Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal, R.I.P.

An old soldier has gone to rest. He wore no uniform save a prisoner's smock, but he spent a lifetime waging a war against the past.

Simon Wiesenthal was the most famous of the Nazi hunters, the men and women who tracked down the remnants of Hitler's regime after the fall of Berlin in 1945.

A survivor of the Nazi death camps, he claimed to have brought over a thousand Nazis to justice over a 50-year career. The best known of these was former SS chief Adolf Eichmann, who was captured tried, and executed in 1960. He also helped track down and capture Karl Silberbauer, the Austrian policeman who arrested Anne Frank and sent her to her ultimate doom.

Wiesenthal said he went after Silberbauer because a youth told him he didn't believe Anne Frank existed. This is an example of the second component of Wiesenthal's mission: to confront and rebut those who said (and who continue to say) that the Holocaust never happened. For the rest of the century, he spoke out about the concentration camps and the pogroms against the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe, both as a way of explaining his mission and to ensure that people never forgot the 6 million. It was this second component -- the battle for remembrance -- that stretched Wiesenthal's war from a few years to a neverending struggle.

His work afflicted not only the Nazis he chased, but the governments that came after Hitler's downfall. Austria, especially, had a hard time admitting its role in the Holocaust, and would have preferred to have buried its past -- if not for Wiesenthal. It was only after Wiesenthal found no links between Austrian president Kurt Waldheim (who had been in the Nazi army during World War II) and anti-Semetic atrocities that Austria learned to respect him and his war.

He was 96 when he passed away today in Vienna, an old soldier finally gone to rest. But as long as civilized people are tempted to forget that they can do the worst atrocities, his war will go on.