Simon Wiesenthal worked alone for almost his entire life. He spun around him a myth of powerful arms reaching across the world, but he probably never dispatched his own agents to catch Nazi criminals. The documentation center that he founded after his liberation from Mauthausen was his apartment in Vienna, and consisted mainly of large piles of newspapers and small cardboard file boxes.
Wiesenthal used city population registries and even phone books to glean personal information about Nazi criminals and their possible location, but he never headed a huge organization. Still, the myth was important, not only because it encouraged the bringing of the criminals to trial, but also because it helped make Wiesenthal into a symbol, giving moral power to his voice.
At the age of 91, in the acceptance speech for the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received in 2000 from Bill Clinton, Wiesenthal defined his work apparently without exaggeration: he said he was "involved" in more than 1,100 investigations and trials against war criminals, including the trials of the commanders of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, the trial of the man who invented execution using vehicle exhaust, and of the man who arrested Anne Frank.
It was apparently not by chance that Wiesenthal did not mention Adolf Eichmann's name in that speech. He had followed Eichmann, but he was not, as commonly believed, the one who gave the information to the Mossad that led to Eichmann's capture. That information was provided by Fritz Bauer, a German public prosecutor.
In retrospect, Eichmann's capture was an illustration of the limitations of the famed Nazi-hunter. The capture of war criminals was never high on the list of Mossad priorities. The Nazi criminals tried in various parts of the world number less than 10 percent of all those involved in the crimes. Wiesenthal's importance was in his voice, which became stronger the more pervasive his Hollywood image became as a Nazi-hunter.
The information he wrote down on the cards in his files did bring about the arrest of some criminals, and he assisted in the preparation of indictments.
But when he imagined meeting Holocaust victims in the hereafter, he said he would have only a few words to say to them: "I did not forget you."
Wiesenthal should therefore be remembered mainly for his contribution to the culture of commemoration. His moral stature intensified the struggle against anti-Semitism. Probably no one did more than he in turning the Holocaust from a "Jewish story" into the basis for a universal war against racism in all its forms and the defense of human rights.
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