is at the discretion of the victim to give back to the perpetrator.

    You can have repair and reconciliation without forgiveness. The victim can feel reconciled, as healed as possible, without having to forgive. It's important to think of it in these terms: The power to forgive is owned by the victim, it's discretionary. I for one don't think that it should be a bartered transaction. Here's what I'll do and in return, you'll promise to forgive me. It's undignified for the perpetrator to expect it as a reward for apologizing and acknowledging guilt. You should apologize and acknowledge what you've done independent of forgiveness. This is in conflict with Christian teaching.

    Christians have characterized Jews as stubborn or stiff-necked, and I wonder, in terms of popular Christian consciousness, if Wiesenthal represented this ugly stereotype.

    I think it's important to always remember the Holocaust. It was an extraordinary event. The enormity of it falls outside the category of other crimes. So you can't say, a Holocaust survivor devotes his life to bringing Nazis to justice, but he refuses to forgive them, therefore he reinforces the stereotype of the stiff-necked Jew.

    Was there a difference of opinion between Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel about whether the Holocaust was in fact unique?

    Wiesenthal objected to the use of the word "holocaust," because he didn't like thinking about Jewish deaths within that particular term. He preferred "crimes against humanity" as defined at Nuremburg. That crime can be perpetrated against all people and races, and there was no reason to set the Jewish genocide apart. Elie Wiesel was able, I think quite correctly, to see the Holocaust in its uniqueness even apart from other genocides.

    It's wrong to think in classic terms of suffering, forgiveness, and redemption when you're talking about the Holocaust. Especially during the Days of Awe, the holidays, Jews think in terms of suffering, harm, and forgiveness. Those words really only apply in terms of ordinary human conduct. When people say, should we apply them in times of extremity, the answer is no. I think they're misapplied.

    For example, "hunger" is misapplied when you're talking about people in the camps, in Auschwitz. Because "I'm hungry" is what people say when they're going to get lunch. These are words that we use everyday.

    If Osama bin Laden were to apologize tomorrow [for 9/11], is it our obligation to forgive him? I don't think people are obligated to do that. Forgiveness and apology are not tradeable-it's not an obligatory exchange. Particularly in instances of extremity, when you're talking about the magnitude of the Nazi crimes, it's nonsensical to say it's incumbent upon Jews to forgive.

    On a number of occasions, Elie Wiesel said, I just don't feel capable of issuing an apology on behalf of the millions of people [killed by the Nazis]. It is not obligatory, it is discretionary. You don't have to forgive [the person who commits a heinous act].

    The Nazis who are still living are very old. Should there be some kind of statute of limitation on their pursuit?

    In my classes I talk about that as the avuncular old man view of the Nazis. Mass murderers tend to grow cute in old age. They don't look sinister when they're in their eighties. So the idea of looking at this purely in a literal way, to say, "He's old, what good would it do, let the past be the past"-even if it's true in a legal sense, I don't think there should be a statute of limitations on anything. I think that the truth is morally necessary in all instances, not just in instances of mass murder. The truth should never be time-bound, our search for it should never be prevented because of the passage of time. We owe it to history-it's what we call historical justice.

    So to think of these "poor old men" misses the point. It's not about the poor old man anymore. What matters is what he did, not what he is today. What he did to people who are not here today-the ghosts, the spirits, deserve justice, history deserves justice. All of us need to know what happened and how it happened, who stood by watching and who was indifferent. To find out as much of the story for the memory of the souls who died.

    If you were teaching your child about the importance of Simon Wiesenthal, what would you say?

    One lesson is that there is something about the forces of history that is very romantic, and it transforms people. Primo Levi [the Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in memoirs, poetry, and fiction] was a chemist, Wiesel would have been a rabbi. Wiesenthal was an architect.

    It's important to remember that history transforms people. Here is a guy [Wiesenthal] who, rather than building buildings, builds an archive, a record. It's a very romantic idea: Instead of being a builder, he built a tree of memory, keeping track, keeping a sense of watchfulness, making Nazis uneasy at night, knowing that some people out there were tracking them. And the reason for that is that the truth matters, and that the truth wins out at the end. That is what I have taught my daughter: even if you don't succeed today or tomorrow, or even if you ultimately die in the process, you have an obligation to seek the truth.

    Americans are very process driven, and result driven: Did he get results? What's important here [in assessing Wiesenthal's legacy] is the fidelity.

    It's a biblical prophetic model-to seek truth when others lose interest or get distracted.

    Exactly. He was indefatigable. He must have known that he would not succeed but he did it anyway. That's a profound idea. He must have known that in raw numbers, he would not succeed. The vast majority of Nazis went on to live their lives in Latin America and elsewhere. And he persisted anyway, and that was a moral act. It was a Sisyphean struggle: he had a moral obligation to undertake a struggle he knew would fail. That is an enormous lesson to kids about doing the right thing even when you know you might not succeed in the end.

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