Unsettling accounts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2007, 12:00am

Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once said: 'When my life is over and I meet up with the victims of the Holocaust, I shall have the privilege of saying to them, I have never forgotten you.'

Wiesenthal, who died in 2005 aged 97, dedicated nearly 60 years of his life to documenting the crimes of the Holocaust and hunting down the perpetrators still at large. A documentary, I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal, shown at the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival last Sunday, tries to reconstruct the life of the man who ferreted out nearly 1,100 Nazi war criminals.

The film, narrated by actress Nicole Kidman, features interviews with Wiesenthal's long-time associates, government leaders, friends and family.

The freelance Nazi hunter played a role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, chief administrator of the so-called final solution; Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne Frank; and other leading Nazis.

'He wasn't a hater,' says Abraham Cooper, a rabbi and associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, whose Moriah Films produced the documentary. 'His motivation was not to get back but to bring justice.' Wiesenthal refused to collaborate with those who sought extrajudicial killings to punish the perpetrators.

'He insisted it should be through a judicial process,' says Cooper, who met Wiesenthal in 1978 and was in Hong Kong last week to attend the film's screening. 'He felt every trial was like an inoculation against hatred, and that's what the world needs to stand up against genocide.'

Born in 1908, Wiesenthal lived a quiet life as an architect, married to high-school sweetheart Cyla. But the Nazis' reign of terror from 1939 changed everything.

The blonde Cyla was able to hide her Jewish identity, pretending to be a Pole, and survived the war as a forced labourer in the Rhineland. Wiesenthal survived 12 camps. When the Mauthausen camp in Austria was liberated in 1945, the 1.8-metre man weighed a mere 45kg.

Wiesenthal and his wife had lost 89 family members by the war's end. Most survivors left Europe, but he chose to stay put in Austria and founded the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna. He compiled and analysed information on the war criminals, aided by a vast network of friends and sympathisers.

The documentary introduces Wiesenthal's birthplace in Ukraine, shows the trek he was forced to make by the SS from one death camp to another, and tracks the escape routes of many of the Nazis Wiesenthal searched for. It also deals with the storm he created when he refused to label former Austrian president and UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim a Nazi war criminal.

The film also shows some of the ironic aspects of Wiesenthal's life: his rented room in Linz was just a few doors away from the childhood home of Eichmann and, after liberation, Wiesenthal took shelter in a building that had been a grammar school attended by Adolf Hitler.

The documentary hopes to raise awareness of lingering anti-Semitism - as evinced for some by the publication of such controversial books as Currency Wars, by Song Hongbing, which claims the US Federal Reserve is ultimately a puppet of the Rothschild dynasty - and other forms of discrimination.

'Wiesenthal made a commitment not to let perpetrators get away with it,' Cooper says. 'His life is a powerful lesson, and if you want to make a difference, you have to make a commitment.'

The Jewish Film Festival ends on Sunday. For details, go to hkjewishfilmfest.org