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                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

justice not vengeance: simon wiesenthal

As a teenager I had a chance to hear Dith Pran speak. I can't help but think of Dith Pran, his words, his presence and his lonely struggle to give voice to the Cambodian dead upon hearing the news of Simon Wiesenthal's passing.

Simon Wiesenthal, first of all, survived. It is one of those facts that is easy to overlook. It is a raw fact; there is no moral to it. The central fact of Wiesenthal's life was the destruction and genocide of the European Jews, followed by his dogged pursuit of justice against the perpetrators of that genocide.

Wiesenthal was an inmate in five separate concentration camps. In one camp, he was one of only 34 people to survive. He tried to kill himself twice. He and other survivors of Mauthausan sewed this flag in secrecy as the war came to an end. (ph. credit Simon Wiesenthal Center) It was more than a symbol...it was also, no doubt, in their minds, a possible tool for survival during allied liberation.

Wiesenthal spent his life after the war pursuing Nazi war criminals. He had his critics. (There are those who want to confer a kind of "sainthood" to survival. The sentiment is missplaced.) But Wiesenthal by his actions over decades came to symbolize the relentless pursuit of those who were culpable of the atrocities in Europe during the Holocaust. His personal suffering accorded him respect, but his life work, what we honor him for, was dedicated to remembering millions who were not alive to thank him, and whose stories we, the living, readily consigned to the past...to museums, to displays, but not to the present...a present in which some of the perpetrators of the genocide still lived uncharged. That was Wiesenthal's focus.

Societies seek to heal and move on, to rewrite history by covering it over. It's more convenient that way. What Wiesenthal taught us, the force of his life, is that we must never "cover over" the facts. That was the logic of his life; even if it points in directions he might not have anticipated. History and justice compel us to look behind the comfortable surface of things and honor the facts we find there by pursuing justice, not just for the victims, but so that future generations might be spared the suffering of the present day.

Simon Wiesenthal was a lone voice for the forgotten. A force, moving through our times speaking words of conscience and memory. At times plodding, at times a celebrity...he was unflinching in his quest, and undaunted by intimidation. The world knows tonight that a giant has passed from our presence. And with his passing, one more chapter of our history is brought nearer to a close. Even in death, Simon Wiesenthal asks us: how committed are we to justice, to history, to matters of conscience?

In the end, he survived to bring us that message...to ask us that question. There are those who knew him, who saw him in those camps, who had no idea that he would survive and pursue the course of action he did.

His life was a tribute to those people. We should never forget that. Nor the litany of questions posed to us today...in Darfur, in Bosnia, in Cambodia, in Rwanda. Justice means not forgetting. Justice means building something new upon that act: we must never forget.



  • along those lines, dave niewart's new book strawberry days, about the internment and subsequent historical amnesia about the prior existence of japanese americans in bellevue, washington, and that event's role in bellevue's development as an affluent white suburb of seattle, is a great read. dave does a great job with orcinus, his blog, and is a cogent writer on race and society. it is amazing to read about the west coast's own jim crow legacy, which has pretty successfully been swept under the rug.

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 9:44 PM  

  • Thanks for that link....I may have mentioned this before...I was talking with a co-worked a couple weeks ago and brought up internment...

    he's Japanese-American..

    and he just said, "Hey, my mom was born at Manzanar. We had everything taken away from us for no reason except prejudice."

    And then we got back to working.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 11:00 PM  

  • it's amazing to realize that the people who lived through that as kids are in their 60s, still very much with us. my friend used to live in japantown in san jose, and we were walking around enjoying the decorations, listening to the san jose taiko dojo, and as i looked around the crowd of people, it dawned on me that those old people watching the drums quite likely were interned when they were younger.

    the city of davis just named our new elementary school the other day after fred korematsu, and in the local newspaper story on the naming, it mentioned in an offhand way that davis wasn't always on the side of the angels of our better natures:

    "Provenza noted that in 1943, the Davis City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Japanese-American internment, and further urging an "amendment of the laws of the United States of America as will prevent the return of said evacuees after cessation of hostilities."

    "There was historical injustice not only nationally, but here in Davis," Provenza said. "I think this motion corrects, to the extent we can correct it, that historical injustice in Davis."

    i grew up in davis, and for all the discussion of the importance of tolerance, multiculturalism and principled opposition to prejudice of all forms, i never once heard a word breathed about the fact that our own city cuncil had unanimously supported the internment and subsequent banishment of japanese-americans just a couple of decades ago. totally wiped off the collective conscience, as if it didn't happen. not here.

    the moment 9/11 hit, the japanese-american community was right on top of it, warning against any thought of interning arabs or muslims. in many ways, there is an oral history of state persecution in this country, glossed over in the textbooks but alive in the stories people tell. it's important to keep telling stories, not just to shame the guilty, but more importantly to know how we got to where we are today. these things don't just vanish once they end.

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 12:42 AM  

  • Great comment wu ming. Thank you.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 1:00 AM  

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