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The Wonder of Wiesenthal

March 29, 2007 By:
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Screen time together: The Dalai Lama and Simon Wiesenthal in 1993
A Jewish James Bond with the odd job of tracking Nazis for a living?

Odds were, after all, that a nonagenarian would have no problems spending his cache of memories on vacuous vacations to regale his relatives, soft tales from a kind zayda repeated to his kinder.

But these were trips -- albeit down a memory lane potholed with the pity and the sorrow. For as a survivor, Simon Wiesenthal understood that all roads -- imaginary and ingrained in his marrow -- lead to the camps. And it was there that he concentrated his energy in finding those whose number six million was forever etched in his memory, if not on their arms.

"I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal" received its Philadelphia premiere last week among a princely grouping of Jewish communal leaders/Simon Wiesenthal believers in a special event hosted and presented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center at the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia and Prince Music Theater, where the invitational screening was held.

There's no doubt that the center's Moriah Films, the movie's producer, is not about to sacrifice Wiesenthal's sterling reputation at the altar of allegory, using him as a stand-in for anything distracting about someone so obsessed with a life goal.

But what they have done is offered a moving movie, surprisingly balanced, in depicting this "Jewish James Bond" -- a title Wiesenthal laughingly dismissed -- who had the gold finger to pick apart Nazi war criminals' hidden hideouts in a postwar world, where they hoped time -- which they gave so little of to the Jews whose lives they leeched of hope -- would ultimately be their biggest ally.

But they hadn't counted on an Austrian-born architect who would make their finding the foundation of his sole and soulful search in life.

Having lost all his family to the Nazis during the war, Wiesenthal, who had been born at year's end -- Dec. 31, 1908 -- made ferreting out the Fuhrer's henchmen a new beginning, spawning an international center in his hometown of Vienna, as well as satellites of strength circling his every move in Los Angeles and New York.

His tunnel-vision helped dig out the truths, as many a war criminal was either captured with his help or died in attempting to escape the Holocaust heat scorching their every step.

As detailed in the movie, a number of such criminals -- in a rush to re-establish themselves elsewhere as Wiesenthal closed in -- suffered massive, fatal heart attacks; ironically, the sole evidence that they had hearts to begin with.

The bearish albeit benign-bearing survivor had not the looks but the accomplishments to be a major movie star, and Hollywood took notice, detailing Wiesenthal's dynamic venture on screen more than once.

Indeed, one of the men who portrayed him on screen offered his own lens through which Wiesenthal's life could be filtered and lauded: Sir Ben Kingsley, who portrayed Wiesenthal in HBO's 1980 "Murderers Among Us," is among those in "I Have Never Forgotten You" to never forget the impact of having been part of Wiesenthal's circle of life, offering praise and plaudits -- as well as anecdotes -- that help make for a memorable movie.

But not all was accepted as gospel when the grandfatherly Wiesenthal whipped out his search-and-destroy heat-seeking missile of a mission. Not everyone was game for springing into action because of what "Simon says." Wiesenthal was notoriously on the receiving end for what many Austrians hoped was the endgame -- terminating his tactics by casting suspicion on the hunter himself, accusing him of personally benefiting from his efforts and, most searing of all, of being a Gestapo collaborator during the war.

Weakened to the bone by the ersatz attack, the Nazi hunter proved that he was no weekend warrior, carrying on his mission without missing a beat; only time could beat him at his own game and, eventually it did, in 2005, when Wiesenthal, the much honored hunter and humanitarian, died at age 96.

But the accomplishments ... his indefatigable leg work leading to the legacy of having helped officials capture Adolf Eichmann; his cluing in the world to the whereabouts of so many mass murderers, including the SS official who dragged Anne Frank from her attic to the ashes.

"I Have Never Forgotten You" is, indeed, an unforgettable accomplishment of a salute to this great man, reflective of how heroes hurtle on with their own missions impossible.

While the film -- narrated by Nicole Kidman -- is not currently scheduled for national theatrical release, it will without doubt be a staple of film fests and eventual DVD distribution, no surprise given that the Holocaust is far from anathema as a topic to Hollywood; Moriah has already won two Oscars for its Holocaust-related documentaries over the years.

And in this one, they have accomplished what Wiesenthal acolytes can only applaud. The eponymous center has made a passionate paean to the man of inner pain, the larger than life moral litigator who counted on the court of public opinion to help him plot guilty verdicts for the venal and the vituperous.

How ironic that a man whose life was clouded by a catastrophic reign of terror that had him forever dodging its dampening effect would also write a book about his experiences called The Sunflower.

And it's thanks to the center named after him to let the sunshine in once more. 

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