Unveiling of the Headstone For Simon & Cyla Wiesenthal
June 23, 2006
Eulogy by Rabbi Marvin Hier
It is nine months since the world lost the conscience of the Holocaust, Shimon Ben Asher.
Millions knew what he did, but few realized the sacrifice he made in order to achieve it.
His life’s work was to find those who murdered six million Jews and millions of others, including 89 members of his family.
He undertook this work, not as an act of vengeance but in search of justice and a better world.
When the Cold War set in, the Nazi killers were given a lease on life. All that stood between them and obscurity was one man, a man unprepared and untrained for the task. But a man of courage and conviction determined that such a miscarriage of justice would not stand. He spoke not only against the killers of yesterday, but as a warning against the murderers of today.
He became the permanent representative of the victims of the Shoah. No one asked him to assume this role. He assumed it, because it was a job that had to be done and no one else wanted to do it.
Sadly in the critical years far too few supported him. Many times he was forced to close his office for lack of funds.
He could have done what tens of thousands of others did…go out and make a new life for his family, after all with Europe in ruins and new construction a top priority, he would have had a promising future as an architect but he couldn’t rebuild cities where the murderer of our people still walked the streets.
He had little patience for formalities. When one looked into his eyes, you could see the sense of urgency with which he went about his work, as if he could still hear the footsteps of the millions walking beside him, the parents who never had the opportunities to say their final farewells, the children who would never reach adulthood, and the generations snuffed out by the flames of the crematoria. Every survivor walked a little taller and managed their pain a little better because he was there to represent them.
But what could one man do against those who murdered 800,000 people in a place called Treblinka, a place where Yankel Wirnik, one of the few escapees wrote,
“I suffered most when I looked at the little ones walking beside their mothers, their eyes irate with fear and wonder…To this day the fearful screams of the children ring in my ears.”
The world forgot Treblinka, but Simon didn’t. On February 27, 1967, Simon passed on the location of Franz Stangel, the commandant of that death camp to the Brazilian police in Sao Paolo. Stangel was extradited to West Germany, where he stood trial and was convicted of mass murder. “I only did my duty,” he told the court.
Then Sobibor, the death camp where 250,000 perished, he found the commandant, Gustav Wagner in Brazil. Wagner told the Brazilian authorities, “Not a single person died at Sobibor.” But Wagner obviously knew the truth – for while free and trying to avoid extradition, he hanged himself at a remote farm.
Nor could he forget the inventor of the mobile gas vans, Colonel Walter Rauff, whose men brought children and the handicapped into specially equipped trucks and told them they were going for a ride. Yes, Rauff, who had on his desk a June 7, 1942 letter, which said, “Since October 1941, 97,000 were processed in these trucks without any faults.”
In 1960, he found Rauff in Chile and despite a statue of limitations, kept after him, until Pinochet agreed to a new extradition request. A few days before the new extradition papers arrived, Rauff died of heart failure. In an act of defiance, his comrades gave a final Nazi salute at his graveside.
And then of course, there was Adolf Eichmann, the technocrat in charge of the Final Solution. In 1945, his wife, Veronika went before a judge in an attempt to declare him dead. But Simon proved that the evidence she presented was false. Had he been declared dead, nobody would ever have searched for him.
Later in the early 1950s, Simon was the first to discover that Eichmann was living in Buenos Aires, but he did not know under which name. But as the recent CIA disclosures tell us, the CIA DID KNOW, but refused to tell anyone.
Anne Frank was only 13 years old when she was forced into hiding in the secret attic. Simon revered her and always quoted from her diary, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” When revisionists began to claim that Anne Frank never existed, Simon found Carl Silberbauer, the Gestapo official who arrested her and her family and brought him to justice.
One man, just one man did all this.
And then there were the trains, the trains that carted off the millions, including his own mother, to the gas chambers. He could never forget Herman Hoffle, Chief of Staff of Operation Reinhard, who deported one million human beings to the death camps.
Of Hoffle’s deportations, a witness wrote, “I saw a young mother run downstairs into the street to get milk for her baby. She was in a bathrobe and slippers with an empty milk bottle in hand. She was headed for a shop where she knew milk could still be bought. Hoffle’s men saw her and demanded her work certificate. She said it was in her apartment. She was dragged to the trucks. ‘But my baby is left all alone,’ she cried. The SS men did not care.”
In 1961, Hoffle was found for the second time in Salzburg. He was convinced that just like in 1946 he would be set free again. Indeed, he received royal treatment, including visits from his former comrades in the SS, but one thing had changed – Simon was there. He demanded Hoffle’s immediate transfer to Vienna and sent a thick file of evidence of his crimes. When Hoffle was finally transferred, he knew it was the end of the line, his luck had finally run out. A few weeks later, he hanged himself in jail.
Many times, the emotional strain was almost too much to bear. Once in 1975, as he was looking through an SS list, he came across the name Friedrich Peter who was a member of the first SS infantry brigade, a murder squad that killed Jews in the Soviet Union and in Lithuania. The name was the same as the then leader of the Liberal Party in Austria. When he cross-referenced it with Peter’s date of birth, Simon was astounded.
He immediately informed the President of Austria that the leader of the Liberal Party was, for twenty months, a decorated member of a murder squad that had killed tens of thousands of human beings. Whatever sacrifices he made, his wife Cyla matched by her devotion to him. She gave up a life of leisure and normalcy to stand by her husband's side who she sometimes felt was also married to six million Jews.
Following Simon’s disclosure, Peter would only say, “He had been a soldier. He had neither seen shootings nor heard of them. If any had taken place, he must have been on leave.” And he would not resign his seat in Parliament.
In the meantime, because of the case, many elderly Jews living in the same building where Simon had his office had their windows continuously smashed. They pleaded with Simon to leave the building, and he did.
In 1983, Friedrich Peter retired. All three parliamentary parties gave him a standing ovation – it was for his service to his country, they said. No one but Simon Wiesenthal was there to remember his service in the SS First Brigade that over the course of 2½ years murdered 360,000 human beings.
One final memory. One day Simon called and said that he would like to celebrate his 90th birthday with a few friends in Vienna. It was at a time when he could no longer travel and his wife was bedridden. I asked him where he would like to celebrate. He said, “I have one unfulfilled wish, to have a party at the Imperial Hotel.” Before I had a chance to ask why the Imperial, he told me that it was Hitler’s favorite hotel and that both he and Himmler had permanent suites there. They built enormous bunkers beneath the hotel, which still exist today, because Hitler thought that this would serve as an ideal headquarters from where he could conduct the Second World War.
During the Third Reich, it would have been unthinkable, Simon said, for a Jew to be seen at the Imperial Hotel. And I want to make sure, he said, that all the taboos of the Third Reich are broken and that the record of this hotel would affirm that Simon Wiesenthal celebrated his 90th birthday here with a Kosher dinner.
On the night of the dinner, when the band played a favorite Yiddish song, “Belz, Mein Shtele Belz” (Belz, My Little Shtetl Belz), he looked up at the ceiling, turned to me, and said: “You see even the chandeliers are shaking because this is the first time they have ever heard such music here. Let the record read,” he said, “that Hitler is no longer here, but even in the Imperial Hotel, Jews are still alive and still singing.”