"You know, I was impressed by the first words she said to me in this house three years ago," said Simon Wiesenthal, patting Elizabeth Taylor Warner's arm like a doting uncle. "She said, 'I'm not only converted, I feel Jewish.'"
"Well, I am Jewish," said Mrs. Warner, laughing. "I'm even beginning to look Jewish!"
"You know, I am become tears in my eyes when I tell my friends what you say to me," the man who has helped track down 1,100 Nazis since World War II continued in his heavily accented English. "This was said so spontaneously, (as though) she feels she must tell me something that means warm to me."
Indeed, there were tears in his eyes again. Tears seem to be part of Wiesenthal's persona, hanging around him like a raincloud ready to burst at any time, either in his eyes or in those of people around him. It happened to President Carter on Tuesday when he gave Wiesenthal a special gold medal; and here it was happening at the Warners' house while Wiesenthal was announcing that Mrs Warner will receive an award for her humanitarian efforts.
"I was very moved by the words of the president," said the 71-year-old Wiesenthal. "I could see he cried, he had tears in his eyes. He believed in the words he said; for a politician this is very rare."
If Mrs. Warner, who is married to a senator, took offense at this remark, she graciously gave no indication of it.
But Wiesenthal is used to being offensive. In Austria, where he lives, a poll taken in 1975 showed that 97 percent of the people surveyed "were against me," he said. What was equally as interesting, his friend Paul Gross pointed out, was the large number of people who knew who he was. Gross, a furrier in Vienna, described himself as a "sidekick" of Wiesenthal. g
Thirty-five years ago Wiesenthal staggered out of his barrack in a concentration camp in Germany when American soldiers liberated it, emaciated from a diet that was "cheaper than a bullet." That same year, 1945, Elizabeth Taylor was barely 13, starring in "National Velvet."
Soon after being freed, Wiesenthal embarked on what became his life's work -- tracking down the Nazi German and Austrian officials who were responsible for the systematic murder of 11 million people, six million of them Jews. Now, at an age when he looks more like a grandfather (which he is) than a relentless hunter, you should offer a glass of tea. Wiesenthal is being honored all over the place for his work.
"My name is for many people a remembrance," he said. He is amused and amazed that now he is occasionally recognized by a taxi driver who won't accept a fare, or a barber who won't take payment for a haircut, let alone that he is honored by presidents and queens and has centers named after him.
It is the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles that is giving the award to Mrs. Warner at a big dinner in November, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when government-endorsed demonstrations resulted in mass beatings and the burning and looting of Jews and Jewish businesses and synagogues in Germany.
Asked what she has done to deserve such honor, she said, "In the Jewish faith, the more anonymous you are, the better. Right, Rabbi?" She turned to Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is the director of the Wiesenthal center and sounds just like a rabbi.
"Right," he nodded. "maimonides lists on the highest rung of charity. . .to be charitable anonymously. At any rate," he continued, Mrs. Warner's award is for people who "have made a contribution to the survival of humanity by simply caring . . .The Talmud says in a classic story: there are people in a rowboat. One of them was boring a hole beneath his seat and the other occupants said, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'Mind your own business, I'm only boring the hole beneath my seat.' Unfortunately, by doing that you sink the whole boat and the whole of humanity."
Maimonides aside, one thing Mrs. Warner has done is narrate, with Orson Welles, a "multimedia" film called "Genocide" that the center will unveil in the fall. Her work, director Arnold Schwartzman said later, is so moving he cries every time he listens to it. She donated her services.
Elizabeth Taylor Warner was born a Christian Scientist, took instruction in Catholicism, but converted to Judaism after the death of her third husband, Mike Todd.
"It helped me at a time in my life when I really desperately needed some kind of philosophy to lean on," she said, as she sat on a couch next to Wiesenthal in the living room of the Warner's house in Georgetown. "He (Todd) was the son of a rabbi, the grandson of a rabbi and the great grandson of a rabbi . . .We were only married 13 months when he was killed, and our daughter was only six months old. That was hard. I find it has given me an inner peace and a kind of tranquility. . .
"I am not the best Jewess in the world," she said. "I don't go to the synagogue as often as I should. But I find I can pray to God in a meadow as easily as in a synagogue." She looked a little sheepishly at Rabbi Hier. a"I'm sure the rabbi won't agree with me."
But the rabbi was not about to chastise one of the world's most famous converts. Everything was gemutlich, as Wiesenthal might say. For the moment, no tears.
Later, Senator Warner dashed over from Capitol Hill to greet the guests and take his wife out to lunch. "You look lovely, my dear," he said. "You look so thin!"
And she, quite rightly, elbowed him in the ribs.