A posse rides for the Angel of Death.
The Washington Times pledges $1 million for the capture of Josef Mengele, the camp doctor at Auschwitz. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles matches that amount. The West German government will ante up about $300,000, and the American government is being asked to chip in something. The capture of Mengele will enrich someone. That's more than you can say for the rest of us.
Well-intentioned people are trivializing the Holocaust. Its cast of ogres is being used as newspaper circulation gimmicks, intended or otherwise, or as fund-raisers for other causes. To politicians the world over, the Holocaust has become a kind of super ethnic group: it can be denied nothing. Guilt money, based on individual or collective indifference during the Holocaust itself, gets shoved its way. It even becomes difficult to suggest that the funds might be better used than as rewards for bounty hunters.
But here in a Boston surburb is a survivor who thinks otherwise -- one who met Mengele at Auschwitz. She is my friend, and I ask her what she thinks about all this -- the reward money and the black-tie dinners at which more and more money is raised to hunt fewer and fewer Nazis. She asks that you keep your reward money or use it for some other purpose. She asks, in fact, that you use it to educate the young.
Who could deny that it would feel just plain good if Mengele were caught. He's become an abstraction -- no longer a man, or even a Nazi, but the devil himself. He was no Adolf Eichmann, a killer by memo and the juggling of train schedules, but someone who killed with his own hands and, worse, with medical instruments designed to save lives. If the man is found we will find -- as we invariably do -- that the lawyers and psychologists will have labels for him. Then, as with Eichmann, we will again face the realization that the Holocaust was not the work of ghouls, but of just plain people -- some of them sick, most of them just indifferent. Together, they did incredible work.
The millions in reward money does nothing to address that reality. The challenge of the future is to see that the Holocaust is not repeated -- not against Jews, not against Cambodians, not against Armenians. Not against any people. The various rewards not only do nothing to prevent a recurrence (did the Khmer Rouge flinch because Eichmann was hanged?), but instead focus attention on one man as if he were a Typhoid Mary of race hatred: catch him and you eradicate the disease.
The killing disease is not eradicated like that. It's done through education. At the same time that well-meaning people are putting up money for the capture of Mengele, others can't find enough funds to support education programs about the Holocaust. One of them is called "Facing History," and it is an attempt to teach schoolchildren what people once did to people. It operates now in some 269 schools. You have probably never heard of it, but you have, I'm sure, heard of Mengele. He is the past; "Facing History" is the future. In the battle for funds, the past is way ahead of the future.
Do you think that schoolchildren, even many adults, could tell you who Eichmann was or what happened at Auschwitz? Could a generation that now hears only the vague echo of Vietnam say what happened in the Warsaw ghetto or to gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, intellectuals and communists in the Nazi extermination camps? A world that knew little about the genocide of the Armenians in World War I is almost pardoned for doubting the stories coming out of Eastern Europe during World War II. A world that now knows what we know can no longer afford the luxury of ignorance.
So, hunt Mengele in the jungle because justice is its own reward. And build your museums to his victims because stone lasts longer than memory. But the burden of the Holocaust is neither guilt nor revenge: it is to stop history from cloning itself. A museum, good and worthy as it is, will not do that, and neither will the capture of a single man. This is why my friend, the survivor, teaches school kids in her spare time and sends her money to education programs. The dead are buried. The living crave our attention. Educate them.