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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-09-2020 10:18

Simon Wiesenthal: An inspiration

Fifteen years after the death of Simon Wiesenthal, Dr. Ariel Gelblung explains why the Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter remains a beacon of inspiration in these troubled times.

Simon Wiesenthal had a dream. A recurring one.

He dreamt that every survivor of Nazi barbarism would meet in the afterlife with those who had lost their lives during those years of horror; his companions at the concentration and extermination camps.

In his dream, they welcome the newcomers, asking them about what they did after the war, especially if they had returned to their ancient occupations, or if they had looked for new horizons.

Then it was Simon’s turn to respond. And his answer was: "I have never forgotten you."

He understood that his survival had given meaning to the rest of his life. And also that one day he should be held accountable for those who had not made it.

The end of the war found Wiesenthal in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, weighing only 48 kilogrammes, without the strength to be able to stand up. There he began, little by little, to help the Americans who had liberated the camp, gathering up all possible documentation in order to prevent the perpetrators of the horrors from going unpunished.

Of his large family, counting almost 100 members, only he and his wife Cyla survived.

To Simon, an architect by trade, redesigning houses no longer made sense. The world that was meant to come, rather than the construction of houses and offices, would need to rebuild itself in other ways too, in order to outline another kind of society.

Instead of bricks, glass, steel or concrete, the new post-war society should repair its foundations. This would start with a renewed focus on a previously elusive value, justice.

The new society needed to be grounded in the courts. Listening to victims' statements and exposing evidence, the facts, to leave an express testimony to posterity.

From his first day of freedom from the camps until his death in 2005, Simon Wiesenthal committed 60 years of his life to denouncing and bringing to justice more than 1,100 war criminals and their accomplices who had participated in the systematic extermination plan carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators, which ended in the annihilation of a third of the existing Jewry – six million souls, of which one-and-a-half million were children.

A tireless and stubborn fighter, he was on the lookout for the triumph of justice even if he had to face, like a modern Don Quixote, the established powers and the evident disinterest towards investigating the crimes of Nazism during the Cold War era 

Times were very different. Shortly after World War II, rumours began circulating that Anne Frank’s Diary was a work of fiction. Denialism was beginning to make its way.

Wiesenthal took his position and went into battle. “They say that Anne Frank is a non-existent character? How can I convince them otherwise?” he wondered.

He identified, located and documented the existence and whereabouts of Karl Silberbauer, an SS non-commissioned sub-officer who helped detain the Frank family. Later on, Silberbauer admitted those facts to the Dutch authorities, enabling Anne’s very real existence to be proven to humanity. 

Not all welcomed his efforts. Wiesenthal was asked countless times to put an end to his righteous search. To end his work. To leave room for oblivion. In some cases, he was even told that it was necessary to forgive.

“Only victims can forgive,” he responded. If the criminal is truly repentant, he should wait until that day he would meet its victim, in order to be granted forgiveness.

Wiesenthal understood that ancianity does not imply impunity. As long as the murderers were alive and enjoyed physical and mental health that would allow them to give testimony before the courts, and as long as there was a country willing to request the individual’s extradition and trial, the search would not be given up.

“Freedom is not a gift from heaven. One must fight for it every day” was his mantra. The world should never again allow racists, xenophobes, discriminators, bigots and anti-Semites to head governments.

Wiesenthal’s legacy requires us to be present, publicly condemning phenomena at the time and place they take place. Always consistent with his ideas, he was one of the denouncers of the Rwandan genocide before the United Nations.

Yet 15 years after his death, on September 20, 2005, the world is unfortunately not a better place.

Coexistence in diversity is a concept that’s seriously under threat. Bigotry is on the rise. In the real world and online. In sports and in the classroom.

In each of these and other areas, continuing Simon Wiesenthal's mission is our organisation’s recurring dream, our source of inspiration.

Defending the right of people to live according to one's own conscience, without the imposition of states or people, building relationships with those who understand that differences enrich us and prevent hatred from dictating policies. This is our particular way of every day paying homage to this great man .

Above all, our mission is to be able to tell all victims of racism, discrimination, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and terrorism that we will continue Simon Wiesenthal’s legacy, demonstrating that we do not and shall not forget them.

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Ariel Gelblung

Ariel Gelblung

Dr. Ariel Gelblung is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director for Latin America

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