The enormity of the crime defies comprehension. In all the long sordid history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Holocaust stands out as the most barbaric.
Fortunately, in the 60-plus years since it began, Germany’s descent into madness has been well documented and universally condemned. With the passage of so many years, however, there is a tendency to lose sight of what those numbers mean. The term Holocaust is used so often to describe other events that much of its original impact is gone, and the statistic of “6 million” has been repeated so often that it is no longer really heard.
As this issue of World War II Magazine was being finished, one of those who dedicated his life to ensuring that the Holocaust remained in the forefront of the world’s consciousness died at his home in Vienna, Austria, on September 20, 2005. Simon Wiesenthal was 96 years old.
Born in December 1908 in the Ukrainian village of Buczacz, Wiesenthal survived imprisonment by both the Russians and the Germans. When he was finally liberated in May 1945, he had survived 12 different camps. Eighty-nine of his family members had not been so lucky.
Wiesenthal’s first job after the war was working for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army, where he helped compile evidence of Nazi crimes. When his time with the commission ended, with 30 others he opened the Jewish Historical Documentation Center to continue his work on war criminals. By 1954 the world was more concerned with the Cold War confrontation between Russia and the West, however, and the office was closed down.
With the Documentation Center closed, many expected Wiesenthal to put the war behind him and to pursue a more conventional career as many of his former associates were doing. Haunted by his experiences, Wiesenthal instead set about searching for Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi criminal who had worked most closely with Reinhard Heydrich in planning and implementing the “Final Solution.” Largely through Wiesenthal’s efforts, Eichmann was discovered living in Argentina in 1960. He was smuggled out of the country and stood trial in an Israeli court. Convicted of crimes against humanity, Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962. Wiesenthal’s success in hunting down Eichmann inspired him to reopen the Documentation Center and to search out other war criminals. Prior to his death, his center had a hand in bringing more than 1,100 persons involved to justice, including the officer who had arrested diarist Anne Frank and the former commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor.
“When the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he remained behind to remember,” Rabbi Marvin Hier said. “He became the permanent representative of the victims…. There was no press conference and no president or prime minister or world leader announced his appointment. He just took the job. It was a job no one else wanted.”
Over the years, there have been some who criticized Wiesenthal; they complained about his methods, the attention he received and his sometimes frustrating lack of precision in calculating the number of Holocaust victims. It should never be forgotten, however, that he was among the first to take up the cause of those who had been murdered and that until the end of his life he remained among the most tireless in working to ensure that those responsible for the worst crime in human history were brought to justice.
Now, 60 years from the war’s end, it would be easy to assume that there are no longer any former Nazis left to track down. According to records maintained by the German government, however, more than 90,000 people have never been tried for their crimes.
The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies is scheduled to be in full operation in 2008. While it will be among the many institutions involved in remembering the Holocaust, its most important purpose will be to continue its namesake’s lifelong pursuit of justice.
In the last paragraph of his memoirs, Wiesenthal remembered the admonishment of one of his SS tormentors: “You would tell the truth to the people in America. That’s right. And you know what would happen, Wiesenthal? They wouldn’t believe you. They’d say you were mad. Might even put you into an asylum. How can anyone believe this terrible business— unless you have lived through it.” Thanks to men like Simon Wiesenthal, the terrible business of the Holocaust will never be forgotten.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.