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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 1
October 2006   

Holocaust studies expert shares his insight on Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal

Jim Mendenhall, 1993)
Simon Wiesenthal at the opening of the Museum of Tolerance, 1993

In the years after World War II, the governments' interest in prosecuting Nazi war criminals faded as the victorious nations found value in former Nazis as repositories of foreign intelligence and scientific knowledge. Unwilling to accept this situation, Simon Wiesenthal launched his career as a one-man Nazi hunter, eventually tracking these individuals down in countries around the world.

On September 19, in Falvey Memorial Library, Mark Weitzman spoke about the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal. Weitzman is the director of the Task Force against Hate and Terrorism, founding director of the New York Tolerance Center and the chief representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the United Nations.

Weitzman has served on the boards of human rights and anti-hate organizations, and he is a recognized expert in the fields of extremism and cyberhate. Furthermore, he has authored scholarly articles and edited books in the fields of Holocaust studies, anti-Semitism and extremism. Weitzman became friends with Wiesenthal through his work at the Center.

Simon Wiesenthal's most notorious “catch” was Adolf Eichmann, the overseer of the Holocaust’s day-to-day operations, who was subsequently tried and executed by Israel. Other Nazis he captured included a woman camp guard living in New York City and the man who arrested Anne Frank.

Wiesenthal made a point of living in Vienna, Austria, to him a place possibly more anti-Semitic than Germany. “To catch a Nazi, you need to go where the Nazis are,” he quipped. While there, he also exposed several former Nazis serving in the highest positions of the Austrian government.

Mark Weitzman

Simon Wiesenthal was born in Poland in 1908 and studied to be an architect. The Soviet and German invasions prevented him from practicing as one, and he spent four years in a series of  Nazi concentration camps, Janowska, Lwow, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald and Mauthausen. However, his artistic training allowed him to create drawings of the inmates, guards and the atrocities he saw while there—some of which he still possessed when he was finally liberated by American soldiers. He offered to assist the United States in hunting Nazi war criminals, submitting his first list by the end of May 1945. This document is now stored in the National Archives.

Wiesenthal did not focus exclusively on the plight of the Jews. At various times in his life he championed the causes of the gypsies, the Cambodians under Pol Pot, Soviet dissidents and the Kurds.

However, he did not seek simple retribution: “Justice, not vengeance” was his motto. During his lifetime, Wiesenthal wrote several books, and Weitzman recommended The Sunflower (1970), in which Wiesenthal wrestles with the story of an SS trooper seeking absolution for the various atrocities he committed.

In the 1970’s, a group of Americans founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center to continue his work.

Weitzman concluded with an overview of his legacy. Wiesenthal kept alive the memory of the Holocaust for the first twenty years after World War II. He challenged the West to live up to its human rights rhetoric within its own borders as much as it demanded these rights from countries behind the Iron Curtain.

Wiesenthal's research showed that the Holocaust victims resisted their fate, undermining the popular “lambs to the slaughter” image. He inspired the United Nations to encourage remembrance of the Holocaust and fight intolerance generally. Finally, Wiesenthal set the precedent for most post-Nuremberg war crimes trials, including the current ones related to the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. Wiesenthal died in Vienna in September 2005.

The Library plans to hold an annual event around the anniversary of Simon Wiesenthal’s death to recognize his achievements and legacy.

Contributed by David Burke, photography by Laura Hutelmyer