A seeker of justice

A Times Editorial
Published September 21, 2005

The "conscience of the Holocaust" is gone. Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of five Nazi death camps, died in Vienna Tuesday at age 96. After being liberated from the Mauthausen death camp in Austria by American troops, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to seeking justice for the 6-million people who had been systematically exterminated by the Nazis.

He is credited with aiding the capture of 1,100 Nazi war criminals and playing a role in the most famous case: the capture of Adolf Eichmann, the self-described "Jewish specialist" who oversaw transportation to the death camps. Fifteen years after the war's end, Eichmann was abducted from Argentina by Israeli Mossad agents, tried and hanged.

Patient but relentless, Wiesenthal worked from his small Vienna apartment, where he survived an assassination attempt by neo-Nazis. He spoke out against more recent atrocities, such as Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians in Kosovo. Yet he thought the word Holocaust was overused, saying nothing could be compared with what happened to Jews during World War II. "Every Jew had a death sentence without a date," he said.

Without Wiesenthal, the world may never have known how some countries aided the escape of Nazis involved in what they called the "final solution," and helped those war criminals disappear into anonymity. Once reviled in Austria for reminding that country of its cooperation with Nazi Germany, Wiesenthal was awarded the Austrian Golden Decoration of Merit, the country's highest decoration, three months before his death. Perhaps it was a belated acknowledgement that he had sought justice, not vengeance.

Rarely has an individual made such a difference in his lifetime. Wiesenthal wouldn't let us forget the incredible cruelty man is capable of, nor should we.