Looking Back at the Life of Simon Wiesenthal
NEAL CONAN, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we turn now to the death of Holocaust survivor turned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died earlier today at the age of 96. Wiesenthal made tracking down and prosecuting Nazis his life's work. For a remembrance of Wiesenthal, joining us now is Martin Mendelsohn, a lawyer for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The two met first in 1977. And Martin Mendelsohn joins us by phone from his office here in Washington, DC.
It's good of you to take the time to be with us.
Mr. MARTIN MENDELSOHN (Attorney, Simon Wiesenthal Center): Well, thank you very much for having me on today.
CONAN: What attracted you to join in Wiesenthal's work?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Challenge. I received a call from a senior official at the Justice Department who asked if I'd be willing to do this. It was not something that I had given serious thought about, and I spoke with them, and some meetings, and decided that if they were crazy enough to do this, I was crazy enough to do it as well.
CONAN: And this--what you're talking about is the establishment of the Office of...
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Special Investigations.
CONAN: ...Special Investigations within the US Justice Department, which...
Mr. MENDELSOHN: That's right.
CONAN: ...in a way was complementary to Mr. Wiesenthal's work.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Absolutely complementary, and Simon and I met, became friends, and we are--we remain friends.
CONAN: What was the work like? I mean, how did he begin to go about it? Obviously, he started many years ago.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: I found him a gentle and compassionate soul but someone who was very much focused on achieving a rough sort of justice, rough because it was obviously 40 and 50 years after the fact, rough because we would not get all of the evidence, and some of those guilty, obviously, were not prosecuted. But nonetheless, a sense of satisfaction that we were pursuing something to vindicate civilization, pursuing a kind of redemption, a closure, a feeling that we were honoring the memory of those who died because of what we would call today ethnic cleansing.
CONAN: I wonder, did--that many years after the fact, some of these former Nazis cut fairly pathetic figures. I wonder...
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Yes, that's right. They looked weak, and some were old and weak. And I always cautioned the triers of fact not to imagine them as they were in the courtroom, but to imagine them as much younger, virile and stronger. But years had warped everything. The analogy I use--it's a jigsaw puzzle, putting these things together, and the pieces warp with time.
CONAN: The work, though--I wonder, did you ever find yourself--and more to the point, did you ever talk to Simon Wiesenthal about it, about leaning towards the temptation of saying, you know, maybe after all this time, this old man--is this justice or is this vengeance?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Well, in American society, that question has been answered. Murder is the only crime that does not have a statute of limitations attached to it. Murder is the only crime where it is appropriate, and our society has deemed it appropriate, that conviction can occur at any time. Why should a mass murderer be given a pass when a single murderer can be held to account for that crime?
CONAN: When Simon Wiesenthal began his work, there were many around the world who were more than willing to overlook this, to just turn a blind eye.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: That's right.
CONAN: What do you think his legacy is?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: His legacy is a combination of justice, rough justice, but more importantly education, and not rough education, but finite education, directed education. People learned about these things. It is impossible now to deny that it happened. No one is seriously talking about `It didn't happen.' Everyone knows that it did. And this is something that goes back to the waning days of the Second World War. Then-General Eisenhower made sure that people looked at Bergen-Belsen and at Dachau. It was an attempt then, as was Nuremberg, and Simon Wiesenthal is a direct line from all of those events to--his work made sure that everyone was able to remember, and the evidence was presented to impartial authorities who agreed that these events occurred.
CONAN: We just have a very few seconds left with you, but I wanted to ask--Simon Wiesenthal died today at the age of 96. Did he die with his work done?
Mr. MENDELSOHN: Not entirely, but he died satisfied and knowing that he did the best that he could.
CONAN: Martin Mendelsohn, thank you very much for being with us today.
Mr. MENDELSOHN: No, thank you.
CONAN: Martin Mendelsohn is a lawyer here in Washington. He helped set up the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, and joined us by phone from his office here in DC.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.