Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal Dead At 96.

Legendary Holocaust survivor/Nazi war crimes hunter Simon Wiesenthal died today at his home in Vienna, Austria at the age of 96. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

VIENNA, Austria - The concentration camp guards stood with their rifles ready, awaiting the order to fire at Simon Wiesenthal and other prisoners standing along the edge of a pit where their bodies would topple. The future Nazi hunter waited to die. And waited.

Hours later, after many of the condemned slumped in exhaustion, the camp commandant strolled to the line and delivered a reprieve: Soviet troops were coming and the prisoners would be taken away.

"We thought we were going mad," Wiesenthal wrote after World War II. "Perhaps we feared (or hoped) we were mad already."

Wiesenthal, who died Tuesday in his sleep at his Vienna home at age 96, was driven by his memories of the Holocaust to fight for justice for its victims, dedicating himself to tracking down Nazi war criminals and to being a voice for the 6 million Jews who perished.

"I think he'll be remembered as the conscience of the Holocaust. In a way he became the permanent representative of the victims of the Holocaust, determined to bring the perpetrators of the greatest crime to justice," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Wiesenthal lost 89 relatives during the war. He survived five Nazi concentration camps and seven other prisons, weighing just 99 pounds when a U.S. Army armored unit liberated him and other inmates at Mauthausen in May 1945.

Enlisted by the Americans to research war criminals, the architect pursued the mission long after Allied forces lost interest.

Wiesenthal spent more than 50 years hunting Nazi war criminals, speaking out against neo-Nazism and racism, and remembering the Jewish experience as a lesson for humanity. He estimated he helped bring some 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice.

"When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren't able to kill millions of people and get away with it," he once said.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav praised Wiesenthal as the "biggest fighter" of his generation. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl noted the Nazi hunter personally "felt the shadow of history in its brutality."

Wiesenthal was first sent to a concentration camp in 1941, outside Lviv in what is now Ukraine. In October 1943, he escaped from the Ostbahn camp just before the Germans began killing all the inmates. He was recaptured in June 1944 and sent to Janwska, but escaped death when his SS guards retreated with the prisoners to escape Soviet troops.

Wiesenthal's quest began when he was freed by the Americans. He said he realized "there is no freedom without justice," and decided to dedicate "a few years" to that mission. "It became decades," he said.

Full Story

I heard this story on National Public Radio on my way home from work this afternoon. I'm far too young to have experienced any of the horrors that Mr. Wiesenthal endured, so anything I have to say is all but meaningless. I do know this: Simon Wiesenthal was a genuine hero. He survived the ordeal of the Nazi concentration camps, and made it his life's mission to capture and punish those who carried out these horrible acts. His tenacity and focus was intense as it sometimes took decades for many of the criminals he caught to face justice.

Wiesenthal's most famous target was SS leader Adolf Eichmann, whom he helped capture, with the assistance of Israeli agents, in 1960 to rid the world of that monster. In closing this post, I hope, for the sake of us all, that we have learned the lessons of history, and that there is never again a need for a man such as Simon Wiesenthal to take on such a grim task.

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