Column: The embodiment of justice

By Elie Dvorin

In his famous work, “The Republic,” Plato attempts to answer two questions: “what is justice?” and “is it always better to be just than unjust?” To the latter question he arrives at an emphatic ‘yes.’ To the former, his answer is not as clear.

For most people, the true meaning of justice is elusive, often evoking that “I just can’t put my finger on it” response. It may be safe to say that the virtue of justice is similar to former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Last week, the human embodiment of justice, Simon Wiesenthal, died at the age of 96. A survivor of the Holocaust and twelve concentration camps, the 6-foot-tall, 99 lb. man liberated in 1945 became an ethical giant and a hero to humanity. For nearly 60 years, Wiesenthal pursued Nazi war criminals who escaped the hand of justice after the war. The dossiers he compiled were instrumental in leading to the prosecution of an estimated 1,100 Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Jewish extermination.

At a time when people wanted to put the war behind them and get on with their lives, Wiesenthal kept it at the forefront of his mind. He made it clear that, in the afterlife, when he eventually met up with the millions that couldn’t escape death at the hands of the Nazi regime, he would be able to tell them, “I didn’t forget you.”

Even more impressive was the ability to adhere to his principle of “justice, not vengeance.” When asked why he gave up his career as an architect to hunt Nazis, he replied, “I’m doing this because I have to do it. I am not motivated by a sense of revenge … We must not forget. If all of us forgot, the same thing might happen again in 20 or 50 or 100 years.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

But who would blame him if he was out for revenge? After all, only a fine line separates the two – and even that can be easily blurred. While 89 members of his family perished at the hands of the Nazi regime and he teetered on the brink of death, his steadfast dedication to justice never waned and he never let vengeance fill his heart.

The fact of the matter is that even with Wiesenthal’s efforts, the majority of Nazis that survived the war will go or have gone to their death without facing the hand of justice. But the impossible task of rounding up every Nazi didn’t keep Wiesenthal from hunting down every last one that he could. And many of those who were never captured had to live their lives cloaked in secrecy because, as long as Simon Wiesenthal was out there, they were not safe.

At the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, his work will continue. As we approach a time when the remaining Nazis are dying out, it becomes even more important that they are tracked down and prosecuted. The message still needs to be sent.

When the dust settles and Wiesenthal’s legacy is examined, it will be clear that his work saved lives. Wiesenthal went after the Nazi, but he helped set a precedent that has been used to find and prosecute other war criminals as well.

Even as Wiesenthal passes on, it is my hope that his pursuit of justice lives on in those that share his ideals. He taught us to never sacrifice what’s right for what’s expedient. And he reminded us that justice should be pursued at any cost.

Maybe justice is one of those concepts so abstract in nature that an adequate, all-encompassing definition simply isn’t realistic. But whatever justice is or how it’s defined, one thing is clear – Simon Wiesenthal embodied it. And for that, his legacy will live on.

Elie Dvorin is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Monday. He can be reached at [email protected].