“I know,” muttered the sick man, “that at this moment thousands of men are dying. Death is everywhere. It is neither infrequent nor extraordinary. I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace.”
So began the encounter young Simon Wiesenthal had which would define his experience in the Holocaust and provide one of the great moral dilemmas of modern times.
Simon Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Austria-Hungary (which is now part of Ukraine). He received a degree from the Technical University of Prague and worked successfully as an architect until his thirties. Wiesenthal, a Jew, was imprisoned in several concentration camps, and was liberated—near death and weighing less than 100 pounds—by American forces in 1945. Since his release, he has written and lectured widely about his experiences, while traveling the world gathering information about Nazi war criminals so they can be brought to trial. In fact, one of the targets of Wiesenthal’s efforts throughout the postwar years was Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” who conducted selections in Night. Dr. Mengele, who had fled to South America, repeatedly eluded capture and died in a drowning accident in Brazil in 1979.
Simon’s experiences parallel those of Elie Wiesel, the author of Night, in many ways: he was shuffled from camp to camp, suffered unimaginable brutality, witnessed unfathomable mass murder, and endured the loss of most members of his immediate and extended families. The “sick man” in the passage above was a dying SS officer, who had asked his nurse to “fetch a Jewish prisoner” to him.
In Wiesenthal’s work The Sunflower, he describes what the German SS officer told him, and his response.
Karl, a 21-year-old member of the SS, had been wounded and was literally on his death-bed. He began his tale with, “I must tell you something dreadful…Something inhuman.” The young man recalled his carefree youth, his induction in the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), and the details of his life that would give a listener a “complete” picture of who he was. Karl also related his increasing involvement in the Nazi “final solution”—the systematic extermination of the Jews, which would later become known as the Holocaust. The climax of Karl’s story was reached when the young man confessed his involvement in the mass murder of hundreds of Russian Jews, who had been rounded up in a town square:
“I need not tell you what the newspapers said about the Jews. … [A]ll I knew about the Jews was what came out of the loudspeaker, or what was given us to read. We were told they were the cause of all our misfortunes…They were trying to get on top of us, they were the cause of war, poverty, hunger, unemployment… “An order was given…and we marched toward the huddled mass of Jews. There were a hundred and fifty of them or perhaps two hundred, including many children who stared at us with anxious eyes. A few were quietly crying. There were infants in their mothers’ arms, but hardly any young men; mostly women and graybeards. “As we approached I could see the expression in their eyes—fear, indescribable fear…apparently they knew what was awaiting them… “A truck arrived with cans of petrol [gasoline] which we unloaded and took into a house. The strong men among the Jews were ordered to carry the cans to the upper stories. They obeyed—apathetically, without a will of their own, like automatons. “Then we began to drive the Jews into the house. A sergeant with a whip in his hand helped any of the Jews who were not quick enough. There was a hail of curses and kicks. The house was not very large; it had only three stories. I would not have believed it possible to crowd them all into it. But after a few minutes there was no Jew left on the street.
The SS soldier told...