On the late night of October 2, 2021, Simon returned to the place he knew so well . He used to live here with his beloved wife Cyla and their only daughter Paulinka before she moved with her family to Israel, for so many years. Almost six decades.
It was not an ordinary life. Not so many of us are working being under 24/7 protection by the armed police in the front of his office, line Simon was . Not many of us would deliberately set up our office at the building with such a solid basement that it was chosen during the WWII by the Gestapo to set up their head-quarters there in Vienna. Even if I would not know about that harrowing fact, I would always feel uncomfortable in that so stony and so cold inside building with that abyss- like sense while glancing from the 5th storey where the Simon’s office of his famous Jewish Documentation Center was , behind that door with permanent armed police officer sitting on the chair in front of it.
Simon went to his office every morning, except Shabbes, for over fifty years. He was a man of stern discipline. And yet more stern determination. The sternness of his determination originated from an exceptional reason. Together with his wife Cyla, the Wiesenthal couple lost 89 members of their families in the Shoah. But even if one, I always thought, even if one. For all and every of us whose families lived through that never ending pain. In the case of the Wiesenthals, that lost world of a close, family-related soul should be multiplied eighty nine times. I was trying to imagine . Still do. My husband and I do have many personal losses because of the crimes of the Shoah in our both families. Every life is a world. A universe. Austrian-born corporal must be striving to race with the highest power in his vicious zeal to command destinies. And all those millions of his followers in different countries who were so enthusiastic to hunt the Jews.
So, on the night of October 2nd, 2021, sixteen years after his passing here in Vienna, Simon did come back, for an hour or so, to the middle of the city that has become so crucial in his life-long mission. That hour or so was part to the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, VWI, program of their participation in the largest annual cultural event in Austria, Long Museum Night. In that hour, my film about many of our friendly conversations with remarkable Simon Wiesenthal, The Lessons of Survival was screened at the premises of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies.
For some inexplicable reason, the film which was released in the end of 2013 and which was shown world-wide, from Ukraine to Australia and from Israel to the US, including Finland, the UK, France, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, the European Parliament and several national parliaments, was not shown in Austria until that Long Museum Night event. So I was glad to see that people were queuing before the screening and that the Institute lobby was filling up its capacity, even with the covid restrictions still in place in Vienna. And as always, I was touched by the expressions on the faces of the people in the audience. Especially there in Vienna, the Simon and Cyla’s and the Wiesenthal family’s city. That matters. I was also glad to see many young people in the audience, it also matters. A lot.
As I wrote in my special introduction for this very screening in Vienna, among many documentaries of Wiesenthal, this one is unusual. It has been attested as “Simon Wiesenthal Unplugged” at one of the many international film festivals where the film was shown. It is unusual because in this film, Wiesenthal does not give an interview – at the time when he was busy with several interviews daily. In this film, which is a chronicle of our intimate friendly conversations, Wiesenthal is speaking to a good friend. He is open, warm and disarmed. There is no usual for regular interviews distance, neither does not anticipate anything hostile, as it had happened sometimes in his long, very demanding, and sometimes turbulent career of the man who was totally occupied with very uncomfortable and very tiring business of stubbornly seeking the truth, very uncomfortable truth, very irritating truth for so many. In the film, there is no officialdom in our conversations.
We were very good friends with Simon for many years and have had many of such conversations. In this film, people are able to see the other dimension of Simon Wiesenthal: inner, open, trusting, and sharing his innermost thoughts and deep-sitting experience without a fence of any kind. I always knew that I need to document our many conversations with Wiesenthal, and once again, I am convinced in my ultimate preference of the visual document – when we are able not only to seeing a person, but also follow the changing tunes of a person’s voice, breathing which always tells a lot if not everything, the expression of a person’s eyes, a person’s pauses and silence, reflections and laugh, smiles and tears. There is nothing more important to me in the matter of preserving our legacy, the legacy of humanity, than documenting the people who are special and worthy. As Simon undoubtedly was.
While I’ve started to work on that film back in the middle of the 1990s, consciously, I did not invite Simon to speak with me at the places of his and other Jewish victims of Nazism tortures, would it be a concentration camp, a prison, or other related infamous Nazi places. As a film-maker, I am against this kind of emotional exploitation of victims. Simon was extremely grateful to me for that. “Oh, thank you for that, my dear. Just last week, I had to travel to the ( Mauthausen) camp with the Dutch television again, and it was so, so very hard. How on earth do people not get this?” – Wiesenthal was sighing. – “But why did you agree to that? Again? “- I asked him. We have had this conversation before, too. – “You see, my dear, this film is about Anne Frank. How can I refuse? You understand?” – Wiesenthal marked his reply with his regular ‘You-understand?” refrain.
