Simon Wiesenthal devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals, and his life and that effort unfold in a new exhibit at Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance.
Wiesenthal died last week at 96 at his home in Vienna, and this exhibit was quickly but lovingly put together at the museum, which is part of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The center, though named for Wiesenthal, was not founded nor run by him. Yet there's an indelible connection between the center's work and Wiesenthal's own mission -- and he donated many personal effects to the museum.
The exhibit's powerful collection of photographs, awards and artifacts is a virtual walk through history with Wiesenthal, seemingly, as your personal guide. There are his personal pencil sketches of the camp as well as photos and handwritten notes.
One photo is of an American flag, fashioned by the prisoners from scraps of clothing, before American soldiers liberated the camps. The flag contains 56 stars because the prisoners were unsure how many states were in the United States.
"They handed the flag to the American soldiers when they walked into the camps as a gift for setting them free," exhibit curator Eric Saul said.
Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, were among the camp survivors, though they lost dozens of family members. By the end of the war, the couple had been forcibly separated, and each believed the other was dead. The exhibit's treasures include notes written by Wiesenthal and his wife after the war, but before they were reunited. There's also archival material from each of their childhoods. Cyla died in 2003.
Wiesenthal, who was barely alive when liberated, began his Nazi-hunting quest as soon as his health permitted. He first began the process of gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army. He worked for the Army's Office of Strategic Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and headed the Jewish Central Committee of the U.S. Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization.
As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, both sides lost interest in prosecuting Germans, and Wiesenthal's volunteers, succumbing to frustration, drifted away to more ordinary pursuits. In 1954, the office in Linz was closed and its files were given to the Yad Vashem Archives in Israel, except for the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, who, as chief of the Gestapo's Jewish Department, had supervised the implementation of the "Final Solution."
Wiesenthal never gave up on tracking down Eichmann or others, determined that the world wouldn't forget those who died. He worked out of a small office in his home using telephone books to track down war criminals, many of whom hadn't even bothered to change their names after the war.
According to Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft, when Wiesenthal found a Nazi criminal -- and no one would pursue the suspect -- he would hold a press conference to shame the world into it.
His efforts paid off in the apprehension of some 1,100 war criminals. Through Wiesenthal's work, Israeli agents eventually captured Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial. He was ultimately convicted and executed. The exhibit includes a rogue's gallery of the war criminals he helped to expose and bring to justice.
Wiesenthal wanted everything to proceed according to law. He opposed the hit squads formed by some survivors who sought to kill Nazis after the war.
"He didn't believe that was right," exhibit curator Saul said. "He believed becoming murderers wasn't the answer, but bringing them to trial would better serve the memories of the dead."
Saul recalled Wiesenthal's explanation that he was out for justice rather than revenge, and an assurance the world would never forget: "Wiesenthal would often say, 'Every day is remembrance day for me.'"
A refusal to bequeath collective guilt on the entire German nation made Wiesenthal a popular speaker among German youth.
The exhibit, Geft said, is a poignant reminder of a time the world would have chosen to forget, if not for Wiesenthal and a few others.
According to Saul, although Wiesenthal only achieved a 10 percent success rate on convictions, he was not daunted. It was all about the process of justice for him.
"When people view this exhibit, they should realize that not all, but a little justice was done," Saul said.
Wiesenthal refused a salary for his work and lived instead off royalties from his books.
The 12 books he authored are displayed, along with honorary diplomas and certificates from various universities. Numerous magazine articles chronicling his work are prominent throughout the exhibit.
He was as little concerned with honors as with money. Saul recalled visiting Wiesenthal's home and finding that he kept his medals and awards under his bed, collecting dust.
"He was however, proud of his distinguished award from the Polish government, the highest they could bestow on a citizen. It meant something to him because Poland was his homeland," Saul said.
Some of these medals also are shown in the exhibit.
Not everyone was a fan. On display, among the letters from dignitaries and admirers, is hate mail. At least twice, bombs were placed at his doorstep.
The exhibit also portrays a private side of Wiesenthal, including his stamp collection. But this hobby found its way into his work.
"It was the stamp collecting that led him to Eichmann when he realized he could track war criminals through postmarks," Saul said.
Geft said she hopes to create a permanent Wiesenthal exhibit as part of the Museum of Tolerance.
"Maybe some child will visit this exhibit and step forward to become another Simon Wiesenthal," Geft said. "We encourage everyone to come and sign the book and write a message to keep his work and the memory alive."
Saul said Wiesenthal once told him, "When I go to heaven and they ask what I did on earth, some will say 'baker, laborer, doctor.' I will say, 'I never forgot you' to the 6 million I will meet there."
But the photos and archives also underscore Wiesenthal's service to future generations. He once said, "The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest."
Simon Wiesenthal Exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Free with museum admission. For more information, call (310) 553-9036 or visit www.museumoftolerance.com.
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