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Celebrating an extraordinary life

A new exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance explores the legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.

November 03, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

THE photo, slightly faded after eight decades, shows about a dozen boys looking out from a group. Their hair is short, their expressions serious, their uniforms likely uncomfortable on kids just edging into puberty. In the center, in parted hair and jacket and tie, is the leader of this troop of Boy Scouts in Poland. What none of them knew in 1923, when the photo was snapped, was that the boy and one other would be the only ones in the picture to survive the Holocaust.

Not only did Simon Wiesenthal -- the troop leader -- survive, but he also went on to become a legendary Nazi hunter who toiled for decades, through both obscurity and fame, to bring in more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals. A new exhibit at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, which runs through January, looks at the legacy of the man who died in September at 96.

"He never lost hope, and he never lost faith, in spite of everything," museum director Liebe Geft says of the man who was nearly executed several times and was repeatedly beaten, starved and mistaken for dead. She calls the exhibit, which includes about 250 photos, "a celebration of an extraordinary life," as well as a chance to show horrific images that for years "the world didn't want to know."

Like many exhibits and books about the Holocaust, "Simon Wiesenthal -- the Conscience of the Holocaust" can be shocking, soul-deadening and grimly cautionary. "Freedom is like health," one posted quote from the Nazi hunter announces. "We only learn to value it when we have lost it." Civilization, the exhibit cautions, can also be lost in an instant.

But this show also has a sense of optimism and courage. Wiesenthal comes across as a humble man who managed to be the hero of his -- and many others' -- life stories. (One admirer, Efraim Zuroff, has said he was not "a hero of suffering," like author Elie Wiesel, but "the John Wayne of the Jews.")

Although the exhibit's early images show a boy and young man in Eastern Europe -- Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in a town then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire province of Galicia and now part of Ukraine -- the photos from the last few decades show him with leaders such as President Reagan and the Dalai Lama.

In between, the exhibit documents huge contrasts: photos of naked Soviet Jews before their execution, as well as one of Wiesenthal at an anniversary of a concentration camp's liberation. Photos of railroad cars that will carry Jews to slaughter at Auschwitz, as well as a ship that will take survivors to Palestine, soon to become the new state of Israel.

Other parts of the story are morally complicated: When Wiesenthal attended the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's chief of "Jewish issues" and eventually "the Final Solution," he expected to see what he described as a "demonic superman." Instead, as one photo makes clear, he observed a shabby, ordinary man, whom political theorist Hannah Arendt said demonstrated "the banality of evil." Wiesenthal likened Eichmann to "a bookkeeper who is afraid to ask for a raise."

The show also tells the story of the time Wiesenthal traced the police officer who arrested Anne Frank's family; Wiesenthal looked for him as a way to prove that the girl's tale was true. In another case, soon after the war, he arrested an SS man who'd been a guard at the Mauthausen camp: the newly liberated Wiesenthal was so feeble that the man under arrest had to help him down the stairs of the apartment complex.

While some of his actions have since become the stuff of legend, Wiesenthal did not always lead a life in the limelight. "The recognition was slow and very late in coming," Geft says, explaining that he only had substantial support when the Wiesenthal Center was founded in 1977.

Until then, she says, "It was just one man in a little office in Vienna, with a rotary telephone and phone books," as well as a rickety car and a great memory.

In fact, years after the war, as Nazi Germany faded into memory and the Soviet Union became a more serious threat to many Europeans, Wiesenthal often had to explain to friends why he wasn't ready to return to his life as an architect and "put the past behind him."

Things, of course, changed as the decades wore on and he continued to engage the past as fully as he could.

When exhibit curator Eric Saul traveled to Vienna in the last few years of Wiesenthal's life and asked if he had any awards or material signs of recognition, the Nazi hunter reached into an old suitcase and pulled out a handful. Do you want these, he asked, showing a fistful of medals and degrees from governments and universities.

Wiesenthal, Geft emphasizes, was very honored to receive them.

"But after that moment had passed," she said, "the medals went into the suitcase and under the bed. He was very modest."


'Simon Wiesenthal'

The Conscience of the Holocaust

Where: Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.

When: Opens at 11 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays, with last entry at 4 p.m.; 11 a.m. Fridays, last entry at 1 p.m.; 11 a.m. Sundays, last entry at 5 p.m. Closed Saturdays, Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Day

Ends: Jan. 31

Price: $7 to $10

Info: (310) 553-8403,

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