Students of the Stephen S. Wise Middle School had a memorable experience Tuesday when famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal visited their Bel-Air campus.
The story he told them was not new: His relentless, lifetime search for Nazi war criminals has been told many times. But for the children, a teacher said, it was a dramatic look at a historical event that had been little more than just words in a book.
Speaking in accented English, Wiesenthal, 78, addressed 140 pupils from the school's sixth, seventh and eighth grades. He told them of his internment in a concentration camp and of an aborted attempt to end his own life.
Wiesenthal was asked what gave him hope.
"I was always sure the Nazis would lose the war. . . ." he replied.
'Many Died of Hunger'
"In the last days before our liberation, many hundreds in my same barrack died of hunger . . . but I was always hoping the Nazis would lose the war," Wiesenthal said.
He told the students that he cried for the first time in many years when he was freed by the American Army in 1945.
"I didn't know if my wife had survived. I had not one friend, no relative . . . " he said.
Wiesenthal told the children about finding his wife after he was sent to a relocation camp in Linz, Austria, and his decision to abandon a promising career in architecture to devote the rest of his life to finding and bringing to trial thousands of Nazi war criminals who had disappeared. He couldn't forget the millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles and others who had been murdered, he said.
His plans called for careful documentation of the crimes, so that the arrests and trials would be just. "Many persons came to me (after the war) and said, 'Why wait for trials?' They gave me addresses. I refused to do (what the Nazis had done). I said justice and truth should be on our side."
'Humanity and Justice'
"It has nothing to do with revenge," he told the students. "Revenge has nothing to do with justice. I believe in humanity and justice."
Wiesenthal said that when he dies and he meets in heaven those who perished in the concentration camps, he will be able to tell them, "I have never forgotten you."
After his talk, the pupils in the sixth-grade English class of Cheryl Spivak discussed what Wiesenthal's visit had meant to them.
Zachary Lutsky said that, even though his own family lost no one in the Holocaust, Wiesenthal's visit helped him understand the anguish of those who did.
Hearing Wiesenthal, he said, "made me have the feeling of loving someone and how he must have felt. How scary it must have been. I have heard about him, but it didn't really matter to me much before." Zachary said his father compared the Wiesenthal visit with the time he met John F. Kennedy before he became President. He and his father both had the opportunity to see "a great person in our time."
Said Jill Forster: "Almost all of my grandparents' family was killed in the war. . . . It made me feel good that after the Nazis killed so many people, someone was going to find the Nazis . . ."
'Made Me Feel Good'
"Seeing Mr. Wiesenthal really made me feel good," Dana Marmur said. "Knowing about somebody who is punishing people who punished Jews. All my parents' relatives were killed (in the Holocaust)."
Kara Nortman said, "My grandparents died in the Holocaust. I have seen people with numbers on their arms," she said, referring to concentration camp prisoners' identification tattoos. "But they didn't want to talk about it."
"I think he was a very brave man," Mark Kessler said. "That he knew how to stick up for his rights."
Casey Massman is confident that Wiesenthal will continue his work. "He is the only person I have ever met who tries to save Jews," she said.
Principal Harvey Shapiro said he is grateful for Wiesenthal's visit. "So often teaching (about the Holocaust) is a source of disgrace. It gives you cause for pain. Meeting someone like Wiesenthal gives us a source of pride.
"It reminds us to keep our eyes wide open and never close them to the past. My goal is to have the students feel a part of history and not become isolated in time in this society."
Wiesenthal, who lives in Vienna, is in Los Angeles to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center and meet with Anatoly Shcharansky, a Jewish dissident who was recently allowed by the Soviet Union to emigrate to Israel. Wiesenthal also plans to discuss a proposal for a film about his life.