Roughly two thousand people came to pay their final respects to Simon Wiesenthal, who was laid to rest Friday afternoon in Herzliya cemetery. The famous Nazi hunter passed away in his sleep last Tuesday in Vienna.
Herzliya Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Jakovitz presided over the ceremony, saying Wiesenthal was "an emissary" of the Jewish people, and would be thanked in the heavens by the people "whom he never forgot."
Wiesenthal is credited with tracking down and helping to bring to trial 1,000 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann. The rabbi chanted the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) once for Wiesenthal, and once for the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
For Paulina and Nahum Gewore, Holocaust survivors from Warsaw, it was the last chance to pay their respects to a man they had never personally met, but had closely followed since the end of World War II.
"We always looked out for his name in the newspapers, and sought out books about him and his work," Paulina said, while her husband, clutching a Polish book about Simon Wiesenthal in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, stood by. "We never met him, but we loved him very much. He was very close to us. He was at the same terrible places we were."
Foreign representatives at the funeral included the acting German ambassador, the ambassadors of Austria and Britain (also representing the EU), the Russian deputy parliament secretary, the ambassadors of Poland and Italy, and a US embassy official.
Representing Israel at the funeral was Deputy Minister of Diaspora and Social Affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior. "The government of Israel bows its head to this great man, Simon Wiesenthal, and extends its condolences to his family," Melchior told the gathering. "He taught us that you cannot get away with these terrible crimes, and he did it with dogged persistence. For this we will remember him. He was a witness that brought justice."
Wiesenthal, Melchior added, came to the world to say, "You cannot act this way against the Jewish people and walk away free. Nazi war criminals all over the world knew that there was somebody hunting them, not for vengeance, but for justice."
Some of those present at the ceremony lamented the fact that the government had not sent more high-ranking officials to the funeral. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was said to have not been able to attend due to security concerns; and Education Minister Limor Livnat was said to have not been updated as to the exact time and location of the funeral.
Statements from the bureaus of both officials said Melchior was the appropriate official representing the government at the funeral due to his close ties to the Wiesenthal family and his work with the Diaspora. Herzliya Mayor Yael German said she was disappointed that Sharon and President Moshe Katsav were not in attendance. Sharon frequently avoids funerals so as not to burden those present with stringent security checks.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Nazi hunter and head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) Israel office, told The Jerusalem Post that Wiesenthal's family had specifically requested the presence of Melchior, who was a personal acquaintance of the late Nazi hunter, and who deals with Jewish issues for the Prime Minister's Office.
Zuroff added that there was no active contact between Wiesenthal and the State of Israel over the past few years, "but there was much respect and honor for the man."
Speaking to the Post before eulogizing Wiesenthal, Melchior said Israel "could have done more" to help Wiesenthal, and others like him, to track down and prosecute Nazi war criminals.
"Wiesenthal told me years ago, 'I've outlived all the Nazis,'" recalled Melchior. "We are very happy that there were people like Simon Wiesenthal that did this work. There were periods of time of course when the State of Israel was more involved in this type of thing. And it is a good thing that Israel and the Jewish people had great people like this who acted in its name and carried out this work," Melchior said.
"It is possible, it is entirely possible, that there were, and are, many things that the State of Israel can and should have done more. Of this there is no doubt. I think that the important things that were carried out by the state were clearly meaningful," Melchior added.
Asked if Israel would assist others in pursuing existing Nazi war criminals now that Wiesenthal was dead, Melchior responded, "If there are people who deserve to be brought to justice, then they should be brought to justice. Mr. Wiesenthal himself said that there were no more. He said he had outlived them all and that those left were too old to be prosecuted."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the SWC, told the Post that the funeral was not an appropriate time to complain about the lack of government representation. "This is Simon Wiesenthal's day, this is his moment and I don't want to take away from that. He loved Israel, he worked for the State of Israel," Hier said. "He [Wiesenthal] worked for the Mossad, he worked with them. He assisted. They asked for help and information. There was a lot of cooperation between Wiesenthal and Israel, especially in the beginning," Hier recalled.
"If you look at the reaction around the world, and of world leaders, you can see that Simon Wiesenthal was big. Simon Wiesenthal just loved this country. He belongs to history now, and I think history will judge him extremely favorably," said Hier.
"He had no government behind him, and no army. He was a single individual. And for that he deserves out gratitude. Wiesenthal always said the Holocaust was about evil, and evil is still amongst us," Hier added.
As for Nazi war criminals, past and present, Hier said, they lived their lives in fear of him [Wiesenthal]. "Fear that one day there would be a knock on their doors this too is a form of justice. For the victims he brought the respect they were denied. Every survivor walked with his or her head held high because Simon Wiesenthal was walking around out there," Hier said.
Officially, Israel has always said it is important to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, but successive governments have preferred to let Jewish organizations conduct investigations in certain countries, rather than do anything that may jeopardize relations with those countries.
The exception of course was Argentina; Israel calculated that the capture and bringing to trial of Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann trumped the fallout in relations with Argentina, SWC's Israel Director Zuroff told the Post. Mossad agents nabbed Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and smuggled him out of the country to stand trial in Israel.
"There are many Nazi war criminals out there who must be brought to justice. Whatever can be done to bring them to justice is important," Zuroff added. "There will be no new generation of Nazi hunters. This business is time sensitive. The focus now is on fighting anti-Semitism."
Fellow Nazi hunter Tuvia Friedman concurred, saying [the existing Nazis] were all in their late eighties and nineties. "They are all senile," he said.
Representing Yad Vashem, Prof. Shevach Weiss said Wiesenthal deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. "In the shadow of the murder of his family, he chose to build a just future," Weiss said. Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielsky, and former Diaspora Affairs Minister Nathan Sharansky were also in attendance. Germany sent a delegation from its Justice Ministry.
Representative of the Austrian government, Franz Bauer, told the gathering that Austria was "fully aware of the debt of gratitude it owes Simon Wiesenthal.
"Austria has lost one of its great sons (Wiesenthal was born on New Year's Eve in Buczacs, Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). He was a lone fighter who never tired. He faced much hostility and resistance on the political level," continued Bauer.
"It took Austrians a long time to fully recognize his endeavors. It was Simon Wiesenthal, more than anyone else, who made us realize our National Socialist past," Bauer said, adding that officially Austria failed to prosecute Nazi criminals with sufficient effort.
"There can be no peace without justice, and there can be no justice without truth. May he rest in peace in Israel's soil," the Austrian representative said.
Another Austrian representative, Vienna City Councilor for Culture and Science Mr. Andreas Mailath-Pokorny who was representing the Mayor of Vienna praised Wiesenthal for searching for truth in the face of fierce resistance. "He taught us that one man alone can make a difference. Simon Wiesenthal is an honorary citizen of Vienna," he said.
Speaking on behalf of the US, an embassy official at the funeral said Wiesenthal was regarded as a hero in America, and was recognized as such by the US government. "Wiesenthal espoused not revenge, but law, that instrument of civilized nations," the official said.
Wiesenthal was the son of Asher and Shoshana, father to Paulinka and Yitzhak, grandfather to Racheli, Dani and Yuri; and great-grandfather to Ella, Maya, Tali, Liron, Shani, David Yosef, and Michael.