What will be Simon Wiesenthal's legacy?
An answer lies in an interview that he gave to the New York Times Magazine in 1964, when he told of a Shabbat that he spent at the home of a former Mauthausen inmate who had become a wealthy jewelry manufacturer.
After dinner, the story goes, Wiesenthal's host said to him, "Simon, if you had gone back to building houses, you'd be a millionaire. Why didn't you?"
"You're a religious man," replied the Nazi hunter.
"You believe in God and life after death. I also believe. When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done,' there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler.' Another will say, 'I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.' Another will say, 'I built houses.' But I will say, 'I didn't forget you.'"
This "not forgetting" is a complex thing; it is really made up of two parts.
The first part is about memorializing those who suffered so terribly in the Holocaust, about making sure that generations to come will know how the millions lived and how they were murdered or tortured or emotionally crushed. Such has been the focus of Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Since 1977, Hier has immortalized the memory of the Holocaust through films, educational materials and a museum to the principle of tolerance, keeping Wiesenthal's work and the larger lessons of the Holocaust at the forefront of the Western world's consciousness.
The second part of this "not forgetting," though, is about bearing witness against the perpetrators of the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust about hunting them down, confronting them and never letting them rest, no matter how much time has passed. Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the center's Jerusalem office, has embraced this role.After 25 years of pursuing Nazi criminals and interceding with foreign governments to bring such men to justice, Zuroff has been called Wiesenthal's inheritor as the "last Nazi hunter."
The first element inevitably perpetuates the victimhood of the Jewish people, while the second casts the Jew as a righteous avenger. Although Wiesenthal became famous primarily because of this second element, the longer lasting impression of him is likely to be the "softer" and more universal side of "not forgetting" the Holocaust. Especially in the coming years, as Nazis and survivors alike pass away, the tough-fighter aspect of Wiesenthal the man is likely to subside in contrast to the non-Holocaust specific work that is being done by the center that bears his name.
Yet when it comes to honoring the Jews who suffered through the Shoah, both elements are necessary and that, too, should not be forgotten.