Monday, September 25, 2006

Memory warrior

WHO can understand how memory works?

Just a faint smell can set it off. But sometimes doors will not open no matter how desperately you knock.

And though it has been compared to a house with an infinite number of rooms, the tricky thing about remembering is that you have to find the right room.

What if you should stop caring for this wandering business? Tired of getting lost and opening a door into some unpleasantness best forgotten, you fix up only a couple of rooms, perhaps bring in flowers and plump pillows for the nightly reading.

Forget about the rest of the house. Whatever is in those infinite rooms can wait.

Is this selective memory or invention?

Just two weeks ago, a minor news story reported about the passing away of a man whose life’s work seems to show how memory can be “a simultaneous stab at truth and a lie.”

Hundreds gathered at the Vienna, Austria funeral of Simon Wiesenthal, 96, tagged by the media as the “Nazi hunter.”

Wiesenthal was also hailed as the “conscience of the Holocaust” for having helped to track down and bring to justice 1,100 Nazis for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

According to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the international human rights non-government organization named in Wiesenthal’s honor, "when the Holocaust ended in 1945 and the whole world went home to forget, he alone remained behind to remember. He did not forget.”

By the time the Americans liberated him from a death camp, Wiesenthal had only less than 100 pounds spread on his six-foot frame. He had been imprisoned in a total of 12 concentration camps (five of which were death camps). Wiesenthal survived two suicide attempts, as well as a death march through camps in Poland and Germany.

As soon as his health improved, Wiesenthal gathered documentation for the Nazi war crimes trials. Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union gradually lost interest in further war crimes trials and Wiesenthal’s fellow volunteers drifted apart, Wiesenthal himself continued to gather information in his spare time while working full-time to help those affected by World War II.

By some online accounts, Wiesenthal is credited to be instrumental in the capture and conviction of many high-profile Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, the main engineer of the Final Solution; Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank (Silberbauer's confession was said to have helped discredit claims that “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a forgery); Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps; and Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, a former Aufseherin (meaning female supervisor) who had ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of children at Majdanek.

But Wiesenthal’s work was also disputed by former Mossad chief Isser Harel. In an unpublished manuscript, he claims that Wiesenthal, "not only 'had no role whatsoever' in Eichmann's apprehension, but in fact had endangered the entire Eichmann operation and aborted the planned capture of Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele."

Fellow Nazi hunter Tuviah Friedman accused Wiesenthal of concocting “numerous self-aggrandizing lies and of making himself rich from Eichmann’s arrest.” Another Nazi hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, called Wiesenthal an “egomaniac.”

U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations head Eli Rosenbaum said that Wiesenthal’s roles in the biggest Nazi cases were “studies in ineptitude, exaggeration, and self-glorification." Rosenbaum called Wiesenthal a “congenital liar."

These accounts—including reports crowing “Wiesenthal is no more” that cropped up after his death—are rejected by those who say that the Nazi hunter’s belief that the individual should be held responsible has set the tone for UN war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Opportunistic liar or someone who dedicated his life to “making sure that the world will never forget,” Wiesenthal died in his sleep last Sept. 20, 2005.

"Survival is a privilege which entails obligations. I am forever asking myself what I can do for those who have not survived,” he had written. "The answer I have found for myself is: I want to be their mouthpiece, I want to keep their memory alive, to make sure the dead live on in that memory."

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