Thursday, September 22, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal, alav hashalom

I remember when Israeli intelligence tracked down and tried Adolf Eichmann, back in the 'sixties. There was a resurgence of neo-nazism in Canada around the same time. I entered McGill immediately after Eichmann's execution, and received in the mail, with many other students, my first "hate literature." It was the usual cultish, nutcase stuff: Holocaust denial and Jewish conspiracies everywhere. People were shocked by it, or fascinated, but I doubt a single convert was made. The war had been over for seventeen years, and the bastards had lost, and that was that.

But it never is, of course. It was around that time that I began to be aware of the “ones who got away.” The Odessa project, supported by the Catholic Church, smuggled Nazis to Italy, where they later dispersed: South America, as everyone knows, was a favourite final destination. The CIA collaborated with a number of former Nazis, notably Reinhard Gehlen, even moving a few of them into the United States. The US showed an odd disinclination to move against Andrija Artukovic, a vicious Croatian war criminal (Minister of the Interior in the Nazi puppet state in occupied Croatia) who had slipped into the US in 1948. Soon unmasked as the creature he was, he nevertheless managed to stay in the country until 1986.

Artukovic was responsible for the Jasenovac concentration camp, where starving children were poisoned with caustic soda (lye). "Slaughter all Serbs, one and all, as well as Jews and Gypsies," he ordered. I had to read about him in Paul Krassner's Realist: Nazis were of no great concern to the mainstream media. Official complacency or even its active cooperation with Nazis outraged my moral consciousness at the time--and it still does. Ex-Nazis were recruited to bust a Canadian strike at Inco in the late fifties. Pope John Paul II beatified one of Artukovic's confederates in 1998, Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, a man who once wrote, "Hitler is an envoy of God."

It was sometime in the late seventies or early eighties that I first became aware of the remarkable concentration-camp survivor Simon Wiesenthal and his work in the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna. I was impressed: a lone crusader for what is right, hunting down some of the worst criminals in human history, and taking nonsense from no one. "I am someone who seeks justice, not revenge," he said, although I would have happily settled for revenge in those days. Indeed, the character of the man was evident in his musing that Catholic involvement in Nazi-smuggling must have come from a misguided notion of Christian charity. I could not even now stretch to that generosity of spirit.

Wiesenthal helped to track down an estimated 1,100 Nazi war criminals, including Fritz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank, and Hermine Braunsteiner, a female camp commandant at Majdanek who had ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of child inmates--she had been living in Long Island, NY. He reportedly refused to visit Canada because of what he felt to be the complacency of Canadian officialdom in dealing with the war criminals in our midst. He incurred the wrath of the President of Austria, Bruno Kreisky, in the 1970s, by publicly denouncing the inclusion of former Nazis in his Cabinet.

He was ludicrously denounced by the former senior counsel of the World Jewish Congress, Eli Rosenbaum, as anti-semitic and a Holocaust-denier for defending a later Austrian President, Kurt Waldheim, against charges of Nazi activities during WWII (unwisely, I think, but it goes to his fair-mindedness). Wiesenthal also introduced into public consciousness the idea that the Holocaust had non-Jewish victims as well, once again attracting harsh criticism, from such well-known figures as historian Deborah Lipstadt.

It is hard not to like a man who follows his own paths, fighting heroically for what is right regardless of the consequences, and speaking truth no matter who is offended. A few years back I joined the organization Friends of Simon Wiesenthal to show my support for his efforts. I left it after the issues of Israel and the Holocaust became inextricably tangled in their publications, and the organization had the unmitigated chutzpah to give Margaret Thatcher a Humanitarian of the Year award. But I never lost my over-all admiration for this pig-headed, irascible doer of good. Although he had a spectacularly long life, it wasn't long enough. Alav hashalom.

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