From his tiny office in Vienna, the late Simon Wiesenthal, frail and small, set out to track down killers still at large of 6 million Jews, including those who murdered members of his own family. He inspired the Klarsfelds and others to do the same work, and a major American Jewish and Israeli organization was named for him while he was still alivethe Simon Wiesenthal Center, which teaches tolerance while pursuing those who committed genocide.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, will speak in Tenafly about the famed Nazi-hunter.
The director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, Brooklyn-born Dr. Efraim Zuroff, will speak in Tenafly next week about the man who inspired him. For years, Zuroff and the Wiesenthal Center have pursued the Nazis into their old age, because they feel, as Zuroff told The Jewish Standard, "that turning into an old man doesn’t turn you into a righteous gentile. A killer is still a killer and justice must be done for the sake of setting an example to future generations. You should not and must not get away with genocide."
Among his accomplishments, Zuroff exposed, extradited, and prosecuted the former commandant of a Croation concentration camp known as the Auschwitz of the Balkans. He ran a six-year research project identifying Nazi war criminals who received disability pensions and got them canceled. And he wrote "Occupation: Nazi-Hunter; The Continuing Search for the Perpetrators of the Holocaust" (KTAV; Hoboken, 1994), which talks about the importance of not rehabilitating Nazis.
In 1991, Zuroff was appointed by then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to serve on a joint Israeli-Lithuanian commission that canceled more than 170 rehabilitations. In ‘000, he exposed rehabilitations granted by the Latvian government, two of which have been rescinded. With Aryeh Rubin, founder of the Targum Shlishi Foundation, Zuroff launched "Operation: Last Chance," which offers rewards for information leading to the conviction and punishment of Nazi war criminals. So far, the project has yielded more than 400 suspects, with 85 cases submitted to local prosecutors. His greatest commitment, he told the Standard, is to "remain true to Simon’s legacy."
Wiesenthal was born in Austro-Hungary in 1908 and lost 80 relatives in the Holocaust. A slave laborer near Lvov, he escaped, was captured, put on a death march, and liberated in Mauthausen. As a displaced person, he assisted the Allies by collecting evidence for war crimes trials. When the Nuremburg trials were shut down, he opened his first office in Linz and later worked out of his apartment in Vienna. He was always first among those to speak out against post-Holocaust genocides, Zuroff said, and was always available to young people. Perhaps, Zuroff added, his legacy is best embodied in the International Criminal Court, which has been referred to as a living memorial to Wiesenthal.
"Simon devoted his life to justice. He put the commandant of Treblinka on trial. He exposed the person who [allegedly] ratted out the Frank family in Amsterdam, though he was never prosecuted because Austria refused to extradite him. He did what he did before it was popular to even think about the Holocaust. And he worked so hard to preserve its memory," Zuroff told the Standard.
Asked about some of Wiesenthal’s critics, when he was reluctant to accept the World Jewish Congress’ expos? of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim as a war criminal, Zuroff said, "Simon said Waldheim was a liar and never gave him a hechsher, a seal of approvalor the respect due the president of the country. But he honestly felt that there wasn’t enough proof to actually label Waldheim a war criminal. To think that he protected him is absurd. The evidence was simply not there."
The more important thing to remember is what Simon Wiesenthal did with his life, Zuroff said. "Simon fought for remembering the Holocaust, since forgetting seemed to be a serious danger until the 1970s. It was not then fully understood and might have been forgotten. But today, we aren’t fighting for memory; no one will forget. Today we are fighting the dangers of denial and distortion. In Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Romania, they focus on the Nazis as if there hadn’t been Eastern European collaborators. In 1991, this became important because they were rewriting their narrative and Holocaust issues were very important to get down correctly. Lessons have to be learned.
"One lesson is: Don’t ignore your enemies; take them seriously when they make threats. Another is that you have an obligation to speak out when other people face similar tragedies, even when those tragedies are not the Holocaust. Then there is the importance of holding perpetrators accountable. The Jewish community has invested very little in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice."
Zuroff will speak at a Yom HaShoah commemoration at the JCC on the Palisades at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April ‘5. The Abe Oster Holocaust Remembrance award will be presented, the Yavneh Academy Choir and students of the JCC’s Thurnauer School of Music will perform. For information, call (’01) 569-7900, ext. ’04.