Once I’ve mentioned to him, that I think that if his main occupation, instead of architecture which he loved, would becoming the Nazi-hunting, he certainly would make a good teacher. Because the main thing for him always was that the people whom he was talking with would un-der-stand. He was really preoccupied with it. And willing to spend his truly tight time that they, that we would un-der-stand. So he went with that Dutch TV crew to Mauthausen again, as he did with many of them before and after. But it was absolutely alien to my understanding of making historical documentaries to re-immerse the victims into the scenes of the crimes committed against them. And Simon was relieved and grateful for that.
Additionally to priceless and timeless Wiesenthal’s monologues, edited in the film in a sharp contrast with specifically filmed for the purpose relevant places in Mauthausen, its premises, Vienna, and Linz, there are two important elements which I saw as the way of expression of the pain of the Shoah which according to the great and exceedingly modest Aharon Appelfeld is untranslatable into words. I cannot agree more with Appelfeld on how a human being can – that’s cannot – express his or her sudden, or not that sudden throwing into the abyss. Leni Riefenstahl and alike perhaps can, but I personally do not regard these beings as humans.
These channels of expression in the film are art and music. The art shown in the film bears an important message in it, universal for us all for whom words Churban, Shoah and Holocaust has a personal connotation, does not matter how many years and decades have passed since the September 1st, 1939. This kind of art in its metaphors makes the thoughts, memories and reflections as if volumized and imprinted into our conscience. Such is the way in which the art works. The art is by my husband, Michael Rogatchi. Simon knew, loved and appreciated this art highly, and owned some of it. After his and Cyla’s passing, the works are with the Wiesenthal family and some of them belong now also to the Wiesenthal Centre in Los-Angeles.
The music is by a very talented and special Israeli composer Israel Sharon and it is performed by his Karizma Ensemble. I hope that Simon would approve it if he would be able to hear it. This music corresponds not only to the theme but also to the character of our time, nervous, with many questions without answers, jumping thoughts and too many open ends.
The film was released many years after I’ve started to work on it. I am telling the story about that in my forthcoming book on Simon Wiesenthal, years of our friendship and the actuality of his legacy in our time today. And I also will be writing about that in connection with a global re-launch of the film in a few months.
There is one thought which has been present in my conscience since the time of the film’s release eight years ago. When I was working on our conversations with Simon, I was thinking that I am producing a history record. But when the film was released, it became clear that , as alarmingly as it was, the film is not a history reference, but acutely actual. As years are passing on, this weird and disturbing feeling only intensifies, due to what is going on around us today in many European countries, in the US, Australia, South Africa, practically everywhere.
I do not know how Simon himself would react to such situation, would he believe that a very few lessons from the horrible experience of the Holocaust has been taken by us today. I think that being a very intelligent person, with a razor-sharp mind, Simon would not be surprised. He did know people, saw anyone deep down in a matter of seconds, and understood human nature, with many of its flaws, very well.
But the problem with progressing rejection of the lessons of the Shoah today lies not only in the individuals. It has to do with societies, leadership, will, understanding, and acceptance or the opposite of certain norms and values. We are in a progressing disarray today with this regard. It is an uneasy truth to live with. It is disturbing, concerning, and worrisome, indeed.
So, what Simon Wiesenthal would do facing the problems which we are facing today? I believe that he would do what he always did: he would work tirelessly, he would find all possible ways of action, he would find the right people and institutions, to be heard and to initiate the reaction and action. This probably, is the essential lesson that we have got from this remarkable man, Simon Wiesenthal: not to be subdued to evil. To act and to overcome it. His life is a very convincing proof that it is possible even in impossible situations.
And I was especially warmed-up to see the people of Vienna come and spend an hour on the Saturday evening, after the Shabbes, with Simon who did return to his city, on the screen, sixteen years after his soul’s departure from this world. I hope that they will bear what Simon had to tell for a long time. That his courageous humanity will make a miracle which real humanity always does: to keep us sane, conscious, and human.
The essay is an excerpt from Inna Rogatchi’s forthcoming book on Simon Wiesenthal.