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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 September 2005, 21:37 GMT 22:37 UK
Viewpoint: Wiesenthal's unforgettable legacy
By Dr James M Smith
Chief executive
The Holocaust Centre and the Aegis Trust, UK

File photograph of Simon Wiesenthal in his office in Vienna, Austria
The work Wiesenthal started needs to be continued, James Smith writes
Simon Wiesenthal was known as a Nazi hunter, but his life's work went far beyond justice for justice's sake.

He was also motivated by the drive not to forget the victims, including 89 of his own family members. He understood that remembering the victims was important to re-build the lives of those who escaped.

Thousands of survivors around the world drew some solace from the fact that perpetrators would live in fear of justice for the rest of their lives.

Better still, they knew that their suffering was not consigned to oblivion.

Moral pillars

When I called by at the modest Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna seven years ago, Simon Wiesenthal, then almost 90 years old, was at work.

By then, with a small, dedicated team, he had helped bring to justice more than 1,000 Nazi criminals.

We must show we are not like the Nazis. Law and justice must be the cornerstone of society
Simon Wiesenthal

"Revenge should not be an option," he said.

He must have said it thousands of times, but Wiesenthal spoke passionately, as if he had just thought of it.

"We must show we are not like the Nazis. Law and justice must be the cornerstone of society," he said.

This concept is the pillar by which tribunals stand, contributing to re-building nations torn apart by genocide, and averting the cycle of violence.

Wiesenthal looked forward; he wanted to build a safer world.

"Learn from our tragedy," he said in 1983, a decade before genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.

"It is not a written law that the next victims will be Jews."

Imperfect system

The crime of genocide was defined by a Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, whose family was wiped out by the Nazis in Poland.

He was driven to establish the UN Convention in 1948 to prevent and punish genocide.

From Wiesenthal and Lemkin the world inherited the philosophy and the tools by which to respond to the greatest crime of modern times.

Simon Wiesenthal holds a picture allegedly of suspected Nazi war criminal Walter Rauff, in 1973
Wiesenthal was relentless in his pursuit of alleged Nazi war criminals
The International Criminal Court was established in 2002.

Its statutes are based on Lemkin's definitions and its investigators carry on Wiesenthal's work, pursuing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year building cases against architects of genocide, yet justice remains elusive for the victims.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania, has managed to convict 22 perpetrators, out of hundreds of thousands.

The Internationally Court of Justice in The Hague only has a list of people suspected of committing crimes in the Sudanese region of Darfur over the past two years.

Though only a fraction of them will be indicted, at least the fear of indictment hangs over their heads. As Wiesenthal once said: "The only value of five decades of work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow that they will never rest."

Pursuing justice

Wiesenthal Centres around the world now take his work forward.

In Los Angeles, the museum that bears his name uses the Holocaust as a departure point to address intolerance and racism in the US; in New York, it documents hate crimes on the internet; in Paris, a vigorous effort is made to combat anti-Semitism.

Mark Weitzman and Shimon Samuels, both directors of Wiesenthal Centres, urged the creation of Aegis, the UK organisation committed to protecting the vulnerable against genocide.

Wiesenthal rightly received the highest honours that nations could bestow, including an honorary knighthood from British Queen Elizabeth II in 2004.

Memory, justice and education are all required to rebuild societies after genocide and prevent future atrocities. Wiesenthal pursued them all before us.

We must remember his words: "The history of man is a history of crimes; and history can repeat. Information is a defence. Through this we can build, we must build, a defence against repetition."

Dr James M Smith is chief executive of the Holocaust Centre and the Aegis Trust


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