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The hunter (and hunted) at rest

By A. M. Siriano
web posted October 3, 2005

After reading that Simon Wiesenthal had died, I decided to ask my teenage daughters if they had heard of him. I knew, of course, what the answer would be: no. I then asked if they had heard of Elie Wiesel, and this time an equally expected answer: yes.

My daughters are good students enrolled in a highly rated public school district, where they get an ample dose of Holocaust-ed (only outdone by Black History month, deemed considerably more important). I am glad of it, but I realized, just this year, that they have been desensitized by overexposure to victimology. This wasn't so 30 years ago. When I first read Wiesel's Night, for example, I remember being in a state of shock and revulsion for days, but when one of my own teenagers read it for summer assignment, she was largely indifferent, as if she had been thumbing through the Sunday comics. That was disheartening, of course, so I asked my children's friends of their own thoughts on the book and on the Holocaust. The collective answer was, "We don't think about it, really. The teachers shove it down our throats and we're really sick of it."

That should make us all sick, but even more so the fact that Simon Wiesenthal's books, which are more important than Wiesel's, are not often found in our schools' reading lists. Where is The Murderers Among Us, in which Wiesenthal warned us passionately against apathy, that freedom cannot exist without justice, and that evil can rise again if it is not confronted, and confronted relentlessly? Where is The Sunflower, with its posed ethical question: Should a Jew -- should the world -- deny forgiveness to the Nazi, even if he were to ask for it with obvious signs of penitence?

Wiesenthal did more than his share of confronting, which earned him the title of "Nazi Hunter." In Ira Levin's science-fictional tale, The Boys From Brazil, the personality of Wiesenthal was captured honorably in the character of Ezra Lieberman (played by Lawrence Olivier in the film version): the indefatigable tracker who refused to give up on justice, but also refused to shelve morality for the sake of revenge.

Simon WiesenthalBy all accounts, Mr. Wiesenthal lived quietly and humbly, despite notoriety and constant danger, while attending to his very tedious work, which was to dig up evidence in order to help authorities capture the guilty. Thanks to this one man -- at times obsessive to a fault -- over a thousand Nazis paid for their crimes in some form or another, including: Adolph Eichmann, Hitler's logistician of extermination, who met up with his own "final solution" at the end of a rope; Karl Silberbauer, who arrested Anne Frank, knowing she would be executed; and Hermine Braunsteiner, "The Stomping Mare," who loved to use her boots on old women and toss children by the hair into trucks on their way to the gas chambers.

Perhaps of equal importance was the fact that thousands of Nazis, trying to conceal their pasts, were forced to live life on the run, without hope, without peace, without forgiveness, thanks to Wiesenthal. These "murderers still among us" can now rest a little easier, knowing that the Hunter is no longer attending to every unturned stone.

So, if Wiesenthal was so great, why is he not being taught in the schools and afforded at least as much respect as Elie Wiesel and other Jewish activists? Within the almost over-the-top inculcation of Holocaust awareness that exists today in our schools -- the prevalent theme being "never forget or it could happen again," a theme dear to both activists -- why is the name of Wiesenthal not preeminent?

The answer returns us to the "victim mentality" that pervades our society and is nurtured in our schools -- a mentality that insists on inaction, which was not in the nature of the Hunter. Victimology drives our educators away from Wiesenthal and endears them to Wiesel. This is not to say that Wiesel is an advocate of the victim mindset, or that his books and other works are meant to serve this purpose, but he has never aspired to hunting Nazis, either, which is a thankless job. The overriding theme of Night is not to chase down the perpetrators, but to grapple with the violence itself. This carries some weight that must not be discounted completely -- even if it is being used as a sort of regression therapy -- but it is easy to see why it is palatable to those who have little time for quaint ideas like "justice," which was the number one theme of Wiesenthal's life.

One New York City English professor, Thomas E. Thornton, attempting poetry, wrote about dropping Night on his students "like bombs on sleeping towns": "No, I cannot teach this book./I simply want the words/to burn their comfortable souls/and leave them scarred for life."

Indeed, I remember those literary bombs and scars well, but scars are easily forgotten when those who inflict them are "forgiven" by way of anonymity. Wiesenthal knew that "healing" cannot come when evil is allowed as much freedom as those who have chosen a higher path … and so he pursued, and pursued, and pursued.

When Wiesenthal was not being hated, he was being ignored. He seemed to be perfectly fine with that. His aim was true, after all. His detractors, not surprisingly, were anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian radicals, along with historical revisionists with a penchant for anti-Semitic nitpicking, and, of course, the Aryans. Surely they are happy that he is gone, but so is the rest of the world, secretly, who felt his presence as one feels a sliver in one's finger.

We will all, for a time, sing his praises, however guardedly, but then we will resume with a Holocaust that requires nothing of us, one that we can stomach, with its annual, innocuous lessons that confirm our suspicions, that the world is full of victims that need to be remembered and pitied. But right wrongs? What for! As one of my ill-taught and apathetic young acquaintances remarked, when I lamented Wiesenthal's unfinished business, "All the old Nazis will be dead soon anyway, right?"

True enough. But too bad Simon Wiesenthal couldn't have helped them all to the gallows before his mission on earth was complete.

(c) 2005 A. M. Siriano

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