Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2005 / 23 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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The Nazi hunter

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Perhaps the most striking thing about Simon Wiesenthal's death is that it should have come at such an advanced age, 96, and from natural causes. Because for decades, first as inmate of a concentration camp and then as a single-minded Nazi hunter, he had faced death, death threats and little but the ever-presence of death. He lived with it night and day, on weekends, and doubtless in his dreams. Or rather nightmares.

With such a history and with such an obsession, of course the man would become half-mad. Yet stay sane enough to chase down the murderers among us —to the ends of the earth.

Simon Wiesenthal loved the image of himself as nothing but a harmless old man holed up in his office in Vienna with a bunch of musty records, no real threat to anyone.

Just some old guy who couldn't let go of the past. It was the perfect disguise. A long list of Nazi fugitives found him to be anything but harmless. Even if the lists he compiled may not have been as complete as he claimed. And even if he overlooked a suspect here and there.

For example, the famed Nazi hunter gave his fellow Austrian, Kurt Waldheim, a clean bill of health —until the U.N. secretary-general's real past was uncovered, flecked with the blood of the innocent. To quote the circumspect obit writer for The New York Times, Simon Wiesenthal's record was "checkered."

When it came to Herr Dr. Waldheim, the old Nazi hunter had come up with a false negative. Like many another man obsessed, he could see what others could not, yet overlook what they could find.

One thing he could not see was the good of living just for the sake of life —instead of being endlessly immersed in death and retribution for it.

The familiar picture of Simon Wiesenthal is that of a hunched-over old man with a clipped moustache peering through the records of extermination camps. He once compiled a catalog of the goods shipped from the extermination camp at Treblinka to Berlin between October of 1942 and August of 1943: "Twenty-five freight cars of women's hair, 248 freight cars of clothing, 100 freight cars of shoes," plus 400,000 gold watches, 320,000 pounds of gold wedding rings and 4,000 carats of diamonds "over two carats."

Is it any wonder the man was not like you and me? Imagine spending a lifetime chronicling such things, and tracking down the perps. Imagine what such a life would produce, and you have Simon Wiesenthal.

But there is another picture of Simon Wiesenthal, one taken in 1923 when he was about 15. The son of an Austrian army officer who was killed in action in the First World War, young Wiesenthal is shown with the Boy Scout troop he led. He, the Scouts, the world looked perfectly normal then.

After the Holocaust, there were those who thought the best memorial the survivors could erect to the dead was to revive that world, the world of youth and marriage and family and Boy Scout troops. And they chose to live in that world, the world of the normal, the wholesome, and the ordinary goodness of life.

But Simon Wiesenthal couldn't and wouldn't go back to what was. He wasn't about to rest till he tracked down every one of those responsible for ending that normal world for millions. That was his response to the unimaginable, or at least to what had been unimaginable in 1923.

The range of human responses to historical trauma is immense, and Simon Wiesenthal represented one mad yet also satisfying end of the spectrum. Was it justice he sought, or vengeance, and where is the line?

If we would not choose his life for ourselves, or even if we think his choice mad or wrong, there is something within all of us —call it a lust for justice —that is glad he chose his way to deal with evil, even with all the controversies and doubts he stirred. For there is no justice without a prosecutor.

And prosecutor he was, as well as sleepless sleuth and hound of heaven —or maybe hell. Even now it strains credulity to speak of him as resting in peace. For even if the old man had a passport to paradise in the pocket of his trench coat, surely he would head elsewhere —straight down to the lowest levels of hell to make another arrest.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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