The Book of Joshua tells us that, “…the Lord delivered up the Amorites… and he said Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; …And the sun stood still at mid-day, until the people avenged themselves upon their enemies.”
Sixty years ago Simon Wiesenthal was a man with no name, no hope, no future and was known only by a tattooed number. He came out of a charnel house of darkness and malediction. A universe, in Elie Wiesel’s words, “… of silent screams.” A world of eternal night.
But out of that night came Wiesenthal’s light. A light so bright that it would root out evil from the darkest recesses of the globe. For only in darkness can evil triumph. And though military victory was won, against the Nazis as against the Amorites, Wiesenthal’s sun – Wiesenthal’s light - stayed still upon Gibeon so that all the foulest enemies of man would be delivered up from their low places to the majestic mountaintops of justice.
My first contact with Simon Wiesenthal came in 1975 when I organized an ecumenical Symposium on the Holocaust at McGill. We extended an invitation to him to join Prof. Raul Hilberg, Dr. Isaiah Trunk and Father Stephen Valiquette amongst others. Unfortunately his schedule did not allow him to attend. We maintained contact and correspondence and finally organized a McGill appearance in 1977. Everyone felt they were in the presence of living history.
Wiesenthal was going though a difficult period at the time. He was still working with only two people in cramped quarters in Vienna. After thirty years he was just beginning to receive the institutional support that would eventually result in the worldwide Simon Wiesenthal Centers. Despite his involvement in the captures of hundreds of Nazis including Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl (the commandant of Treblinka) and the Gestapo agent who arrested Anne Frank, he was under constant pressure. Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself a Jew, was then accusing Wiesenthal of ruining the “good” name of Austria and of having collaborated with the Nazis to save his own life.
I asked him why he insisted on remaining in Vienna instead of moving to a city where he could have more support, both moral and material. His answer was poignant. “I won’t move because most people in Europe are sorry about Hitler. In Austria there are still too many who are only sorry that Hitler lost.”
He was none too keen on coming to Canada either. In fact, that 1977 trip would be his last to this country. He felt the Canadian government was not doing nearly enough to bring the hundreds of war criminals hiding here to justice, nor did he believe Canada would ever have the political will to do so. He was quite prescient in his assessment. Canada abandoned criminal prosecutions of Nazis after it lost the Supreme Court case against Imre Finta who had been convicted in absentia in Hungary in 1948 for sending 8600 Jews to the death camps. The Canadian court astoundingly had accepted the defence that Finta was just following executive directives. This was forty years after the Nuremberg Principles had set down that “superior orders” was no defence in cases of crimes against humanity. I guess the Canadian Supremes didn’t get the memo.
He was scathing in his denunciation of the Deschenes Commission’s two year work investigating war criminals in Canada that produced few charges. He called it, “The work of an army of giants to produce a dwarf.” He even boycotted the 1989 Toronto premiere of “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story”, a film about his life done by a Canadian producer.
Simon Wiesenthal’s great legacy to us is to endure. That even in the face of God’s blasphemous creations, the cause of justice is not desperate and forlorn. He taught us to remember that that cause only becomes desperate when there is no resolve to sustain it. Most of all he taught us courage. Courage in the face of dismay. Courage in the face of betrayal. Courage in the face of indifference.
Simon Wiesenthal remained undaunted by the many, even from among his brethren, who cast him aside with benign neglect for the first three decades of his struggle. Undaunted by those who charged him with meddlesome interference. Undaunted by those who claimed he sought only revenge. He answered them with the words of the prophets, “Justice I seek, not revenge.”
He would not yield to forces of numbers, or lucre or threats. Through the power of his passion and purpose he forced us to see that tomorrow was our last day. Our last chance to marshal our strength, a strength that if deserted meant that all would be lost in us. He was the leader of the only kind of crusade worth fighting for. The hopeless kind. And he never forsook it. He stayed the course.
He challenged us to judge ourselves and see that against us stood purveyors of false pieties who called themselves successors of man. His conscience called us to reject those pieties and to realize that the work of their destruction would put an end to mankind’s transcendent yearning for redemptive change and with it the end of morality in the human condition.
As always in the history of man, even his enemies will now partake in the triumphant fire of his life. Our duty is to bear witness to the venomous fury that nearly snuffed it out. A venomous fury that scorched the earth and miraculously flung this one brave ember back upon humanity so that its spark could rise to a flame that might light the path to our own redemption. That too is our duty.
A duty to ensure evil never triumphs, for in that surety rests our only claim to the restitution of our birthright as civilized men. As we continue our work for the victory of universal commonality over narcissistic particularity we need to remember the lesson of the Shoah. Not all the victims were Jews. But all Jews were victims. Yitgadal veyitkadash, Shmay Rabba.