Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Simon Wiesenthal: 1908-2005

It was 1976. I had just moved away to college from Detroit, which had a large Jewish population (at least in my neck of the woods). I had converted to Judaism about a year before; I was into all things Jewish and I was full of fresh enthusiasm for the faith I had unofficially embraced since I was 14 years old.

The college town I moved to was Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was studying philosophy and religion at Western Michigan University, hoping to become a rabbi, which would have made me one of very few female rabbis at that time.

There were Jews in Kalamazoo, but far fewer than I was used to, and finding Jewish culture there was a challenge, to say the least. There was a lot of ignorance about Judaism in Kalamazoo back then, like the time I went to a delicatessen and asked for some matzoh because it was Passover, and the waitress explained patiently that their matzoh only comes in balls. But much to my relief, I encountered very little actual hatred against Jews.

No, my exposure to anti-Semitism was of the remote variety. Reading Night by Elie Wiesel, for example, and learning about the Holocaust here and there throughout school.

Somewhere along the way, I heard about Simon Wiesenthal. I don’t remember how. I just remember learning about this old Jewish man who was working, sometimes all by himself, to capture Nazi war criminals. For me, his story was about the responsibility of the individual, and about one person’s ability to make a difference.

At any rate, there I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, taking classes in anything I could find related to Judaism, including Middle East history, Hebrew, and Jewish history. One day, I ended up in the leaflets files at the library – you know, the stuff that’s too small to be shelved, like pamphlets and newspaper articles. Specifically, I was looking in the file marked “Judaism.”

And there, in that benign-looking manila folder, anti-Semitism was no longer remote. For there in the file was the real thing: historical-revisionist pamphlets that said the Holocaust never happened; vile anti-Semitic pamphlets that depicted Jews as lechers and thieves who had big noses and rough features. A whole file full of the stuff that purported to describe me and people I cared about.

Distressed, I told my Hebrew teacher about it and together, we decided something ought to be done. So we talked to the librarian. It wasn’t the presence of the material that disturbed us; as disgusting as the propaganda was, we believed in the power of the First Amendment. Our problem was with the fact that it was filed under “Judaism” instead of under anti-Semitism; its presence there implied that the propaganda was true.

Much to her credit, the librarian agreed to refile the material. Now that I’ve been to library school, I know recataloging the pamphlets probably took an act of G-d or Congress (the Library of Congress, to be exact). And I’m beholden to that librarian for taking the action.

It wasn’t much, that visit with the librarian, but it was my little opportunity that semester to take action.

So what does this have to do with Simon Wiesenthal? Just that each person’s life touches us in small ways that we don’t always acknowledge at the time. From a story I read somewhere about a little old Jewish man, I learned that one person can make a difference and that each of us has a responsibility to act according to conscience. So when the opportunity arose, I was moved to act.

I’ve long since evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) from my desire to be a rabbi. And sadly, I have lost much of my passion for all things Jewish, though I hope someday it will return. But I have never forgotten the lesson of Simon Wiesenthal.

Now in the end, I didn’t agree with everything Mr. Wiesenthal said. But that doesn’t diminish his message.

Every time I take action – whether it’s refusing to laugh at a racist joke; supporting or even protesting an Israeli action; holding my wife's hand in public; or even just visiting a librarian;.. every time I turn conscience into action – I honor the memory of Simon Wiesenthal. His memory reminds me that each person has a place in history – even if it’s a very small place – that can’t be filled by anyone else.

Goodbye, Mr. Wiesenthal. I know G-d is with you.

1 comment:

  1. Bernice Stelle Autumn Drake3:36 AM

    Read by Bea.