A Unique Moral Instance

Family silences and fears had annoyed me, books and articles on Alois Brunner could not tell me any more than I already knew from research, and I still could not grasp the entire meaning of being related to a close member of Adolf Eichmann's staff.

Having realized that I could not just saw off that branch of my family tree, but had to deal with it somehow, in 1999 I decided to contact the man Austrians used to refer to as "the Nazi hunter." That very name had always seemed to me not only inappropriate, but impudent as well. If Simon Wiesenthal had "hunted" Nazi criminals for decades, would that not imply that the former was in the position of doing harm to the latter? And would that not be a most cynical reversal of facts? And if so, would that not match many Austrians' state of mind concerning their own implication in the Shoah?

Simon Wiesenthal was surprised to hear my name on the phone, but gave me a correct and friendly welcome in his Viennese office. While I had no idea what a "Nazi hunter" would look like, he did not seem to me to be hunting anybody or anything, but rather to have a clear mission and to approach it in the way that seemed appropriate to him. And that attitude did not include putting the blame on me or on anyone else other than the perpetrators themselves.

The person who had been trying to find Nazi criminals for half a lifetime was almost the same age as Alois Brunner, the man who had become my great-uncle in 1985 when the "family phantom," as I later called him, appeared on a German tabloid cover. The story about a man being both responsible for the death of 130,000 people and my grandfather's brother was quite a shock to me then, at the age of 13.

Yet it was a very short meeting, since we both had the same expectations of each other, which turned out not to be met, namely, to exchange more information on Alois Brunner's life after 1945 and on the question I have asked myself and have been asked for many years now: Is he still alive? And if so, where? Simon Wiesenthal would not answer the question then, nor can I answer it today, since I have no more information than does any secret service in the world that might have worked for his extradition - or for his quiet residence in Syria.

Probably this short encounter was of no importance to Mr. Wiesenthal, but to me, it surely was. More precious than any anecdote or detail on the war criminal who was my relative was the opportunity to confront myself not only with facts and figures, but also with a man like Simon Wiesenthal, a unique moral instance in the midst of a country that had for too long lived comfortably with the myth of being Hitler's first victim while at the same time generously forgetting about its numerous perpetrators.

Maybe some readers feel uncomfortable about a great-niece of Alois Brunner writing in an Israeli newspaper on the occasion of Simon Wiesenthal's death. But since the newspaper asked me to do so, I want to publicly thank this impressive personality, Simon Wiesenthal, for his persistence in searching for war criminals and Nazi perpetrators like Alois Brunner.

I want to do so not only as a relative of one of the criminals he was trying to bring to justice, but also as an Austrian citizen who had often wondered why it was he and not official bodies that were occupied with such cases. What he did was needed not only from a juridical and political point of view; his mere presence and intervention also constituted a most important contribution to public discourse and private concern.

Simon Wiesenthal spent his whole life searching for men like Alois Brunner, while a lot of people in Austria and abroad had been most contented with their absence - for various personal and political reasons, so it seems. I presume there are Austrians who can very well bear the loss of a man they used to call "Nazi hunter," and yet it is striking how both the media and politicians could not stop praising him, immediately after the announcement of his death, as if they had been best friends throughout the past 60 years.

Simon Wiesenthal has died. Now this country will have to assume some of his tasks and missions, if any of the flattering funeral speeches that were heard these past few days can be taken honestly and seriously. Alois Brunner and many other Nazi perpetrators, meanwhile, might have died as well, but their guilt must stay unforgotten. Not by their victims, who do not have the choice of whether to forget or not, but by all those who deliberately chose to forgive themselves for having forgotten all too easily.

The writer is a great-niece of Alois Brunner and works as a political scientist at the University of Vienna and the Humboldt University of Berlin.