H e was controversial, and he was not always right. Sometimes he displayed an ego as large as the cause he took on.
However, Simon Wiesenthal, who died Tuesday in Vienna at the age of 96, probably did more to prevent people from forgetting the Holocaust perpetrated on European Jewry by the Nazi regime in Germany than any single individual.
There were mass murder campaigns against members of a particular ethnic group before World War II. They have occurred since.
Given the fallen nature of humankind and the temptations of political power combined with zealotry and hate, we have probably not seen the end of such inhumanity.
However, the Nazi campaign against the Jews during Hitler’s time in power was truly a crime of unparalleled proportions. It is to no small degree because of Simon Wiesenthal’s untiring efforts that people in America and beyond still remember it with such immediacy and horror.
Born in 1908 to a prosperous Jewish family in what is now Ukraine, Wiesenthal earned a civil engineering degree in Prague in 1932 and worked as an architect in Lvov, Ukraine. However, his family was soon torn asunder by the prelude to World War II.
With the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact dividing Poland between the two murderous dictatorships, Ukraine was occupied by the Russians who began a purge of Jews and “bourgeois elements,” including a number of Wiesenthal relatives.
When the Nazis took over in 1941 he and his wife narrowly escaped being killed, but they were sent to a forced-labor camp. During the war he served in five concentration camps.
Having survived (as did his wife, who died in 2003), he vowed that those who had been exterminated should never be forgotten.
He was also determined to bring to justice as many of those who perpetrated the Holocaust as possible. After working with U.S. occupation forces during the war-crimes trials, he organized the Jewish Documentation Center in Linz, Austria.
Eventually he was instrumental in some 1,100 Nazi war criminals being brought to trial, the most prominent being Adolf Eichmann, the almost-inconspicuous technocrat who organized Hitler’s “final solution.”
Some say he took too much credit for capturing Eichmann in Argentina in 1961.
Sometimes, as in the case of Frank Walus of Chicago, he was too eager to pursue a person who turned out not to be a war criminal. And he clashed with other Jewish groups when he decided that Austrian chancellor and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, while he had served under the Nazis and lied about it, was not a war criminal.
Simon Wiesenthal’s crusade to make sure the world did not forget did not prevent a holocaust in Cambodia in the 1970s, genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s or a host of other outrages.
Human hatred and the willingness to use political power in its service may never die. However, Simon Wiesenthal helped us to understand how evil this lethal combination is, and for that he deserves gratitude.