Following in the footsteps of Simon Wiesenthal

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:41

Nazi hunter asks: ‘What did you do with your life that was not taken in the Holocaust?’By Tony Houston Monroe, N.Y. - The dated program booklet handed out at Temple Beth-El in Monroe recently were April 24, 2006, and 26 Nissan 5766. The program that evening, which included a Ma’ariv Service and a presentation by Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the first director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, revealed much about how the Jews have survived as a people. “On the night as we gather to commemorate our martyrs,” Zuroff said, “it is fitting that we review the life of Simon Wiesenthal.” An architect in Poland prior to World War II, Wiesenthal spent most of that war in Nazi compounds with various purposes and names such as concentration camps, labor camps and death camps. Although Wiesenthal’s life, as was the life of every other prisoner in these camps, was subject to being extinguished at any time, Zuroff said two miraculous events would influence Wiesenthal’s decision to become a post-war Nazi hunter. The first, Zuroff told the audience of about 250 people, happened when German soldiers who were in the process of killing everyone in Wiesenthal’s barrack, “stopped work early” because some entertainment had just arrived in the camp. The “work” resumed the next day, but a friend recognized Wiesenthal that evening and “got him out of the situation,” Zuroff said. The second case also involved the methodical slaying of Jews. Wiesenthal, being an architect, was good at drawing and sketching. Zuroff said for that reason, he was ordered to prepare a mural to be used as a prop for the celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. When some German soldiers came for his group, Wiesenthal was left behind and told to “get back to work on the mural.” At the end of the war, Wiesenthal’s camp was liberated by American soldiers. Most of his and his wife’s relatives were dead, and he would not be reunited with his wife until the next year. (Satmar Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, the spiritual leader of more than 100,000 Jews, including the Satmar Hasidim living in the Orange County Village of Kiryas Joel, died just minutes before the program at Temple Beth-El. The Grand Rebbe was sent to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz and was liberated from the camp in 1945, but his first wife and their three children died there.) Two experiences immediately after the war also moved Wiesenthal to become a Nazi hunter, Zuroff said. After liberation, the Americans left in place a Polish prisoner that the Germans had given authority within the camp. The business of the camp now involved medical treatment, prisoner identification, family unification and transportation home. The Polish camp boss, however, treated the Jews as harshly as ever. Seeing Wiesenthal, he said more with disappointment than surprise: “Simon, you’re still alive?” Wiesenthal reported this behavior to an American colonel who forced the camp boss to make a public apology. Soon thereafter Wiesenthal was contacted by three rabbis to retrieve some books and return them to their rightful place — libraries, temples and schools. As Zuroff recounted, an inscription in one of the books read: “If anyone finds this Prayer Book, please give it to …. They are coming now to kill us. Do not forget our murderers.” Zuroff said Wiesenthal did not usually track down or capture fugitive Nazi war criminals himself; he gathered and analyzed information. He was assisted in this by an international network of friends and sympathizers — including German war veterans appalled by the horrors they witnessed. Wiesenthal is credited with ferreting out more than 1,000 of Hitler’s Nazi war criminals. His most famous, and most important, catch was Adolf Eichmann, the technocrat who supervised the “Final Solution” — the near-extermination of the Jews. Eichmann was captured in Argentina by Israeli agents, tried in Israel, found guilty of mass murder and executed on May 31, 1961. Wiesenthal emphasized that the trials of Nazi war criminals, held in many European countries — including Germany — and in Israel, had great significance in that they added to the record of the Holocaust and served to rebut its deniers. He first encountered Holocaust deniers in the form of a demonstration of German youths attempting to debunk “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and even trying to cast doubt on the existence of Anne Frank, the 14-year-old German-Jewish girl who was murdered by the Nazis after hiding in an Amsterdam attic for two years. As a survivor, Wiesenthal believed his life a special meaning. When asked why he didn’t go back to being an architect after the war, Zuroff said Wiesenthal offered this explanation: “I believe that, after our death, we survivors will meet those who died in the camps and will be asked by them, ‘what did you do with your life that was not taken in the Holocaust?’ I will tell them, ‘I didn’t forget you — I sought justice for you’.” Zuroff, the first director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, then turned to the discussion of his work. He has lectured extensively in all parts of the world and has published more than 200 hundred articles, reports and reviews on various topics relating to the Holocaust and other issues of concern to the Jewish world. In 2002 Zuroff launched “Operation: Last Chance,” an organization that offers financial rewards for information facilitating the conviction and punishment of Nazi war criminals. “The passing of time doesn’t diminish guilt, and the fact that wrongdoers are old, as long as they are healthy, is not reason enough to let them enjoy their later years,” he said. “Operation: Last Chance” is making good on its intent. One Nazi war criminal was found in Australia, and Zuroff is trying to get him to Hungary for trial. Another was identified in Croatia, fled the country and has been detained elsewhere. Zuroff is attempting to get him back to Croatia for trial. The Monday evening program was sponsored by Congregation Eitz Chaim and Temple Beth-El and funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County and the Pilberg/Glicksman Holocaust Memorial Fund. The Ma’ariv Service was conducted by Rabbi Garry Loeb, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld and Cantor Leon Sher. On March 26, a month-long program by clergy in Monroe and Woodbury of Orange County area, concluded with a community forum, also at Temple Beth-El, to raise awareness about the genocide in the Darfur area of the Sudan in Africa. As Zuroff noted in his remarks: “It is not over.”