In Memory of Simon Wiesenthal, who passed away this week at age 96.
The death of Simon Wiesenthal brings back many memories. Many years ago, when I served as director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in Los Angeles, being with him was always an experience. He was charismatic and a great raconteur, loved and admired by all. I remember coming out of a restaurant with him on Pico Blvd. one day, and an overwhelmed woman who recognized him stopped her car in the middle of this very busy street to shake his hand.
Another time we were in San Francisco for one of his lectures, and some people sent drinks over to us as we sat in the Mark Hopkins hotel lounge. When we arrived at the college auditorium in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, hundreds of students greeted him as if he were a rock star.
Wiesenthal will be always be remembered as the “permanent representative of the victims, determined to bring the perpetrators” of the Shoah to justice.
He assumed this self-appointed role because no one else wanted it. After the survivors went their separate ways to rebuild their lives, he remained in Europe to hunt Nazis.
With few allies and funds, he relentlessly pursued those who sought to destroy the Jewish people. When I introduced him to my then seven year-old son Ilan, Ilan asked how could such an old man catch so many Nazis. Many people wondered the same thing. When others asked why he hunted Nazis, Wiesenthal responded, “When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.” Revenge was never the issue for him; it was always about justice.
The one area in which we disagreed was the SWC’s initial use of the term 11 million, which is clear distortion of history. Simon believed that non-Jew would not care about six million Jews, unless he added a made-up number of five million non-Jews to the equation. The Jews were singled out because they were seen as a cancer that threatened the physical survival of the German people. This was the first time in history where an entire group – the Jews – every man, woman, and child was intentionally singled out by a state for total destruction. This has never happened before either to Jews or to any other group.
By comparing what happened to the millions of people killed during World War Two with the Jews, we trivialize the importance of this unprecedented and unparalleled event in modern history. When president Jimmy Carter began referring to the eleven million during discussions to build the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., the serious implications of this rewriting of history became even clearer. To his credit, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of SWC intervened and the center stopped using the term as did Wiesenthal.
Wiesenthal always said that he continued his work despite all odds so that when he would be reunited with the Six Million, he could assure them that he had never forgotten them. He never did. “May his soul be bound in the bond of eternal life.”
Dr. Grobman served as director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center during its formative years. He has an MA and Ph.D. in Contemporary Jewish History from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.