Simon Wiesenthal weighed 97 pounds when American soldiers rescued him from the Mauthausen concentration camp in May 1945. His body was more fragile than his memory, and he could not expect to survive. Nevertheless, he did, and he was able to hand over a handwritten list of Nazis he knew to have participated in the Holocaust.
He survived, and so did his mission to pursue the purveyors of unspeakable evil to the ends of the earth. Simon Wiesenthal hunted Nazis like the Nazis hunted Jews. His first motives were rooted in revenge -- and why not? -- but soon motive morphed into mission, the pursuit of justice and the necessity to teach the next generation about what had happened in civilized, oh-so-refined Germany.
"To young people here, I am the last," he told an interviewer in Vienna a decade ago. "I'm the one who can still speak. After me, it's history."
History began last week, when Simon Wiesenthal died at the age of 96. His voice is still at last, but his testimony survives. His life spanned decades of changing trends and attitudes toward the study of the Holocaust. He was a major figure, identified with both the sensationalizing and even occasionally trivializing of the Holocaust, but fulfilling what he believed to be his personal obligation to speak for the dead who could not speak for themselves.
Simon Wiesenthal was the tireless promoter of Holocaust remembrance. The Holocaust Center in Los Angeles, to which he lent his name, has been described, not necessarily pejoratively, as "Half Yeshiva, half Disneyland." Like the Nazi hunter himself, it teaches tolerance with more than a touch of flamboyance.
His critics accused him of lacking humility, but he is one of the reasons that children study the Holocaust today. He's responsible for documenting facts so grisly, so incredible that the facts at first invited skepticism. He fought both the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the Holocaust deniers and the Jews who wanted to forget rather than to bear witness to evil. "Discovering witnesses is just as important as catching criminals," he wrote in the introduction to "The Sunflower," a short memoir.
During the Cold War, when governments in the West were more concerned with extracting information from the Nazis about the Communists than in ferreting out the human rats of the concentration camps, more interested in hiring Nazis as spies and scientists than in judging their guilt (Wernher von Braun, the most prominent of the reconstructed German scientists, had been a SS major), he was persistent in his pursuit to take Nazi fugitives to trial. When communism failed, he persuaded countries behind the Iron Curtain to uncover cases against the Nazis buried in police files.