There are so many ways to appreciate and cherish the work of Simon Wiesenthal, who passed away last week. Although one of my jobs is with the institution that bears his name, I don’t feel that I should be writing the definitive piece. I will leave that to the more senior coworkers who new him best. Needless to say, Simon Wiesenthal threw himself with single-minded devotion into two related tasks – trying to insure that the kedoshim, the victims of Hitler would not easily be forgotten, and trying to rescue some sort of lesson from the unfathomable and incomprehensible that could be embraced by all people of good-will, not only Jews, that would add to the dignity of Man.
I will cite one story, if only because it transported me back to my cherished days in kollel.
Like many others, I moonlighted at several jobs, to augment a very meager kollel stipend. One of those was as a regular participant with the Chevra Kadisha of Queens, the group that prepares bodies for burial according to the complexities of Jewish law and custom. We brought kavod hames (the honor of the dead) to a much higher level than before, but yes, we did get paid. Given the amount of time – and the emotional costs – involved in this activity (almost always performed very late at night), the pay alone would not have kept us involved. We became hooked on chesed shel emes: acts of lovingkindness performed for the dead, who are not in a position to reciprocate. We were told that after 120 years, all those whom we had prepared for burial would come to the gates of Heaven to root for us in our individual day of judgment.
The story that I heard from Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, struck a chord that is still resonating. Here it is, in his own words (reprinted from an article in the NY Sun) :
Simon related this story that took place a Sabbath meal in Italy in the late 1940s. His friends were urging him to pick up the threads of his life and start building the houses he had trained to design: his response as he looked into the twinkling candles: “like all of you I believe in the World to Come, and I can safely say that in this world, you the jeweler, the doctor, the businessman will become rich and I will have to struggle. But when we die we will have to pass before the 6 million and only I among you will be able to declare: ‘I never forgot you’. In that world I will be the richest amongst us”.
I had never before realized that, among many other things, Simon Wiesenthal had performed a chesed shel emes – in the very traditional sense – for six million Jews.
Yehi Zichro Baruch – may his memory be a blessing.